KCON USA

How ATEEZ Became Unstoppable

The Korean group went from playing community centers to selling out arenas in under a year. So, how did they do it?

By Elizabeth de Luna

Last week, the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, was supposed to be bursting with energy, filled to the brim with fans waving light sticks topped with delicate plastic globes. The show at the 17,500-capacity arena would have kicked off K-pop group Ateez’s second sold-out United States tour in under a year. Though postponed indefinitely in the aftermath of the global coronavirus pandemic, The Fellowship: Map The Treasure Tour is an unprecedented feat for a group so young, proof of Ateez’s massive growth since their debut in October 2018. At this time last year, the less than six-month-old group was playing venues a fraction of the size of those they now headline. So, how did these fresh-faced rookies go from playing community centers to arenas in just over a year?

Yeosang, Yunho, Hongjoong, Mingi, Seonghwa, Jongho, San, and Wooyoung perform at MSG for KCON NY | KCON USA

Ateez are undoubtedly talented, but the core of their ethos and key to their success is consistency — a harmony across their music, styling, performance, and dedication to their diverse global fanbase. In their first 18 months as a group, they proved to be not only remarkably persistent in their pursuit of global success, but virtually indestructible. From their first singles to their most recent release in January, just before the coronavirus epidemic in South Korea halted their promotions, the eight members of Ateez — Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, San, Yeosang, Mingi, Wooyoung, Jongho — and their team managed to release and promote more than five albums through injury and sickness, and across impossibly full schedules and almost a dozen time zones. To understand how they did it, we break down their appeal across four categories.

A Swashbuckling Concept & A Swift Coronation

In K-pop, the term “concept” is used to describe the total package of a group’s visual, creative, stylistic, and musical qualities. For Ateez, their debut single, “Pirate King,” was a conceptual manifesto. Its lyrics declared that the guys were “one with the ocean” and ready to “raise anchor,” “be whatever we want,” and set sail “to the bright place… somewhere on the horizon.” But, they conceded, the journey was “meaningless if I’m alone. We can overcome anything, together.” These themes of sailing, light, and journeying together toward a nebulous “treasure” have defined the group’s entire discography thus far. Their music, spread out over the five-part Treasure album series from October 2018 to January 2020, is remarkably uniform in its messaging: of the group’s 30 Korean songs (not including remixes and orchestrations), 20 mention the sea or sailing, 27 allude to going on a journey, and at least 29 mention togetherness.

The members have never confirmed that “pirates” are their official concept (they’ve only ever acknowledged the existence of pirates in a single English-language interview), but the group’s first-ever performance on a Korean music broadcast made things pretty clear: In front of the wreckage of a ship bathed in blues and greens, leader Hongjoong declared himself a Pirate King.

Ateez’s stylists have danced masterfully around this concept, managing to channel the spirit and energy of a pirate crew without subjecting the eight members to costumes. During their earlier promotions, they wore loose tops and jackets with ties, bandanas, scarves, and belts trailing behind them as a wink to the swashbuckling unruliness of their inspiration. Pirates don’t wear fancy or expensive clothes, so any accidental sloppiness easily passes as a conceptual choice. But that means that when their styling does become more elevated in later releases, the shift is noticeable.

Ateez’s second single, “Say My Name,” introduced the battle between light and dark that connects the Treasure series along a single thread. In the music video, the members were joined by sleek, sinister alter egos, their eyes shaded beneath the brim of black hats. Their presence suggested that the treasure Ateez was seeking, that “bright place,” might not be gold, but the light within themselves. The sides were usually identified by color: red and black for “dark” Ateez, blue, green, and white for “light” Ateez. Their lyrics supported this narrative: Of their 30 songs, 29 mention light or the sun, 19 mention darkness, 27 mention seeing clearly or opening your eyes, and at least six mention “red” or “blue.”

