[GROUP FEATURE] EXO: Marriages In Novelty

So in our last entry, we were able to talk about Big Bang’s status as a legendary super group because of the size and work of their individual stars. Today I’d like to talk about a super group in a very different sense, one that’s at the very forefront of the 3rd generation of K-Pop, and one that draws a lot of questions about the future of K-Pop.

EXO is (originally) a 12 member group that debuted in 2012 with their single “MAMA” to much hype and comparisons to Super Junior, which I will discuss shortly later. The group has been heavily marketed since and is considered one of SM’s bigger successes. Though they have recently been riddled with scandals in a tough 2014, they are still looked to as the mainstream future of K-Pop at home, especially as it begins to branch out and fans across the world are discovering other important sub-genres and scenes such as the K-Hip Hop or Indie scene (with acts like Busker Busker gaining popularity)

The 12 member group has not released much musical material compared to Big Bang and SNSD, which I have discussed in previous entries, but the smaller body of work, contextualized in the early stages of EXO’s career, are an important insight into how much the company controls the creative process. As the group hasn’t spent an overwhelming period of time in the limelight, their image has to be crafted, and with the lack of prominent solo activity, this group is sticking to artistic choices made by people SM hires and contracts to work with EXO.

Overall Aesthetic

“HISTORY” was released in 2012 as part of EXO’s parade of teaser material to hype up the supergroup before their debut

It’s hard to judge a group’s aesthetics or style properly when they’ve only had 4 official videos to their name, but EXO’s prologue and debut singles give us a good idea of what they were meant to be. “HISTORY” was the first video I was shown of this band, and, as opposed to “MAMA”, their proper debut single, this video is very intent on showing the gorup’s ability to dance and performer. It applies a standard K-Pop music video structure. There are tasteful and active cuts, and a good majority of the video is choreography.

What’s interesting is that in this, the 3rd generation of K-Pop, the major influences are surprisingly not directly Western. The gaudy fashion choices, unity with subtle distinctions, the chrome accents in an array of glam urban hoodies, shorts and whatnot, are all Big Bang inspired. The sets are geometric and sci-fi esque, which is more EXO’s image than anybody else’s, reminiscent of DBSK’s “Mirotic” and SHINee’s “Lucifer”. The use of synths and the “rhythm section” of HISTORY’s sound is also reminiscent of “Lucifer”.

None of these influences are directly western. Most of the aesthetic choices are perhaps a degree removed from everything K-Pop has done before, and in this way, “HISTORY” is more distinctly Korean than many 2nd generation music videos. EXO as a group are pushing the boundaries, and in fact these new(ly sourced) aesthetics are why people are labelling EXO and other groups coming out around 2012 as the 3rd generation of K-Pop.

In fact, Seoulbeats.com featured a guest piece about EXO’s prologue series, and about the “HISTORY” video specifically, making note of the “extraterrestrial” features of the set, which include rocks, snow and trees mixed with EXO’s outlandish outfits. It is again, a K-Pop tradition (spearheaded by perhaps G-Dragon) to clash aesthetic choices in order to create something new. However, when one looks deep enough, there are western elements in EXO’s material.

EXO’s 2012 debut single “MAMA” showcases western influence of a very different sort.

Obviously the first thing that sticks out about their debut single “MAMA” is the painfully long narration at the beginning of the video. While I think the narration is in the poorest taste and execution possible, it does a lot to frame the entire concept for EXO’s opening image. It also does a lot to explain the more head-scratching elements of “HISTORY”.

I think this time around, the western influences are in the concept of myth based sci-fi that the world is becoming steadily more obsessed with. In movies like Thor or Avatar and their monumental success, the 21st century audience loves their sci fi, especially when it is melded with “natural” elements, such as an alien race that has an intimate, biologically fantastic relationship with its environment. A similar “alien life” concept is applied in “MAMA”, framed by the opening narration of “two worlds” (in reference to the EXO-K and EXO-M subgroups catering to two different markets or “worlds”) and executed by the set with pillars and glowing logos.

