Why “Red Flavor” Is the Greatest Work of Art in Human History

I Walk Now in the Light of Red Velvet’s Layered Masterpiece

Every year, as August slips away into September, it’s natural to reminisce about the summer that is ending and romanticize what was (or could have been). But as with many previously normal activities, the events of 2020 have turned this banal seasonal nostalgia into an uncanny, mind-warping exercise. Of course, for me the idea of summer being in any way special died long ago, when I entered the workforce and a three-month break became “the same as the rest of the year, only sweaty.” And surely, no summer in recent memory has felt less special, with days once reserved for travel and recreation spent largely in isolation. But in spite of all this, I find myself glancing in the rearview mirror, and glimmering back at me is one undeniable bright spot in my Summer of 2020: a perfect summer song called “Red Flavor.”

“Red Flavor” (“빨간 맛”) is the work of the K-pop girl group Red Velvet, a quintet of elemental sprites descended from a higher realm to bring us pure joy and smooth jams, who have set themselves apart in a crowded field by staying consistently as vocally unassailable as they are deeply weird. Whether the concept is summer fun, gleeful murder, or… somehow both, Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri’s ability to commandeer material and execute it in a way that feels unique to these five women transcends the paradigm of K-idol as perfect copy machine and creates a group identity that the brand-savviest record execs in Seoul could only dream up by accident. Take, for example, the fruit imagery introduced in the “Red Flavor” era (and part of RV’s schtick ever since):

Blue Orange (Wendy), Watermelon (Irene), Kiwi (Joy), Pineapple (Seulgi), Grape (Yeri)

The gimmick of assigning each member a color-coded fruit clearly originates from a marketing meeting, but “an orange that turns out to be blue on the inside” is a left-field goof that could only come from the mind of Wendy.

You said it, Irene. (Source video here.)

I discovered Red Velvet at the beginning of this cursèd summer, and while it would be hyperbole to say I don’t know how I’d have survived it without them… maybe not by much. In a grim time, they and their music have been an injection of color and light into my life, and no track of theirs has more firmly ensconced its Day-Glo kaleidoscope of happiness (the very word, by the way, with which they formally introduce themselves) inside my heart than “Red Flavor.”

On first listen — particularly if you, like me, do not speak Korean — it may seem no more than a flawless pop confection, pure sugar for sugar’s sake. And it could be, and there’d be nothing wrong with that. But this song, whose lyricist Kenzie and composers Caesar & Loui I would be remiss not to credit, builds that immaculate sugarwork on a foundation so deep and so insistent that it feels miraculous, like turning high-fructose corn syrup into loaves and fishes for a multitude.

At this point I should offer the (perhaps obvious) caveat that my familiarity with the lyrics of “Red Flavor” is at best imprecise and at worst impressionistic; much as I’ve sought out various translations and plugged away in Korean-English dictionary apps, even the best interpretation could only give me a wisp of the understanding a native speaker receives. (For what it’s worth, the wonderful blog “Learn Korean Through K-Pop” offered me the clearest and most thorough insight.) Still, the power of a song is in what the listener feels, so I will try not to embarrass myself as I lay out the mystical machinery by which a tune so cute and fun reliably moves me to tears.

On its surface, “Red Flavor” is a light and charming depiction of psychedelic summer love, its imagery drenched in palm trees, rainbow doors, and ice cream. The bubbly melody and lyrics offer youthful confessions of infatuation as shimmery-bright as Joy’s magenta hair and as confidently awkward as Irene’s short bangs. Yet beneath that well-trod (if vibrant) pop music territory is a thrumming engine that marches the song undeniably toward the core of its titular metaphor — where a revelation awaits.

At the outset, our heroine states her case: “I wanna know about the red flavor.” (Because, after all, her favorite thing about summer is the flavor.) This earnest plea carries through the verse’s wish for a breezy teenage romance and is repeated at the top of every chorus. The red flavor, one can pretty easily guess, is love — perhaps specifically, your love.

Yeri (Grape), Seulgi (Pineapple), Irene (Watermelon), Wendy (Blue Orange), Joy (Kiwi)

But there is more to the red flavor — and “Red Flavor” — than a simple summer crush. In the next verse and through the rap break, the feeling and color intensify, becoming almost overwhelming. (What else can you expect from the strawberry flavor that melts bit by bit as you bite into it?) Below the fun and flirty façade is something yearning to be expressed. “I like you, TBH,” Yeri wants you to shout. “Can’t you just know it without me saying it?” Seulgi wonders. And in the climactic bridge Wendy belts it to the rafters, following up on the chorus’s repeated “I wanna know” with a clear and resounding exhortation: “So tell me!”

“궁금해.”

“그러니 말해.”

“I wanna know.”

“So tell me.”

The power, the urgency, the raw vulnerability of this moment astonishes me every time. What lies deeper at the heart of the human experience than the need for an answer? We can dress our confessions up in candy-coated rainbow fruits, but the truth is there: to name our desire is to make it real. “I wanna know. So tell me.”

Falling in love seems easy when you are young, but just as the meaning of summer changes as we mature, so do our emotions. Mixed in with the sunny exuberance of the “Red Flavor” music video are scenes of life moving through its stages, from youth to adulthood. Our heroine stands on that cusp and grapples with the realization that summer love has turned into something deeper. Fruit as a metaphor is old as creation; we desire it, we taste it, we gain knowledge. She has tasted the red flavor, and now she understands: what made the season meaningful wasn’t the sights or senses, but sharing them with someone. Not the corner candy shop, but the memory of going there together. She began with “I wanna know” and arrived at “So tell me”; but now she knows, and in the song’s final line, literally its last word, she does the telling: “My favorite thing about summer is… you.”

This is the secret genius of “Red Flavor”: the journey it describes is reflected in its very design. Beneath its estival charms, what appears to be a fluffy trifle of a song reveals itself as a mediation on how an emotion that appears superficial and temporary gradually transfigures into something profound and lasting. In the end, yes, the red flavor was love, but not the carefree puppy love we first heard about. This a color more deeply dyed, an experience savored longer than a passing moment. To taste the fruit is to gain knowledge — and what is love, if not knowledge of another, gathered over time?

I know everything I’ve said here seems like wild exaggeration, but when you have experienced a miracle, hyperbole is just another way of speaking. I lost the magic of summer long ago, but Red Velvet in their infinite wisdom have somehow, in this unlikeliest of summers, given it back to me — a true summer miracle. For summer, though fleeting, is also eternal. It comes and goes, but always returns. This season will fade, and with it the flavors; but we remain. Perhaps, even, until the summer comes again.

So I invite you to step through the seven-colored rainbow door with me and experience this glorious work of art. Yes, “Red Flavor” is a perfect pop tune, of the kind that vie each year for the elusive title “Song of the Summer.” But it is also much more than that: an anthem of truth-telling, hopefulness, and love. It is the song of this summer, next summer, and all summers to come.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like my follow-up about Red Velvet’s “Psycho”!

musical theater writer • mostly songs about robots