SuperM: Making K-Pop Fun Again or A Love Letter to Multis

By the time SuperM made history again by being the first k-pop group to sell out the coveted and historic Madison Square Garden concert venue, they had already solidified themselves as worthy of praise and celebration in their own right. They were all members of other k-pop groups, some with nearly a decade of experience, while others were only just beginning their careers, but were already making massive waves globally.

What would it mean for k-pop, a genre notoriously dominated by solo-stans (the term for fans who mainly listen to and celebrate one group or idol) and fan wars, to attempt a supergroup style of promotion and performance? Would the fans be able to come together?

When SuperM was first announced, I would have said no.

Admittedly, I was disillusioned. While Twitter discourse is usually bad all around, it had been especially bad the outset, so much so that a disbandment hashtag was trending within hours. The project SuperM has since been revealed to have been in the works for at least two years, though many k-pop fans initially responded to the announcement as though it was a last-minute Frankenstein experiment created by Lee Soo Man (who by the way is no longer the CEO of SM Entertainment, the label under which SuperM was created). No matter how much many rational fans begged for people to wait until the debut to pass judgment, many were dead set against supporting.

And because of the nature of social media’s role in k-pop now, every single member would be forced to witness it.

I witnessed it happen in the middle of Kai’s (who is a member of EXO) IG-Live streams. He was spending the stream celebrating the release of a solo album by fellow EXO member Chen and for every five comments of love and support, there was a fan asking him to remember who his real group is. This was just one week before SuperM’s debut showcase at Capitol records — the company that partnered with SM Entertainment to form SuperM.

Something truly special would have to rise from the sea of hate for SuperM to overcome that kind of immediate negativity.

Something special, in the form of Taemin, Kai, Baekhyun, Mark, Taeyong, Lucas, and Ten, did.

While k-pop terminology is a blend of both English and Korean, the fans or “stans” themselves, often refer to each other in a blend of English slang and acronyms. Solo-stans, a term that seems self-explanatory at the outset, also has the nuance of implying the kind of close-minded individual (though I’m not saying they have counterparts in the conservative side of twitter) who see enjoying the music of any artist other than their favorite as a betrayal. Because many fans discover k-pop now through random exposure online (whereas previously it was mostly word of mouth), becoming a solo-stan who is swept up into their favorite group’s fandom is much easier than before where k-pop as a genre was a whole new world to dive into through research and recommendations from other fans.

That is to say, 2nd generation k-pop fans, the ones who were not used to their artists heavily engaging in social media nor having readily available English subtitles, were always set up to be the “multis.”

As a result, SuperM would never be able to appeal to the kind of reactionary fan who would not tolerate the kind of mindset that involves researching and letting shuffle lead you into having several groups you want to see. It’s reasonable then, to think of SuperM as both a solution to the kind of toxicity that can form when exposure to k-pop is metered only by the opinions of people who have not bothered to listen to anyone else, and a love letter to a generation of k-pop fans who may have found themselves turning away from the genre after two very long years of tragedy and unjust scandal.

By the time SuperM lands in New York for their final stop on the We Are the Future tour’s first leg, I am already feeling emotional. December is approaching, which means that 2nd generation fans will once again gather to reminisce and celebrate the life of one of our beloveds, Jonghyun of SHINee. At the concert, I am excited to learn that both of my seatmates are Shawols — the name of the fandom for the group SHINee. We all spend five minutes complimenting Taemin and our shared love of him. I notice my seatmate has Jonghyun’s tag for her SHINee light stick, and she explains to me that she had initially favored Taemin and then began to favor Jonghyun across their decade of promotions as a group. I say favor to mean the k-pop term, bias, which means to have a favorite member while still loving the whole group overall.

Jonghyun is on my mind especially because of the time of year, but also because of how nervous Taemin has looked and seemed throughout the entire promotional period of SuperM. I feel in that ethereal way that being in the k-pop community does, that there are protective arms outstretched to Taemin as he embarks on this journey in a new group after an incredibly difficult two years. I desire to tell him as he tears up at the end of the concert describing the honor of performing and selling out Madison Square Garden that Jonghyun would have been so proud of him.

The kind of sadness that has ravaged k-pop fans over the past two years would need a special kind of salve, a medicine of synergy of both the happiness of idols getting to live out their dreams and also allowing a new community to form of multi-fandoms with something to celebrate without burden.

Trying to describe the synergy of SuperM as a group almost always has to start with each member’s individual talents. The main vocals consist of Baekhyun and Taemin, with sub vocals from Ten and Kai. The rap line is clearly the swag masters Taeyong and Mark, while each member in their own right has shown incredible dancing ability with the extremely difficult choreography of “Jopping.” But the other thing that binds the group, and also happens to be the most special talent of Lucas, is the way that all the members show their love for performance. They are happiest when they are on stage. That I believe is the most infectious thing about both SuperM and k-pop in general.

This is not to say that there can’t be an appreciation for the reclusive artist who finds performing in front of millions of screaming fangirls to be a kind of hell to reckon with. There is however just something very warm and genuine about how much fun SuperM has together and apart (during their solo stages) that makes you want to join in. It makes you want to come closer. It makes you want to see and know more.

Over and over since August, I’ve heard many SuperM fans say that in addition to finding the community to be one of the most accepting and welcoming communities to surface in a while, SuperM has also made loving k-pop itself fun again.

So, was SuperM a success? By physical measures — a still charting debut album, two sold-out tour dates, and still more to come — all signs would say yes. But on a deeper level, SuperM successfully managed to jumpstart the barely beating hearts of k-pop fans who had begun to feel weighed down and burdened by loss. With charisma as bright as the sun, an earnest passion for the stage, music, and performance, and deep desire to make fans be able to celebrate their passions unburdened, SuperM, like the Avengers they were touted as, managed to avenge those fans who had experienced arguably unjust loss in the past two years.

That I think is SuperM’s greatest superpower.

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