You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).
We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.
This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.
SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.
Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or aptivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.
However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!
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