AI Meets Kpop? aespa, SM Entertainment’s Newest Girl Group Makes Hot Debut

aespa kpop girl group SM Entertainment
Source: SM Entertainment

Straight out of a neon-painted dream, aespa is the newest Kpop quartet making hot news at the moment. What’s so special about them, you ask? Well, each of the four members also has a digital avatar to enrich and enhance fan experience.

The dream, as Ashley Too would say, is to “be best friends with your favorite pop star!”

Amid a flurry of controversy and ethical debate, the music video of Black Mamba, aespa’s debut single, was released on November 17, 2020, and amassed 21.4 million views in the first 24 hours, breaking the record for the biggest debut by a group, previously held by ITZY

SM is known for pushing boundaries with its ‘concept-based’ groups. EXO, exuding the otherworldly aura of EXOPLANET and split into EXO-K and EXO-M was a power move. Then came RedVelvet which combined bubbly, playful vibes with a velvety, sensual feel. NCT, with their neo-culture technology, quite literally transcended boundaries as a dynamic boy group split into units and getting newer additions of remarkably talented members from around the globe- a living, breathing testament to the transnational development of music. The agenda was further polished via SuperM, the ‘Avengers of Kpop,’ bringing together the best of the best, the gems of SM. 

The idea of a virtual group isn’t exactly new. Revealed at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, K/DA became a viral pop collaboration between kpop idols Jeon Soyeon and Cho Miyeon of the group (G)I-dle and the American singers Jaira Burns and Madison Beer who voiced the four characters Akali, Ahri, Kay’Sa and Evelynn respectively in the hit single Pop/Stars. The massive stage at the event was a spectacular display of both augmented reality and the singers’ power-packed performance, opening doors for further collabs between the gaming world and Kpop and holographic concerts. 

Veterans may also remember Gorillaz, the virtual band formed in 1998. Virtual idols have an even older history, specifically in Japan, the most famous of those hailing from there being the Vocaloid idol Hatsune Miku. What separates aespa from its precedents and is at the center of the debates surrounding the group is the coexistence of the human idols alongside their digital alter egos and how intrinsically they appear to be tied. 

Who is aespa?

At the first World Cultural Industry Forum in October 2020, Mr. Lee unveiled his plans about aespa, whose members will be able to transcend the real world boundaries with the support of their AI-empowered digital counterparts. The SM Chairman said:

“We are now facing not only COVID-19, but also another disease, climate variability, and other turbulent variables that human beings may not expect at any time. We are in the era of the next industrial revolution. As technology advances in the future, more changes will occur in human lifestyles, and as we have said, the future world will be celebrities and robots.”

As revealed in an SMTOWN post, the key letters of the group name aespa, ae, refer to the amalgamation of ‘Avatar X Experience’ and animating this vision of elevated fan experience are Karina, Winter, Giselle and NingNing, along with their avatars ae-Karina, ae-Winter, ae-Giselle and ae-NingNing respectively whom the girls have met through the platform SYNK and refer to as their “BF,” “friend or sister.”

As the opening project of the SM Cultural Universe, this group has been meticulously created with members who were trained over a period of five years for the venture. The individual SYNK teaser releases showed the Korean members Winter and Karina excelling in vocals and dance respectively while NingNing, the Chinese member also stunned with her voice and Giselle who is Japanese flaunted her rapping skills. Each aespa member is assigned a symbol and an animal to shape their personalities and storytelling. 

The future of Kpop?

The Hallyu wave doing a global sweep has given a push to certain aspects of music all over- physical album sales, integrated stages, aesthetic music videos, polished concepts and backstories and an all-rounder approach. BTS mapped uncharted territory in a plethora of ways, one of them being the creation of the Bangtan Universe with a transmedia approach to appeal to and engage with fans with a tangled fictional setup. 

From the looks of it, SMCU seems to be extending that idea into building a grand, all-encompassing narrative that will weave together the activities of the idols along with their digital avatars. Gathering from the ‘MY, KARINA’ video uploaded on aespa’s youtube channel, the ae-avatars appear not as the digital selves of the members themselves but distinct entities who support and encourage them in their endeavors, the bond strengthened in a typical Gen-Z online friendship. They may more appropriately be understood as the surreal ‘Other’ who exists to validate the existence of the real-life idol.

aespa MY, KARINA
Source: SM Entertainment

A glance through the comment section of aespa’s debut music video will let you know how amazed the audience is, many exclaiming that aespa is “everything they want in a group.” The group is tailor-made to cater to swelling desires and expectations and fill the lacuna of intimate engagement between idol and fan. 

When the girls performed for the first time alongside the holographic projections of their avatars, it was quite fittingly called ‘The Debut Stage,’ considering its production value that would put most actual music videos to shame. Glimmering in jewel tones, aespa sang to a tight choreography, smoothly sliding into their personas and setting the bar for performances higher.

Why is it making people uncomfortable? 

There are certainly many benefits of this conceptualization, if done right, besides the obvious allure for today’s digital generation that is continuously looking for something new to captivate their often fleeting interests. By engaging with their digital avatars, the members of aespa can be allowed sufficient time to rest and recuperate, especially in times of physical injuries or worsening mental health, the latter of which SM is notoriously known to handle poorly. Kpop idols are often deemed overworked and this might be a solution to that.

Allegations of fetishism, artifice and dehumanization have commonly been levied against South East Asian pop industries, more so when the boundaries between the real and the virtual are blurred. While some think of it as pioneering entertainment technology and harmless fun, some consider such steps as equivalent to the artist or the idol further losing control of their narrative, further feeding into the “highly manufactured” outlook that is still wielded to dismiss Kpop. 

With SM basically playing genie in this unprecedented move aimed at bringing the idols closer to their fans, it might do well to practice caution and ask if this might enable pedophiles, fetishizers and sasaengs, the last of which are already a grave, physical threat to idols. Does this daring and novel ‘concept’ take commodification to a whole new level and add another dimension to “over-produced”? Or has the ‘formula’ of the ultimate group finally been perfected to emulate success?

Earlier this year, the CEO of Bighit Entertainment (BTS’s label), Bang Si Hyuk had expressed hope for a sequel to the Renaissance, catapulting artistic revolution and innovation. Interestingly, Lee Soo Man addresses the times as another “industrial revolution.” The chosen words bring an array of connotations, the most prominent of which is perhaps the alienation that was brought by mechanization in the nineteenth century. Real idols have high sustenance costs and always fall short of perfect. Can they compete with their digital avatars or will they be rendered disposable?

Another thing to be noted is how the ae-avatars don’t bear much resemblance to the actual aespa members, something that became glaringly obvious upon the reveal of NingNing’s avatar whom netizens instantly likened to Blackpink’s Lisa. Is there, then, also a chance that the actual idols are replaceable? There are deeper philosophical questions to ask as well. Is what we see as a digital utopia actually a sad truth of the present world? As beings of a post-humanist origin, it will be intriguing to see how we react to this dawn of the post-human era of music and entertainment.

No matter what direction the rhetoric advances to, it is indubitable that the four women who’ve embodied this vision and brought aespa to life are young, beautiful and brimming with talent, ready to face the challenges and reach another pinnacle of performance and artistry.