Strobe lights flash like firing synapses; Synths wobble and throb like a pounding headache. “머리 아프다!” — my head hurts — yell the members in Korean, pounding their fists erratically in different directions in the air. Stray Kids dance over the EDM-trance beat as a stern voice recites a string of aliments: “Common side effects include: nervousness, insomnia, nausea, agitation, anxiety, sweating, vision problems, numbness, psychosis, dizziness, headaches, weight loss.”
From the crowd of nearly 5,600 in New York’s Hulu Theater, the refrain to “Side Effects” rang out passionately from the K-pop group’s diverse fanbase, called Stay, caught somewhere between a battle cry and a cry for help. Stray Kids know that this feeling they’re communicating with “Side Effects” — one of disorientation, fear, and confusion that goes hand-in-hand with growing up — is one they share with Stay. After all, that’s what makes Stray Kids (who range in age from 19 to 22) so beloved by their passionate fans — they write and compose straight from their own experiences, painting a vivid picture of the feelings that young people share all over the world. And now, for everyone gathered in this dark theater, singing together is a catharsis.
Since their debut with JYP Entertainment nearly two years ago, Stray Kids’ discography has weaved a narrative that serves as an allegory for the joys and pains of coming of age. They begin as prisoners in the fictional dystopia of “District 9,” but even after making their escape, they must enter a labyrinth to face internal battles as they question their identities and their goals throughout each three-part I Am… and Clé EP series.
“In Clé 1: Miroh, we went into the maze really confidently,” Stray Kids’ animated Austrailian-Korean leader Bang Chan tells Refinery29 in our office ahead of their New York City tour stop. Even in more serious moments, the 22-year-old rapper and one-third of Stray Kids’ producing unit, 3RACHA, holds a warmth and playfulness in his eyes. “And then after that, in Clé: Yellow Wood, we asked ourselves, ‘Was this the right decision? Do we have regrets? Did we choose the right way?’ ‘Double Knot’ [off of Clé: Levanter] was where we said, ‘We're going to keep on doing what we're doing. We'll just keep going.’ But then with [our most recent single] ‘Levanter,’ we stress how you can't always just really focus too much on one goal. Maybe you might need to take a break to see the other options.”
There’s a certain rebelliousness that seems to run through Stray Kids’ music — if they’re not fighting against a higher power, then they’re warring with themselves. But rapper Changbin, another 3RACHA member along with rapper and vocalist Han, is clear that their mentality isn’t “us against the world.”
“There's not this big, crazy thing that we’re fighting against, right?” says Changbin, the chains on his shirt clinking together as he gesticulates. Changbin’s duality on and offstage is one of the most pronounced in the group — though he’s not the youngest, he’s known affectionately as the “baby” by his members. Catch him performing, however, and he turns into a growling menace as he spits bars.
“But just like in daily life, there are things that you're facing — issues, or roadblocks when you're on your way to a dream and things that you want to do in life. The theme of our music is that we want to overcome that together.”
Hyunjin, a striking rapper and dancer beloved by fans for his emotional intelligence, lays out what he feels people his age today feel they are most often up against: “There are two types of people. One is somebody who doesn't really know exactly what they want to do with their life. They don't really have a dream, so they're trying to find themselves and decide what they want to do. And then there are people who do have a particular goal or dream, and they're trying to wrestle with how exactly they’re going to achieve it.”
It’s not simply that Hyunjin and the seven other members of Stray Kids (a ninth, Woojin, left the company suddenly late last year for unknown reasons) are guessing what’s on Stay’s mind — they know firsthand, thanks to their uniquely close relationship that they’ve taken care to nurture over the past two years in a few ways. The first, and in many ways the most important, is by connecting through their music, which they’ve self-produced even before they officially debuted as a group. This creative license allows them to speak directly to their fans and reveal themselves in a truly authentic way. It is also the reason why Stray Kids’ music — often a creative mix of EDM, rap, and rock — sounds so distinctive in the K-pop landscape, and even beyond Korea’s borders. “All eight of us have different preferences and tastes in music, so we can each bring a different color to the music we make,” says Changbin. “It lets our music be more diverse and it allows us to try new things.”
