aespa talks about 'Next Level' and their growth as a rookie group

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K-pop goes next level with aespa, a recently debuted girl group with their own digital avatars. Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

Few K-pop acts and K-dramas have acknowledged or chronicled life in the time of COVID-19 and how we’ve been coping. Most have been content to pretend that no such pandemic exists in their respective universes.

In the real world, Koreans have coined the term “untact” — a combination of the negative prefix “un” and the word “contact”— to refer to this moment in our lives. One of the first products of the untact era K-pop is SM Entertainment’s newest girl group aespa (yes, it’s stylized with a small æ).

SM is the same management agency behind K-pop pioneers H.O.T and BoA, widely credited for ushering in the first wave of Hallyu music. They’re also responsible for creating second-generation idols Super Junior, Girls Generation, SHINee, and f(x), and in more recent years, EXO, Red Velvet, and their ultra-ambitious, infinite-member project, NCT.

2020 marked the beginning of this other ambitious endeavor — embracing the technological shift and making it the central concept behind their new bands’ worldview.

aespa refers to the group’s unique “avatar x experience” concept. Its members are Karina (leader, main dancer, lead rapper, sub-vocalist), Winter (lead vocalist, lead dancer, visual), Giselle (Korean-Japanese; main rapper, sub vocalist) and Ningning (Chinese; main vocalist and maknae or youngest member), and they have virtual counterparts: æ-Karina, æ-Winter, æ-Giselle, and æ-Ningning.

Six months after their debut, aespa is back with their third single, “Next Level.” In photo: (from left) Karina, Winter, Giselle, and Ninging. Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

The group debuted in November 2020, while South Korea was forced to shift towards becoming a contact-free society. For a nation that has not shied away from robotic baristas, virtual make-up studios, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR), this was still something unprecedented.

Beyond launching a high-concept girl group, their management, SM Entertainment, launched the SM Culture Universe (SMCU) seemingly inspired by the success of comic book-turned-movie franchises. aespa was their first formal offering, introduced as “a group of completely new and innovative concepts that transcend the ‘real world’ and ‘virtual world.’” It would be, as SM founder Lee Soo Man put it, “a projection of the future world centered on celebrities and avatars.”

“Imagine an avatar of your favorite celebrity being created, and being together with him/her, next to you,” he said. “That avatar will be able to do things you cannot directly do with your favorite celebrity.”

Naturally, this “Black Mirror”-esque concept sparked debates about its consequences on stan culture and the unhealthy repercussions borne of too much access to the members through their avatars. People took it to mean that aespa’s avatars would serve as their proxies — commodities that can cater to whatever whims their fans have. Concerns were brought up regarding the legal protection of the group’s members, also touching on digital sexual crimes (deepfakes) that have been prevalent even before the introduction of avatars.

RELATED: Friends with avatars: The future of stan culture?

As it turns out, it was a misunderstanding that just needed a little bit more context. (Perhaps the word “imagine” could have been emphasized a tad further.)

All this has sometimes overshadowed aespa’s music, but beyond the tech gimmicks, the girls actually make good music. They’ve released two songs so far, their debut single “Black Mamba,” and the ballad track, “Forever.”

“Black Mamba” ranked in various music charts domestically and globally, and set a record for having the fastest debut music video to surpass 100 million views.

And now, they’re back with their new single, “Next Level.” It’s a remake of the song from the OST of “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” by Australian artist A$ton Wyld.

During the virtual presser for this comeback, aespa provides more insight about the song and what it means to the members. “We have our own unique worldview that represents the meeting of another self (an avatar) and experiencing a new world,” Winter explains. “This is something that’s never been told anywhere before. This gives us our own unique color and style, so we were all very pleased and excited for our future activities.”

The worldbuilding was just getting slowly laid out through the release of their songs. “Before we debuted, we spent a long time learning about the concept, so we have a very good understanding of the concept now,” says Karina.

“We wanted to continue the story from our debut single, ‘Black Mamba’,” says Ningning. “‘Next Level’ is about going on an adventure to Kwangya to fix the problem caused by ‘Black Mamba’ who is disturbing the Synk between us and ‘æ’.”

Whew. That’s a lot of jargon, so allow me. Synk is the act of sharing one’s secrets, thoughts and emotions with their digital entities (the aforementioned æ). The digital world where æ-aespas live is called Flat, while Kwangya is the unprescribed, infinite digital world beyond the Flat, with no rule or form. The Port of Soul (POS) connects the Flat with the real world.

In the language of Kwangya, MY is a term that means “the most precious friend.” aespa has designated this to be the name of their fandom because of this.

“In the music video, you can see us riding a spacecraft traveling beyond space and time and a lot of other action-packed scenes,” says Karina. Giselle notes the powerful and sporty vibes of the music video. “We also prepared a futuristic outfit to suit the mood of the song. Visually, we wanted to present something that’s powerful but different from ‘Black Mamba’,” adds Winter.

“Our new song is groovy and energetic with a dynamic arrangement. We tried to make our voice sound more powerful,” shares Karina, aespa’s leader and main dancer. “Combining our powerful vocals with the point choreography, you can look forward to an even stronger performance.”

The girls of aespa have also been active on social media, particularly TikTok, where they post their point choreography for fans to follow. “In the chorus part of ‘Next Level’ we make the Korean alphabet, “ㄷ (D)” with our arms,” explains Winter. “We wanted to make it fun and easy for everyone so I hope many people will do it with us.”

aespa at their virtual press conference for their track "Next Level," hosted by Super Junior’s Leeteuk. Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

The group was named “Rookie of the Year” in the 30th Seoul Music Awards and “New Artist of the Year” in the 10th Gaon Chart Music Awards, awards previously won by their seniors and other groups like BTS and Blackpink. “It’s an award you can only receive once after debut, so it’s very meaningful to us. Every time we think back to that moment, we get a lot of energy,” says Winter.

“Since we’re still rookies, our goal is to continue to show our growth rather than set specific records or results,” Giselle says. While we all may not be sure of the actual execution of their intended concept, this much is clear — the girls are ready to take their game to the next level.