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If BTS Broke the K-Pop Mold, NCT Is Creating a New One

Twenty-one members, originating from six countries, within a supergroup spawning a collection of sub-units who sing in five different languages … so far. NCT is proving that the future of K-Pop stardom is expanding way beyond Korea.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To talk about any K-pop group in America this year is to talk about BTS, so that’s where we have to start—with the unprecedented rise of a Korean boy band who have rapidly smashed previous notions of global popularity and taken over the international music industry. BTS have crushed YouTube viewership records, dominated the Billboard charts, and regularly display dizzying social media engagement. They are inescapable across the globe and popular in a way that feels almost surreal to their fans and members alike.

But the sustainability of K-pop’s growth on an international scale may be represented best by another, newer group, one who has kicked off their own worldwide tour and press circuit this spring: NCT 127. In many ways, their recent North American jaunt took place in the shadow of BTS; NCT 127 sold out L.A.’s 7,100-capacity Microsoft Theater in early May, one week after BTS played to estimated crowds of 52,000 at the Rose Bowl (yours truly attended both concerts). NCT 127 then appeared on The Late Late Show With James Corden a few days later—just before BTS casually imitated the Beatles on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. And this is just the competition on the boy band side: K-pop girl group Blackpink’s recent tour through America included stops at The Forum and two weekends at Coachella.

Trying to make a footprint on the U.S. market is a tricky goal for any young K-pop group, but luckily—and not coincidentally—it’s one for which NCT 127 is specially qualified. The global domination of BTS—a relatively conventional K-pop group in terms of structure and vision, comprising seven native Korean members—is a shocking phenomenon. But conquering the world is exactly the task NCT 127 was created for.

In 2016, SM Entertainment—home to past K-pop chart-toppers like TVXQ, SNSD, and EXO—introduced a new all-male group with a both ambitious and confusing concept. In the introductory press conference, SM founder Lee Soo Man explained that the group, called Neo Culture Technology, or NCT for short, would focus on “different teams that will debut based in different countries around the world.” So unlike K-pop groups of years past, NCT would have an unlimited, shifting array of members, sourced from not just Korea, but also China, Japan, North America, and beyond. It was a concept Japanese pop groups had played with before, not to mention smaller but failed past attempts from SM itself. But the large-scale, targeted multicultural strategy was new.

During the press conference, Lee stood in front of a giant, Steve Jobs–esque CGI map and demonstrated his master plan: NCT would begin in Seoul, “where K-pop originated,” and expand across the world in the years to come. From the selected NCT members, SM would debut various subunits, targeting different countries, age groups, and cultures in order to tailor each group to the desired audience. That original super unit has so far spawned three current subunits—NCT 127, NCT Dream, and WayV—as well as various pairings, mini-groups, and one-off songs under the title of NCT U.

Confused? You’re not alone. I won’t try to explain the many iterations of NCT U; it’s a lawless land where rules don’t exist, only bops. To put the rest in a simpler way, think of NCT as one big high school sports team. Last year, in NCT 2018, there were 18 members of the group in total. Consider this the team roster, so to speak: the source from which all NCT units are pulled. NCT 127 is essentially the first team varsity, with 10 members from five countries and two continents. They are the primary, original K-pop unit that Lee alluded to in his introduction—the “127” comes from the Seoul’s longitudinal coordinate, representing their original domestic focus. NCT 127 has since gone from promoting in Korea to rapidly increasing popularity across the globe.

NCT Dream is the other main Korean subunit. Think of them as the JV team, focused on a younger domestic audience, and the only NCT unit with an age limit—members age out of NCT Dream when they turn 20.

Finally, WayV (WeiShenV in full) is NCT’s first non-Korean unit, based in China and focused on the C-pop market. Attempting to corner the Chinese demographic isn’t anything new for SM Entertainment, who made previous attempts in 2008 and 2012 with Super Junior-M and EXO-M, respectively, Chinese subunits of SM K-pop groups. Neither reached the kind of success SM had hoped for, and three of EXO-M’s four Chinese members departed soon after their debut. The already complicated process of K-pop groups crossing over to Chinese audiences became even more difficult in 2017, when Sino-Korean tension regarding the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in South Korea led to Chinese restrictions on South Korean content. WayV’s promotions were reportedly adjusted to fit into the new rules, and they switched from the name NCT Vision to WeiShenV and moved to a Chinese record label to distance themselves enough from SM to avoid political complications.