They acknowledge that there’s a tension between wanting to take risks in your music and needing to make a chart-smashing hit, which is something that despite their overall success, the group has yet to achieve. But the goal is to always try to push boundaries, and not sacrifice their integrity.
You don’t usually see this kind of adventurous spirit in a newer group: usually, musicians start by imitating what they know and love. In Stray Kids’ case, that could’ve meant reflecting artists who Stay likely also share passion for: A bit of Ed Sheeran (courtesy of Bang Chan), Ariana Grande (Changbin), or maybe even Day6 (Seungmin). But they resisted the urge to copy, and instead created their own signature style. “Even if it might be a bit weird, I think we all really enjoy that, because it really excites us to try new things,” says Bang Chan, dimples punctuating his broad grin.
Beyond music, they also communicate with Stay directly. The members share their thoughts in short video series such as Two Kids Room and One Kid’s Room, behind-the-scenes vlogs about their travels on tour, and often take time to talk to fans on VLive, a live-streaming app popular with K-pop idols. But they take it a step further: Bang Chan goes live once a month (it used to be once a week) in a segment he calls “Chan’s Room,” where he shares updates about his life, what’s been on his mind, and music recommendations. Hyunjin started a series called “Hyunjin’s Counseling Center,” where he addresses both his and Stay’s various inner thoughts and feelings, as well as give advice.
“I feel like our fans are really just close friends, to the point where they’re like family,” says Bang Chan. “I love spending quality time and just being like, ‘I'm doing this. I'm thinking about this these days. I want to show you guys this. I got my ukulele and am going to play something for you guys.’ I think the whole live system is really great because it makes us feel so close. It just tightens the relationship.”
“I think the best way for Stay to take care of themselves is to stay healthy and eat a lot of delicious food and listen to our music,” adds the affable and dynamic vocalist Seungmin, “so this is a way we check in and help them with that.”
It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship. While fans certainly benefit from Stray Kids’ care, the artists readily admit that they’ve learned a lot about themselves since becoming idols and gaining fans.
“People think that it’s weird to be a celebrity if you’re an introvert,” says blonde Han, who opted for a seat in the center of the half circle, though a bit behind his bandmates. On stage and with his members, his charisma and sense of humor know no bounds, but the sole MBTI-certified introvert of the group usually takes a while to get comfortable in new environments. “I usually keep to myself, but when I’m on stage with the other Stray Kids members, I find this courage and strength that I didn’t even know I had,” he says, a smile widening on his face as he compliments the others in the room. “I get strength from my fellow members and the enthusiasm and energy of the fans, so that I can be confident and not come off as too introverted.”
“The feedback from fans has helped us grow so much,” says Australia-born dancer Felix, whose deep voice and shock of red hair counterbalance his lithe stature. His deep sincerity and good nature ratidate as he speaks. “We're always trying to show better work. So using all this direct feedback, I do try to improve as an artist and as... I guess it helps me try to be a better person in general.”
I.N., the youngest, self-proclaimed fox-faced vocalist of the group, as well as passionate dancer and cat-lover Lee Know, have both been more motivated to stick to their goals thanks to fans. I.N. explains his lack of willpower using cool slang (“작심삼일”) that stumps even the interpreter. “Basically I give up on things within three days,” he says. “I’ve been trying to overcome that.” For Lee Know, it’s a bit more simple: “I want to bulk up. So, consistency is so important. Stay are good at keeping us accountable.”
Hyunjin, ever-contemplative, sees the growth he’s gained from being an idol with fans as more introspective. “I’ve experienced a lot of feelings and emotions I didn’t have when I was a trainee,” says Hyunjin. “Being a celebrity or an idol, you're in the public eye and you're one person who is constantly interacting with and meeting many, many people. While talking to so many fans, I started realizing how much impact the words of a few people can have on a large number of people. It made me more thoughtful of what I say and I feel more responsibility for our music and performances. I want to do my best because of my fans. I feel that it’s made me grow into a more mature person.”
And while that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a 19-year-old, he maintains that he sees it as a responsibility he’s more than happy to take on. “I don’t really see it as a burden because the way I see it, you could say just one little thing, but that could really make a person's day or really change their mind for the better.”