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Kulture Kolumn: The Polarizing Debut of SuperM

How the South Korean super group brought forth discussions around K-pop’s hunger for Western validation, cyber-bullying celebrities and fans’ misplaced sense of entitlement

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Riddhi Chakraborty Oct 04, 2019

[L-R] Mark, Lucas, Baekhyun, Taemin, Taeyong, Kai and Ten of SuperM. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Just about two hours ago, a brand new K-pop group named SuperM made their debut. It was possibly one of the most anticipated and controversial debuts of the year (if not of all time) and it was because we haven’t seen anything of its kind before. SuperM is not just the debut of a new act, but also the debut of the concept of the K-pop super group.

Now I’ve personally always loved super groups. Originally connected to rock bands, the idea of bringing together artists from various successful bands or with flourishing solo careers to create a new dynamic has always been an exciting one to me. It allows for more creativity, fascinating combinations of performance styles, and in-group chemistry we would have all otherwise been deprived of. Some excellent examples you may or may not have heard of are rock outfits Cream, Led Zepplin, A Perfect Circle, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. As time passed, the concept of super groups began spilling into other genres as well, so it was only natural that we’d see it surface within the glittering world of K-pop.

Sure, we’ve seen a few initial attempts at the concept–one from SM Entertainment themselves back in 2012 with the collaborative project Younique which featured Eunhyuk of Super Junior, Hyoyeon of Girls’ Generation, Taemin of SHINee, Henry of Super Junior-M, and Kai and Luhan from EXO–but none of it created quite the stir as SuperM.

When SM Entertainment finally confirmed back in August that they would be launching one consisting of members from several of their existing groups, it was yet another fascinating collision of my worlds. Christened SuperM, the announcement stated that the group would feature seven of SM’s most talented idols and would debut on October 4th. Each of the members chosen for the project–SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127’s Taeyong and Mark, and NCT’s China-based unit WayV’s Ten and Lucas–are some of my favorite artists from their respective groups, so the idea of them working together was overwhelming in the best way.

Once I assured myself that this was not a fever dream of some sort and that SuperM was indeed about to be a reality, it was time to dive into some research. I learned that the group is the product of a partnership between Capitol Music Group and SM Entertainment, created to largely focus on building American audiences. They were being touted as ‘The Avengers of K-pop,’ which, in a statement to Forbes, Chris Lee–A&R executive and CEO of Culture Technology Group Asia Europe at SM Entertainment–explained, ”We’re maintaining their groups, their solo careers, and on top of this we have this ‘Avengers’ group to pull them together… Just like how the Avengers can have their own successful movies, there is a different kind of energy when they are together as the Avengers. We are now creating that as a point of business. We want to create a synergy between their groups, them as solo acts, and the SuperM group to create a big wave in this K-pop industry.”

Now after this initial research, I admit that I immediately had a few misgivings. The first revolved around the group’s name, ‘SuperM’–a good tribute to its label SM, but not exactly what I’d imagined this group would be called. Second, was the ‘Avengers of K-Pop’ tag–not the worst thing ever, but definitely a bit cringeworthy. Third, and the one that irked me most of course, was the extensive focus on the U.S.–an entire super group of idols was being created for the U.S. and I immediately remember the thought ‘But what about the rest of us?’ popping into my head. I took a deep breath however, and reassured myself that it would all be fine–it was of course still a chance to see some of my favorite people in the industry come together and explore new paths of creativity. However, as the day progressed and more fans joined the discussion about the group on social media, things took a rather ugly turn. Conversations grew toxic before spiraling completely out of control and before I knew it, the (now infamous) hashtag ‘#SuperMDisbandmentParty’ was trending worldwide on Twitter.

It was shameful and I’d never quite seen anything like it. A K-pop group–with several established mega stars–had demands of disbandment thrown at them even before debut. That too from those who called themselves fans. I struggled to understand the logic–if you loved one of the members, why would you go shit on a project they’re so involved in? What angered you enough to trend a message that malicious?

It’s been almost two months since the debacle, and SuperM have debuted as scheduled. As expected, they’re dominating worldwide trends and raking up millions of views on their music video for “Jopping,” but also opening doors to conversations around K-pop’s growth that need to be had. There’s a lot to unpack around this debut and I don’t think I have any solid answers–the psychology of both fandom and celebrity are complex enough to spend a few years writing a thesis on this–but I chose some of my favorites from the major discussions happening about SuperM all over social media.

The all-American hang-up

I have to admit, the massive focus on the U.S. is… painful to observe if you live anywhere else. Yes, it is the biggest music market in the world, but the blatant exclusion of entire continents like Asia and Africa for SuperM’s debut is rather disappointing. Even if concerts aren’t a goal they’re interested in, there seem to be no plans to even consider releasing merch or other content for countries like India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Pakistan or South Africa. Fans in these countries who are just as invested in the artists as their American or European counterparts feel as though they don’t matter, and that’s a kind of devastation that can’t quite be put into words.