The brilliance of Ateez’s styling is that, even as they dabbled in the light — dancing on the sandy beaches of Saipan in the music video for their third single, "Wave," as Yunho’s tangy blue fringe blows in the wind — the spectre of darkness loomed in Hongjoong’s hair, which was a shocking red. In each of their promotional cycles thus far, one member’s hair is tinged with their “dark” side: a light rose for Yeosang in “Pirate King,” red streaks for San in “Say My Name,” Hongjoong’s pepper red in “Wave,” and Mingi’s crimson in “Wonderland” and “Answer.”

The final installment of the Treasure series brought a resolution to this struggle. The music video for the lead single “Answer” shows the light and dark sides of Ateez sitting down to a meal together, seemingly at peace, before the camera reveals a new enemy: a masked figure in white. In the group’s first live performance of the song, Ateez once again dances in front of wreckage, lit up and red and blue, just as they did at their debut. More than a year later, the imagery feels as relevant and urgent as the first time we saw it.

Slick Production & A Collaborative Sound

In our interview with Ateez’s lead producer Eden in February, the “father of Ateez’s music” (according to Hongjoong) introduced the collective of producers with whom he works to create the group’s sonic identity: Buddy, Ollounder, and Leez. They are known as Edenary and, with Eden as their guide, they determine the direction of the group’s sound and message. They tend to produce albums far in advance in addition to overseeing the group’s live visuals, all of which allows them to maintain Ateez’s unique musical identity. “We considered the Ateez universe from the first stage,” Eden explains. “In the future, you'll see the style of the music and the sound changing dramatically based on the storyline.”

Edenary’s ability to affect this storyline is made possible by two unique factors. First, they produce Ateez’s music, not just compose it, which means they can “[set] the foundation for a group’s entire creative concept.” Then they work with choreographers B.B Trippin', marketing, and a visuals team to “bring that vision into focus.” Eden says that collaboration is the best way to create something great. “If it comes from one person, it's very hard to make a good product. Everything begins with the music, so our role is to create a space for other teams to be as creative as they can, to give those opportunities to them.”

They're also able to influence Ateez’s narrative because of their unique team structure and relationship with KQ Entertainment, Ateez’s parent company. Eden explains, “When a company like SM or Cube decides to produce an idol group, they usually build a pool of a hundred songs from different composers or hold a song camp,” inviting composers to meet and collaborate with each other over the course of a few days. "For Ateez, Edenary has been there from the beginning, working on the creation of the group with other teams. It's very rare for this to happen, for producers to work like we do in Korea. That has allowed us to make powerful music with a clear identity."

Ateez’s leader and Eden’s mentee, Hongjoong, is observing it all. “[Eden] has influenced us in so many different areas, whether it be our music or concept, and he’s obviously influenced my music, my personal concept,” he tells MTV News. Hongjoong writes his own raps (as does Mingi) and has helped to write and produce three songs for the group: "Aurora," "Sunrise," and "Horizon." He has his own studio where he can "focus on diversifying Ateez’s musical identity" as well as develop his own. "I talk to the members a lot and try to incorporate their ideas when I’m producing,” he says. When asked if he hopes to one day have a hand in directing Ateez’s sound, Hongjoong responds earnestly: “Nobody can say at this point [but] as I continue to grow and Eden creates more opportunities for me to participate, naturally, I’ll do as much as I can.”

Lethal Stage Presence

A pre-debut video set the tone for Ateez’s approach to performance. In it, as the members mouth along to the explicit lyrics of Famous Dex’s "Pick It Up," it’s clear that Ateez have something most young groups do not: a sense of humor. Before Ateez debuted, they trained at the Movement Lifestyle and Millenium Dance Center in Los Angeles. That gave them a physical and emotional connection to the city, and helped them develop a stylistic looseness and affinity for American hip-hop. In an industry where rookie groups often appear nervous onstage, Ateez’s facial expressions — like Wooyoung’s “Pirate King” smirk — make them seem experienced beyond their years.

