Monsta X walk like men who know their power. It’s less of a stroll and more of a glide — controlled but not stiff, oozing confidence and sensuality with every step. They’ll give a quick glance to an audience member and watch them shriek in excitement; run a hand through their hair and watch a row of knees buckle in succession. This is how the South Korean group open their performance of “Who Do U Love?” on Good Morning America on a muggy August day in New York.
A mere three hours ago, however, the septet looked very different. After a late arrival from Atlanta and only a few hours of sleep, Monsta X trudged into GMA’s Times Square studio wearing the utter exhaustion that a non-stop, demanding world tour will do to a twentysomething. Usual uniforms of tight black pants and billowy shirts were replaced with sweat pants and hoodies, while wide-brimmed bucket hats and dust masks covered their makeup-free faces.
During rehearsal, they marked and mimed the song’s slick choreography. Some, like rapper Joohoney and vocalist Minhyuk, put more effort into their vocal warm ups; others, like vocalist and notable gym fiend Wonho who was feeling severely under the weather, saved their energy for the real deal. In this state, without Monsta X's armor — usually some mixture of blacks, golds, and reds, leather, and dramatic, smokey makeup — the morning show’s staff feels more comfortable ordering them here and there, even firmly urging them to go all out during their final rehearsal. When they’re dressed to the nines, however, with hair perfectly coiffed and eyes lined, there’s an aura around them that mere mortals dare not disturb. But it only takes one surprised giggle from Minhyuk, or a thoughtful offer of the rest of I.M.'s banana, or Kihyun saying “easy peasy squeezy” with an excited grin, for that wall of intimidation to crumble.
Monsta X fit closely in many ways to what Koreans would describe as the “beast” idol aesthetic – dark, edgy, traditionally “masculine” presenting — as opposed to the softer, cute “flower boy” aesthetic also found among many male K-pop groups. Much of their music is falls on the spectrum of electronic and hip-hop, and carries a similar intensity. Theirs is a concept that, according to the band, they and their management company, Starship Entertainment, had conversations about before their 2015 debut. Both agreed it would be a good fit for their personalities.
“There are times when it's been something we've wanted to do, and others when we just kind of go along with it,” says the effusive Minhyuk. They all agree that the biggest misconception about them is that they're scary. Powerhouse vocalist Kihyun, whose relatively lithe stature is balanced by a monstrous range, even heard that their peers in K-pop felt intimidated by them when they first debuted. Dusty rose-haired Joohoney, known both for his killer growls as he spits bars and his arresting ability to act cute (called aegyo), explains that their intensity has leveled out over time. “Lately we’ve found that we’ve been expressing ourselves more and doing what we want to do — truly finding our own color.”
Ask any of Monsta X’s devoted fans, and that color would probably be similar to that of Joohoney’s hair. Both dark and light; the beast and the flower — a duality that has come to define the band during the four-odd years they’ve been together.
Their ability to be both intense and endearing is something that they’re aware of, and it's often documented and demanded of by their fans. But it’s not something they necessarily feel is unique to them. “I think everyone has a duality inside of them,” says the band’s youngest and English-speaking rapper, I.M. “We just want to be honest on stage and want to communicate with our fans. That's why we want to show all the different sides within us.” Shownu, the broad-shouldered oldest of the group, agrees that this duality comes naturally to most of them, and isn’t something he personally necessarily had to work on since debut. But ask them who they modeled after growing up, and most point to their fathers.
“My father is always challenging himself in every moment,” says I.M., whose father is a scientist working in biotechnology. “He's 56, right now — that’s almost 60. I know that the older you get, the harder it is to do fresh new things, but he keeps finding ways to try.” And as they dive more into the impact of the male figures in their lives — Minhyuk describes his father as being so loyal and responsible for his family that the singer owes everything to him — Kihyun makes an observation.
“Something I just realized is that all seven of us don't have any female siblings,” he says. “We all have brothers. So maybe that’s why we especially look up to our fathers. It's interesting.” Ask them if it’s influenced their performance or perspectives, however, and Minhyuk says it’s mostly helped them become a closer team. “It's not necessarily that it's influenced our lifestyle or philosophy, but it's helped us all get along better because we all think of each other as brothers.”
It certainly looks that way on stage and off. They dance in total unison on stage, throwing each other amused, knowing glances. At one point in the middle of their concert in Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater on August 3, the lanky, inscrutable Hyungwon manages to flip a water bottle perfectly and the the members explode with cheers and pats on the back as he dances in celebration.
Offstage, Wonho and Kihyun share a couch to take a nap on in between interviews, legs stacked on one another; Minhyuk delicately wipes a cupcake crumb off of Joohoney’s chin as he talks; I.M. stops what he’s doing to help Shownu fix his tangled necklace. They’re comfortable with each other, and that translates to their effortless chemistry onstage. But that all stems in them being comfortable in their own skin.
“I feel the most comfortable when I'm honest with myself,” says I.M as he places a hand — nails painted black — to his chest. I.M. is known throughout the fandom as someone who has a tendency to say what’s exactly on his mind, sometimes to the delighted shock of Monbebe. “More and more I’m able to do that both when I’m alone and when I’m on stage.”
Perhaps this self-confidence and comfort is what enables them to be comfortable playing with the spectrum of their masculinity — the hard and the soft. Few moments showcase it more than during Joohoney’s rap in “Alligator.” The rapper, who has striking, almost feline features, stalks down the stage waving cutely as he says, “Hello! I’m an alli-alli-gator..." and in the same breath turns menacing as he yells, “Watch out!” Joohoney feels a rush every time he performs it. “It's so hard to describe — it’s a feeling that you get only when you perform on stage,” he says. “A singer's feeling. I think of it like Goku in Dragonball Z — an explosion of energy. A level beyond.”
“On fire,” adds Minhyuk.
The others nod. “Rather than just focusing on trying to be energetic and being a good performer, it's about being sure of who you are and knowing your identity,” says Kihyun. “I think that's true in the case of Joohoney — he knows who he is very well and can express himself very well because of it.”
And according to the group, they can only hope that they can model that same confidence and freedom from expectations to the people who look up to them.
“There's something special about K-pop, but particularly Monsta X,” says Joohoney. “When people watch our performances and hear our music, a sort of confidence and energy that people lacked before they listened flows into them. That’s all we want.”
The faces of Monsta X fans in the crowd at GMA are distinct: Monbebe of a spectrum of gender identities and ages are passionately cheering with red or black-colored nails, intricate signs, and sporting handmade harnesses, alligator-printed shirts, and shoulder straps. And though others may still not quite understand it, and it might make them nervous, the fans definitely understand the power of these seven men — as well as their own.