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Breaking Down the SuperM Phenomenon: The K-Pop Debut Group With the No. 1 Album in America

When K-pop super label SM Entertainment was deciding where to launch its new all-star boy band, it settled on an emerging growth market for the genre: the U.S. Now at the top of the Billboard charts, the group may have revealed a path for other Korean acts to follow.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

K-pop fandom in America is an increasingly accessible way of life, but never has the industry catered to U.S. fans as directly as it did in Hollywood this month. In early October, new seven-member boy group SuperM made their official international debut at Capitol Records, notably choosing to focus on the American market from day one. Compiled from several established SM Entertainment acts—SHINee, EXO, NCT 127, and WayV—and created in partnership with Capitol, the all-star supergroup took over Los Angeles, shutting down Hollywood streets for their first showcase and popping up everywhere from billboards and posters to an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

SuperM’s self-titled EP dropped on October 4, and the group promptly made history as the first debut Korean act to hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart—they are the only K-pop group other than BTS to reach the top spot. To those unfamiliar with the industry, it may seem like SuperM came out of nowhere, but the group was constructed from some of SM’s most popular boy groups for a reason—they brought with them a dedicated legion of fans. SuperM’s immediate sales success could reveal a path to follow for other K-pop groups hoping to make it in America.

SuperM’s first week of U.S. promotion was designed with their established fans in mind, and there were plenty to be found in L.A. alone. The weekend began with a live Q&A broadcast from Capitol Records, during which the group answered Twitter questions, interacted with fans, and watched their new music video from casual seats in the audience. Then they closed down Hollywood for a live performance on the following Saturday, performing three of their new songs for a crowd of thousands on a giant stage built outside Capitol Tower. And on Sunday—once they’d been deposited practically on my doorstep—it was time to get to know the boys in real time.

When I walked into the interview room at Capitol Records, I was greeted by raucous hellos and bursts of recognition from the seven members of SuperM: SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127’s Taeyong and Mark, and WayV’s Ten and Lucas. No, we’re not longtime BFFs, nor had I interviewed them before; the group had been inexplicably seated directly behind me in the press section for the first viewing of their “Jopping” music video a few days before. After offering to move several times, dodging photographers, and enduring a series of increasingly ridiculous interactions, I finally gave up and appreciated my literal front-row seat for SuperM’s video premiere. Despite my best efforts to make sure they could actually see their hard work play on the big screen, several members—Baekhyun especially—became extremely well acquainted with the back of my head.

On Sunday, it was clear that they were slightly less familiar with the front of it. As I got set up, the guys chatted among themselves in Korean, laughing quietly. It was only when I heard Mark (born in Canada, and the group’s most fluent English speaker) ask, “Wait, should I translate?” that I looked up and realized I was on the receiving end of a table full of amused gazes. “Are you talking about me?” I asked. Group leader, eldest member, and unofficial comic relief Baekhyun nodded mischievously and gestured to Mark—no matter that there were several professional translators in the room—who said, “They’re asking whether you were at the afterparty yesterday.” I replied that I hadn’t known there was one—“Sick invite, though!” I added. When Mark sheepishly relayed my answer, Baekhyun erupted out of his seat with a shout of indignation, which quickly turned into an embarrassed bow.

I tried to start the official interview, but Baekhyun refused to move on until he figured out how he knew me, if not from the afterparty. Mark helped me explain, and when Baekhyun realized I was the one awkwardly slouching in front of him so that he could see his own music video, he decided there was no recovering from our rough start. “Sorry, I’ll go!” he said in English, dramatically shoving away from the table and pretending to walk out with a flippant wave. The exchange was scored by giggles from the rest of the group—a constant soundtrack to just about everything Baekhyun does.

He returned with a grin, and Mark got things back on track—already a familiar scenario from the first month of promotion, as the youngest member of SuperM stepped up into his role as the unofficial English voice of the group. The 20-year-old’s original awe of his older, more experienced groupmates has been an ongoing narrative during the first few weeks of their debut, but it’s hard to imagine him as shy or intimidated now. Many fans may still think of Mark as the endearingly goofy NCT youngster of years past, but SuperM has brought out a new side of him—confident, eloquent, and thoughtful. As their primary English speaker, he was under a lot of pressure during the group’s first week in the U.S., but he said he left the anxiety in Korea.