Just as Edenary works as a team to oversee the quality and consistency of Ateez’s music, dance crew B.B Trippin’ does the same for their choreography. Over email, B.B Trippin’ tell MTV News that they focus on creating choreography with both “distinctive and broad traits,” with the goal of placing the group both within K-pop and just outside of it. In other words, Ateez’s uniqueness is their superpower. “Instead of putting emphasis on perfectly synchronized choreography, they focus on harmonizing with each other,” says the collective’s leader, Sangwoo. “Their strength is showing the dynamics of the group while celebrating each individual member's style and talent at the same time.”

B.B Trippin’ have worked with Ateez since their debut and often serve as the group’s back-up dancers. This means that after creating a first draft “focusing on beat and control,” they integrate each member’s personality traits into the dance “as if cloning them.” The troupe's choreography also tends to mirror itself, with moves and references cleverly re-used across multiple songs (for example, this arm-waving move from "Treasure" which was used again in "Horizon"), which helps tighten the group’s narrative and universe.

Ateez perform at KCON LA 2019 | KCON LA

Ateez have become known for their explosive performances, but their commitment often verges on back-breaking. At least three members have suffered injuries in the past year, and three have suffered from conjunctivitis, but the group performs regardless, often covering for missing members or sporting eye patches. Before COVID-19 caused the cancellation of their European tour, the group flew to Madrid early in preparation, an injured Jongho in tow. This tireless effort made them feel ever-present through 2019 and endeared them to a global audience of fans known by their official name, ATINY.

Going The Extra Mile For Their Global Fanbase 

Ateez were one of the first K-pop groups to actively cater to international audiences by subtitling their digital content in English, and that extra effort has cracked the global market wide open for them. Their focus has been so international that Ateez didn’t hold a concert in Korea until February of this year.

Fans line up for hi-touch engagements with Ateez at KCON NY 2019 | KCON USA

Their commitment to promotions in the U.S. has been especially exhaustive. In addition to their sold-out tour in March, the group returned three other times last year. While in town for KCON New York and KCON LA, they made appearances on the convention floor, held hi-touch sessions with fans, and spoke with dozens of local press outlets. They also held three fansigns in the States, in New York and Los Angeles. Fansigns, where fans are able to sit and speak with each member individually, are time consuming and exceedingly rare in America. The group is highly skilled in fan service, a term used in K-pop to describe actions intended to delight fans. They dedicated their song “Star 1117” to ATINY in celebration of the date that they officially announced the fandom’s name, often name drop ATINY in interviews, and have been known to write messages to fans in support of their mental health.

While staking their claim in the U.S. has been a focus for Ateez, the group also sold out tour dates across Europe and Australia, held fansigns in Berlin, London, and Melbourne, and were slated to hold two more in London and Paris before the global coronavirus pandemic put live events and fan engagements on indefinite hold. But even in the face of an international crisis, Ateez has managed to stay connected to their fans. They've released a reality show through Facebook’s Hello82, uploaded a series of vlogs on their YouTube channel, expressed their stuck-at-home boredom on TikTok, and created the hashtag #StayWithATEEZ to encourage ATINY to cover “Answer” while practicing safe social distancing. And as a special gift to fans, last week they performed their pre-debut song "From" for the first time on Music Bank in Korea; the colorful live stage incorporated choreography from previous singles and evoked the endearing spirit of the group’s first moniker KQ Fellaz, an exceptional bit of fan service. It ended with personalized messages from each member. "My loves, wait a little more," rapper Mingi wrote, translated to English.

For Eden, Ateez’s success is grounded in this unwavering connection to their fans, not their music or concept. “Honestly, I have no idea how long this K-pop phenomenon will last or if it will expand, but Ateez will share their story, music, and performance with any fan, regardless of where they are from," he says. "The key to K-pop’s success is the culture of fandom, which I love. Anyone that likes Ateez can be part of that community, can be ATINY. We want to produce a musician that treats all fans equally — that is our ultimate goal.”