SuperM, marketed as “the Avengers of K–pop,” has been rocking televised stages with empty audiences this year. Formed in 2019 by SM Entertainment, one of the biggest companies in the K–pop industry, the members all come from well–established groups on the SM roster including EXO, NCT 127, Shinee, and WayV. SuperOne, which came out on Sept. 25th, is the supergroup’s first full–length album, and ended up falling short of its high commercial expectations.
If SM had emphasized the hidden gems of the album, not only would the album have been more successful, it would’ve given the group a more comprehensive image. Instead, repetitive singles doomed the album to mediocrity.
Of course, fans had high expectations. SuperM is packed with talent and experience. Baekhyun, the group’s leader and main vocalist, is a serious vocalist from EXO. The main dancer, Kai, also from EXO, is one of the most talented in the industry. Taemin from Shinee, a main vocalist, has a unique, milky voice along with a delicate and precise dance style. Ten from WayV, a lead dancer and vocalist, sounds thin and sharp with a hint of raspiness and is known for his pop–dancing. Taeyong and Mark from NCT 127 are the main rappers, known for delivering satisfying verses like punches. Rounding it off is Lucas from WayV, a lead rapper and the unofficial visual of the group, with a delicate, deep voice.
Despite the superstars that compose the group, SM failed to capitalize on their innate popularity, opting to market the flashiest, catchiest singles. K–pop companies, particularly SM, have long been criticized for not giving artists creative freedom. For a group like SuperM, with a well–established label backing their finances and famous members to bolster their popularity, you'd imagine the company would allow for more creative freedom and risks. But SM seems to be focusing more on presenting the group as exactly “the Avengers of K–Pop”— a group that produces intense, high–speed tracks that could be soundtracks for movie fight scenes.
SuperM has not released enough songs for an extensive comparison—they released just one full album and one EP since SM formed them last year. But so far, their singles and music videos have featured many—perhaps too many—common themes. For example, Baekhyun always pauses dancing to belt a high note for the climax while he stands off to the side. Taemin has a very similar dance solo each time, and Ten gets the same camera angles. And although it’s true that the members each have assigned roles, Baekhyun and Taemin, the main vocalists, always sing something similar in each song, and Mark and Taeyong, the main rappers, always rap something with the same vibe. There’s not much variety in the compositions or the dances, even though each artist is versatile and talented. In short, SM seems to be playing it safe—too safe. With little room for creativity, these artists are not allowed to showcase their versatile talents.
More importantly, SM is motivated by a fear of failure: The company chooses to use the same musical and thematic elements in most of the songs and videos, even if that means each single just feels repetitive. “100” epitomized this, which is probably why it didn’t perform as well as the other songs. Not only that, but it also has an amazing build–up that ends in a weak finale, which is fatal for energetic songs like “100” that rely on a satisfying climax.
It would be a lie, though, to say that the singles are completely bad; they're just a bit one–dimensional. It's true that the most heavily marketed singles from SuperOne and the previous EP mostly consist of powerful bops that fit with the aforementioned Avengers theme. Just like those movies, they're supercharged with energy, featuring extreme EDM overlapped with spitfire rap or silky voices in equal spades. The themes are futuristic: the sound effects bring to mind images of clean and cutting–edge high–tech. The beats pulse like the heartbeats of a massive army getting ready for a battle in the sky. Their build–ups and ultimate climax catapult the listener forward into the future and upwards into the stratosphere and beyond. When you close your eyes, you can see blinking neon lights, sleek sheets of metal, and high–speed jets.
When you open your eyes, you see this imagery realized exceptionally well through highly–produced music videos. They have well–planned camera angles and placements, Avenger–like aesthetics, energetic dances, and plenty of movement. The lights keep flashing as if you’re in a constant state of emergency, expensive cars zoom by at the speed of sound towards, presumably, some kind of important mission. There’s a thermal video of Kai (main dancer, lead vocalist, and sub–rapper) scaling a building, and more. Even the outfits look fittingly futuristic and hype: black suits and black boots with several buckles, sharp and colorful suits, and army outfits with a Gucci twist.
But SM leaves some of the best songs in the dust. The second half of SuperOne shows the softer side of the artists that hasn't been showcased in the singles. “Big Chance,” “Better Days,” and “Wish You Were Here” ride on slower tempos and melancholy tones that showcase different skill sets from the artists. Slower raps make you tilt your head back and look up at the ceiling, while melodic vocals drip honey. “Better Days” is especially touching, reminding the listener of nostalgic days as kids when you could be “young, dumb, living carefree.” It’s sad to realize that those days have passed, but it simultaneously reminds you of the hope that’s been moving you forward all this time. These songs show more soul. But SM seems to have deemed them unworthy of attention because they do not fit the highly–produced "Avengers" theme they focus on.
Don’t get me wrong, SuperM is still doing fine. Even though it’s not performing commercially as well as expected, its chart and sales metrics are solid, and the music is motivating and addicting. The music videos are quite the experience: The set design is mind–blowing, and the costumes are good fun. And of course, the artists always deliver to the best of their ability. Baekhyun and Taemin’s voices still give eargasms, Mark and Taeyong’s raps are still satisfying, Ten shows off his exquisitely unique style, Lucas’ deep voice wraps around your brain, and Kai’s dance helps you feel the beats of the music even more acutely. But it could have been better.
In the end, despite the amazing deep cuts, SM's rollout strategy remains unexceptional. SM should give more focus to the songs that highlight diversity in mood and style, or give more creative freedom to the artists themselves, who have already proved their worth in previous groups.
Blinded by the need to meet expectations, SM seems to have forgotten that music needs story and emotion. Just like how the Avengers movies show the human struggles and emotions that drive the characters to the ultimate fight scenes, musicians need to bare their souls. The flashy fight scenes and pulse–pounding music may be exciting, but human emotion gives it a reason to exist. In this way, SM’s experiment SuperM and the group's debut album, SuperOne, has shown the pitfalls of being too formulaic and predictable.