“You always worry the most before the actual thing happens, so I guess I was worried before we came to America,” Mark said. “But once I was here, I realized that we’ve all worked so hard. To see everyone learn even the shortest English lines took my worries away.”

The members of SuperM said they’re invested in learning English because they want to communicate with American fans, but fans aren’t the only ones appreciative of their hard work. SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo Man attended Thursday’s Q&A, serving as SuperM’s biggest hype man. Every time a non-fluent member attempted a sentence in English—which was impressively often, for their first U.S. appearance—Lee erupted in whoops from the audience. That energy extended through the first live “Jopping” viewing, as Lee sat with and practically tackled the boys during standout moments in the video. It’s no surprise that Lee has made his support painfully obvious—they’re his golden boys, and he has a lot riding on this venture. Providing a little hype is perhaps the least he can do.

Despite the fact that many of SuperM’s members have never worked together in a group setting, most of them have known each other for years. Longtime best friends Taemin and Kai are the main dancers of their respective groups, and widely considered two of the best dancers active in the industry; it’s not the first time they’ve collaborated, but it’s their first time working together as fellow group members, which inevitably ups the stakes. In the room, I asked both of them, sitting side-by-side like two perfectly coiffed peas in a pod, whether they’ve learned anything new about each other now that they’re groupmates. They turned to each other simultaneously and seemed to be at an utter loss. “We know everything, right?” Kai asked. Taemin agreed; both were smiling, but clearly serious. “They’re so close,” Mark told me. Everyone nodded.

“We’ve known each other for such a long time, there’s nothing new to learn,” Kai said in Korean. “But if I had to add something … we’ve been friends for such a long time, but we’ve never worked together as artists. We’ve had separate groups and careers, so coming together on the same team like this has changed the way we communicate, because we’re teammates now. We’re not just friends, and we’re not just giving each other advice, but we share the same goal and create team synergy. So that’s something that’s changed with our dynamic.”

Before SuperM officially debuted, theories abounded that Taemin would be named the group leader—a designated role in nearly every K-pop group that amounts to an official team captain of sorts. At 27, Baekhyun is one year older than Taemin, but the latter has been active in the industry longer and has an impressive solo career to boot. In fact, early teasers seemed to paint Taemin as the architect of SuperM. But Taemin appeared to have no interest in the role, and when Baekhyun was officially announced as the leader, it became clear that Baekhyun’s primary focus would be on keeping everyone happy and relaxed at all times.

Thus far, I’d been addressing different members at random, trying to follow the natural flow of conversation, and I’d unintentionally ignored the leader’s corner of the table after our initial chaotic beginning. As I swiveled toward Baekhyun, he made an exaggerated “Finally!” expression, rolling his shoulders, leaning forward, and sucking in a deep breath as if he was about to hit one of those iconic high notes. But no, this time it was just a steadfast commitment to the bit. The other members craned their heads, already grinning, as he pretended to psych himself up for my incoming question. I asked Baekhyun whether he had any newfound empathy for Suho, the leader of his other group, EXO, now that he is a leader himself.

“I can’t really relate, because I feel like I don’t actually do much,” Baekhyun said in Korean. “My biggest role here within this team is to keep the spirits high, and that’s easy for me—because I’m usually in high spirits myself, and it’s really easy for me to do that with these guys.”

Fellow EXO member Kai laughed at Baekhyun’s over-the-top delivery, but piped up in disagreement. “I’ve been in EXO with Baekhyun for a long time, but before he was just a member. Now, with him as a leader, I definitely see the difference. I can see that he has more sense of responsibility for what he does, and he really goes out of his way to care for each of the members. When it’s hard for us to voice our opinions or complaints, Baekhyun makes sure that everyone’s opinions are relayed, and that everything is communicated. He doesn’t realize he’s good, but I’m 100 percent satisfied with his leadership.”

Language barriers aside, Kai was feeling talkative—our Korean translator was forced to scribble intricate outlines to keep up with several of his elaborate answers. At one point, Kai told a story about shooting the “Jopping” music video, complete with dramatic gestures and poses.

