The first time I saw Taemin perform at Madison Square Garden, we were both babies. Relatively speaking. It was October 2011, and I was 22, fresh out of college and working my first media job; he was 18, already three years into his idol career as the fresh-faced main dancer and youngest member of SHINee, one of South Korea's most promising boy groups. He moved with precision (in white skinny jeans, no less) on the SM Town Live stage, his round face and shaggy blond bowl cut bobbing to the beat of the group's early hits: their smooth R&B debut "Replay," the frenetic "Ring Ding Dong," and the thrilling, iconic "Lucifer." My memory from that night is a little hazy — 2011 feels like a lifetime ago and, admittedly, I was very distracted by the mere presence of SHINee's older, more arresting members Jonghyun and Key — but I remember the overwhelming feeling of being in an arena full of people who were witnessing history.
Finally, K-pop was being celebrated inside New York City's most iconic venue, a significant indicator of the industry's growing global influence at the time. We were years away from K-pop topping U.S. charts and dominating social media feeds, but that moment felt like the beginning of something.
On Tuesday night (November 19), more than eight years after SM Town Live gave me a glimpse into the future, I saw Taemin perform at MSG again — and he and his group mates pushed the limits even further. This time, he took the stage as a member of SuperM, the latest supergroup from Korean powerhouse SM Entertainment. Dubbed the "Avengers of K-pop," SuperM is an ambitious project that combines the top talents from SM's most prominent male groups: SHINee's Taemin; EXO's Baekhyun and Kai; NCT 127's Taeyong and Mark; and Chinese group WayV's Ten and Lucas. The risk has started to pay off for SM and Capitol Records; SuperM debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart with the release of their self-titled EP in October.
SuperM members from left to right: Mark, Lucas, Taeyong, Taemin, Baekhyun, Kai, and Ten
At its core SuperM is comprised of seven singular artists, and their We Are the Future Live tour proved as much with a set list consisting of group performances — including the boisterous lead single "Jopping" and an unreleased new song, the flirtatious "Dangerous Woman" — and solo stages for each member. It was no surprise that after opening their tight 90-minute set with the sweeping electro-pop song "I Can't Stand The Rain" — a sparkling B-side track that combines traditional Korean drums with Western beats — SuperM exited the dark stage, leaving only Taemin behind.
At just 26 years old, Taemin is the senior member of the group, not by age (Baekhyun, 27, is older and the group-appointed leader of SuperM) but rather in experience. SHINee debuted in 2008, and Taemin has since become one of the industry's most pioneering solo artists, known for his fluid style and genre-defying music. The sudden appearance of his silhouette on the MSG stage ignited the arena in deafening screams (my own screams included). He performed his 2014 solo debut single "Danger," an electro-pop banger, as well as a part of his sweeping 2016 single "Goodbye" (otherwise known by its Japanese title "Sayonara Hitori"). This mini-set encapsulated what makes Taemin the performer of his generation; his movements are both soft and electrifying — the epitome of power and grace in one petite package. The floppy-haired teen who once glided across the MSG stage alongside his SHINee group mates was now commanding the hallowed arena all by himself, and in a sheer black blouse.
Each artist had a chance to shine on their own, proving that SuperM is more than the sum of its individual parts. When rapper Taeyong took the stage next to perform his new solo track "GTA," I needed a few minutes to recalibrate my senses. He was wearing a glittery silver mask; it sparkled under the sharp, red lights. It was a disorienting performance — just the way the 24-year-old leader of NCT 127 intended. He is, after all, a handsomely disorienting performer with striking features and a breakneck flow. He attacked the beat as the choreography highlighted the theatrics of the performance, which ended with Taeyong being physically dragged off stage.
Chinese performer Lucas also leaned into the spectacle of it all, responsible for the night's most meme-able stage. His solo song, "Bass Go Boom," is bright and chaotic. It's everything that fans have come to love about Lucas since the 20-year-old rapper made his NCT debut on 2018's standout release "Boss." As he shimmied his way across the stage shouting, "WHEN THAT BASS GO BOOM," colorful, wildly expressive images of Lucas dancing flooded the screen behind him. Think Lisa Frank meets NCT-stan Twitter.
