This is the tension and artistic mission being taken up by EXP, a budding New York-based boy band that aims to become an internationally acclaimed Korean pop group without any Korean members. Of the band’s six aspiring “idols” — the K-pop term for an industry veteran — two are black, three are Caucasian and one is Japanese. None of them spoke Korean when EXP formed late last year, though they insist that they’re now starting to pick it up, one translated lyric at a time.
K-pop is a huge industry that has spread across Asia, far beyond Korea, propelled by flashy precision choreography and a distinctive, child-like cuteness called aegyo in Korean. The field is highly competitive with the number of groups exploding.
EXP (short for Experiment) began as the Columbia University MFA thesis of Bora Kim, a native of Seoul who sought to combine her artistic bent with her interest in sociology.
“All of my projects are research-based, so I began by researching K-pop and the Korean wave [a term referring to the increasing popularity of South Korean culture in recent decades],” Kim said. “After I gained all this unnecessary knowledge on K-pop groups, I just decided to make one.”
She was soon joined by Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, two art industry professionals with a similar fondness for the musical style that has spawned groups and personalities such as Super Junior, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) and — who could forget? — Psy of Gangnam Style fame. Like a real K-pop entertainment company, they held auditions and selected their stars (Tarion Taylor Anderson, Frankie Daponte Jr., Hunter Kohl, Sime Kosta, Koki Tomlinson and David Wallace) from a pool of over 200 applicants.
The difference between EXP and traditional K-pop ventures is nuanced but important, Kim said. While their project is indeed cultural appropriation, they are executing it with a critical eye towards the ways that appropriation has been vital to the development of a swathe of cultural phenomena, from rap music to K-pop itself, which has its roots in Western pop and the Japanese occupation.
According to Kim, they intentionally selected a group of non-Koreans because they wanted part of the artistic project to be the process by which members are immersed in a culture that was previously alien to them. They are taking regular Korean lessons from Kim, and even undergoing “cuteness workshops” to learn how to perform masculinity the K-pop way.
“Male K-pop idols are a spectacle performing for the straight female gaze,” Koruda said, adding that they are training EXP’s members to embody the Korean ideal of a “cute” boy, one who is less macho and less explicitly egotistical than his Western counterpart.
But to many K-pop fans worldwide, the men of EXP are unwelcome interlopers into an entertainment empire built on seemingly unshakable aesthetic rules.
The international K-pop content platform Koreaboo expressed its skepticism in an article headlined “Foreigners claim to be debuting as K-Pop group ‘EXP’ and use ‘EXP Planet’ as tagline.” Much of the controversy centers on the group’s resemblance to EXO, the K-pop boy band with a million-strong following (and “EXO Planet” tagline) that EXP has been accused of trying to replicate.
While the band does aim to emulate characteristics of K-pop idols, Kim said, similarities to any one group are purely coincidental. Kuroda noted that the backlash has been largely fueled by EXO’s passionate fanbase, components of which have gone as far as to disseminate fake track lists meant to prove EXP’s inauthenticity.
Other K-pop devotees have pointed their slingshots more directly at EXP members, taking jabs at everything from their perceived sexuality to their racial background. Anderson, who has mixed African American, Hispanic and Native American heritage, said, “Someone told me I look burnt.”
It’s not quite Gangnam Style, but with a few more “cuteness workshops,” it may get there.