Knee Jerk Reaction: Produce 101 Alum Edition

Since February has been kind of a slow month for K-pop (so far), I’ve mostly been focusing on pushing out recaps and haven’t been listening to much music. Though I’m not usually as invested in solo music like I am with group comebacks, I just had checked out some of February’s new solo releases and found myself enjoying them. I realized that three of the latest soloists to drop music were coincidentally part of Produce 101 (and the resulting project groups), so I thought I’d group them all together and make a quick post.

Kim Wooseok, “Sugar”

“Sugar” is almost a complete 180 change from Wooseok’s debut single. While “Red Moon” was daring and boldly sexy, “Sugar” is a chill and smooth blend of pop and R&B. It suits Wooseok’s gentle voice extremely well, and it has a catchy hook with fun choreography to match. I particularly like the dance moves for the post-chorus. Truthfully, I enjoy “Sugar” a fair amount but find it a little too mellow for my own personal tastes. But this is also the kind of music that’s pretty popular with the Korean public, so I think going this route could be a smart choice.

While I like “Sugar,” I personally feel like I can’t get into it because it reminds me of Baekhyun’s “Candy.” To be clear, I don’t think there was any copying or plagiarism; the agency probably wanted to do something that’s been proven successful and trendy (like I just said above). And I don’t think the two songs *sound* that alike, even if they’re from the same genre. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarities if I had just listened to them without any visual aids. But when I watch the music video or the performance, it’s clear that both comebacks follow a similar formula. “Sugar” is a strong release in its own right, and I see plenty of unique details that help Wooseok stand out. But “Candy” lived in my head for half a year, and the comparisons just spring to mind so easily that I currently can’t separate the two. I’m sure that will go away over time, but this is supposed to be an initial reaction post… so I have to tell it like it is.

In any case, I’ve been a fan of Wooseok since his days in UP10TION, and I was so excited to see him on Produce X 101 and in X1 (RIP). I know he’s had some rough times, so I’m genuinely happy to support his career and any music he releases. He’s done such an excellent job with “Sugar” – it suits his image really well, and he handles both the vocals and choreography with an expert ease. It also shows that he’s capable of different genres and styles, which I’m sure is he and his agency intended with this particular comeback. I just hope that next time he releases a single, it will be easier for me to focus on him and only him.

Chungha, “Bicycle”

If there’s any soloist whom I follow somewhat regularly, it’s Chungha. She was always my favorite on the very first season of Produce 101, and I’m thrilled with all the success she’s seen since. She was a girl crush way before that trend took over K-pop. And though many of her singles have notes of that confident girl crush vibe, “Bicycle” is the badass edgy track I’ve been waiting for her to sing for YEARS. While her vocals are honey-like as ever, her moves and attitude project a strength and fierceness that I immensely appreciate. I’m always here for comebacks that show powerful women in charge.

“Bicycle” truly shows Chungha at her finest. Much like her previous singles, it walks that careful line between being catchy as hell but also being unique and full of surprises. We know she’s a good singer, and her sweet alluring voice provides a nice contrast to the track’s tougher instrumentals. We know she’s a stellar dancer, and her choreography is filled with precise and intricate yet flawlessly executed moves. She even has a lengthy dance break that she completely slays as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. On top of that, she surprises us by throwing in a short rap verse. I’m not an expert in rapping, so I won’t judge its quality… but the fact that she can spit those words out so quickly – in PERFECT NON-ACCENTED ENGLISH – is incredibly impressive. (Yes, I know she lived in the U.S. for a few years and she has a high level of English, but STILL.)

