reality is weirder than you think

Tag: nct 127

Reinventing the NCT concept

I have so many thoughts about NCT 2018 Empathy. So many. Most of them are not positive, but I remain hopeful.

If you’re just joining this comeback cycle, I was not a huge fan of NCT U’s “Boss” but liked NCT Dream’s “Go” despite my dreamies being all grown up. The more I listen to “Go,” the more of a Haechan appreciator I’m become. His voice is gorgeous and he uses it impeccably. (“Boss” is growing on me, ngl. Listening to it on headphones is like suddenly going underwater and seeing all the coral reefs and fishes when previously you were just been dog paddling above the surface.)

However, that brings us to NCT 127 and “Touch.” Writing about it means that I should post the music video on my channel and for that I hate myself a little bit.

This video makes me cringe.

It’s clear that Dream and 127 swapped concepts for this comeback, with Dream taking the hard-edged grotty urban-inflected hip-hop sound, and 127 covering the squeaky-clean brightly lit bubblegum pop arena. However, unlike Dream’s previous singles (even “Chewing Gum”), “Touch” doesn’t have a twist, or a nudge-and-wink, or a naughty streak. It’s just plain, simple bright smiles and boyfriend material.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that–there certainly isn’t. But it isn’t why I started listening to NCT and certainly isn’t what attracts me to k-pop.

I recognize that I’m not the typical fan (I’m older than most of their target market), because I see the younger fans clearly enjoying the visuals of all the members in this comeback. And yes, they are all very good looking. But I miss the gonzo NCT styling which even applied to Dream when they were promoting. There are no fur hats or eyeball rings and shark jackets or fantasy military jackets. Or Gucci on a hoverboard.

It’s not just the visuals that bother me, though. The actual song “Touch” is really corporate sounding, like you’d stick it into a commercial for an off-brand soda. Frankly, it sounds like a reject from EXO’s winter album that some underling producer got stuck with trying to “funk it up” for NCT.

Which brings us to the Empathy album as a whole, which someone remarked should be called NCT 2016-2018 since it contains all the assorted non-album releases since NCT debuted. “Black on Black,” all of the NCT U songs. NCT U’s “The Seventh Sense” was the first song that drew me to NCT, and if I had discovered it on an album like Empathy, I don’t know if I would have explored more. (Of course it was Dream’s “My First and My Last” that really got me. NCT Dream is secretly everybody’s favorite.)

Specifically, I dislike albums that are all single and no b-side. Even with the intro and outro, there’s no reason for me to listen to Empathy on its own. NCT has always been weak in their discography–partly because they’re still experimenting with their sound but also because they only have mini albums and don’t have a body of work built up like a band like EXO or Big Bang did. Granted, the inherent structure of NCT’s design would make it more difficult to build up a body of coherent work, because they’re built up of subunits with different themes and sounds.

Even more specifically, I’m really disappointed by the song “Yest0day.” Interesting title, not a bad hook, fantastic rap from Mark (who is really starting to hone his chops), all ruined by an idiotic rap from Lucas. One of the main reasons I like k-pop is that even when the rap is simplistic or lacking finesse it’s not dumb. I hate dumb rap where they take a word and then rhyme it five times in a row without any rhythmic variation or wordplay or anything. Mark delivers the opposite of that. So does Taeyong. But Lucas the Usurper? No more dumb rap, please.

Now. Granted. Part of this sounds like the knee-jerk reaction of someone who is protective of a fledgling k-pop group. And that is true, I like NCT and being a person high in openness, I like the idea of an ever-expanding group that can shift to accommodate different musical styles and moods.

But it’s hard to watch SM deliberately crash the original NCT concept. One of the benefits of doing it now is that I know that I won’t have to watch it happen in slow motion, when producers run out of ideas and the concepts all start to morph slowly into each other and enough members leave that all the subunits are consolidated to keep the group alive. At least we don’t have that future.

Maybe (hah) this means that we can get more clarity out of future NCT subunits, who will emerge to deposit a well-conceived package of music into our earballs before evaporating back into the nebulous NCT mothership. (Isn’t that what the concept was supposed to be anyway?)

I suspect that the deliberate switching of Dream and 127’s concepts, plus the cataloging of U’s random singles into one album, serves as a zeroing-out for the group. I think this is supposed to be a new start, a time for all the subunits to develop empathy for each other’s concepts and learn how to work together or whatever. However they promote from this point forward, it won’t be the NCT that we started with.

