The Train to Special Hell Departs Now: A Review of NU’EST – “Action”

OK so y’all know how much I love NU’EST. Or maybe not because I haven’t talked about them yet here. But I love them. I think they are the first band I’ve followed since before debut. I’m a big fan of After School, so I kept hearing about these “Pledis Boys” and I think Minhyun showed up in an Orange Caramel or After School MV. They also appeared on the Happy Pledis Christmas song MV, and I noticed there was one who looked like G.O in MBLAQ which naturally piqued my interest. So I’d keep seeing articles about them and I’d be like “oh hey, it’s the band with Little G.O!” /cool story

I think it’s a testament to NU’EST that they are one of the few groups to break through my hype aversion. And by hype aversion, I mean my natural resistance to groups that are aggressively promoted before they actually debut. When groups release 134124324123 teasers and don’t seem like they’re ever going to actually debut, by the time they finally do debut, it’s even more anticlimactic than a night with Edward Cullen. I’m totally not talking about any bands in particular here. Not at all. In general it’s hard to get me to like anything heavily-hyped, because I’m the type of person who likes to gradually discover things on my own. I also find that when there’s that much hype, it’s pretty impossible to live up to. I generally don’t expect much from groups that debuted under the radar so I’ll be pleasantly surprised when they came out with something I like.  Whereas the other way around, I’ll be like “meh” and will have to warm up to them gradually or be dragged in kicking and screaming (the latter usually only happens when I have friends who are diehard fangirls/fanboys of the group, which totally did not happen with the group I wasn’t talking about before. Not at all).

I took to NU’EST more quickly than I expected, since Pledis did a really good job of setting them apart from other boy bands that debuted around the same time. And that’s important when you’ve got nugu bands popping up like bunnies on every music show. Their debut single “Face” could’ve easily fallen into the slushpile of theatrical, explosive debut songs full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, e.g. BAP, A-Jax, etc. Exo managed to stand out due to SME’s backing and Kris’s face (among others). NU’EST, coming from a smaller company, had to find other ways to distinguish themselves. One way was the subject of their song, bullying, which resonated with their target audience. They also had Ren, whose extreme beauty and androgyny made him the subject of buzz from the moment Pledis released his promo photo. And finally, there is the elusive “It” factor—that mysterious and inexplicable quality that draws people in.

Now NU’EST is back with “Action,” another aggressively catchy tune about an issue relevant to the interests of their target audience—individuality and sticking it to the man. Despite the surface similarities, though, it actually sounds quite distinct from “Face” without straying too far from the image NU’EST is known for (pretty Eurotrash noona bait).  The band upped the ante even further in this video, calling upon a futuristic aesthetic reminiscent of ‘90s Backstreet Boys and the dystopian genre so hot right now in cinema, television, and literature. It fits in nicely with the song’s lyrics, as most dystopian narratives focus upon that very theme.

So let’s get started, shall we? The train to special noona hell departs now. All aboard!

In the opening shot of the MV, we learn that JR has nice fingernails. Clean and neatly trimmed. This is an important quality, of which the noonas he’s baiting so expertly are well aware. He’s wearing this silver mirrored outfit similar to something that I think Gaga wore at some point. And he’s attached to about a gazillion strings, evoking the marionette-on-strings concept reminiscent of ‘90s NSYNC, if the puppeteer has 50 fingers. I have to give the boy credit; he is working this concept (and those lenses).

Then we’ve got Baekho recording his audition for the Korean version of Magic Mike. He’s donning a white mesh shirt with no liner under a silver-trimmed white blazer. He’s not just any stripper. He’s a classy stripper. He also busts out the time-honored boy band go-to move: the lip rub. I wonder if Uee picked out his outfit.

Minhyun is clad in shredded white pants and that shawl your great-aunt crocheted but no one ever uses except to drape over the back of the couch whenever she visits. It’s good to see a coordi noona finally found a use for it. He spends most of the video brooding in a grimy corner reminiscent of a medieval dungeon, angstily sifting dirt through his fingers. O hey, I’ve seen that move before!