Artistically the video is standard fare for K-Pop, but the flavor of the video has dramatically changed because of these new incorporations. Korea.com did a breakdown of the three generations of boy groups and cites the 3rd generation as taking on an androgynous image, following the 2nd generation “flower boy” aesthetic. Perhaps when put together, EXO’s main concept is the alien, androgynous male tribe, appealing to the 21st century audience’s fascination with attractive, alien aesthetics.

Coming Back Down To Earth

“Wolf”, EXO’s 2013 comeback single for their album XOXO, boasts a slightly altered aesthetic.

Despite that lofty and specific opening aesthetic, EXO turned to a more…earthly image for their comeback in 2013. “Wolf” and its later post-album release single “Growl” both draw from the glam urban image commonly used in Big Bang videos. The singles and the album were released with a drama video featuring now ex-member Luhan. The video uses school life and teenage wolf powers (not dissimilar to hit TV series Teen Wlf, which also stars an outcast student imbibed with wolf powers), bringing another texture to an already intriguing alien-teenager image. In fact, The Daily Dot published a piece on EXO after “Wolf” was dropped.

The article also mentions that a tree concept is used both from their debut and their 2013 comeback, where “MAMA”‘s opening narration described EXO as being two halves to the tree of life, and the opening formation for “Wolf” is much shaped like a tree, in a rendered silhouette featured in the Daily Dot piece.

It seems that as EXO goes on, SM seems very willing to continue using American media choices (Teen Wolf, fantasy sci-fi tropes, a distant future or alien concept) to power EXO’s appeal. Of course, EXO is an all-around group, as the Daily Dot piece also mentions, filled with very capable dancers and singers, so that when there are more members, there is just more to choose from to like.

“Growl” was a video so catchy that when my sister first showed it to me during the summer of 2013, it was THE video that changed my opinion on K-Pop for the worse better.

“Growl”, released after EXO’s 2013 album was dropped, is a catchy and unexpectedly throwback type of video for the boy group that seemed for a while to be all about the mysterious and alien. Filmed in all choreography, usually an honor reserved for groups that feature exceptional dancers and choreography (an honor that EXO most certainly lives up to), the video is set in an a warehouse, and the group is wearing school uniforms with liberal variations that show each member’s distinct traits. This return to standard boy band formula is crucial for establishing EXO’s appeal as a boy group, because it simply isn’t an artistic choice to use trees, mythology and superhuman powers as an image before they can show they can do what has already been done, well.

“Growl” harkens back to popping and locking traditions of current urban dance genres, choreographed by renowned dancer and choreographer Nick Bass. In a YouTube interview with RhythmAddictTV, he cites Michael Jackson as an influence, and speaks at length about Justin Timberlake, both of which must indirectly contribute to his choreography. Nick Bass working with EXO is just one of many Korea-West collaborations that shows K-Pop is receiving first hand influence from the US. Similar cases include SHINee’s Lee Taemin working with Ian Eastwood on his solo album “Ace”, especially on choreography for “Danger”, and Tony Testa with EXO on their 2014 comeback single “Overdose”, on “Wolf” as well as other videos with TVXQ, Super Junior and SHINee.

New Marriages from Old Ones

“Overdose” was a collaboration between SM regular choreographer Tony Testa and EXO in 2014

In fact, 2014 showed that EXO was willing to further explore a blend between future-urban styles and subtle cues to American media. Heavily drawing on a hexagonal fractal motif (as seen used frequently in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), “Overdose” blends a clear aesthetic reference to young adult dystopian media with flashy and colorful urban styles, a la G-Dragon in Big Bang. Obviously the styles themselves are rather reminiscent of boldly colored 90s and early 2000s hip hop, but it was G-Dragon who made them popular in his hit single “Heartbreaker”, again an example of 2nd degree K-Pop stylistic influence.