On the plus side, SM is always A/B testing, so I’m hoping we’ll get something stronger out of this. The concepts for both Super Junior and EXO crashed too, and both groups did alright for themselves.


PS: SM Entertainment, this is my request for an official Mark/Haechan subunit.

Let’s talk about NCT 127

NCT 127 released “Limitless” in January 2017. It’s great (although I’m a bit biased — it’s my favorite of their singles). The lyrics are super-inspiring — about pushing yourself and exploring the limits of your talent — and I love when k-pop lyrics bend backwards to focus on their own group instead of singing another version of the generic love song.

The sound mixing on this one is different from a lot of k-pop. It’s dirty, grotty, grimy, built on an unrelenting bass line that creates a layer of underlying noise, which is both transcended by (notably singers Doyoung and Taeil) and mirrored in (Taeyong’s deep rap talent) the vocals to fantastic effect. It’s surprising, ESPECIALLY for a k-pop group out of SM Entertainment.

This comeback came with two music videos, of which the dance performance version is far stronger. The choreography is stellar, and of course the NCT boys perform it flawlessly. Plus, Taeil wears a jacket that looks like a shark.

You really can’t go wrong with sharks.

But apparently something HAS gone wrong in NCT-land, because 127 released a new version of “Limitless” this week and it violates quite a number of conventions.

It’s been over 6 months since the original Limitless comeback, and NCT 127 has gone through an entirely new era of music since then. (Cherry Bomb, for those of you who aren’t stalking them on YouTube like I am.)

The entire concept of NCT 127 was to promote based in Seoul, and this video is in Japanese. In fact, not only are the lyrics changed to Japanese, but the mix is different (bright and futuristic) and an entirely new video has been shot, that keeps the grotty NCT 127 trappings but makes them shinier (and one presumes more friendly to the Japanese market).

Twice has been cleaning up in Japan recently, and I could see SM jumping on that model. NCT 127’s Yuta is from Osaka, and he’s very charismatic in the way that Twice’s Japanese members also are.

NCT 127 is no longer confined to promoting in Seoul. Rather, they’re being sent out farther in Asia to promote. They’ve also been attending fanmeetings in Thailand.

This means that like the defunct concepts of Super Junior (one constantly rotating group of juniors to splinter off new groups each year) and EXO (one group, but two simultaneously-promoting subunits), the NCT concept is also dead. NCT was created to be a group with limitless members, breaking off into subunits based on geographical region and/or other concepts. NCT U was “proof of concept,” showcasing SM’s willingness to experiment with musical styles and their dedication to finding Actual Rappers. NCT 127 was the flagship, promoting in Seoul — but which hasn’t caught fire in Korea yet. (Wake up, Korea, these boys are great.) And then there’s NCT Dream, a SuJu-like group made up of the teenage members of the NCT overgroup.

I suspect that Ten, the Thai member of NCT who so far has only debuted with NCT U, was tapped to be the leader of the NCT-Thai group. SM held auditions in Thailand in Spring/Summer 2016. Nothing has materialized yet. Ten’s behavior in backstage videos (fun, but not necessarily leader material) and his “only” 4 million view SM Station test case, Dream in a Dream, probably put the nail in that coffin.

SM does a lot of A/B testing before they unleash a concept onto the world, and it’s looking like the concept of an ever-expanding worldwide NCT will not happen. Also, NCT stopped introducing themselves with “To the world…” which is sad because it was super endearing.

Anyway, while I’m glad that NCT 127 is sticking around, and I’m glad that SM is putting backing behind them, I’m a little sad to see the weird NCT concept go by the wayside.

Visual style connections in a k-pop group

NCT 127 has backed off from heavy promotions of their summer album Cherry Bomb (which is quite delicious and I highly recommend a listen if you’re so inclined). However, they still come out for public appearances every now and again because SM knows how to feed the voracious internet fandom content-consuming machine.

Here are the NCT 127 boys at an appearance (guest hosting?) beats1 radio this week.

For the uninitiated // Top: Win Win, Taeyong, Johnny, Jaehyun // Middle: Taeil, Mark // Bottom: Doyoung, Yuta, Haechan

This photo reminds me how much I enjoy the styling of NCT 127. They are always impeccably group-oriented, from their outrageous urban stagewear to appearances like this which are very casual. Each member has his own individual style, but those styles blend into a visually cohesive whole — texture, color, it’s all in balance.

