Supremely popular boy group EXO has returned to the forefront after a full year, dominating the charts once again with their newest album The War. The veteran group has been constantly topping the K-Pop charts since their big break into the music scene with “Growl.” Today we will take a trip down memory lane from EXO’s early days to their rise to stardom.
The Debut Concept, EXO-K and EXO-M
It is well-known K-Pop fandom lore that the aesthetics chosen for most debut concepts tend to be particularly cringe-worthy as time passes and a group grows into its own sound and look. This seems to be especially true for many SM Entertainment rookies even nowadays (NCT 127’s “Firetruck” fashion, anyone?). Originally, EXO’s concept involved each of the 12 members having a certain superpower, spanning from time control to light manipulation. The debut music video for “MAMA” is infamous among EXO-L’s for its extensive (and incredibly extra) narration at the beginning that explained the concept in a rather cryptic fashion. To explain the split between the 12 members, the narration added a backstory involving the split of the “Tree of Life” and explained through a slew of metaphors that basically, the two separate groups, EXO-K and EXO-M, are two sides of the same coin.
Despite the rather strange choice in aesthetics, “MAMA” is an incredibly catchy debut track that no doubt garnered the group quite a bit of attention for its differences from what could be considered cookie-cutter K-Pop melodies. To this day, “MAMA” is still a favorite of mine.
“HISTORY,” released a month later, continued the trend of EXO’s debut concept but focused more on the dancing abilities of the group. The most memorable portion of this dance is affectionately referred to by fans as “The Pants Dance.” While there are still elements of the supernatural abilities concept, the specifics are all but abandoned from this point forward.
Two Become One
A year passed before EXO returned to the spotlight, this time as a full 12 member group. Dropping the EXO-K and EXO-M titles for the time being, all members participated in both the Korean and Chinese versions of their title “Wolf.” “Wolf” received quite the mixed reaction from the general public and fans alike and is even to this day not fully taken seriously. This is understandable considering the lyrics in the chorus are “그래 Wolf 내가 Wolf,” which literally translate to “Yes, wolf, I’m a wolf.” The 12 members’ superpowers concept is completely deserted, with the only remaining supernatural element being the idea that each member is now a wolf.
Despite the fact that the lyrics tend to be particularly cringe-worthy, EXO still has a rather strong ability to make the song musically catchy. And even with the polarizing response to “Wolf,” the group still managed to gain their first win. (Look at Suho!)
“Growl,” along with the repackaged album of XOXO, was no doubt the catalyst to EXO’s stardom. “Growl” by far had the most wide-ranged general appeal with the group dropping the supernatural concept completely and replacing it with the schoolboy image. On top of that, the vocals and choreography are absolutely stunning, so it’s no wonder that this was where EXO hit it big.