The Best Song of 2020 Was the Last Song of 2019

The Enduring Triumph in Turmoil of Red Velvet’s “Psycho”

As another December draws to a close, the year-in-review pop culture listicles file in, inevitable as the march of time itself. Yes, even in 2020 — whether that feels frivolous in light of this year’s grim events, macabre given the pandemic’s effect on the entertainment industry, or essential as a way of combating all that. (Or maybe perfunctory since you can just throw Folklore and Evermore in the top spot and call it a day.) However you look at it, people with too much time on their hands are out here searching for a little chunk of media they can say “defined” 2020.

But if you think my cynical view of this practice will for even one millisecond prevent me from doing precisely the same thing, please recall that I already wrote a long and ridiculous essay just like this (with a nearly identical introductory premise!) about the 2020 Song of the Summer. Not only am I prepared to recycle my own half-baked idea from less than three months ago to now crown a 2020 Song of the Year, I’m once again choosing a song released outside the stated period of eligibility and by the exact same band. And if you’re about to hit me with that long-exhausted platitude about doing the same thing over and over blah blah blah the definition of insanity… well, maybe it’s got a point after all. Because frankly, at various points through this interminable year, life did have me wondering if I were insane. You might even say it got me feeling like a psycho.

On December 23, 2019 — one year ago as I post this — Red Velvet released a goth-pop masterwork so irresistible that it has replaced Bernard Hermann’s immortal string stabs as my brain’s primary involuntary audio response to the word “psycho.” Accompanied by a mesmerizing video (the looks! the choreo! the classic redvelveteen lesbian murder cult vibes!), “Psycho” related the story of a contentious, frustrating, ultimately loving romance through sultry vocals, ethereal prechoruses, and an undeniable singalong hook. At the cusp of the new year, it stood poised to conquer the K-pop airwaves and usher Red Velvet into an era of artistic and professional dominance. Twenty-twenty was going to be their year.

(I think you see where this is going, if you don’t know it in the pit of your stomach already.)

Two days later, while rehearsing for the SBS televised holiday concert, Wendy was hospitalized after falling from an improperly rigged setpiece and sustaining several fractures. In a horrific instant, the “Psycho” era was over before it began, supplanted by a miasma of worry and grief. By the time a deadly pandemic arrived to fundamentally alter their entire industry, ill fortune had already forced Red Velvet into an unexpected hiatus. With their member’s health and well-being taking priority, there would be no music show appearances, no encore stages, no eagerly rewatched fancams. “Psycho” was to be Red Velvet’s third comeback in six months; they would not release another album as a group for an entire year.

My association of this song with the events of 2020 does not, I must stress, rely on cutesy analogies between Red Velvet’s individual strife and the awfulness we have faced on a global scale. I won’t contribute to the personification of this calendar year as a cultural bogeyman; neither Wendy’s injuries nor COVID-19 are the result of some shrugoffable “and then 2020 happened” meme. Whether production crew negligence or the large-scale abdication of responsibility by our governments and institutions, these tragedies have tangible causes. Bad things actually happened and continue to happen. People suffered; many have died. My relationship to a pop song can’t possibly reflect the full and terrifying magnitude of that reality, nor would I want it to.

Where “Psycho” resonates for me is not in the maelstrom, but in how we got through it. Art has never felt more essential, more deeply needed to make sense of our everyday lives, than during this past year. And as isolation (or, conversely, close quarters) chipped away at mental health, upended emotional stability, and tested the limits of many relationships, this haunting, heartfelt song about a couple navigating their way through maddening ups and downs became a work of art that I quite honestly needed. When I think back on my worst days of this often grueling year, I will remember playing this track on repeat and crying — not from sorrow, but from relief. Because for three-and-a-half minutes, Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri let me know that someone understood me. For three-and-a-half minutes, the lyricist Kenzie (her again! the genius architect of “Red Flavor”!) showed me a way to understand myself. For three-and-a-half minutes, the darkest hours were lit with music, and I didn’t feel numb.

In positioning “Psycho” as a song of triumph, I could focus on its many accolades. I could mention its numerous music show wins, its chart longevity, its millions of views and streams, all without any promotion or a single live performance. I could turn to the critics and cite appearances on year-end best-of lists both days after its release in 2019 and again this year, a testament to its enduring relevance. But frankly, none of that really matters to me. The great victory of “Psycho” is that it did what great art can do: made me feel the worth of being alive. What could be more triumphant, facing a dark present and an uncertain future, than this repeated refrain?

Hey now, we’ll be okay.
Hey now, we’ll be okay.
Hey now, we’ll be okay.
Hey now, we’ll be okay.
It’s all right.

Here we are again among the longest nights of the year, a time many traditions gather — in spirit, at least — to remember that though we walk in darkness, light will come again. There will be healing. There will be change, maybe even for the better. There will be new music from Red Velvet. There will be a new year, made up of many, many new days. We tell ourselves these things over and over, repeat these wishes petty and profound, even though we cannot know if they are true. We do it over and over because we have to. And maybe we should call that psychosis.

“Hey now, we’ll be okay.”

But maybe we also call it hope.

musical theater writer • mostly songs about robots