More EXO - "What is Love" + "History"

Since my last post on this group, EXO has released two full singles complete with videos. I wanted to wait until they released an album before assessing these guys and their skills, but they seem to be taking a while, and I haven't written anything in a minute, so let's just get to it.

I spent most of my last EXO post ranting about SM's poor management of their current lineup, and how while it looked promising, there wasn't any guarantee that this band was going to be any different from the rest. After that they released what seemed to be countless useless teasers (most featuring Kai) and I was ready to drop this group like a hot potato. Then! They dropped "What is Love" (as it happens, right when speculations about SNSD's Jessica getting plastic surgery were flying around the internet - coincidence?) and I had something to work with...

... Well, not really, since only two members of each group actually sang, while the rest simply did their teaser thing. I don't have much to say about this single - typical Yoo Young-jin track in that overly heartfelt R&B style he loves. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

I tried really hard to ignore the teasers after that, and succeeded for a while, but then Tao dropped this epicness:

The music in the other teasers stuck with me though, and I found myself letting the all the teasers play in the background while I did work.I have to applaud SM for the great production value in these teasers, and their commitment to this extra-terrestrial concept. The music is slick, and sounds futuristic enough to not be stock, save some of the R&B tracks. The teasers were all shot to capture that vibe as well. (Sidenote: that camera is everything.) If anything, that's what kept me curious - as a die-hard science fiction/fantasy fan, I dig anything futuristic. And consistency is a word I would never have associated with SM, but here they are, making me eat my words - in this department at least.

"History" dropped last week, and finally, I could actually assess the boys for their own talents, which is really, what I - and everyone else, I assume - have been waiting for:

I liked this the single. Again, nothing particularly groundbreaking - it reminds me a lot of old BoA singles like "Girls on Top" and "My Name" - but it's catchy, with electronic effects that echo back to some of the teasers. (Again - consistency!) Thomas Troelsen, who I'd written off after he dropped Super Junior's "Perfection" (my ears are still healing, thanks for asking), comes up with something that's actually pleasing to the ear, with the help of YYJ and his R&B sensibilities. It reminds me of SHINee circa 2009, which can only be a good thing. I like that the lyrics stick with the theme of their teasers, but also gives you some interesting imagery for the group: two halves of the same sun, moving forward to a new awesome future on earth. I can get with that. The video is clearly the stuff of, oh, every SM video in the past two years, but I am loving the choreo, as well as the Aurora Borealis effects in the background.

As a group, the boys check off all the right boxes - good dancers, decent singers/rappers, good looks - but they lack personality. They do what they're told, but bring nothing of themselves to the music, and thus they come off as well trained imitators as opposed to special, unique individuals who have something to prove. It doesn't help that SM seems to have picked them all from a very small gene pool - I can barely tell them apart. I almost don't want to try, just to spite them. Rebel against the power of the idol clones, or whatever. I did feel a bit more personality from EXO-M than EXO-K, hence why I prefer their renditions of both prologue tracks (despite the apparently awful Mandarin); Chen has a unique voice which prevents YYJ from molding him into his vocal Mini-Me, unlike D.O. and Baek-hyun, and Lu Han to an extent.

Individually, the boys are a mixed bag. You have Kai and Lay - very pretty, wonderful dancers who hit every move, but with no emotion. It's partly the SM dance training which says you can't look like you're having fun when performing unless the song's cute, but it's also a lack of charisma on their part. Then you have people like D.O and Tao, who try way too hard to stare me into paying attention to them. Sadly they haven't invented ESP via Youtube video, but they have other things going for them. Chen and Baek-hyun stood out for their voices and camera presence. The others didn't make much of an impression on me. Xiu Min carries himself well at least. I had no friggin' idea where Su-ho came from - I vaguely remember a teaser with his name on it. He was okay. I kept an eye out for Lu Han, but felt he wasn't quite charismatic enough. Also, what was with the collars? SM, a.k.a. S&M? (Actually, let's not even go there...) Chan-yeol and Se-hun were like cardboard cutouts, even with all the posing. Though I'll throw them a bone - Chan-yeol has a much deeper voice than I expected, and is cute enough. Se-hun reminds me so much of MBLAQ's Thunder. Even their voices are the same. Chris looked cool, but I felt he was trying a little too hard. And I've covered all of them, right? Good.

