As far as K-pop is concerned, idols have always had superhuman abilities — the power to transcend language and become a global force with followings in the millions. But in the last few years, entertainment company SM Entertainment has seen the virtual world as a new frontier to conquer, and fourth generation girl group Aespa (stylized as aespa) is proof of this.
In Aespa’s first mini album “Savage,” SM Entertainment used it as an opportunity to give fans a deeper understanding of Kwangya, their multiverse where their idols have superpowers, allies, and nemeses to contend with.
“I have xenoglossy power, which is the ability to speak foreign languages that I’ve never learned before,” says Korean-Japanese Giselle, Aespa’s main rapper who also happens to be fluent in English on top of her native languages. The rest of her members are introduced along with their combat skills in the track “aenergy,” which were also shown in the first episode of the SM Culture Universe: “Karina, rocket puncher. Winter, armamenter. Giselle, xenoglossy. Ningning, e.d. Hacker.” “Aenergy” doubles as the origin story of the superteam, as well as its theme song. As the fourth generation of K-pop produces more and more girl and boy groups, entertainment companies now grapple to draw in new fans in an attention-span-deprived era.
“Savage” the album dives deep into the aespa lore, as the video and its lyrics introduce more about the group’s (and the company’s) universe. Black Mamba, the group’s primary antagonist, was previously introduced in their debut single of the same name. She is a snake who can also shapeshift into a human, threatening the Synk — the connection between the girls and their avatars they call “ae.” Naevis is designed to be the personification of AI assistants like Siri and Alexa, and allows the members to see the avatars in the real world. She is seen helping them fight off Black Mamba in the music video.
As it comes on the heels of the prolonged success of their previous single chart-topper “Next Level,” Aespa’s world-building continues through catchy tracks and memorable choreography. “Since the song highlights our strong performance against Black Mamba, we wanted to portray more relaxed, yet powerful aspects in the choreography than before,” shares the Chinese main vocalist Ningning.
“The dance brings out the vibe of ‘You’re no match for me,’” says Karina, the group’s leader and main dancer. She describes the three-point choreography as such: “There is this ‘Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk’ gesture where you wave your fingers left and right, and then we have the ‘Savage’ hand gesture. There is also a move that signals Black Mamba to ‘Come at us,’” she adds. (You can watch them demonstrate it on their Tiktok.)
It marks the first time eight members (the four girls and their respective aes, or what they call their avatars) share the stage and perform a song together, part of the new multimedia strategy that SM Entertainment calls “CAWMAN,” which is short for “cartoon, animation, web-toon, motion graphic, avatar, and novel.” Simply put, it’s the scope of all forms of media where content will be created.
Much like how the Marvel Cinematic Universe was kicked off by the 2008 film “Iron Man,” everything moving forward will be folded into the metaverse introduced through Aespa. Recent comebacks have featured Kwangya in some way, such as the remastered version of Kangta’s "Free to Fly" to celebrate the 25th anniversary of H.O.T, considered to be the first ever idol group, which also featured Aespa’s Winter and NCT’s Sungchan in the metaverse. In boy group EXO’s "Don’t Fight the Feeling” and NCT Dream’s “Hello Future,” there are also mentions of Kwangya in the lyrics.
Of course, the storytelling behind Kwangya cannot exist without their signature sound and accompanying visuals. Star producer Yoo Young-jin has used the catchy trap style in his previous 2021 tracks such as “Next Level,” NCT Dream’s “Hot Sauce,” and NCT 127’s “Sticker.” It’s an other-worldly sound that’s certainly become definitive for “Savage” too. Aespa’s new mini album is also designed to expand the Kwangya-lore. “The album has various versions and among them is the ‘P.O.S’ version,” shares Giselle. “If you scan the CD with a mobile app, it opens ‘P.O.S’ and allows you to take a look at Kwangya.”
The exposure to the metaverse is not limited to just the songs and videos alone.
Having their own “universe” has been common practice for some K-pop groups, along with having virtual counterparts. K/DA was a virtual group made from characters in “League of Legends,” played by American singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns, along with (G)I-dle’s Miyeon and Soyeon. Other groups have had concepts executed through albums and music videos that became their fictional universes, like HYBE’s Bangtan Universe (BTS) and The Star Seekers (Tommorow X Together), Blockberry Creative’s LOONAVERSE (LOONA), and SM Entertainment’s previous attempt, EXOplanet (EXO; also the agency’s first time introducing idols with superpowers).
In a way, having a dedicated universe for each group is how Korean entertainment companies capture more fan dedication, and create a sense of community that many K-pop fans enjoy with their idols and fellow admirers. The dedication to the lore, the theories behind it, and the accompanying merchandise are all part of a greater strategy for storytelling and content.
In a way, having a dedicated universe for each group is how Korean entertainment companies capture more fan dedication, and create a sense of community that many K-pop fans enjoy with their idols and fellow admirers.
With the world being drawn in by works of fiction from Korea that have been providing social commentary, be it in period dramas or in the case of the breakout hit “Squid Game,” the virtual avatars of K-pop have also brought up questions of ethics within and outside the digital world. When Aespa was introduced as a group with a mix of real and virtual members, the same issues and concerns arose. There have been valid concerns regarding privacy implications, such as providing too much access to the members and making their avatars bait for deepfakes, and it will be interesting to see how SM Entertainment, through Aespa and Kwangya, will address and manage these concerns down the line.
As far as Aespa’s debut mini-album goes, it’s a great example of how their electronic pop sound and the fresh execution of their concepts will have many layers to unpack, now and later on. For a group that only has a handful of tracks in their discography, Aespa successfully embraces the concept into something they can own and aren’t afraid to control. If there’s any proof to that, it’s what member Winter says at the beginning of the title track: “Oh my gosh, don’t you know I’m a savage?”