The Korean pop industry, or K-pop, is experimental. Over the last few decades, Hallyu, the Korean wave of pop culture, has developed an easily consumable sound that, while highly influenced by American pop culture, is uniquely Korean. So what would happen if non-Koreans attempted to break into the scene and channel that same pop aesthetic? Well, we’re about to find out.
Meet EXP, the world’s first non-Korean boy band, consisting of five musicians and performing artists based in New York City. They're a bunch of cuties for sure. Šime Košta, (24, pronounced “SHE-may,” Capricorn, Blood type O+ because Koreans treat blood type kind of like horoscope signs), grew up in Croatia, where he apparently won the nation's version of Star Search. He's the paternal, sophisticated one. And the one with the manbun.
Koki Tomlinson (22, Aquarius, Blood type A+) is half-Japanese and the one most likely to roll his eyes at what his boy band brothers say. Frankie DaPonte (24, Aquarius, Blood type unknown!), is Portuguese and seems like The Smile of the group. He speaks fast and keeps things positive. Hunter Kohl (26, Cancer, Blood type O+), a New York native, is the lovable goofball who the guys agree does a mean Britney Spears impression. And then there's Tarion Taylor Anderson (23, Aquarius, Blood type unknown) a black Texan, who wasn't able to make it to the interview.
The band has only two songs out, both of which are EDM, synth-heavy tracks. They kind of sound like gay club anthems, which is to say it nails 2014 K-pop on the head. YouTube clips show that they're playing with the trap beats that K-pop producers utilize as well as a more sophisticated pop sound. They sing, they dance, they rap, and right now, all they want is to earn a spot in the K-pop industry.
“We want people to be inspired and want to learn more about us,” DaPonte told me.
“We want people to think and ask questions,” Tomlinson said.
“Not just shoot it down,” Frankie continued. “[Not to say,] ‘Oh well, they’re not Korean so they’re automatically off the chart.'”
I met four members of EXP in their East Harlem studio (not a recording studio, like an art one). Judging by the state of the apartment, it was clear someone was preparing for a big move. There were three giant suitcases on the ground beside a large couch, and a guitar case beside a rack of clothing against the wall.
See, the world’s first non-Korean K-pop boy band is finally going to Korea to take a shot at becoming a real-life touring K-pop group. They want it all: the variety shows, interviews, festivals, and the radio. This is a pretty huge undertaking, given that the mainstream Korean entertainment industry is like an impenetrable fortress, a well-oiled music machine that only rewards those who have been training for years and are lucky.
I caught the band just days before they moved. They admitted they didn’t know exactly what to expect. “We haven’t been introduced to much of the culture,” Tomlinson said. “We have a very basic understanding of it, just because we’ve really only listened to K-pop. We know their artists, we know Korean dramas and we know the very surface level of what Korean culture is, in theory. We all know that Korean culture is very vast and rich.”
EXP, short for “experiment,” came together in November 2014 when the boys all answered an audition call for a boy band posted by Bora Kim, a South Korean artist getting her masters at Columbia University in New York City. For her thesis project, Kim wanted to explore race, masculinity, and pop, and endeavored to create a K-pop group with no Korean members, “grafting” the Korean aesthetic onto foreign bodies.
When a video of an EXP performance surfaced in April of last year, it went viral. “We got this crazy shoutout on social media and we woke up to all these thousands of comments, likes and dislikes,” Košta explained. The rest of the guys chuckled at “dislikes,” because that was probably the understatement of the year.
Backlash is an unwavering constant on the internet, the life force of the world wide web’s definitive lack of chill. Like many other fandoms, K-pop fans are passionate about the music and the idols they love—but on the scale from One Directioners to Beyhive, they flex their loyalty harder than the Beliebers (who stan so hard they kicked Justin Bieber off Instagram). There was an outpouring of criticism—much of which came in the form of YouTube response videos from non-Korean K-pop fans—accusing EXP of cultural appropriation, jacking the name of beloved K-pop band EXO, or worse, simply making fun of their oppas, that is, their daddies.
“People thought we were mocking K-pop or that we weren’t serious about it and were just making fun of it. Hopefully by now we’ve proved them wrong,” Košta said. When the whole story came to light, and more people found out about the actual academic and artistic backstory of the project, things changed and the criticism relented.
After wrapping up their final performance for Kim's masters thesis, EXP realized that while they largely dwelled in the art world with performances at MOMA and Art Basel in Miami, they saw the potential for a real pop crossover. “I think once we saw how well we worked together writing music, creating music, we all felt like it would be a shame not to give this a proper go,” DaPonte said. They launched a Kickstarter and were able to raise $30,600 for their debut mini-album—they plan to release it when they arrive in Korea.
