With SM Entertainment’s newly formed supergroup, SuperM, the company hopes to reclaim its dominance as the genre continues to push into the U.S. mainstream.
There have been hip-hop collectives and rock supergroups, but SM Entertainment’s SuperM is being touted by the company as a boy band full of leading men -- and K-pop’s most impressive lineup to date, with seven members from SM’s most successful and still-active groups.
“I see this as a new challenge,” says EXO vocalist Baekhyun, who at 27 is the oldest member of SuperM and has emerged as its leader. “There are a lot of expectations, because even though this is new, each of us comes from a different [popular] group. But there’s this awesome synergy between us.”
The group -- which will release its self-titled debut EP on Oct. 4 -- also consists of EXO’s Kai, 25, who recently became the global face of Gucci’s new eyewear campaign; WayV’s Lucas, the 20-year-old Hong Kong-born rapper, and Ten, the 23-year-old Thai artist; NCT 127’s Canadian songwriter-rapper Mark, 20, and 24-year-old leader Taeyong; and Taemin, 26, who has been in the industry the longest, joining SHINee at 14. “Our team is the aces of aces,” says Taemin.
EXO has scored four No. 1s on Billboard’s World Albums chart; in January, WayV debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s Social 50 ranking; NCT 127 performed on Good Morning America in April; and SHINee has won the Seoul Music Awards’ popularity honor twice.
As for SuperM, its name is a nod to its roots at Korean company SM Entertainment, formed in 1995 by producer Lee Soo-man. Since then, SM has expanded K-pop’s reach, first in Asia and then in the United States. Earlier this year, SM partnered with Capitol Music Group to build a bigger following for NCT 127 in the States. And in August, the two companies, along with Capitol’s independent distribution and label services division Caroline, announced they would launch SuperM together.
Capitol CEO Steve Barnett says SuperM will “be part of our legacy to the future,” and calls Lee the “godfather” of K-pop. Lee’s résumé proves as much. In 1996, SM introduced H.O.T., largely considered the first K-pop idol group, and has continued to produce acts with stateside appeal.
Many South Korean entertainment companies have followed suit: Big Hit’s BTS has had three Billboard 200 No. 1 albums; this summer, YG’s Blackpink became the first female K-pop group to perform at Coachella; and Starship Entertainment’s Monsta X collaborated this year with French Montana on a Mainstream Top 40 hit. All three have redefined what U.S. success can look like for Korean pop groups in the second half of this decade. And while SuperM may seem like SM’s latest effort to rival its competitors, it’s equally an attempt to revive one of SM’s key sonic legacies: SMP, or SM Music Performance. The company-created term refers to dance performances set to a fusion of pop-rock, R&B and hip-hop production. SMP was best illustrated by early-2000s releases from record-breaking boy band TVXQ!, which in June 2018 became the best-selling foreign touring act in Japan, and Super Junior, which has had 21 top 20 hits on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart.
SM has had U.S. crossover success before: In 2009, BoA became the first-ever K-pop star to enter the Billboard 200, and in 2012, Girls’ Generation performed on the Late Show With David Letterman. In June, NCT 127 debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 with its We Are Superhuman EP. But SuperM, with its blockbuster lineup, is SM’s effort to lead the K-pop conversation in the U.S. market, as it once did in the early ’00s.
“I don’t want to compare SuperM to any of the other groups at SM, but if I had to describe [what] sets us apart, it’s the performance element,” says Taemin. “It’s not just dance, but includes vocals and rapping, where each member can showcase his ability and shine in a different way, that maybe they can’t in other groups.”
So far, SuperM has been tight-lipped about the sound and style of its album and doesn’t plan to share any tracks ahead of the set other than the already-released instrumental version of “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” One thing it has made clear, though, is its goal: “We’re doing something futuristic and more advanced than what the world has ever seen,” says Mark.
SuperM also arrives at a time when SM shareholders are demanding change. In July, SM rearranged its upper leadership at SM Entertainment Group and subsidiary SM Contents & Culture, and announced it would look to divest less-than-profitable business ventures -- mainly the SMTOWN Coex Artium complex in Seoul, a museum, café, theater and store that opened in 2015. If SuperM becomes a crossover success, the company could solidify its footing.
Despite the fact that SuperM already has debuted on Billboard’s Artist 100 chart without releasing a stitch of music, K-pop fans have expressed trepidation over its assembly. Immediately after Barnett and Lee announced SuperM at August’s Capitol Congress -- Capitol’s annual pep rally and presentation of upcoming releases — the hashtag #SuperMDisbandParty was created, as fans, concerned over how the supergroup would impact the futures of their favorite existing K-pop acts, demanded that SM and Capitol abandon the project.
SuperM isn’t fazed. Its members want to prove how strong they are as a whole -- especially when they’re together onstage. (The group is currently in rehearsals, but announced in a teaser Tuesday that it will be making its first-ever performance in Los Angeles at Capitol Records on Oct. 5 -- one day after the release of its debut EP.) “It’s always important to take the next step when people might not expect it,” says Mark. “We always try to make that challenge into something great for the fans -- and for us, as well.”
SM Entertainment’s Pre-SuperM Supergroups
S.M. the Ballad: SM vocalists from TRAX, Super Junior (and its sub-unit Super Junior-M), SHINee, TVXQ!, Girls’ Generation and EXO -- and two former SM members, one of whom is now in Cube Entertainment’s boy band Pentagon -- released two EPs under the name S.M. the Ballad. In 2010, one grouping recorded Miss You; in 2014, another recorded Breath, which hit No. 9 on Billboard’s World Albums chart.
Younique: In 2012, South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai Motor Company unveiled its new marketing campaign, “Premium Younique Lifestyle,” and worked with SM to debut a supergroup in promotion. Within two months, Younique -- members of EXO, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, Super Junior and Super Junior-M -- released PYL Younique Volume 1, featuring singer-songwriter BoA and rappers Dok2 and The Quiett.
SM The Performance: The choreography-heavy team has released only two singles since it formed in 2012, and they arrived five years apart. The group debuted with a Korean remix of Zedd’s “Spectrum” (off his 2012 debut album, Clarity) featuring members from TVXQ!, Super Junior, SHINee and EXO. And in 2017, it released “Dream in a Dream,” a solo single from WayV’s Ten that was branded a group track.