(Seriously, I have literally paused live performances of NCT 127 during the Limitless era just to marvel at the balance of costuming. I should do a post on it.)

On the group level

Color palette: black, white, dark blue, precisely three accents of red (and one echo of pink hair)

Repeated pattern types across members

  • Spaced-out, white based negative space (Win Win’s palm trees and Taeil’s … running men?)
  • Text (Taeyong, Jaehyun, Win Win’s hat, and maybe Haechan’s sleeves if you squint)
  • Densely packed patterns (Mark’s plaid and Johnny’s camo)
  • Poor Doyoung’s red rugby-striped shirt is all lonely (however, it talks to Haechan’s red hair and Taeil’s red shoes)

Repeated outfit “tropes” across members

  • Black hats: Win Win, Taeyong, Mark
  • Unbuttoned shirts: Win Win, Taeil, Jaehyun, Yuta, and maybe you can count Taeyong with his jacket
  • Casual, tousled hairstyles

I realize that I am reading a lot into this picture, but I don’t for a second believe that an entertainment powerhouse like SM Entertainment that literally coaches its trainees on how to describe and market each and every single that they promote doesn’t image-manage their artists for every possible public appearance.

On the individual level

  • Taeyong is wearing Gucci and a jacket: our fearless leader is repping his visual status as usual.
  • Johnny is wearing something vaguely weird, as usual. He tends to get baggy tops.
  • Jaehyun is wearing something with an urban feel.
  • Mark is showing a lot of sock, which has been his thing lately.
  • Haechan is wearing shorts, again, his thing.
  • Yuta appears to be wearing a black shirt and pants under his blue overshirt — the stylists have been going with a “column of color” look for him lately and it’s looking good on him.
  • Win Win kind of looks like a 12 year old boy…which he tends to do always anyway.
  • Doyoung has long, oversized sleeves.
  • Taeil tends to own the “collard shirt over shirt” look in the NCT 127 group.

You can see some of these same outfit types echoed in the stagewear/red carpet appearance that I overanalyzed and distilled into an infographic.

In conclusion, NCT 127 tones down their batshit-yet-impeccable style for casual appearances and still looks perfect.


Variation in NCT 127 pant length as an infographic

K-Con LA is happening this weekend. NCT 127 (bless their hearts) is there, like the up-and-coming soon-to-take-over-the-world group that they are.

And while I’m not in love with their styling like I was during the Limitless era (something about slapping a sloppy tie on an outfit rubs me the wrong way), they still look great. K-pop group styling is in a league of its own, because it has to feature individuals within a group, while also distinguishing the group from all the other K-pop groups. Wheels within wheels, my friend.

For this round of promotions, SM Entertainment’s stylists have been styling the boys with relatively standard tops–ties over athletic wear–but varying the pant length and sock ratio for each member. Jaehyun and Yuta both get long pants, usually flowy or loose. They are the cool guys. Mark and Haechan, the maknae line, and Taeil (the mat-nae; he’s the oldest member with a nickname as the youngest) get shorts and tall socks. The rest of the members get various combinations of shoe vamp height, sock, and rolled pants.

Usually when you look across a K-pop group, there’s variation among the height of the members. In the photo above, there’s very little variation of height, but there’s much more focus on the variation in pant length.

Being the nerd that I am, I decided to make an infographic. I also calculated what percentage of each member’s outfit is made up of pants (not counting headbands or hats, since not all members are wearing one). I should also specify that this is visible pants; some members clearly have shirts layered over their pants but I’m not going to speculate where the pants end and/or how long each members’ legs are.

Yuta comes in at the most, with 64%.

Haechan comes in at the least, with 8%.

Average is 39%.

Johnny and WinWin both have the same percentage of visible pant, but their outfits (and pant styles) are quite distinct. Johnny has that lab coat, and WinWin has pops of red in his graphic tee and socks. Johnny is a mad scientist and WinWin is a baseball player.

Looking at the infographic compared to the outfits, I see an interesting way to keep visual interest within the group. If the baseline (their feet) and the headline are relatively similar, changing the midline of each outfit introduces some variation that makes your eye work a little harder. Some members have belts, some have long shirts layered over pants or shorts, some have longer jackets. With a very simple color story, the variation in silhouette carries more weight.

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