To be fair, most K-pop groups and their companies are guilty of this, not just SM Entertainment or SuperM. Monsta X (Starship Entertainment) and NCT 127 have been touring North America non-stop over the past few months, while Cube Entertainment recently announced that their popular girl group (G)I-DLE will be focusing on America for their next comeback. BTS (BigHit Entertainment) have done several North American tours over the last few years and have always devoted a massive chunk of their time for Western media, but entertain little to no Asian press and tours outside of South Korea or Japan.

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Western media and audiences are seen as the final frontier of success and to many fans elsewhere, it’s a bit of a slap in the face. “Trying too hard for western validation when we all know how that went for SM,” replied Twitter user @tired_ofsecrets to a discussion I started on my profile. “They should stick to cross-marketing to countries they’ll actually see a success in. I’m a bit cynical about their future outcomes but I HOPE they prove me wrong.”

SuperM was never the issue for me personally; them being formulated for the U.S. is what didn’t sit too well. While SM founder Lee Soo Man did his best to assure everyone that the group would also promote in South Korea, it kind of felt like an after thought–much like the rest of the world has seemingly become for many major K-pop acts. However, my argument here would be that finding success in the U.S. does open doors to other countries–and this is true of acts outside K-pop too. Since most of the music on the Top 40 trickles into pop radio stations across the globe and eventually hooks mainstream audiences. Latin pop artists often use this path too. There is fruit in investing in America, so while it’s a tough pill to swallow for the rest of us, it’s a tried-and-tested path to global recognition.

I guess what I’m truly hoping for, along with millions of other fans, is an acknowledgment that my country is worth it. Until then, our only options are to keep streaming releases from our favorite artists and hope it all pays off a couple of years from now.

SM dropping the ball on EXO? 

From what I’ve observed online, nine-member group EXO’s fandom seemed the most perturbed by the formation of SuperM and I kind of see their point. In addition to the jam-packed tour schedules, some of the biggest concerns were around how much more time and money SM Entertainment seems to have invested for SuperM in comparison to it’s existing groups. EXO’s releases (both group and solo efforts) haven’t quite seen anything like the two-month long campaign SuperM has enjoyed, and I won’t even get into SM’s history with its girl groups. “My honest opinion is that they need to focus on the groups they already have, they could become better,” said Twitter user @SeesawItComin. “I feel like.. scratch that. I KNOW that it’s just a crash grab while K-pop is being talked about in the US.”

It’s definitely a ‘strike-while-it’s-hot’ kind of move to bring together seven of their most powerful male idols while K-pop is taking off in America, but from my observations of online discussions, perhaps they banked too much on the expectation that all the fandoms will support the idea. The days of being a label-stan are pretty much over and most loyalties tend to lie with a single bias group. Editor-in-chief for Hello Asia Australia Anastasia Giggins stated in a Tweet, “While I fully understand why they’re doing it, and how they’ve gone about it (at this time, pulling upon established fanbases is quite clever if done well) I STILL feel like they may have been more successful in continuing to invest in their existing acts.”

EXO is an established act that has received major global recognition already; its members have a limited window now before mandatory military enlistment, so it’s important their time is used wisely. Fans have asked for tours as well as a solo release from Kai, but now seem to feel robbed of the opportunity to see it come to fruition. Many argued that a lot of the investment in SuperM was coming from Capitol Records but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really do much to console those who are disappointed by the lack of attention to their bias groups.

In defense of SM Entertainment

The counterpoint to all the problems above is the fact that through SuperM, SM is killing several birds with one stone and it is a genius business move, whether fans like it or not.

With all the attention SuperM are receiving from press globally and the discussions they have spawned, including this week’s Kulture Kolumn, SM Entertainment rests its case.

They’re exposing new audiences to each of the members’ original groups, which means SuperM as one act has opened paths to four others. For example, if you’re new to SuperM and bias Lucas, it’s a path that will eventually lead you to both NCT and WayV. Baekhyun and Kai both lead to EXO, while Taemin is the gateway to SHINee’s powerful discography. Same goes for Ten, Mark, Taeyong and the various branches of NCT. It all circles back to the original 1965 concept that led to the birth of super groups, and in my opinion, this is more of a boon than a bane in the long run.

Do I want to see EXO promoted the way SuperM has been with the excessive trailers, teasers and merch? Do I want a solo release from Kai and watch him spread his wings? Of course. But the global music business doesn’t quite always work that way. If we are looking at the limited time EXO has before enlistment, this was in fact the right thing to do–look at all the attention SuperM are receiving from press globally and the discussions they have spawned, including this week’s Kulture Kolumn. SM rests its case.

