With their razor sharp pop songs, complex mythology, and preternatural good looks, EXO have dominated the Korean charts – and since the implosion of Harry Styles et al they’ve become the biggest boyband in the world
No one does boybands like South Korea, and no one does fandoms like K-Pop. When nine almost preternaturally good-looking young men, all skilled singers and dancers, tear up the stage in stadiums roughly the size of a small city, spare a thought for the teenage hearts promptly slain. This is EXO. And, since the implosion of One Direction, they’re the biggest boyband in the world.
EXO are at the forefront of pop domination, with knife-point choreography seamlessly gelled to songs crafted by some of the world’s most gifted writers and producers, honed by their myriad of personalities and talents. One fan fiction site alone hosts over 132,000 stories written about them. Their fandom, known as EXO-L or Eris, have propelled the group to sell over 14 million singles and 6 million albums, and their latest and third full-length, EX’ACT, topped the charts after breaking pre-order records set by their second, EXODUS.
EXO have never been your average boyband, even for K-Pop. Their label, SM Entertainment, simultaneously debuted two versions of the same group in 2012 – one Chinese, one Korean. Respectively, EXO M and EXO K sang the same songs in the corresponding language and performed as both a six-piece and 12-piece to create a continent-straddling pop juggernaut.
They were given a fantastical narrative (each is an alien from EXO Planet with a superpower, such as telekinesis or healing) that was so complicated it came with 23 teasers before their debut single “MAMA” was even released, setting fans on a years-long quest to decipher the ongoing saga. Dramatic and overblown, with Gregorian chanting and a hardcore punk vocal on the breakdown, “MAMA” was one hell of an entrance.
Despite the upheaval of three members leaving over the past two years, a fascinating musical and visual journey continues to unfold, at times entangled deep in their imagined mythology (such as the mind-mangling ‘Pathcode’ teasers for EXODUS), at others letting simple brilliance shine (the award-winning single “Growl”).
The music, too, has found natural stepping stones – from the jarring EDM experiment of “Wolf” to the joyous and sensual pop-funk of “Call Me Baby” and “Love Me Right”, to EX’ACT and its lead singles; the dark, shivering impatience of “Monster” (like a dangerous elder sibling of “Overdose”) and its cool, gleaming opposite, “Lucky One”, reminiscent of Daft Punk and Pharrell’s collaborations.
EX’ACT could have easily been EXODUS 2.0, and who would blame them for wanting to replicate its success? However, the band confess that EX’ACT “looks more into the inner side of EXO, to start a new episode with new music styles and performances”. “We now think more about the long-term goals as a group and as individuals… it’d be a lie to say we weren’t worried about how the public would take it,” they continue, “there was great pressure in preparing this album.”
Songs like “Artificial Love”, “One And Only” and “White Noise” make overtures to electronic minimalism, sidling away from the warm layers of R&B on earlier tracks like “Playboy”, “Lady Luck” or “XOXO”, and where there is similarity, such as the closing ballads – “Stronger” forEX’ACT and “Beautiful” for EXODUS – they toy with the former like prey, stripping it to bare bones. Ask if there was any unsurety over new material and they hedge momentarily. “We wouldn’t say we ‘weren’t sure’, but we were slightly worried about ‘Monster’,” they admit. “We couldn’t imagine how the performance would be, but it came out really well!”
With all the members in their mid-20s, having spent years living in a dormitory (a practice undertaken by all K-Pop groups until attaining a certain success), it’s hard to imagine any personal barriers remain. “There isn’t really any awkwardness between us since we’ve been together for at least six to seven years, starting from training,” they agree. “We’re like a family where one can seek comfort and support. We spend more and more time together, we understand each other better, and that helps strengthen our bond, which creates great synergy on stage. As you said, we’re all around our mid-20s and we think we’ve become manlier compared to our debut. What do you think? No?” they tease. “We think this album and ‘Monster’ is perfect to show the matured and manly side of EXO!”
With each member occupied with creative side projects, they admit to feeling “lucky to have opportunities” to be exposed to “different elements which are exciting, but also make us feel the weight and responsibility in what we are doing (with EXO) at the same time.” Sitting down one on one, although facing hectic schedules, they explain the EXO world and their personal hopes and dreams.