The biggest, baddest boy band out of South Korea right now is EXO, short for Exoplanet, and it is indeed like something from another world. Last night, we saw them live, along with 10,000 of our closest friends, at the Jersey Devils’ stadium.
First we waited for two hours in the chilling rain until our hands shook and our teeth chattered. Luckily, it is in fact possible to buy hot tea in a sports arena, and to dance in wet socks, but it’s not ideal. EXO are actually famous for their impeccable logistics, but only after the show starts.
In a way, though, our long wait paid off. Just as we were exiting hypothermia, an attendant to our nosebleed section started handing out tickets to much better seats that had not been sold, and we raced through the halls to get down. EXO recently sold out the biggest stadium in South Korea in 20 minutes, but in New York they’re merely huge.
From our improved vantage point, the show looked like this. Yes, that is fire.
EXO defies American notions of what a band should be. For one thing, there is little or no veneer of artistic independence. EXO was actually announced ahead of time, before its members had been selected, at a seminar at Stanford Business School. (The founder, Lee Soo-man, was already the richest man in the Korean entertainment industry.)
EXO was originally founded as two groups of 6 members each: EXO-K, which performs in Korean (with a heavy admixture of basic English) and EXO-M, which performs in Mandarin. The two groups sing the same songs, but with different lyrics. To my mind, this eliminates the curious polite fiction that attributes American pop stars’ songs to the singer. In fact, EXO separately credits Korean lyrics, Chinese lyrics, and music on each song, and makes no attempt to imply that the band members played a role in any of it.
If American pop stars are positioned as coincidentally beautiful singer-songwriters, EXO members are more like characters in a never-ending musical theatre production. Their stage personas are quite divorced from their personal lives; some even go by totally different names. But more importantly, the band has an associated mythic universe, in which each member appears to have certain supernatural powers. (This lends an EXO concert the aura of a scifi/fantasy convention. Maybe it’s no coincidence that we spotted a great deal of Harry Potter paraphernalia on fellow fans.)
It’s all laid out in their early autobiographical music video, which also hints at several other themes. There’s a visual connection between the 12 members and the signs of the zodiac, but the dominant theme is one of unnatural, bloody division (between EXO-M and EXO-K), that when healed will usher in a new era.
So the theme is division and reunification … and they’re in Korea. Not that subtle.
The rest of EXO’s music is high-energy dance pop love songs, nothing philosophical about it. And yet, when the concert’s opening video lit up the jumbotron, it showed EXO members supernaturally rescuing members of a mysteriously distraught family, with a childlike voiceover explaining that the reason for conflict in the world was because it can be hard these days to tell what is true, and our different truths drive us apart.
So EXO is a curious thing: a group of talented performers, a polished international boy band sticking to universal teenage truisms, a venue for creative musicians to publish new work, and at the margins, a pastiche of CGI fantasy and front page news.