“It was my first time in a helicopter,” he said. “They told me it was going to fly really low, and I thought I could handle it. But all of a sudden, they put me up in the helicopter, and it flew around the area four times. The director and cameraman yelled, ‘Keep your eyes open! Have good facial expressions! Fight the wind!’” Kai imitated the shouting crew members, then leveled his signature intense gaze at me in a re-creation of the action-star pose he was going for.

It was a lot.

“I tried my best, and kept my eyes open for as long as possible, and when I came back down, there was sand in my eyes and I couldn’t open them. I thought, ‘OK, I did a good job,’ but when I saw the final cut, none of the footage was used! Nothing at all!” He burst out laughing as Lucas clapped him on the back. Ever the optimist, Kai continued. “It was still a good experience. It’s motivated me to work harder until I can ride a helicopter again—maybe from Korea to America.”

The younger boys seemed impressed by his goal, but Taemin was skeptical. “Wouldn’t it take too long?” he asked. Baekhyun had other concerns: “From Korea to America? You’d get shot down with a missile.”

Ten and Lucas had their own iffy encounters with heavy machinery on the “Jopping” set. There were no helicopter rides for them, but they posed on a giant tank in Dubai in the summer. Lucas summed it up nicely. “So hot!”

Ten elaborated: “We couldn’t really touch the tanks, but we needed to pretend that we were cool on top of the tank.” He struck a pose as if he was leaning against the combat vehicle, then flipped back one stylish sleeve to gesture at his elbow. “I got burned a little,” he said. “But it was pretty cool. It’s not every day you get to sit on top of a tank and like, take a selfie.”

Ten, born in Thailand, collects languages like he collects earrings, and they were all on full display during our chat. In a light, lilting accent, Ten said that his (near-perfect) English hadn’t gotten much practice during the past few years in Korea and China, as he and Lucas promoted with NCT and WayV in quick succession, and he’s still self-conscious about using it around native speakers in the U.S.

That said, Ten loves getting the opportunity to learn about new cultures and languages. “If you know multiple cultures, it’s easier for you to express yourself in performance. You learn more about dancing, singing, and expressing. It makes you grow and mature, I think. You don’t need to care about people’s race. No matter what, you can empathize with them. That’s the most important thing.”

It’s not immediately obvious from his answer, but Ten was demonstrating his aptitude for learning in real time. According to fellow reporter Elizabeth de Luna, who was helping record the interview from the other side of the room, Ten had leaned over to Mark earlier as I asked Baekhyun about having newfound empathy for his EXO group leader. “What does ‘empathy’ mean?” Ten asked Mark. After a whispered discussion, Ten nodded and returned to attention. Then, just a few minutes later, he inserted the word perfectly into his own sentence. So goes the quadrilingual life–and, to a certain extent, the future of K-pop as an ever-evolving, increasingly global industry.

To wit, Ten and Mark aren’t the only SuperM members juggling several languages. WayV’s Lucas is Chinese, born in Hong Kong, and he’s actively working on his English and Korean. Still, he doesn’t have any trouble communicating with his groupmates, four of whom are native Koreans. “Anything can be overcome by music,” Lucas told me in Chinese. “Cultural differences do exist, but music gets rid of all that. I just use music to simplify everything, and I don’t think too much about the differences.”

It’s a sweet sentiment, but music can’t do it all—Lucas and the rest of the boys devote immense effort and concentration to even simple interviews like this one. When I first posed a question to Lucas via the Korean translator, there was a flurry of activity and laughter as the game plan was decided upon: First, Kai suggested in Korean that Lucas answer in Chinese, and Lucas turned with his ever-present smile to address a Chinese translator who was seated against the wall. Ten was then recruited to help from the other side of the room (“I will try, but my Chinese is not that great!” he chirped) and Lucas just leaned back in his rolling chair, swiveling his head around, and looking massively entertained by the commotion. In the end, Lucas gave his answer—with various interjections from Ten—to the Chinese translator, who relayed it to the Korean translator, who then gave it to me in English. It was like a game of multilingual hot potato. Lucas was rewarded for his efforts with scattered applause and high fives from Kai and Baekhyun. The group effort, energetic as it was, is painfully representative of the extra effort K-pop groups have to expend in order to break out in the U.S. market.

