By Caitlin Kelley
Last week, Capitol Music Group and Korean label SM Entertainment formally announced the launch of a K-pop supergroup called SuperM. Dubbed "the Avengers of K-pop," the new boy band features some of SM's most popular idols: SHINee's Taemin, EXO's Baekhyun and Kai, NCT's Mark and Taeyong, as well as WayV's Lucas and Ten.
Given that the seven members' distribution of talent is heavily weighted toward dance prowess, it makes sense that SM founder Lee Soo-man envisions SuperM to specialize in "performance-based music with songs that highlight choreography." The group is set to debut in the U.S. this October.
"We have put together seven super talented artists to perform differentiated music," Soo-man stated. "SuperM will show you the core values of K-pop with music performance, fashion, and videos. All on a completely different scale, each with exceptional talent in dance, vocal, and rap."
K-pop has been relying on risk aversion in recent years, front-loading the fan-attracting process with competition shows and pre-debut promotions. A strong fandom can make up for a rookie group's growing pains. Not to mention, fan mobilization has been instrumental in putting K-pop on the international radar over the past couple of years.
But SM Entertainment — largely allergic to reality TV — is taking that to a whole new level. SuperM is combining the talents of established superstars who have over 35 years of post-debut experience between them. Saying their fanbases are built-in would be a vast understatement. The main question is: Will these three fandoms work together to support SuperM?
So far, reactions have been mixed.
While rumors of the supergroup circulated ahead of schedule, backlash was swift following the official announcement on August 7. The hashtag #SuperGroupDisbandParty trended on Twitter, while the majority of comments on SuperM's first tweet came from embittered EXO-Ls, the fandom behind EXO. On paper, the A-team sounds like a stan's dream come true — and it is… for some people! But the separate fandoms of the pre-established groups — SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV — have their reasons for the blow up.
As the loudest contingent, EXO-Ls' concerns are heightened by the fact that EXO members are starting to enter their mandatory military enlistment period. Two members have already enlisted, and EXO won't have a full lineup for a few years. So, fans are worried about the remaining members — particularly dancer and singer Kai — developing solo careers before they go on hiatus. Not to mention, singer Baekhyun, who made his successful solo debut in July, will have to enlist by 2021.
Fundamentally, every fandom has the same concern: Why spend resources on SuperM when you could invest in your established groups? As Redditor u/AnthaMi put it, "the timing seems pretty awkward: Exols and Shawols have been asking for better promotions for years, and especially for exols, have been rather disappointed. … It should be the moment where they set their solo career up, instead they are busy re-debuting in another group."
The biggest takeaway from the backlash is that it's not that easy to combine the powers of multiple fandoms. While international K-pop fandom has historically been more accommodating to multifandom (i.e. stanning more than one group), single group stans appear to be growing stronger amid increased competition for stateside promotions and attention. This factor already poses challenges for the NCT brand as the members shapeshift into endless subunits with no centralized lineup, which causes friction between NCT fans.
It's not enough for a fandom to have mass. Fan mobilization requires a certain level of organization and coordinated efforts. The biggest fandoms rally around promotional goals to help their idols reach greater success. As it stands, Shawols, EXO-Ls, and NCTzens have very different fandom identities. Still, SM has high hopes for the potential of SuperM's super-fandom. "We're trying to unite the fandoms," Chris Lee, SM A&R, said in an interview with Billboard. "Fans, please don't worry about it. We'll make you all happy."
On top of that, fans were confused about the choice of a U.S. debut. NCT 127 is already making headway overseas, and they reached No. 11 on the Billboard 200, making them the second-highest ranking K-pop group on the chart of all time. The Seoul-based subunit previously signed with Capitol Music Group and Caroline for global distribution, and until this point, they've seemed poised to break big in the U.S. market thanks to their international roster.
Then there's the fact that SuperM is being introduced to American audiences with an overly complicated group structure. It's already overwhelming for the average American to watch groups with more than five members. But add multiple groups with shared members into the mix? That's a tough sell for the general public. SM is gonna have to stick with their built-in fandoms — who don't all seem to be into it right now.
And if SuperM doesn't attract K-pop fans, appealing to U.S. audiences might be even more of a challenge for reasons beyond their supergroup structure. There's the idea that Americans generally latch onto artists who appear to be self-made. (Sometimes, the appearance of genuine artistry is marketing spin in the States.) The U.S. market is obsessed with "authenticity," and that's become a key word in crossover pushes for BTS, BLACKPINK, and Monsta X, amid Western press that still pegs K-pop as "manufactured."
The truth, however, is that pop is hyper-industrialized around the globe. Labels like SM Entertainment just happen to be more upfront about the controlled environment their artists work in. In a separate interview with Billboard, SM's Lee spoke about the company's philosophy of "cultural technology." At one point, he openly discussed SM's goal of IP expansion: "You know, these artists, if we consider them as intellectual property," he said, "they're not products but as an analogy they can be looked at that way."
That ethos hasn't deterred the supporters of SuperM who, at the end of the day, would simply rather focus on the time and energy their idols have invested to get this far. "Prove them wrong," one Twitter user wrote. "ill support you. super m lets debut proudly. youve worked hard." The dissenters might be more vocal than the rest, but the fact that SuperM trended worldwide for several hours shows potential. That level of engagement means that there is widespread interest in the group — now it's just a matter of turning public opinion around.