“Once we got a taste of what K-pop was and is now becoming, I think we all became so fascinated with this whole other world,” DaPonte said. "It’s such a great thing to be a part of. It’s a performer’s dream.”
“It incorporates so many different things,” Košta added. “It’s not just about awesome, feel-good music. There’s a visual aspect to it: choreography, fashion. I mean, come on, it’s just mind-blowing.”
“We’re not the exact replica of what a K-pop group is over there,” Tomlinson said. “It’s actually very funny, because we all come from very different music backgrounds, and then we come together and make this pop EDM dance music.”
The K-pop industry is known for its borderline militaristic approach to creating pop stars. Boys and girls are refining their singing and dancing for years before making their debut. “Their effort is so insane and amazing, and it shows, too," DaPonte said. "Their training, the way they do it, is absolutely inspiring.”
While the American approach to the music industry is nowhere near as stringent, the guys have been working hard and keeping busy as they prepare to uproot their entire lives. While their schedules change depending on whether or not they’re performing that week, every day they work on songwriting and choreography. They've also done a fair amount of live performances at art galleries and other spaces in New York.
EXP is eager to take on the immense industry that lies ahead of them in Korea—which has yet to acknowledge them—but it seems that the biggest barrier facing them is also the most immediate: language. EXP’s songs do contain Korean lyrics, but none of the members are native Korean speakers. They're hoping to make up for that by taking Korean language lessons over Skype multiple times a week, along with using a bevy of language apps and programs. Right now they write the lyrics together in English and their manager Kim translates them to Korean. But the message often gets lost in translation.
“We have a certain meaning we want in the song, and [she translates] it to Korean and then gives us the direct English translation, so we end up with three [sets of] lyrics that are very, very different," Tomlinson explained.
“I think we wrote some lyrics where it was like, ‘We’re not going to sleep until sunrise, You better come party with us,’ and the translation was like ‘There’s a big happening party happening! Come on down!’” Kohl said, assuming the voice and mannerisms of a carnival promoter from the 1920s.
Each member of EXP is animated—after all, they’re musical theater kids. They slip in and out of characters, make inside jokes, and poke fun at each other relentlessly (Košta takes the brunt of it). They certainly have the chemistry and closeness that fans die over, but they’re still learning how to project that elusive Korean idol masculinity, a hunkiness that’s a little more nuanced there than it is in the U.S.
“The way that masculinity is performed especially in K-pop idol groups, it’s kind of very humble, innocent, unassuming, and approachable,” Kohl said. “Compared to American pop stars, [who are] overtly sexy, in your face, confident, [with] a little slight arrogance, cockiness.”
And then there’s the eyeliner. “A lot of K-pop stars wear tons of makeup and eyeliner and eyeshadow, and it looks great on them,” DaPonte said. “We tried to do that and it doesn’t work the same way.” In order to carefully tread that line between earnest authenticity and parody or even homage, EXP has had to pick and choose certain aspects of K-pop that suit them.
“We grew to learn that certain things just don’t translate,” DaPonte said.
“We looked like a preppy heavy metal band,” Kohl said.
“His look was like the first step in a drag queen tutorial just because it translates the same way [as drag],” DaPonte said, pointing to Kohl.
“Miscommunication can happen very easily with such a complex and nuanced product, but we have to really limit it and say, ‘Okay, so in K-pop they can wear eyeliner, but if the boys [of EXP] wear it, it reads as, 'Oh this is Green Day,' and we don’t want it to be read as satire or punk in Korea,” Karin Kuroda, EXP's co-creator and editorial manager, told me.
“We have nothing but the utmost respect for K-pop and Korean culture in general, and we are honored to get an opportunity to be part of it and hopefully contribute to it with our own music and with our own ideas,” Košta said.
When I first met EXP, I still wasn’t sure where the band stood on the spectrum of sincere attempt to make it as a boy band to brilliant Exit Through the Gift Shop-esque meta-satire. Other forms of parody have been done before, but no other non-Korean attempts at engaging with K-pop by making music have stirred conversations like this.
To call EXP cultural appropriation is to deny the fact that K-pop itself is rife with imagery and sounds ripped from American culture, and specifically black American culture. To say that the band, created and managed by three Asian women, isn’t doing anything new is to ignore the deep sexism that pervades Korea’s music industry. Yes, these men are probably in for a huge culture shock, but maybe the K-pop machine is, too. That is, if EXP succeeds.
“We gotta cross that bridge first,” Tomlinson said.
“We could have people outside our apartment waiting for pictures or throwing eggs,” DaPonte joked.
“Either way we’ll be grateful for them,” Košta said warmly, as the guys cracked up. “Very blessed.”