Meanwhile, Mark, also 20, forewent theatrics for a mesmerizing solo performance, just him and the mic. The Canada-born rapper is known by fans as one of the hardest-working artists at SM. Not only is he a crucial part of SuperM — as a rapper but also as their designated English speaker — but he's also an active member of NCT 127 and has participated in NCT's various other units. He's been training with SM since he was 13 years old, but the Mark on this stage came with a new energy, raw and gritty. Watching him perform his solo track, "Talk About," for a sold-out crowd felt like witnessing a teenage Taemin all over again — a symbolic passing of the torch from one SM prodigy to another.
"We're all big fans of each other," Mark tells the audience during one of their earlier breaks, after Baekhyun performed a snippet of Taemin's "Danger." "Baekhyun sings Taemin's songs a lot. We sing Baekhyun's songs a lot. We're really big fans of each other, so it's really cool that we're all doing this together."
To his credit, Baekhyun knows what he's doing. As EXO's — and now SuperM's — cheeky main vocalist, he knows how to drive fans wild. Confident and care-free, he was the night's most comfortable performer, singing two tracks from his first solo EP released earlier this year: the playful R&B B-side "Betcha" and his slinky "UN Village." The power of SuperM, and of K-pop's growth in the U.S. at large, can be best described by one scene: 19,000 fans screaming the name of a location (in this case, "Hannam-dong UN Village hill," per the song’s lyrics) 7,000 miles away from MSG.
SuperM at Madison Square Garden on November 19, 2019
His EXO group mate Kai brought his own sensual sensibilities to the stage with his solo song "Confession" — a performance-driven hip-hop track that showcased both his versatility as an artist and his oiled-up abs. It's easy to say that he oozes sensuality (he does), but he's more than his sex appeal; Kai is an impactful dancer whose power comes from his subtleties. He makes grinding and body rolling during the seductive "No Manners" look effortless.
But when it comes to SuperM, no song signifies the group's potential quite like Thai member Ten's "New Heroes." Ten is an ethereal performer; his movements are fluid and delicate. As his song moves into its eruptive chorus, the aspirational lyrics put the SuperM project in an entirely new perspective. "Through all of the fears / Taste of the sweat and dirt / We all live for the day / They'll be screaming our names," he sings, his crystalline voice filling the arena.
After all, the label "Avengers of K-pop" comes at a personal price. The expectations surrounding SuperM are massive. They are part of a larger wave of artists bringing Korean culture to the masses, but as K-pop continues to forge previously uncharted ground in the West, every milestone comes with the question: "How will they top this?" Mark hinted at this throughout the night. "I'm not going to lie," he said to the crowd. "I was really nervous about performing today." They take this responsibility seriously. Taemin added, "We prepared hard for this show."
But, at the end of the day, you don't become “living legends,” as Ten's lyrics suggest, through hard work alone. The reason these seven performers were chosen goes far beyond their aptitude and skill; they're charismatic and personable. Mark's earnestness is part of his brand, as is Kai's brotherly affection toward younger members Mark and Lucas an aspect of his. While SuperM assembled seven singular artists, the group's real power comes from these smaller interactions — the way an embarrassed Taemin runs away, his hands at his sides, after failing to throw an autographed ball more than two feet; and how Baekhyun sneaks finger-hearts to the camera during "With You."
SuperM at their global press conference at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, California, in October 2019
MSG marked the last stop of We Are the Future Live in 2019. The tour will resume in early 2020 after the members finish their other end-of-year schedules (which includes a long-awaited EXO comeback for Baekhyun and Kai). With that, hopefully, comes new music and fresh stages. There's a lot of pressure on SuperM's shoulders — the future of their company and the future of the K-pop industry as a whole. But you don't get to perform at MSG on myth alone, and SuperM proved that they have the capacity to play even bigger stages.
Every superhero origin story needs a sequel, and one may already be in the works. "It's not the end, right?" Taeyong told the crowd. "Come spring, we'll be back."