In 2018 alone, 25 new female and male groups formed in Korea. This doesn’t include the 27 artists who made their solo debuts on top of that. So it undoubtedly came as a surprise when ATEEZ (pronounced “AY-teeze” and short for “A Teenager Z”), an eight-member group under the tiny label KQ Entertainment, announced that they would be embarking on a sold-out five-stop U.S. and 10-stop European tour, less than five months after debut.
And it wasn’t their management who pushed to get them out in front of crowds — the band was literally summoned by their fans, called ATINY (a portmanteau for ATEEZ and “destiny”) through MyMusicTaste, a platform that lets music lovers around the world request to have their favorite artists come to their city. Despite having only 10 songs and a few televised performances, members Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Mingi, San, Yeosang, Wooyoung, and Jongho have already caused a fervor overseas seldom seen in groups still getting their start.
It’s a testament to the accessibility of their music — from the explosive “Pirate King” and anthemic “Treasure” to the tropical house lightness of “Stay” — to their dynamic performances that received massive attention even before they had released any music. It also helps that the group has a very unique aesthetic and captivating narrative that has woven through every release: The members are pirates, adventuring to far-away lands to find the thing that they treasure most. To ATEEZ, who spoke to Refinery29 following their Brooklyn show, the final U.S. stop before heading to Europe, their overnight popularity boils down to chance.
“We're lucky, really lucky,” says Wooyoung, a passionate dancer and moodmaker of the group. The 19-year-old oozes charisma and can raise audiences’ blood pressure with one devastating look. But here, in person, he’s turned down the drama — safe for his signature taupe smokey eye — for a more contemplative demeanor. “I think we’ve gotten to where we are so quickly thanks to our teamwork, [and] the expressiveness of our performances. I'm so thankful that people like us, and it only makes us want to work harder.”
“Both lyrically and dance-wise, we don’t just go through the motions,” adds Yunho, ATEEZ’s bright-faced main dancer. He sits at the edge of his seat with the same confidence that he channels during the group’s razor-sharp choreography. “We try go deep within our songs and bring out as much feeling and color as we can, which might be something that differentiates us from other groups.”
But of course, the competition is tough, and it’s easy to forget when recognition comes so quickly that there are countless others who don’t make it. Burnt orange-haired Jongho, 18, the vocal powerhouse who went viral for his ability to easily break apples in half with his hands, initially trained to become an idol with a close friend who had to quit. But when the youngest member (called the maknae) is feeling discouraged, it’s this same friend and former collaborator who he says reminds him not to give up.
With such a saturated playing field in K-pop, pressure to stand out is higher than ever. In fact, the band’s poised 20-year-old leader, Hongjoong — who himself stands out with sharp features and a strikingly pronounced mullet — credits the fierce competition as one of the biggest difficulties the rookies face. “In Korea, when we do music variety shows, with so many groups around, sometimes we're afraid that we can't compete and we can't survive in that kind of ecosystem. Honestly that's a little hard, but we try to support and be open with each other. Instead of focusing on the fear, we’ve been trying to instead focus on our own performances, and really just try to enjoy it.”
"Enjoy it" is an understatement. During the last chorus of their performance of “HALA HALA,” a high-drama showstopper, the members explode with vivacity — faces contorting from smoldering stares to devilish grins; clapping and kicking to the beat into a climax that ends with them literally miming breaking their own necks before collapsing to the ground. Seonghwa, 21, the group’s platinum blonde eldest member, even asked his makeup artist to paint a dramatic red line down his eye to accentuate a specific maniacal laugh he planned to deliver straight to camera during “HALA HALA.” The group brings the same energy and creativity to "Pirate King," seen in the subtle way Wooyoung cocks his head and flashes a smug smile, a brief moment that has launched a thousand video compilations. These kinds of dramatic, GIF-worthy moments appeal to a global audience, as they truly say a thousand words — and need no translation.
To many in the West, the band’s deliberate, emotional moves could be confused with calculation. There’s a rampant stereotype that K-pop is a “factory,” where pop stars are lifeless products of a system and manufactured without any creative agency. While perhaps there was a time in which it was trendy for groups to have a more produced, cookie-cutter image — and certainly there are some tired Asian tropes baked in there — that generalization seems unfair when faced with the passion and earnestness of modern groups like ATEEZ.
San, 19, who naturally radiates positivity and enthusiasm, believes that their work speaks for itself, and even hopes to be a group that helps eliminate this kind of unfair stereotype. “Since we always lead with sincerity and honesty, I'd tell people to just watch our performances first instead of assuming. Get to know it as-is.”
ATEEZ and their team have noticeably increased their reach by wisely taking advantage of the power of social media and YouTube challenges early on, at a volume that is rarely seen among any K-pop groups, let alone young ones. The group already has over 60 YouTube videos on their channel, has a handful of vlog series that serve as quick introductions to new listeners, and they regularly log on to the popular Korean live-streaming app, VLive, where they have nearly 170 uploads. They even livestream, using selfie sticks, on stage at the end of each their shows so those who couldn’t make it don’t miss out on all the action.
New bands faced with this kind of pressure to deliver on their first tour would understandably be nervous, especially when there’s a clear language barrier (Hongjoong’s English is conversational, but most of the others, while enthusiastic, are still learning). The safe route would be to deliver a tight, fully-rehearsed show, leaving no room for mistakes. But not only does the group look at ease performing their eccentric routines/songs, they also host 45 minute Q&As with the audience. It’s a time that Hongjoong said is the most meaningful for him.
“Some people come to the show and they just watch and enjoy themselves, but we think it's so important that we communicate with each other. It's too long of a time to just stand there and watch a performance. We want them to actually participate in our show. I feel — we feel that fans are one with the artist in some ways, [the Q&A] is the most precious part of our show. If we ever get bigger, it would maybe be harder to do, we still want to find a way to incorporate this same spirit of communication and interact with fans at our concerts.”
Seonghwa reiterates that sincerity is key in everything that ATEEZ does. “If that aspect was absent, audiences would pick up on it right away, and they wouldn’t connect with us.” In a vlog posted to the band’s YouTube channel, the honey-voiced singer admitted that the group “is still awkward, still has a lot to improve on, but we’ll always be sincere, kind, and hardworking.” Despite ATEEZ’s rapid growth, Seonghwa makes a point that they still understand that they have a lot of growing to do, so they try to be a bit easier on themselves.
Bigger shows don’t seem too far off if they continue at this rate. During their show in New York’s Warsaw theater, the excitement among the 1,000-odd fans in attendance was so much that the band had to repeatedly remind fans not to push, and some had to be carried out after fainting in the crowd. And across the pond, ATEEZ held a sold-out show one of London’s major venues, O2 Forum Kentish Town.
More than simply focusing on expanding their fanbase and getting more global recognition, the group first and foremost wants to be known for their impact on fans' lives. “I hope that people are happy that ATEEZ are in their lives and that we have improved their lives in some way,” says soft-spoken Yeosang. “My dreams of becoming a singer came from watching another artists perform, so I hope to have that same influence on our fans,” adds Jongho.
Throughout our interview, ATEEZ are practically bursting with enthusiasm as we talk about all the overwhelming excitement of their current success. But now, as our conversation ends, the larger-than-life expertly-styled rookies grow quiet for a moment, as if playing out the next 10 years in their heads. Then Hongjoong says resolutely, “That's why we perform so powerfully. So people all over the world can feel powerful, too.”