The song itself is synth heavy, again a trait found in both Big Bang’s work, and the genre of EDM in general which is popular globally. However, instead of a traditional verse-drop-break-second drop form as used in mainstream EDM hits, “Overdose” features quick drops using the 808 snare heard in many trap EDM works, to marry the traditional pop song form with EDM tropes. This form of music making is yet another example of K-Pop efficiently marrying definitive western cultural cues with intention to create a jarring “Korean”-ism about “Overdose”.

EXO I think is a definitive example a perfected K-Pop artistic formula, that is an intentional potpourri of western cultural ideas mixed to create a Korean flavor, taken to new heights in SM’s flagship 3rd generation boy supergroup. EXO has the potential to the point where they have even began to net scandals (a “core” part of American superstardom) to further have their names on headlines, whether these scandals are intended to any degree or not. EXO-M members Luhan and Kris left for logistical and business discrepancies, and in turn, the internet exploded when Swedish Boy Band “The Fooo Conspiracy” were accused of plagiarizing the choreography from “Growl” for their own videos (which have a faux K-Pop feel to them, featuring shots of choreography mixed with shots of the group moving about, all in all showcasing members)

Though it isn’t my work to delve into the scandals, the Fooo Conspiracy scandal tells me but one thing: that influence, whether rooted in plagiarism or not, is cyclical. Western influences are appealing to Koreans in now more ways than ever, but the appeal of K-Pop is reaching the world in turn; that a Swedish boy band would even consider filming their music video and employing choreography in a similar fashion to anything East Asian would have been inconceivable in 2009, yet because of the Hallyu Wave, here we are.


SPOTLIGHT: Final Theft

Spectrum – U-Know Yunho (TVXQ/DBSK), Eunhyuk, Donghae (Super Junior), Taemin, Minho (SHINee), Kai, Lay (EXO) (2012)

I’ve decided to spotlight this particular video for two reasons: a) EXO honestly does not have any more material that would be worth dissecting since they are shockingly a new group after all, and b) I’ve watched this video at least 2 times a day since last week.

Part of what impresses me deeply about K-Pop is the seamless and crisp performance-caliber choreography that the dancers of SM Entertainment’s guy groups (all of whom, some more than others, are represented here) have. Also, it’s incredibly telling and sobering to be reminded of Korea’s fascination with contemporary American culture. Mixing several well known EDM tunes of the last few years together in this video to amazing choreography (most notably by U-Know Yunho starting at the 2:04 mark) is a surprisingly interesting stunt when Korea has idols at home that produce original material that the country is more than proud of.

It shows that American influence is still alive and well in South Korea, and without getting too technical, the dancing and performance, plus audience response, are reminiscent of similar atmospheres during the heyday of the Beatles and Michael Jackson, whom I wrote an open letter to in the last entry about their indelible influence on the K-Pop idiom. However, it is also wonderful to know that K-Pop’s influence doesn’t stop at the structural or at the historical level; the translation of Zedd’s “Spectrum” into Korean in the ending vocals indicates two things: That yes, K-Pop is still fascinated with American trends and intends to use them to bolster appeal, and also that K-Pop is not willing to slow down. Though the stars in the video do not show huge differences in age, the generational gaps are apparent to one familiar with the dancers and the groups they represent.

The fact that Eunhyuk, Donghae and U-Know Yunho from 2nd generation groups Super Junior and DBSK, respectively, draw enormously larger amounts of applause than for Taemin, the single dancer from SHINee who received a solo routine. It shows that even the older groups DBSK and Super Junior have the moves and the talent to flawlessly perform cutting edge material to new music, and enthrall audiences still. Yet Kai and Lay of EXO, comparatively a much newer group, don’t lack love also. They are known for performing clean dance routines to EDM tracks as discussed in this article, and the appeal is not lost on this enthralled audience.

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