Aron a.k.a. Little G.O is wandering about in a cube-shaped structure that I can’t decide is a cage, jungle gym, or the skeleton of a Borg cube. Resistance to the pretty boys is futile. You will be assimilated! Aron is working the West Hollywood chic in snakeskin-print pants, a drapey black sleeveless top, and serious guyliner. He’s a regular ‘80s rock star. Or male prostitute. I can totally picture him as Adam Lambert’s boy toy right now. I love this concept.

Speaking of male prostitutes, then we’ve got Ren. Oh, Ren. Working that androgyny and confusing the shit out of fans once again. Although honestly, I’m not sure at this point if he’s androgynous or just really freakin’ beautiful. I mean seriously. Look at this kid. His beauty is such that if romantic poets were still around they would write odes to it. Centuries later, people would read about a boy of such ethereal perfection they would assume he can’t be real, and then they would see this video and gaze in awe upon this miraculous creature who once bestowed his glory upon underserving mortals.

WE ARE NOT WORTHY.

And so what does Pledis do with this ridiculously beautiful creature? Why, put him in cuffs and have him make sex eyes at the camera of course!

What’s the safe word, noona?

I hear Special Hell is lovely this time of year.

They also have him in this Frenchy-looking beret with tight pants and a backless shirt.

Maybe he and Aron can both share the dubious honor of being one of Adam Lambert’s boy toys.

Well shit, Ren, you’re looking muscular.

If there is any doubt in anyone’s mind that this video director is a massive pervert, I offer this shot:

Yeah.

The weird cube thing Aron’s wandering around in also serves as the backdrop for the group dance cuts. There are a couple outfit changes, but they mostly fit the whole trashy boy-toy aesthetic. JR dons some renaissance faire shirt that conveniently keeps lifting and flashing us:

And it also turns translucent during the backlit dance break:

Oh yes, the dance break. It’s my only real complaint about this song. While the dubstep break in “Face” was nicely worked into the song, this one is just kind of awkwardly dropped in there with no real flow or transition. The video ups the drama factor by running the sequence through some high-contrast bluish filter. It’s all really intrusive, in my opinion, and completely pulls us out of the song and narrative running (very) loosely through the MV.

And yes, there is a narrative!  Sort of. The song’s about breaking free from conformity, right? Through most of the MV, we see the guys in various situations evoking imagery of being trapped or caged. We’ve got Minhyun in his medieval dungeon, JR in the puppet string chair, Ren in his weird noona boy-toy bondage room, Aron wandering around the Borg cube, and Baekho in some weird room full of what looks like spotlights or cameras, I can’t decide. So during the final chorus, we see the guys breaking free of their various restraints—JR breaking the strings, Ren breaking the cuffs (kid must be Kryptonian or the cuffs flimsier than the plot of your average porno), and the others walking out of the sites of their imprisonment. If the ease of their escape is symbolic of how many young people’s conformity and insecurities are self-inflicted, that’s pretty clever. But I suspect I’m giving the video direction too much credit.

Anyway, then we’re back to the song and Baekho’s power note-ing and then it’s time for the rap. Aron’s part is particularly noteworthy to me, because it’s entirely in English and includes such lyrics as “coming at you 100% raw” and “down on all fours.” I’m not sure if Aron writes his own raps, but if he did, then never change, Aron. Ren and Minhyun also bring some sub-U-KISS levels of gay by standing really close together and singing for no compelling reason that I can see. However, I’m not complaining.

All in all it’s not the most exciting MV—it’s pretty typical, for K-pop. Polished dance routines, weird sets, boys looking ansgsty and pretty. I will grant that its concept holds together a little better than most, and the simplicity of the “storyline” works in its favor, as K-pop MVs have a tendency to massively botch more complex ones. I find the video quite reminiscent of U-KISS’s sublime “Neverland” both in aesthetic and concept, and I’m OK with that as well. I’m not implying that anyone copied anyone else, just that both groups used a fairly generic and oft-done concept to the point of it being cliché. But I also find both MVs to be good examples of taking a clichéd concept and making it still feel fresh and entertaining to watch.

I am pleased with this offering. Good job, Pledis.

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