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Keepin’ the Dream Alive

SM Entertainment had long planned to switch out the members of the K-Pop group NCT Dream to keep things fresh and young—until the label realized that popularity doesn’t adhere to self-imposed deadlines

SM Entertainment/Ringer illustration

Pop groups don’t typically come with hard-and-fast expiration dates. They break up, or mutually decide to splinter into solo projects, or more often merely fade. But that dissolution comes organically rather than by rule, dictated more by changes in audience interests or individual pursuits than self-imposed deadlines. That’s what made Korean pop group NCT Dream such an intriguing—and risky—concept.

On Sunday, NCT Dream will perform a live-streamed global concert titled Beyond the Dream as part of a series produced by K-pop titan SM Entertainment. The concert, and the series as a whole, is an experimental method of entertainment in the age of COVID-19, featuring augmented-reality technology and 3-D graphics. But on top of being a blueprint for how musicians—particularly massive pop stars—might continue to stay connected to fans amid a pandemic, the concert is symbolic for NCT Dream. As it turns out, “Beyond the Dream” is a fitting title for the performance—as recent events have proved, the group has evolved far beyond anyone’s initial expectations.

NCT Dream debuted in 2016 as the youngest subunit of SM’s ambitious, famously complicated NCT project, which aimed to create a series of interconnected K-pop groups targeted at different demographics and global audiences. Featuring idols as young as 14, NCT Dream’s fresh-faced members were intended to appeal to a younger domestic audience in Korea. There was group leader and SM golden boy Mark Lee; sunny entertainer Haechan; soaring Chinese vocalists Renjun and Chenle; energetic, boyish duo Jaemin and Jeno; and tiny dance phenom Jisung. Dream’s first, peppy single, “Chewing Gum,” featured complicated choreography on hoverboards, showing off these talented teens’ uncanny dexterity.

But there was a catch. In an attempt to keep NCT Dream eternally adorable, a graduation system was set in place. Members would have to leave Dream when they turned 20, an interesting idea that turned controversial in recent years, as Mark aged out of Dream and the remaining, increasingly popular members approached their own graduation dates.

The logic behind SM’s system is understandable: a replenishing source of talented youths, forever the same age as its target demographic. What it doesn’t account for, though, is the trumping value of personal attachment—after spending years investing in specific stars, who wants new ones? After about a year of fan-led discussion and concerns about the quickly approaching deadline for most of Dream’s ensemble, SM Entertainment announced in April that it would abolish the graduation system. Sometime in the near future, Mark Lee will return to the group, which will revert to the lineup commonly referred to as “7Dream.”

In the grand scheme of K-pop group structuring, this change should be a relatively seamless one—after all, the existence of NCT U, which serves as a platform for releases from any combination of NCT members, is essentially a built-in contingency plan for off-the-cuff adjustments like this.

But ahead of any future 7Dream activity, the current lineup of NCT Dream has plenty else to focus on. They’re in the middle of constant promotion for their final mini-album Reload, which dropped April 29, and the first single off the album, the rip-roaring “Ridin,” is a far cry from Dream’s 2016 debut. The boys have traded hoverboards for motorcycles, bow ties for bedazzled bombers, and cutesy choreo for full-out body rolls. But as Jisung points out in an interview via a translator, Dream has also “evolved musically and mentally.”

While still in line with Dream’s signature youthful, peppy energy, Reload emphasizes the newfound maturity of the six performers, though to imply that it’s an improvement does a disservice to their early, equally impressive work. Theirs is more of a consistent evolution of sound and concept—though one notable change in Dream’s sound stands out. “A lot of fans know Jisung for his dancing skills, but from debut to now, the most significant change is his vocals,” says Haechan of their youngest member, whose voice has deepened since the group’s debut into a pleasant baritone—unusual not only within NCT Dream, but in K-pop overall, which tends to favor vocalists with higher ranges. “Unlike NCT Dream’s signature sound, which is more youthful and soft, Jisung’s voice is deeper and soulful in nature, and I think fans and listeners really love it.”

The development of unexpected talents like Jisung’s improved vocals is part of what has carried Dream beyond the initial landmarks set for them. The young trainees were chosen with their potential for success in mind, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone foresaw the level to which Jeno and Jaemin would step up as main rappers and unofficial leaders when Mark left the group, or how Chenle and Renjun’s Korean skills would improve to their current degree of sharp, witty fluency. “Renjun used to have a very shy, more reserved personality,” Chenle says in Korean of his fellow Chinese groupmate. “As we’ve grown closer to each other, he’s a lot brighter and more extroverted.”

According to Renjun, the ever-entertaining Haechan hasn’t changed much since the group’s debut: “From the beginning, Haechan has been the mood-maker of the group; he’s very understanding, and he serves as a connecting point between all the members.” His eternal optimism isn’t the only constant—Haechan has been one of NCT’s standout vocalists since before the group even debuted. He recorded the iconic, fan-favorite demo for their first NCT U track, “The 7th Sense,” and despite not appearing on the final track, he’s been a member of both NCT 127 and NCT Dream since 2016.

As several other NCT idols can attest, it’s not easy to be part of two groups at once (or three, if you’re Mark Lee). Between 127 and Dream, Haechan will recently have switched between three separate comebacks in the span of two months. He’ll also perform in two Beyond Live concerts in a row, as NCT 127 is set to perform the weekend after Dream. “Usually, going between the two groups, it can be really difficult because the concepts are so different every time,” Haechan says. “But I like to create my own version of whatever concept is next, whether that’s Dream or 127. I try not to think too much about fitting into each group. It’s more about making the concepts fit me.”

The other members of Dream may want to pay attention to Haechan’s advice—according to a press release from SM, “Renjun, Jeno, Jaemin, Chenle, and Jisung will each carry out their global activities as part of new NCT sub-groups to be launched and announced at a later date,” in addition to any upcoming Dream promotion. While the prospect of new NCT units starring current fan favorites is exciting, it does seem possible that future Dream releases may be few and far between, much like past NCT U singles.

So while 7Dream has been presented as a solution for fans clinging to NCT Dream, it may be a little less cut-and-dried than that. The prospect of splitting up Dream into new subunits, even with the continuation of 7Dream, has some fans understandably worried—after all, it seems like a crime to even temporarily separate BFFs Jaemin and Jeno, who spent a large part of our interview commenting on how “cool and handsome” the other had become since their debut. It’s also worth noting that no NCT U subunit has ever released a full album with a fixed lineup; the closest thing would be 2018’s Empathy, which featured a mélange of songs from every NCT unit, including the single “Black on Black,” featuring every 2018 member of NCT together. But it could also be freeing: an evolution that isn’t a total erasure of the past.

Even if NCT Dream does spend some time apart going forward, the members say they’re proud of all they’ve accomplished together. Chenle’s favorite memory is performing “We Go Up” with all seven members, while Jeno points to their first concert, the Dream Show, as his favorite. According to Jaemin, “every moment that we saw more and more fans around the world listening to our music” stood out most, before Jeno adds, “We grew with our fans, and that’s a really proud and happy thing.”

Fans have plenty of happy memories with NCT Dream, but looking backward has never done any good in attempting to predict NCT’s evolution, and NCT Dream’s past may not shed much light on 7Dream’s future. After all, moving forward is what Dream does best, whether on hoverboards, bikes, or cars. Though it can be frustrating to fans, the genius of NCT’s original concept, and of SM’s initial vision, is that it allows for constant flexibility and development. Combining, changing, and creating groups is exactly the purpose NCT was made for. This time it’ll allow for Dream to keep “ridin’ and rollin’” for many years to come.