[This is an Op-Ed related to the release of SuperM and reflects only the views of the writer]
Since SM Entertainment’s new super group, SuperM, was teased on August 1, 2019 there have been plenty of thoughts, feelings, and discourse to go around. Ahead of their busy schedule we wanted to throw in our own opinions, addressing what we think are some of the strengths, weaknesses, and concerns floating around this massive question mark of a new K-pop group.
Let’s start with the best part: the members! SuperM boasts a hard-to-rival lineup. Whether you’re an old or new K-pop fan, it’s likely you’ve heard about EXO’s talent and success, earning their own super group status in only a few short years, and SHINee’s over a decade’s worth of masterful discographies and performances. Taemin, Kai, and Baekhyun are all important and recognizable facets of that success. And while NCT and WayV are fresher faces in the industry, Taeyong, Ten, Lucas, and Mark have made waves in their own right from their songwriting and performances to their work on variety and competition TV.
Bringing these members together, we not only are gifted with their talents but a completely new dynamic to experience. They may all be SM Entertainment artists but they’ve produced very different music and media in their time under the label. This gives us, the audience, a chance to watch their individual talents stretched and melded in new ways. It’s a whole new group to develop, pulling in elements from members we already know and love into something that’s fresh, exciting, and destined to be powerful.
History of Unit Groups
I like to think of late 2000s/early 2010s as some of the golden years of K-pop for one reason: units. I miss the days of the mid-and-end of year festivals where our favorite groups joined forces for collaborative performance. Within that, SM Entertainment has always provided some of my favorite units from Younique Unit to genre focused projects like SM the Performance and SM the Ballad. I think about ToHeart, another meant-to-be permanent group featuring SHINee’s Key and Infinite’s Woohyun, quite frequently too. Units are not new to K-pop and the fact that they’ve dwindled in the last few years makes me jump in anticipation to see SuperM on the horizon. I think it’s about time we saw something like this again, and who better than with some of the most notable idols in K-pop?
SuperM and US market focus
I don’t love it, myself. I think having K-pop come to the U.S. and having K-pop target the U.S. are two very different things and I’m much more fond of the former. I understand that K-pop is the niche focus for plenty of U.S. media right now. K-pop = clicks = ad revenue and investment in the genre has grown over the last few years. Still, I feel shaky. We’ve seen SM Entertainment target a lot more effort on U.S. in the last few years, and I personally think their latest endeavor with NCT127 was a successful development. However, I still can’t translate that into confidence for their ability to commit to a touch project or how Capitol Records has prepared for this and how it will be executed.
So, is it really that bad? No, not necessarily. When we look at how K-pop fandom has existed in the U.S. historically I think a group like SuperM makes sense as a target for our market. Compared to how South Korean fans engage with their groups rather singularly, U.S. K-pop fans are known to be multi-fandom.
Up until 2014 the thought of K-pop coming to the U.S. was merely a dream for most fans with a few exceptions. As such, as people discovered the genre and chose to pursue it, it wasn’t uncommon for them to consume a variety of group’s music to satisfy the K-pop crave. We didn’t have to be beholden to one group, and our wallets at the time didn’t have to suffer for choosing to support multiple groups. Most importantly, this was the reigning era of SHINee and early-debuted EXO. These fans are the Shawol and EXO-L who are not only likely to seek out and support Taemin, Baekhyun, and Kai here however they can.
I speak for myself here, too. Although I long for the day where SHINee and EXO come stateside again, or even where I may be blessed with another SMTOWN New York City, I appreciate any chance to view some of my favorite idols.
The idea of “permanence” is a scary one. For those of us who aren’t keen to the idea of SuperM, “permanence” means that we can’t write it off as easily. It also implies changes to other permanent things, like each members’ existing group. It’s valid. That said, I think it’s important to separate the idea of “permanence” from “frequency.”
A group being fixed does not mean they’ll be doing all of the things all the time. It’s a newer development for SM Entertainment to return their groups to the comeback stage more than once a year–and unfortunately for some, to take longer than a year to bring them back–but it’s more SM’s style to do roughly one comeback a year. If SuperM were to follow the same trajectory, we would have time for a comeback or two from them and many releases from their individual members. This year alone we’ve had two Taemin albums, Baekhyun solo, and multiple NCT and WayV releases all with the SuperM project underway; it wouldn’t be impossible for SuperM’s members to continue to follow a similar schedule individually and in their groups.
Moreover, there is only so much time for the SuperM members themselves to pursue this project before one of the eldest members, be it Baekhyun, Taemin, or Kai, has to enlist in the military. That not only puts SuperM’s permanence on hold but also raises the question of if the project will be pursued after. Will the want still be there? Especially if they are to target the U.S., who knows how that market will develop in the time that the SuperM members are gone. There are far too many factors at play that questions and also, I hope, dissuades some of the fears held by fans about the group’s permanent standing.
SuperM as a Success
What counts as success for K-pop in the United States these days? As the internet continues to accuse, anticipate, or fear SuperM’s flop this question has been muddling me. Is it media attention? SuperM have received that. The Capitol Records/SM Entertainment deal has been written about multiple times. There are posters plastered all over LA already. Eyes are on this project.
Is it radio play? Possibly, but as NCT 127’s “Superhuman” and “Highway to Heaven” have already hit airwaves is it unlikely that SuperM won’t join them?
Is it selling out venues? But what if they don’t go that route? Personally, I would love for a showcase of sorts to hit the U.S. coasts but judging by past promotional experience–predominantly, NCT127’s “Regular” press tour last October–I can’t speak with confidence that they won’t exclusively do radio interviews and Late Night television appearances. And yet, that’s not a bad thing either. That’s still exposure to new potential audiences.
By extension, what makes something a “flop?” Is it the lack of accomplishing everything above? If so, if we haven’t done that because many major media outlets have been talking about SuperM, does that mean we already haven’t flopped?
The demarcations of K-pop’s success have changed drastically in the last five years in a way that has left me hopeful, because so much attention is on the genre, and unsure, because the coverage often ranges from poorly done to marginally acceptable. Additionally, what many others often consider success, like social numbers and YouTube views stand out as the biggest indicators, I find to be nothing more than fluff.
I think that regardless of what happens post-release, by previous markers of K-pop’s global accomplishments we’ve already made it. Until we can see what happens, or hear exactly what SM Entertainment and Capitol Records want explicitly, I’d like to anticipate SuperM’s success.
All that said I’m eager to see how this goes. And, more importantly, if we manage to somehow get a 2019 remix of the SM the Performance classic “Spectrum” then that will be my ultimate win; though “I Can’t Stand The Rain” is already sounding like a perfect alternative.