To return to the high school metaphor, WayV can be considered NCT’s transfer students: Four of their seven members debuted with NCT 2018, NCT 127, or NCT U before being added to WayV’s starting lineup, and the rest are new. Despite being officially signed under Label V (SM Entertainment’s Chinese partner) and the red tape that keeps them from identifying fully as an NCT unit, WayV’s first few songs were Chinese versions of former NCT 127 hits. Their most recent single, however, is a banger all their own.

The not-so-secret weapon of NCT’s multi-unit strategy is the variety of international members that shift from group to group—a double-edged sword that can be confusing to new fans, but can also attract loyalties from one group to another, and from one language to the next. Examples range from Mark Lee—a Canadian member who debuted with NCT 127, NCT U, and NCT Dream before aging out of the latter—to Winwin, a Chinese member of NCT 127 who was recently transferred to WayV (though fans hold out hope for his return to the former). Along with Mark and Winwin, NCT 127 features six members originally born in Korea, one from Chicago, and one from Japan.

NCT’s output thus far has been an array of hits in various languages with overlapping lineups; see, for example, the NCT 127 single “Regular.” It was first released as an English version for American audiences (performed by NCT 127 on Jimmy Kimmel Live), then in Korean, then received the WayV treatment for Chinese distribution. As previously mentioned, eternal good sport, group-hopping Winwin appears in all three versions, conveniently mashed up below:

And so three years later, the NCT experiment, ambitious as it is, appears to be working; NCT 127’s recent worldwide tour suggests, at the very least, that North America is on board. From the beginning, NCT 127’s members were uniquely qualified for English-speaking appeal, which became abundantly clear on tour. Canadian import Mark was welcomed to concerts in Toronto and Vancouver by fans holding maple leaf flags in one hand and NCT lightsticks in the other. And earlier in the tour, Chicago native Johnny brought fellow members to various Windy City tourist spots, regaling them with bilingual stories about spending time there as a child.

This isn’t to say that NCT 127’s North American fan base hinges entirely on Mark and Johnny—as with BTS, lingual and cultural differences don’t mean much when it comes to the enthusiasm with which fans support these groups. Besides, we all know a star when we see one, and NCT 127 is as stacked as they come.

A brief rundown: First is Taeyong, the leader and “center” of the group, who onstage comes off like a charismatic mixture of rapper, tiger, and anime character come to life. (A strange combination, but just trust me.) Canadian treasure Mark is the other primary rapper and unofficial fellow front man of the group; he’s joined in his charming English/Korean flip-flopping by gangly Chicago boy Johnny, the rare K-pop baritone. The other fluent English speaker of the group is Jaehyun, who is Korean-born but spent several childhood years in America. He’s sort of NCT’s multitalented right-hand man—vocalist, dancer, and offensively handsome boy next door. Doyoung and Taeil are NCT 127’s two main vocalists, both characterized by a tendency to hit a bridge like someone broke their heart and threw it in the trash. (And not for nothing, Taeil’s show-stopping glory notes are a personal highlight of every song.)

Then there are the assorted others, whose varied roles tend to resist categorization: Yuta, a floppy-haired Japanese member who is 75 percent cheekbones, 25 percent earrings, and 100 percent magnetic; Haechan, who at 18 is the youngest 127 member, and a choreo phenom who sings like he just took a hit off a helium balloon (but in a good way, really); and Jungwoo, the latest addition to the group, and possibly the cutest human on planet Earth.

