By Taylor Glasby
You’ve probably seen or heard of the film Jaws. It was the first-ever summer blockbuster, an early example of high concept — or, a film able to be summarized in as few words as possible to appeal to the widest audience. In this case: “shark attack.” Jaws changed how films were made and marketed for decades. Like Hollywood, K-pop is its own multi-billion dollar industry, and although 44 years and six thousand miles away from a mechanical shark named Bruce, their use of high concept has become remarkably robust. Girl groups, in particular, bear its hallmark; one-word concepts — Sexy! Cute! Fierce! — turned corporeal.
For this reason, at surface level, it’s easier to categorize K-pop’s girls than its boys; the former designed to deliver a cut and dry, low-risk experience to the masses, and whose preordained fundamentals — from beauty ideals to personality traits — have become ever more rigid over time. Meanwhile, boy groups have been given far more leeway to experiment, to participate, and to fail. It must be said that not every K-pop group needs an album trilogy, an epic narrative, or an alternative universe, but when it comes to such flexing of conceptual muscle, and the rewards it brings, whether trophies, critical acclaim or sales, you’ll find a male-dominated playing field.
Making atypical strides into that space are LOONA, who officially debuted as a 12-member group last August after a never-before-done, two-year process of introducing each member with a solo song, plus three subunits (1/3, ODD EYE CIRCLE, yyxy), and a defined backstory. The debuting of Heejin, Hyunjin, Haseul, Yeojin, ViVi, Kim Lip, Jinsoul, Choerry, Yves, Chuu, Go Won, and Olivia Hye created a noisy split of opinion — innovative or overkill? — a divide that may well have been less fractious had it been a boy group.
LOONA attend the 2018 Mnet Music Awards in South Korea
Despite the dissenters, the advantages of their debut have always been clear. From Heejin’s swing-infused “ViVid,” to the ataractic R&B of Kim Lip’s “Eclipse,” and the space-age electronica on Olivia’s “Egoist,” LOONA have not only presented a diverse back catalogue, but they've also circumvented the struggle of familiarizing oneself with a large group and, most importantly, says Heejin, “allowed every member to show their own personality and identity, which I think is great.”
Their story, referred to as the LOONAverse, couldn’t have resonated with fans so successfully without this extended creative process. Centered around the concept of the Möbius strip — or, LOONA’s existence across three dimensions — it’s now a substantial otherworld. Much of it has been created through their videos and teasers but a recent album cut, “Colors,” breaks ground by using Choerry, Kim Lip, and Jinsoul’s designated colors in its lyrics to highlight LOONA’s internal relationship. “ODD EYE CIRCLE [of which she is a part] is the only concept that has our official personal colors in it,” Choerry points out. “The story of the song is that each color mixes with other members and affects one another.”
Like all good stories, the LOONAverse is fascinating but also challenging, something Jinsoul and Haseul understand all too well. "Honestly, I really like the LOONA world," says Jinsoul. “To see our world building in not just our album concepts but our music is something really enjoyable for me.”
"We stay up late every night studying the LOONAverse,” Haseul laughs. “Fans who have recently entered the universe will think it’s even more complicated but we believe this huge, systemized world is what sets LOONA apart and we’re very proud of that.” She knows their fans — called Orbits — are always eager for fresh clues. “There’s one hint I can give you,” she teases, "something will happen between 1/3, who is responsible for Earth, and ODD EYE CIRCLE, who is between [Earth and cosmos]. and Eden’s yyxy. This is all I can say.” As hints go, it’s vague, but the epic possibilities that immediately come to mind is testament to the large-scale development of their concept so far.
Orbits have developed their own omnipresent online signature, the phrase "Stan Loona", which has earned itself an entry on Urban Dictionary — "A popular phrase used by twitter gays under every popular tweet encouraging readers to stan Korean girl group LOONA" — cementing the group in modern pop culture. LOONA themselves regularly check the tag. “We are very much aware of it,” says Olivia. “We look up all the videos, covers, and memes on Twitter and Instagram. They’re so interesting and fun!" smiles ViVi. Adds Olivia, “When we see international fans write ‘Stan Loona,' it gives us a lot of strength. If our fans keep promoting us like that we’ll return that kindness by working harder and getting stronger.”
