Written by guest writer and regular Scanline podcast host Allen Ibrahim.
Ambition vs acceptance. Complacency vs a desire for change. These ideas always seemed contradictory to me. “You can’t be okay with what we have, because there’s always something better” does not beget happiness in the present. If left to my own devices, I constantly wish for better things without a clear vision of what “better” looks like. It is in the company of friends and peers that I’ve developed a lens with which to improve myself. I can safely say I wouldn’t be here without the community of friends I keep today and their guidance.
One of my recent pop culture obsessions is k-pop. I will say that any and all opinions I hold about k-pop come with some caveats: I’m a white-passing Arab living in the United States writing about Korean culture, acknowledging the fraught conditions of the k-pop industry while also being able to appreciate it artistically and not discounting any of those factors when discussing it. The k-pop group TWICE have consistently changed and improved their style every release since they debuted back in 2015. Originally formed as part of a reality show called Sixteen (like a more fraught Making the Band, for my 2000s American reality show viewers out there), the 9-girl group has taken the k-pop world by storm. Their most recent 2019 single “FEEL SPECIAL” to me represents a shift in their lyrical style from cute, romantic songs like 2017’s “LIKEY” to more thoughtful and empowering dance tracks. While it may seem from the rhythm like a disco-inspired pop ballad, there is more going on lyrically than its style conveys. “FEEL SPECIAL” is about friendship, and how friends can empower and strengthen each other to survive and thrive in a world that pushes against that at every turn.
The song opens on rapper Chaeyoung telling the listener that she feels alone, like she “doesn’t belong anywhere anymore”. She passes the song over to Tzuyu and then Momo who recount the words of a friend. “Everything’s alright/From Nobody to Somebody” and we see the change. Our self-defeating heroine says “I become a very special me.” Friendships based entirely in flattery or empty compliments can’t last. We lift up the people who matter to us, from nobody to somebody. The singer does not simply feel better; she feels special, powerful, and capable of incredible things. Any friend who can make you feel better than yourself is one worth keeping.
The first time I heard the next verse, I had one of the strongest emotional responses to music I’ve had in a long time. Nayeon, the group’s senior member, is alone in a beautiful diamond-lined space in the music video. This “sad lyrics, beautiful video” contradiction is surprisingly common in k-pop, due in part to the marketability of the image but also she’s in a diamond world and that’s just sick as hell. Nayeon’s verse is my favorite in the song, and here it is in it entirety (worth noting that these are the English version of the lyrics, translated courtesy of the music video’s subtitles):
Again, I feel special
One moment I feel like I’m nothing at all
Like no one would notice If I were gone
But then when I hear you calling me
I feel loved, I feel so special
The stark white of the background, Nayeon’s perfect eye contact through the verse, and the fact that she smiles through this entire section adds up to a very emotional…nine seconds. I sat at my desk and started crying uncontrollably when I first watched this part. On paper, the lyrics don’t amount to much more than your usual fluffy inspirational pop song, but it struck a chord so precisely that I couldn’t help but respond with tears.
We get so trapped in our own headspace, positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are useless, that we are unimportant, and that the entire rest of the world would progress more smoothly if we were gone. Sometimes it takes a simple act of love from someone you care about to shake you out of this mindset. Not only do we lift each other up, we remind each other that there’s always something to smile about. While accepting ourselves and our present is often isolating and scary, we owe it to ourselves and our friends to strive for more. Happiness lies somewhere in between “I need to be better” and “I am fine”.
Mina’s verse has attracted a lot of attention due to its parallels to her real-life struggles with anxiety and her choice to not perform with the rest of TWICE on their last world tour. The one-two punch of the lines “As if everything has lost meaning/As if I have lost meaning” always gets me here. Apathy is such a powerful negative force in life because it can feel like the only solution when you can’t turn on the news without seeing another tragedy or fake apology. One of the best things about “FEEL SPECIAL” is how friendship and kindness are treated like magic spells or incantations. “Then you appeared before me” says Momo, as if she is narrating a fantasy novel where her friends are powerful sorcerers.
The rest of the song repeats the chorus, and Dahyun’s rap break reiterates the idea that we are brought up by our peers again. And like with any good pop song, there are so many ways to read “FEEL SPECIAL.” The “you” referenced throughout could be a lover, a friend, family member, or even one’s self. The most common read is that this is TWICE calling out to their fans and thanking them for being supportive and cheering them on, but the friendship read resonates with me the most. It’s nearly impossible to explain my love of k-pop to anyone who isn’t already bought in, so I generally don’t try. But in a time where we’re all seeking music that makes us feel something, music that reminds us that we aren’t alone, I find solidarity in a song like “Feel Special” and its inspirational message. Together, we can soar past apathy and doubt and find purpose.