As with BTS and many other K-pop groups, the focus tends to be distributed equally—onstage, anyway—between each member of NCT 127. Taeyong may be the most recognizable to newcomers, by virtue of his bold styling choices and memorable stage presence, but the group’s growing catalogue of music and performances tend to play to each of the members’ strengths. The depth of audience love for each member was abundantly clear at NCT 127’s Los Angeles show. There was clear crossover from the recent BTS concert—“I think the post-concert depression will be even worse after this one,” one prematurely despondent fan intoned—but the focus was primarily on the stars of the night. One girl lugged a cardboard Johnny cutout around the waiting area outside the theater, as other fans stopped her every few feet for selfies with the life-sized likeness. Another impressively optimistic girl carried a huge Winwin banner, despite the common knowledge that he wouldn’t appear at all on this year’s tour.

As BTS did at their concert, NCT 127 spoke a mixture of Korean and English throughout the show, with a translator used for the final goodbyes (which, for the K-pop uninitiated, can last upward of 15 minutes, minimum). Like BTS, a few members spoke solely in English, but there was a level of banter and fluency inherent in NCT’s concert that couldn’t exist in BTS’s; while BTS tended to stick to preplanned and scripted English segments, NCT’s multiple fluent speakers allowed for more free-flowing English dialogue and interaction with the audience. Each NCT 127 member, with the exception of Jaehyun, Mark, and Johnny, spoke in Korean about how excited they were on the final stop of the U.S. tour. “It’s mind-blowing that we have so many different cultures supporting us even if it’s not your natural language,” Yuta said via translator—more meaningful when you consider that he’s Japanese speaking in Korean to an English audience, who was still hanging on to his every word. Boys will be boys, though, in any language. Just as Avengers: Endgame quotes littered BTS’s shows at the Rose Bowl, NCT “hit the woah” and dropped an “Old Town Road” reference. Meme culture is universal.

As the first leg of their worldwide tour wraps up (a stop in Russia is planned for June, as well as rumored dates to come elsewhere in Europe), NCT 127 is focusing on promotion for their new album, Superhuman, out on Friday. The title track, a recent recipient of a slick, CGI-heavy music video with lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams proud, is their first foray into a new kind of pop/disco sound. “Superhuman” relies less on Taeyong’s growly rapping and instead moves freely through the vocal line, highlighting Haechan, Yuta, Jaehyun, and others. But the real highlight of the album, and possibly the best indication of NCT 127’s evolution as a group, is the B-side track “Highway to Heaven.” This song manages to show off everyone—not just Mark’s rapping, or Taeil’s and Doyoung’s high notes, though there is plenty of that—and it may just mark a new era of sound for the group. K-pop doesn’t often fit into the “windows down, sunroof open” genre, but “Highway to Heaven”—and the rest of Superhuman—is full of energetic choruses and uplifting synths, and the new vibe looks good on NCT 127. I like to think “Highway to Heaven” is for everyone who has heard about K-pop for the first time and asked, “But are the songs actually good?” See for yourself.

It’s easy to say that NCT 127 wouldn’t have had such a quick road to international popularity if BTS had not helped to create this current wave of K-pop fandom overseas. But NCT’s strategy also points to a road ahead for future K-pop groups hoping to expand beyond the largely continental popularity of years past. Despite various past attempts to mix up the tried-and-true K-pop formula, which has worked on a domestic scale for decades, the industry is now facing the potential for a major international expanse. For years, K-pop fandom had overgrown the borders of its native country; the logical move was for K-pop labels to engineer groups whose members reflect that demographic shift. (Of the aforementioned Blackpink’s four members, one is from Thailand and two are Koreans who spent some of their formative years abroad.) The strategy suggests that the very nature of K-pop itself may be in for unavoidable change. What NCT is doing is taking charge of the seemingly inevitable evolution, and providing a path for K-pop to grow without abandoning its cultural and artistic integrity.

With NCT, SM Entertainment is looking outside the box and across the world, to create a new kind of super group—from K-pop to C-pop, potentially J-pop, Southeast Asian pop, and beyond—and it’s working. Granted, the success of the NCT experiment may indicate a worryingly lab-crafted future for K-pop, which is already perceived by some as too formulaic. Indeed, part of the charm of BTS is the perceived individualism of their members and their ability to sing and write about what they want. But there’s no denying that whatever the cause, BTS’s current moment is an unforeseen phenomenon; NCT’s is a plan coming to fruition.