As Urban Dictionary so bluntly points out, a large number of Orbits identify as LGBTQ+. But for all the same-sex fan service (usually intimate body contact) and shipping by fandoms, K-pop, and South Korea, have never been positive, safe places for LGBTQ+ people. In a quiet countermove, some artists appear wearing charity or supportive merch, such as ribbons or pins. Still, queerness in K-pop is very much a case of don’t ask, don’t tell.
So it’s hard to adequately describe the shock as Yves immediately says, "I think I should answer this," when asked why LOONA are so beloved by those identifying as LGBTQ+. "I heard the LGBTQ+ community was really interested in the continued worlds of 'New' [her solo single] and Chuu’s solo, 'Heart Attack,'" she says, referencing the videos’ story lines, which have been interpreted by fans to portray same-sex attraction. “When the song was being written and the video filmed, we didn’t see it like that. For us, it was a story about yearning, but we were also thankful when it was translated that way. You may have realized it during 'Butterfly', but we want to go beyond gender, race, and nationality," Yves adds.
Released in late February, the widely celebrated “Butterfly” (from x x, the repackaged version of their debut EP + +), with its driving punch of a chorus and dream-pop vocals, is multifarious. It’s a show of female strength and determination. "Butterfly means so much," exclaims Chuu. "Especially the part where the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, I thought it really overlapped with us. It’s not just our members but that the fans that listen to LOONA as well — we can all identify as one. You know how there are obstacles for everyone’s hopes and dreams? I hope we can all picture overcoming it and flying upwards."
"Butterfly" is also the embracing of their fandom and the merging of the LOONAverse with the real world. Directors Digipedi took items (Converse shoes), set pieces, and locations (Hong Kong, Paris, Iceland) from previous LOONA videos and reshot them using a diverse range of young women. "Although LOONA was born in Korea," explains Hyunjin, "we’re aware there’s a lot of fans from countries we haven’t been to. When they are encouraged and get strength from our music, that’s an aspect of the 'butterfly effect.'" Yet for LOONA to be in the position to instill assurance in others hasn’t been so much a linear journey as a circular one. "I’ve been preparing for a long time to become an idol singer," confides Yves. "In that time, there were plenty of hardships, even times where I would lose confidence, but I didn’t give up and trusted in myself. I realized after I became part of LOONA that those hardships made me who I am right now."
Kim Lip agrees with her bandmate. "Like Yves, during my trainee days I questioned whether I would even be able to perform on stage. But after I became a part of LOONA, whenever fans would say, 'I got strength by watching LOONA,' all those memories of hardships would just dissipate. Just like how our fans receive positive influences from us, now we receive positive energy by reading our fans’ messages. It’s a relationship where we rely on one another."
The K-pop rule of thumb has been female idols attract male fans and vice versa, and while it’s becoming less set in stone, LOONA’s fandom bucked from the outset. “When we were in subunits [pre-debut] we wondered if we had a lot of female fans,” recalls Yeojin, “then there were more females when we’d meet our fans in person. But during promotions, I think the ratio of female and male really evened out.” The opportunity for LOONA to see their impact further abroad, according to Go Won, isn’t far off. “We’re preparing for our Japanese debut as well as our international tour,” she says, eagerly. “Even if we become a little more popular, it’d be great if we could meet more of our fans!”
The longer you spend with LOONA, the more you realize how much their work refuses to be ingenuous and confined. It’s not just the overarching concept that supports this; in “Butterfly” their wardrobe is both masculine and feminine, their vocals sweet above lyrics and music that impress power, while all three previous singles ("Butterfly," "favOriTe," "Hi High") demonstrate intricate choreography closer to that of a boy group. “Before we debuted,” admits Heejin, “we practiced a lot with male idol choreographies and our company continuously told us that we’d be performing dances like that. Learning them [for their songs] was hard, but we were also really eager to show it to our fans.”
There’s no defiance in LOONA’s purposeful inability to be a one-word pitch. It’s just a fact. They aren’t merely cute. They aren’t only sexy. They aren’t purely fierce. They’re not even girl crush. Instead, they’re all of those and more, unconditionally in their own way. As Jinsoul says, LOONA is “a hybrid. For this reason, rather than be loved for a single concept, we want to be the ultimate girl group.”