A monolithic coliseum, intimidating and gleaming in the sun, materializes in the desert like a mirage. Inside, seven men clad in black and metallics stand tall in its center, facing the thousands gathered to watch them.
In August, Korean music juggernaut SM Entertainment, in partnership with Capitol Records and its subdivision Caroline, announced that it would debut a new K-pop supergroup featuring the cream of the crop, pulled from some of SM’s most popular active groups. These acts combined (SHINee, EXO, NCT 127, WayV) have sold more than 14 million adjusted albums and garnered nearly four billion views of their music videos. Though SM has experimented with a few supergroups in the past, this announcement was especially mind-blowing to K-pop fans, as it promised to take a cross-section of some of the very best dancers, singers, and rappers in the business — an Olympic-level performance team.
Taemin, 26, is the industry vet, who joined K-pop darling SHINee as its maknae (youngest member) in 2008. Along with a successful career in the group as its charismatic main dancer, he also has made a name for himself through his popular solo work, dramatic and often androgynous looks, and sultry vocals. From EXO — a group so revered they were chosen to perform at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Closing Ceremony — is SuperM’s leader Baekhyun, 27, known for his killer sense of humor and soaring tenor. Then there’s Kai, 25, the ballet-trained dancer whose secret weapon is a combination of long, sharp lines and arresting looks.
From subunits of the 21-person umbrella group, NCT, is NCT 127’s bright-faced Canadian rapper Mark, 20, and its 24-year-old charismatic leader and rapper Taeyong. And from the Chinese-language unit WayV is the quadrilingual Thai triple-threat Ten, 23, as well as 6-foot-something, 20-year-old striking Hong Kong-born rapper Lucas.
While the announcement garnered a monsoon of excitement online, it was also met with a hefty dose of skepticism and criticism. Some were upset that the activities of NCT 127, EXO, and WayV would be put on hold, and felt bad for the remaining members. But the most vocal faction seemed to float somewhere in the middle, unsure of what to make of the all-star lineup. One thing was sure: the sheer talent would be next-level. But SuperM was notably announced as group aiming to appeal to an international audience and debut in the U.S. — would that mean stripping it of its K-pop identity to make it palatable to the American mainstream?
That fear was all but quelled with one word: “Jopping.” The lead single off of SuperM’s self-titled seven-track EP is a bombastic, genre-bending dance track that blends English and Korean, and even samples the Avengers theme — apt for the self-proclaimed “Avengers of K-pop.”
K-pop can now can add “Jopping” — a blend of the words “jumping” and “popping” — to its lexicon, joining the ranks of “Boombayah,” “Dumb Litty,” and “kitty-incidence.” Not only is the title very K-pop, but the song is classic SM. In fact, it evokes a specific company-coined sonic style called SMP, or SM Music Performance, which is choreography synced with a mix of rock, R&B, and hip-hop beats.
“It's our debut single and first appearance as SuperM, so we knew that we had to do something that shows off all our best sides — whether it be our style or each of our personas and characters,” the affable Mark tells Refinery29 following SuperM’s debut Los Angeles showcase. “We knew that ‘Jopping’ had a large feeling to it and we knew that only something that big could contain our performances, our raps, our singing, and our dancing.”
It’s a bold move. Many K-pop acts looking to make it in the U.S. have opted to collaborate with big-name Stateside artists, or even release straightforward pop/hip-hop English-language songs that do everything to hide even a trace of a foreign accent. But SuperM deliberately chose to take a risk.
“Now that we’re entering the American market, we could have released a song that suits the American taste better, but that’s not what distinguishes us as a group,” says Kai, a silver Rolling Stones necklace adorning his graceful neck. “We chose ‘Jopping’ because we wanted to show something that hasn’t been done in the States. Also, given that we’ve pulled together all these great members for this kind of performance, we saw a potential in this song to captivate the world and show our identity.”
“It gives us an opportunity to show fans a variety of styles, and prove that we can pull off anything,” adds the purple-haired Taeyong.
Dig deeper into the EP, and the tracks reveal a roadmap that winds even deeper into the group’s Korean identity. Take “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” an immense electro-pop song that opens with echoing traditional Korean drums and whose chorus is cradled by a classic haegeum melody. The synthy R&B B-side “2 Fast” features a classic K-pop tempo change halfway through, slowing down during the bridge before picking up the beat and adding undulating trills of vocal distortion.
“We’re from Asia,” says cotton candy-haired Baekhyun, who's taken quickly to his leadership role. “We wanted to emphasize the harmony between Western and Asian music. That’s why the drums and haegeum are on that Westernized beat [in ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’]. With ‘2 Fast’, the sudden change within the track is very K-pop because K-pop itself changes all the time. There’s no limitation and it takes on many different forms. This song is just another representation of that, and how we try to differentiate ourselves.”
“I’m honestly constantly learning from these six people how we can best represent SM’s history and show Americans what K-pop is,” says Lucas, who palpably relaxes when he speaks in Chinese, his native language. “I’m learning how, through this music industry, to be a vessel for spreading culture, thought, and happiness.”
And people are certainly noticing. After releasing their EP, SuperM delivered a blowout debut showcase in LA. Hundreds of roaring fans gathered to watch their first performance in Capitol Records’ backlot, which was streamed live around the world on YouTube. The group has since sat on Ellen’s couch, and announced a 10-date North American tour that includes New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It’s a promising beginning for the septet, and something that Mark didn’t think he’d ever see growing up.
“Growing up in Canada and being in the West, nobody really knew about K-pop unless they were Korean,” he says, his expressive eyes growing contemplative. “To see a Korean group like SuperM that’s so powerful, making an impact on America and sharing their energy and story, and to have Amercian fans come and run to us to see our synergy, is something I’d never thought that I’d see, nevertheless be a part of. I always try to remind myself how lucky I am to bridge two cultures together. It’s a cool moment.”
"K-pop itself is not just a music genre, but a whole cultural phenomenon."
Though the EP is rumoured to make a strong debut on the Billboard 200 next week, it seems unlikely that the average American will be "jopping" anytime soon. But it’s not about simply putting out songs that can dominate charts or airwaves right away — if that were the case, we'd be hearing a much more Western-sounding lead single.
It all comes back to an ethos instilled by SM’s founder and K-pop pioneer, Lee Soo Man. “I love what I heard from him yesterday,” says Ten with a quiet confidence. “Be humble, and learn from other people. Don’t put yourself above other people. Then, if you do that, you’ll rise higher without knowing.”
It’s about promoting cross-cultural understanding, and hoping to change minds enough for the world to make room for what Korean culture has to offer.
“K-pop itself is not just a music genre, but a whole cultural phenomenon,” says Taemin warmly. “It includes fashion, music, and so much more. When other people look at K-pop with a more traditional Western lens, or when people listen to it, it may sound like a combination of all different genres. Although it might sound unfamiliar at first, I think it's in the process of being blended into the mix of U.S. culture. Hopefully, SuperM can also make a contribution.”