***Here be MV video spoilers***
(Jump to seventh paragraph to avoid personal reminiscing and story time).
In all honesty I have been a loyal fan of EXO ever since I wrote a final project essay about them for my senior year and got the highest grade I had ever obtained in my entire degree. (Yes, it turns out you can watch EXO videos for ‘science’).
My appreciation for the now 9-member Korean/Chinese pop band actually started a year or so prior to that on exchange at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Packed into the chilly auditorium for the Christmas talent concert, a group of Korean students took to the stage to perform a dance set to the music of 늑대와 미녀 (Wolf), which was the fire record of the time for the band.
I thought the song was mind-blowing, exactly what I wanted from music, even though the only word I identified was ‘wolf’ and ‘saranghaeyo’ (after it was repeated for the umpteenth time). I set about Sherlock-ing on YouTube to eventually find the video that turned my life from an average 5 to a “OMYGOSHILOVEKPOP.”
Did bands really still dance with stellar choreography? Could music really be this satisfying? Was it really possible to fall in love with 12 men at the same time? (Kidding! Well…)
Since that moment I have delved into the shiny land of kpop and have become a fully-fledged fan of a lot of music and bands within the genre, and into addition to that, experienced and consumed all the media that goes along with it. I’ve follow band members on Instagram, T.O.P’s array of art gallery photos, bought albums, watch JREKML reactions, binge-watched EXO Showtime, visited Korea (although that was mainly to see friends, I only got one [expensive] visit to the kpop shop), and have a collage of posters on my living-room wall which I forgot to take down before guests arrived.
It’s for this reason that I was pretty excited for the latest comeback from EXO, who originally grabbed me and pulled me into the fandom.
The latest ‘EX’ACT’ comeback had 2 songs, each with a different style and feel. Lucky One is a funky head-bopper rumoured to lead on from the band’s former video for the song 중독(Overdose), in which the band members are trapped in a maze of horrors seemingly illustrated by their lingering smoulders and serious gazes into the camera. In Lucky One, the maze seems to make a reappearance as the band flee from robot-nurses, my reaction to the video mirrored in the way the nurses’ heads explode when member and dance extraordinaire Kai starts busting a move in an attempt to escape.
While Lucky One is a solid track, the apparent star-of-the-show is the band’s other title track, Monster. With a darker, grimier feel, Monster is a bass-dropping head-jamming dance track, featuring a now seemingly standard rap verse from members Chanyeol and Sehun (sadly minus the band’s signature ‘E-X-O’ prior to rap breaks).
To the horror of SM Entertainment, the choreography and English-language demo-track were actually leaked a few days prior to the release. Some fans have commented that the English rap-verse was better structured, although it can be hard to automatically translate grammatical structure, intonation and pronunciation to a tune from one language to another. Take, for example, any argument about the Chinese versions of EXO’s songs ‘not sounding right’ or ‘not sounding like Chinese’ (although I’ve always preferred the Chinese versions of 上瘾(Overdose) and Call Me Baby (叫我)).
Despite this shaky start, EXO’s Monster has definitely satisfied the appetites of the EXO-L fanbase. Three seconds into the video a mechanical break-dance number in the unsuually popular dance-arena of an aircraft hangar assures any viewer that what they are about to see is a gift from the very hands of the kpop gods.
We gasp in awe as we see member Baekhyun sitting at a creepy dining table, complete with edgy lip-ring and face highlight strobing brighter than a phone screen at 2am. The fashion seems to be revealed as a sort of extra-mature cheddar version of the clothes seen in Wolf, with dark hues and reds, chains, expertly ruffled hair and the new addition of cuts and scrapes as the band members battle against new-age riot police.
A few fans have been delighted that members who they felt had previously been neglected for the past few songs and videos gained extra precious seconds of screen and stage time, particularly difficult in a band with so many members. A fine example is Xiumin, who infamously had only half a line in the song Call Me Baby, much to the disappointment of all Xiumin fans. Another in-joke of the fandom is the previously all-too-real “Sehun has lines!”, however, Sehun seems to now have a cemented role as one of the bands rappers, particularly after the departure of former members Kris and Tao. One final surprise was a dance solo from band leader Suho, who hasn’t been afforded this privilege for a while now despite his leadership status. Commenters were particularly enamoured that SM seems to have been keeping up to date with recent Vine compilations as Suho pulls off the ‘dab’ dance move of the moment.
However it wasn’t plain sailing for all, as Lay, the band’s remaining Chinese member from an original four, had less lines than they were expecting despite his talent for performing. One theory for this is that Lay currently engages in a lot of solo projects in China, including his own studio, composing, TV shows and films. You can check out more about his projects by clicking here to read my article on his journey to fame. For this reason, he is often unable to attend live performances with EXO, and as the theory goes, a few lines is far easier for another member to pick up rather than a fully-fledged verse. An example of this logistical nightmare is the sudden departure of Kris back in 2014 prior to a concert tour, where dances and song structures had to be completely re-hauled in a matter of weeks. With that being said, Lay also gets some valuable screen time in the video standing in a corridor of pixellated bodies, and also slipping Kai a high-five presumably in a silent pact to blow our minds with perfectly executed dancing.
Other EXO tropes are still observed, with singer Chen’s vocals reaching the heights of the stratosphere and Baekhyun filling in a good portion of the lyrics with his characteristic voice. Overall, the look is pulled off well, the concept swaps nicely between the famous SM dancing-in-a-box (which I personally like) to actual action in the band’s apprehension and arrest. There seems to be an absence of the usual hairstyle controversies, with a few members undoubtedly sliding their way back into your bias list with newly-polished looks.
It all sets an exciting tone for the rest of the band’s third album release, which itself features some sweet quirky piano tunes that almost reminded me of their first album XOXO. Once the new kids on the kpop block, EXO have returned like Gandalf the White to fill their place on the podium among some new hits from bands such as BTS (Fire, anyone?). EXO can be sure to expect a media frenzy around their comeback and I look forward to the TV spots, performances and concerts to come. Maybe one day I can finally acquire the concert ticket I’ve been longing for for the past two years (I live in Asia now, surely this time?!)