I also really love the aesthetics of her music video. It’s gorgeous – as many are – but I also see it as a message that beauty can be dangerous. I love the Harley Quinn inspired moments, and I’m always down for some jeweled talons imagery. There are a lot of visual moments that remind me of certain Western music videos I like: the hoop spinning like in Jennifer Lopez’s “Medicine,” the exercise biking like in Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” and the dancing under falling water like Normani’s “Motivation” (which was inspired by Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”). I don’t know if any of that was intentional, but I like how all of those moments radiate girl (or woman) power – which Chungha’s music video is full of. K-pop female soloists don’t really do the “pop princess” thing like the American stars do, but “Bicycle” is a perfect example of how Chungha could most definitely be one if she chose to.

Kang Daniel, “Paranoia”

The main thing I really like about “Paranoia” is how meaningful it is. I know that Daniel’s been through some stuff, and this song feels really personal as a result – especially in the lyrics. Like many entertainment industries, K-pop often likes to try and gloss over the not so great things. The public and the fans often favor bright and positive music, and it’s rather rare to get songs that even touch on insecurities and darker feelings – let alone explore them at length. I listen to lots of different K-pop songs and generally don’t put too much stock in how thought-provoking the lyrics are… but I have to say, more serious songs like “Paranoia” do make me take notice.

I admit that I’m more naturally drawn to edgier music, but I really relate to “Paranoia.” I’ve often had trouble managing anxiety and stress, and the times of COVID-19 have made both worse. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m paranoid, but there are a lot more negative thoughts floating around my headspace than there used to be when I had a more fulfilling life. I think the music video does an excellent job of portraying how those kinds of thoughts can catch you at any time – like the scene when Daniel is walking and then all of a sudden something dark traps him and starts whispering in his ear. And the part when he’s sleeping in bed and that giant slab of spiky earth rises up like it’s going to crush him? That’s honestly the best way I could describe how my thoughts keep me up at night. The jerky and syncopated choreography also adds a nice layer to the whole thing – it’s entertaining to watch, but it also plays up the slightly unsettling nature of the song.

Strangely enough, I don’t actually think I’ve ever listened to any of Kang Daniel’s music until now. I’m not sure why, but I do remember being so bummed about Wanna One’s disbandment that I couldn’t get into most members’ post-group activities for a while (except for NU’EST). So it’s been a hot minute since I truly focused on anything Daniel related, and I’m really impressed. Though he had plenty of opportunities to shine as the center of Wanna One, “Paranoia” really showcases his talents as a singer, dancer, and overall soloist. I always thought he was good, but he’s clearly improved more over time. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on his activities.

MY OVERALL INTEREST LEVEL

(NOTE: My options for each category are “Love,” “Like,” “Neutral,” “Not My Style,” or “Dislike.” But I rarely dislike anything, so I’ll mostly be using the other four.)

CategoryKim Wooseok, “Sugar”Chungha, “Bicycle”Kang Daniel, “Paranoia”
Song OpinionLikeLikeLike
Dance OpinionLikeLoveLike
Music Video OpinionNeutralLikeLike

While these songs are pretty different in theme and genre, I think I feel pretty similarly about all of them. I like “Bicycle” slightly more; but given how much I like Chungha and girl crush songs, that’s to be expected. I’ve always said I have a short attention span when it comes to K-pop songs, and currently that’s never been more accurate. So truthfully, I don’t know how much more time I’ll spend listening to any of these – especially with the rush of comebacks that’s heading towards us in the next couple of weeks. That being said, I think they’re all strong releases that clearly show off each soloist’s strengths. All three songs will definitely be welcomed by the fans, and they have a strong chance of succeeding with the general public as well. So although I might not personally be enamored with these tracks for long, I consider them excellent additions to their respective artists’ discography.


(“Knee Jerk Reaction” is a column I created to talk about comebacks or debuts when I don’t have a lot of time to write in-depth reviews. A knee jerk reaction is like an automatic response, so it’s a post about my initial thoughts on the song, the music video, and the performance if it’s available. Compared to my reviews, everything is more stream of consciousness and less analytical. And everything is 100% my own opinion!)

SOURCES: KONNECT Entertainment (Kang Daniel), MNH Entertainment (Chungha), TOP Media (Kim Wooseok)

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