There’s an unwritten rule in K-pop dictating that the debut of any K-pop group is guaranteed to be embarrassing to some degree. Any attempts made to circumvent this rule eventually prove to be utterly vain efforts, as the severity of any resulting embarrassment increases proportionally to the amount of conscious effort that the group has put towards being unembarrassing.
By that logic, EXO has had the most embarrassing debut of this century.
Maybe I’m being a little unnecessarily mean here, but after following EXO’s (both K and M) debut activities for about a month, I can’t help but feel a little duped. Which is an honest complaint, I think. I mean, who wouldn’t feel duped after waiting through 23 teasers, two full-length “prologue” songs, and an actual debut song that’s narrated by Captain Picard — only to find that the actual group is no more impressive than any other rookie K-pop group on the market? It’s like awaiting the birth of baby Jesus only to find some random, less-than-divine kid named Steve lying in the manger instead. (Thirty Sunday School points to anyone who spots the irony in that analogy.)
I’m tempted to say that 2012 has heralded a new trend in boy group debuts: the macho, foot-stompy, silver-plated, leather-clad, “let’s-change-the-world-with-our-hair-gel-and-awesomeness” attitude that has been exhibited in groups like B.A.P., NU’EST, and now EXO. But while all three of these groups carry a similarly specific visual aesthetic, the attitude surrounding all of their debuts seems to be more broad, falling roughly along the lines of:
WE ARE MEN. HEAR US ROAR.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, really. At the risk of sounding highly misogynist and un-Wellesley Woman™-esque, the K-pop scene has been severely lacking in a strong male presence lately — and by “strong male presence,” I don’t mean the shirt-ripping, objectifying, fanservice-y garbage that almost every boy group has pulled in the past two years. Instead, B.A.P., NU’EST, and EXO have brought forth images that are highly masculine without being hypersexualized. Furthermore, a greater focus has been placed on the group’s intimidation factor and the density of the group’s presence (i.e. on a scale of 1 to 10, how bulldozer-esque is Group X in relation to other groups? That sort of thing) than the group’s immediate appeal to hormonal fangirls.
Which is a wonderful example of K-pop done right (coupling outstanding visuals with genuine charisma), but a problem arises when one tries to apply this concept to a rookie group. The skill level of your average rookie group usually doesn’t live up to the standards of a concept that strong. With the amount of godly hype that surrounded EXO and their debut, one would almost intuitively expect the group to be composed of completely flawless performers with skills that live up to their concept and their shiny drop-crotch pants.
And that’s a ridiculous expectation, because no rookie pops out of the K-pop womb as a completely flawless entity. Generally speaking, a K-pop debut is a time for earnestness and humility, where honest mistakes and all-around awkwardness is considered endearing instead of unprofessional. This is the reason why debuts are almost always expected to be embarrassing. But by giving a heavy concept (and ridiculously hard song) to an underqualified rookie group, it piles on tons of pressure that the group itself is not prepared to shoulder. I mean, watching EXO-M barely holding themselves afloat on Chinese television programs when they talk about their spirit animals and customized EXO insignia bling? Or how about EXO-K completely butchering “History” during their second weekend of promotions? It’s like watching a crowd of two year olds trying to drive a sports car.
The heaviness of EXO’s concept only serves to highlight their weaknesses in their skills as both entertainers (EXO-M) and as performers (EXO-K). While it’s pretty obvious who the deadweights in each group are, it’s not to say that EXO itself is completely talentless. Baekhyun and D.O. are easily two of the strongest singers on the current SM roster, Lay is a great dancer, and Chanyeol is probably the only rapper at SM with any measurable degree of “swag.” In terms of sheer logistics, EXO is a group with a ton of potential. But it’s a lot harder to see potential when it’s shrouded in a mess of tryhardism and flashyness.
In that sense, EXO’s debut is the direct opposite of SHINee’s debut. The comparisons between EXO and SHINee are basically inevitable, but what’s worth nothing is the utter lack of fanfare in SHINee’s debut in comparison to EXO’s debut, as well as the resulting post-debut output of either group. Granted, SHINee also debuted at a time when social media wasn’t nearly as active as it is today (compared to the stone ages of 2008, at least), and I’d be willing to bet that SM wasn’t planning SHINee’s debut for six years like it has for EXO. But what was so great about SHINee’s debut was that while it was completely unassuming and low-key, it brought forth a great song and a group of five incredibly disciplined boys whose performances were so perfect that it was almost hypnotic to watch. No hype, all skill.
So when I see EXO debut with an excessively grandiose concept coupled with an inevitable rookie-group greenness, I can’t help but think that all this fanfare is just a cheap device used to mask the lack of talent in the group. Which obviously isn’t true, because a) “Mama” is a really hard song to perform live, rookie group or not, and SM must’ve had a lot of faith (rightfully placed or otherwise) in EXO’s abilities to give them that song for their debut; and b) the token “useless” members in the group are also the ones who have been training for the longest time. Case in point: SHINee’s Minho is just about as useful as a pile of bricks, but at least he’s had some above-average performance swag since his debut. Which means there’s definitely hope for EXO yet.
At the same time, it’s almost unfair to pick on EXO’s debut because as an SM group, EXO is basically guaranteed another 13 years to do awesome things and not-so-awesome things, all of which will cause their debut to pale in comparison. All in all, the debut of a new SM group is probably more exciting than the debut of any other group, solely because SM’s strong legacy basically guarantees that this rookie group will not only be here to stay, but will also be making it big. It’s clear that SM plans on making EXO the biggest thing to come out of SM to date — which, of course, means that there will be tons and tons of screw-ups along the way, but it’s not as if SM is without its occasional spurts of brilliance, either.
All that aside, here is my short-term wishlist for EXO, and I’d prefer these items to be fulfilled within the next four to six months:
- Hear Luhan sing in Korean for an entire song
- Hear Kris speak English (while I cry out of jealousy for his tri-lingualism)
- Chen and Xiumin to stop sucking at Chinese
or leave EXO-M #sorryimnotsorry
- EXO-M to perform live
- EXO-M to go on a Taiwanese variety show
- See some good ol’ Kris, Amber, and Henry bromancification
- See more of EXO-K’s personalities
- See a Luhan/Sehun reunion. I can’t help it, okay?
Have at it, K-pop gods!