Compared to rookies like Infinite, B1A4, and B.A.P, who broke onto the scene with strong debuts, EXO ultimately aren't leaving a impression on me. I don't know who they are, or who they're trying to be, and therefore I find it hard to care whether they succeed or not. In these times in k-pop, that is a dangerous thing: there are too many idol groups around to risk letting yours blend into the crowd. All I can see right now is a group of people selected to make a idol supergroup, not a band with any sort of identity - however loosely constructed. And zero personality + zero group identity = zero distinguishing factors = zero reasons why I should pay attention to this group as opposed to any other k-pop group.

I will admit, though, that I have a soft spot for rookie groups. I always want to see how far they'll go, if I think they're any good. Undoubtedly, these EXO kids have the stuff. But the SM idol mill is suppressing their personalities, and they're suffering for it. There's hope yet though. SM are taking it real slow with this group - testing the waters, seeing the public's reaction to the group, tweaking things here and there - biding their time until they think they can make the most impact with their debut. (Preferably, of course, when there's not much competition on the charts). There's still a chance their actual debut will blow me away, as promised. Until then, though, I suppose we'll keep complaining about the excessive teasers. If nothing else, SM has guaranteed that we'll keep talking about them, whether we ultimately care or not. And maybe, that's all they need to succeed.


  1. You've echoed many of my sentiments in this post. I like to be engaged when watching performers. It is not a passive experience for me. In other words, I don't just see myself as the receiver in this exchange, but an active participant.

    I'm not bothered by the teasers, but one gripe I've has with some of SME's performers, is their technical precision over character/personality. I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't "feel" anything when I look at these groups right now.

    Things might change over time. I remember Infinites debut almost 2 years ago very clearly as well as B.A.P.'s recent one. Making an impact is important.

  2. I agree with you on most of your points. I do disagree with you on one thing though: I think Kai gives off the most personality in this group. Not that I'm a Kai fan or anything, he just really stands out as the one that gets into the dance moves the most and has the strongest "energy" if you will. I do have to say that he needs to show more emotion while singing... he looked like he was barely moving his lips and that's never interesting.

    I like both of Exo's songs quite a bit but I'm iffy about them right now. The teasers are great but there's way too much of them, imho. I do hope they do well though.

    Actually, I'll disagree with you on one other thing... I think Shinee, out of all the rest of SMent's groups, have really great personalities that come out in their performances, as well as off stage. They usually manage to show that they're having fun onstage and I definitely enjoy them.

    1. Re: SHINee - it's really the music that reminds me of SHINee, not the lack of personality. In fact, I'd argue that it's because SHINee have so much personality that SM puts so much effort into them. In light of that then, it's hard for me to figure out why SM cares about EXO so much. I have ideas, though.

      Re: Kai - he knows how to work the camera, for sure, but I don't consider that personality. How can I know his personality if he's emotionless?

      Another reason why I think he's got no personality: I generally try to separate camera presence from personality from dance skill. Being a film buff, I've become sensitive to the ways in which directing and editing affect my perceptions of people on film. Upon repeated watching of the two "History" videos (I'll admit - despite my reservations about EXO, I'm mildly obsessed with them) I noticed that the staging for the two groups is different: Kai is slightly further up front than his EXO-M counterpart for each dance part. Also, the shots are always taken so that Kai is fully in the frame and often the focus of the shot, as opposed to the others who are occasionally cut out or not in focus. My takeaway from the videos therefore is this: The boy is a good dancer, and has camera presence. SM knows this, so they shot the video to favor him. Because of that, I can't say objectively that he has more personality than the rest of the group.

      If I were to give the personality award to anyone, it would probably be Baek-hyun - he exudes a bit more confidence than the rest of the band in my eyes.

    2. wow you have a sharp eye, I never would have noticed that

  3. What is Love just sounds like somebodies stale left over 1992 R&B song that they'd be embarrassed to admit they ever sang. Just ick.

    History is ok, very generic Kpop to me. Maybe the live performance will be better? For now the choreo is robotic like you said and lacking in emotion.


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