Overworking the artists 

One of the most valid concerns each fandom had was if the artists were getting enough rest. SuperM’s jam-packed tour and promotional schedule leaves little gaps for breaks, especially for EXO members Kai and Baekhyun. The duo have tour dates set in Japan and Indonesia right bang in the middle of SuperM promotions and it’s a lot to have on your plate if you factor in having to rehears and perform completely different sets for two separate acts.

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SuperM will also be 20-year-old rapper Mark’s fourth time debuting–he’s been involved in NCT U, NCT Dream and NCT 127 (of which he’s a fixed member) and it’s a pretty big responsibility on someone that young. Taeyong and Mark have scheduled tour dates with NCT 127, WayV’s Lucas and Ten also have Chinese promotions and performances in their schedules and Taemin’s outstanding success outside SHINee demands lengthy solo tours.

It’s a lot of hard work, but fans seem to be more perturbed by the hectic schedules than the artists themselves. “I see this as a new challenge,” said Baekhyun, leader of SuperM, in a recent interview with Billboard. “There are a lot of expectations, because even though this is new, each of us comes from a different [popular] group. But there’s this awesome synergy between us.”

At this point, we just need to trust they will take care of themselves. It’s important to remember that they are grown men and professionals who have been dealing with the turmoil of tours for years, so perhaps having a little more faith in them is warranted.

What idols owe us–and what we owe them

At SuperM’s debut press conference on October 2nd in Seoul, Baekhyun made a statement that stuck with me. He said, “When we got together, there were no difficulties. It was great to be with friends I always thought of as talented, and we went through practice smoothly.” It made me think about the fact that we don’t really know what’s going on behind SM Entertainment’s doors… so how much of it have we actually got right? Is it alright to make demands based on a mere assumption that the artists aren’t happy? We don’t know about the conversations they’ve have had with their management or each other, so how can we be sure this isn’t a project they wanted to work on or were excited about?

So far the members of SuperM seem to be excited about the prospect of collaborating, so how much jurisdiction do fans have here? Several of the idols are friends and all of them have known each other for years. Some have trained together, grown up together, they’ve learned from one another. So how can it be assumed they didn’t want this?

The conversation around how much idols ‘owe’ us is a discussion I last went in-depth into after the revelation of Hyuna and Hyojong’s relationship in 2018, and it is a part of celebrity culture that has always intrigued and disgusted me in equal parts. How many fan demands must idols cave to? How much control do we have over what projects they want to take up or the decisions they make about their lives? I can’t tell you how much I’ve thought about this, because to be completely fair and look at the flipside, fans pay the bills and expect certain creative deliveries from the artists and their companies. The more thought I put into this, the more I felt that it needs to be a two-way street–companies need to listen to the fans a little more and fans need to understand that the entertainment industry works a certain way and pop stars need to bend to accommodate that.

Let’s be clear about one thing though: trending gross, entitled hashtags like ‘#SuperMDisband’ isn’t a victory. It did nothing–the debut went on earlier this morning as scheduled and so will the multi-city North American tour. The only thing it possibly did was hurt the members of SuperM on an emotional level and frankly, I don’t see the triumph in that.

Which brings me to the final segment of my thesis: what we owe our idols. The answer is, we owe them a chance. Maybe let them explore new creative career paths without being an absolute prick to them on social media. Of course you have the right to disagree with their decisions but if you have criticism, offer it with grace. Your idols see every little bit of hate you decide to post with that ‘tweet’ button and it’s not something you have the power to undo once it’s out in the world.

The future with SuperM

I don’t know where SuperM is going to go in the future. I don’t think any of us do just yet; today is day one, after all. What we have so far though, is proof that they’ve got a powerful audience if the YouTube views and Twitter trends are anything to go by. The gleaming, futuristic music video for “Jopping” filmed in Dubai highlights each of their individual skills and introduces us to a powerful, never-before seen synergy that was worth the wait.

To be honest it’s not the best track I’ve ever heard and sounds discordant at certain points (I have yet to hear the eponymous EP, but I’ve been told things improve phenomenally there) but the visuals and SuperM’s chemistry with each other blew me away. I’m eager to see what more they’ve got for us and even if it doesn’t include an India tour, they have my support. It’s difficult when things don’t exactly go your way and you have expectations from your favorite artists that aren’t met–and trust me, I understand. But mass-hating on them online isn’t quite the solution either.

I hope I don’t ever see a hashtag like ‘#SuperMDisbandmentParty’ again in this context, but maybe that’s just me being too optimistic. As K-pop grows beyond what I ever imagined it would, I don’t know how far the ripples of it’s cultural impact on global society will go. But if SuperM continue to do what they’re doing, I imagine it can’t be all that bad.

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