NCT 127 leader Taeyong is no stranger to the multilingual interview scene. As the face of the NCT megaunit, he’s worked with group members from China, Thailand, Canada, the U.S., and just about everywhere in between. He’s also unique in that he’s the only SuperM member with a producing credit on the EP. When I asked Taeyong to talk about his work on “No Manners,” which is basically a song about savagely dumping someone, I received a brief panicked look. “Speak from your heart,” Baekhyun suggested. Taeyong did his best. “At first, it was difficult to understand what the song was trying to say, so I tried to make my rap into a story to help listeners understand. I’m not saying that breaking up is always the answer, but a bad breakup is … ” he trailed off, and looked around for an assist. Baekhyun stepped in, saying that the song is about how sometimes it’s best to cut a relationship off before it hits rock bottom.

In our current context, it was hard to imagine Taeyong as an expert on breakups of any kind. He’d been engaged and friendly, but very quiet—mostly just watching the other members speak with wide-eyed attention. As he sat tiny in his seat, in an oversized T-shirt and fluffy purple hair, it was difficult to reconcile him with the fierce, steely-eyed Taeyong of the stage. Next to him, Taemin was quiet and serene as well, but no less attentive—just beaming cherubically as he sipped on his Starbucks. Such is the duality of some of K-pop’s most arresting performers.

After all, no matter how transcendent they can seem on stage—they’re called “idols” for a reason—at the end of the day, they’re just guys. It’s something they reminded us of during their showcase stage for “Super Car,” when it was revealed that the official choreography is centered around hitting the woah.

As soon as I brought up the viral dance move, I was faced with an entire room of boys hitting the woah, like it was impossible for them to talk about it without doing it. Lucas jumped out of his seat to put his whole body into it. “It’s just a feeling!” he exclaimed in English. The guys persuaded me to try hitting the woah a few times myself—unfortunately, it appeared to be a feeling I couldn’t quite grasp, but they very sweetly pretended I nailed it.

Always ready with the polished take, Mark weighed in. “We feel like ‘Super Car’ has a really trendy vibe to it. We wanted to include a movement that the American audience would find familiar. The woah has been popular for a while now, but it’s all a cycle—it started in America and took a while to make its way over to us, so we brought it back. It just made sense for us to perform it in America.”

American music fans may think it would have made more sense for a group to incorporate the woah a few years ago when it first became popular here, but Mark is self-aware enough to know that it takes time for things like this to make the rounds in Korea. Besides, we all have a teenage cousin who refuses to stop dabbing—viral dances don’t come with expiration dates. Incorporating the woah into “Super Car” seems less like an attempt to cater to American audiences, and more a statement that this is what K-pop looks like in its current state—even if SuperM knows that the woah is passé in American culture, K-pop groups still love it. So, by God, they’re going to hit it as hard as they can.

“Super Car” was one of the three songs the group performed at their debut performance on a massive stage outside Capitol Records. It was a highly anticipated moment—for a group made nearly entirely of idols known for their dance skills, the first live show felt like a make-or-break moment for SuperM.

No one should have worried. SuperM’s first performance proved that they know how to play to each member’s specific strengths, numerous as they are. Need a standout high note? Baekhyun and Taemin are on it. Time for a rapid-fire dance solo? Ten is your man. What about a blue-steel gaze directly into the camera? Well, options vary, but Kai and Taeyong have turned it into an art form. Mark and Lucas have thrived both onstage and off, as the official crowd-pleasing charmers. It’s an all-star formula, and it’s no surprise that it has been a success. But the extent of that success in the U.S.—the blanket press coverage, the Billboard chart record—has exceeded expectations. SuperM’s immediate impact, both on the charts and in the history books, raises the question: If SM can beat the odds by debuting a new group in the U.S. market, who will follow? Other K-pop labels may now focus on America from the get-go, or create their own collaborative groups, following SuperM’s lead.

That, of course, is not SuperM’s concern. As we wrapped up the interview and said our goodbyes, Baekhyun dragged Mark over to apologize for him once more, and dramatically resolved our short-lived beef—as any good leader would. I told them I’d see them again on their upcoming U.S. tour, which kicks off in Fort Worth, Texas, in November.

To the person who will be sitting behind me at said concert, apologies in advance. You’ve got a tough act to follow.