The Ephemerality of Longing: So!YoON!’s “Smoke Sprite” (feat. RM) Single Review
So!YoON! (황소윤) is the stage name of Hwang Soyoon, a South Korean guitarist and singer-songwriter. She is the lead vocalist and one of the founder members of SE SO NEON, an indie rock group, which debuted in 2017 under Magic Strawberry Sound, with the critically acclaimed EP Summer Plumage, the lead single of which was “A Long Dream”. The band won two trophies at the highly prestigious Korean Music Awards in 2018: Rookie of the Year and Best Rock Song. The group’s last album was the 2020 Nonadaptation, followed by a successful North American tour in 2022. Since its inception, the group has changed members several times; its current lineup is So!YoON! on guitar and vocals with Park Hyunjin on bass.
“Smoke Sprite” is from Episode 1: Love (2023) Soyoon’s second studio album after her critically successful self-titled debut, So!YoON! (2019). Two tracks – “Bad” and “CANADA” – were pre-releases, appearing on Prologue: Love which dropped on 17th February this year. While this collaboration between an indie rock musician and a member of the most globally famous K-pop group, BTS, might seem unusual, Namjoon has been actively collaborating with Korean indie artists, including Kim Jongwan of Nell and eAeon, in his solo work. Soyoon was one of the writers of Dean’s 2018 smash hit, “Instagram”. In addition, parkjiyoon is a featured artist on both Namjoon’s recent Indigo and Soyoon’s latest, the young guard paying tribute and homage to those senior musicians that came before them.
In an interview with Glenda Lim for bandwagon Asia on the 14th of this month, Soyoon talks about the process of writing and composing “Smoke Sprite” with Namjoon as a true collaboration, stating that “It is no exaggeration to say that we truly made the song together”. While Soyoon did not expect love to be at the centre of her second solo album, she remarks that “I ended up discovering new personas of myself through the themes of love and desire”. In the music video for “Bad”, Soyoon expresses desire as fluidity, transgressing the dominant heteronormativity of Korean patriarchy. In many ways Soyoon’s play with different personas is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s early work “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980) in which the artist is both the object and subject of the gaze, deconstructing the fixity of gender in Hollywood cinema.
In “Smoke Sprite”, desire is expressed through a visual and lyrical eroticism, each artist telling their own tale of sexual longing unburdened by the dictates of conventional morality and romantic ideology: While Soyoon tells her lover “I just know I understand your body and soul / I know how they work”, Namjoon asks his to “show your dance tonight / so I could kill you alright / I swear to god you don’t need to be mine / just hit you right”. Unlike the typical love song, Soyoon and Namjoon are not addressing each other with their lyrics, but rather address an imaginary other who exists outside of the song’s space. This is demonstrated in the music video with Soyoon and Namjoon in the same frame, standing back to back, looking away from, rather than to the other.
When they inhabit the same space, they are defined by differences rather than sameness, despite their black leather costuming. The visuals of the music video also express the collaboration of the artists at the imagistic level with the repetition of older work (especially RM’s music videos which accompanied his 2018 mixtape Mono), with Soyoon bringing her trademark guitar rock sound to the mix and Namjoon’s contrasting soft, sexy and melodic rap.
The title of the song “Smoke Sprite” can be seen as a reference to both the folkloric sprite as well as the technological sprite, the two-dimensional bitmap used on computer graphics. Commonly found in 2D video games, sprites were so named because they floated on the top of the screen image without affecting the fixed data beneath. As such, the song’s title can be interpreted as signifying the ephemerality of existence, within a multilayered complex understanding of space, and the place of the human, within that space. Melodically and artistically Soyoon and Namjoon are well-suited as demonstrated here. This collaboration offers something for fans of both artists, with the presence of Namjoon helping to give visibility to the diversity of independent Korean music, especially in the West where too often K-Pop is the only genre of music associated with Korea.
Soyoon and Namjoon, despite their successes to date, are still early in their careers, their future selves not yet determined but rather existing as a myriad of possibilities. For both, their solo work allows them to expand beyond their defined roles in their respective groups, broadening their and their audiences’ acoustic and visual universes.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain
MV & Featured Image © So Yo On & Magic Strawberry Sound