I paid to watch the online showcase so you didn’t have to.
The concept behind the K-pop group Super M might not make sense to people unfamiliar with how music labels work in Korean pop, so calling them “the Avengers of K-pop” really is the best way to describe it. Each of the seven members––Baekhyun, Taemin, Kai, Taeyong, Ten, Lucas, and Mark––come from different groups under the entertainment powerhouse known as S.M. Entertainment. Their founder, Lee Soo-Man, chose each of them individually to put in one super group…Super M.
Initially when the group was announced, I was against it. SM, to put it generously, is not a great company for a myriad of reasons and how it treats its artists is one of the biggest red flags. So a whole new group consisting of already overworked super stars sounded like a terrible idea. But at the end of the day, S.M. is really good at what they do and I absolutely love Super M. There is very little I won’t do for them at this point, which includes paying for an online concert and staying up until 2 A.M. to watch it.
A few weeks ago, S.M. Entertainment announced a new business venture with the Korean tech company Naver to create a new video platform to host and watch concerts: Beyond Live. Naver is also the company behind the popular video and social media site V-Live, which many Asian music groups use to host live videos, post other updates, and interact with fans. S.M. and Naver announced that Super M would be the first group to hold a special showcase, followed by S.M.’s other boy band extraordinaire, NCT (for a full explanation of N-City, I suggest this podcast episode of The Dish.) Each “concert” was around $30 to attend, aka have access to live and later on demand. What at first sounded like Beyond Live was going to be a whole new video entity in reality ended up as just being a premium series hosted on V-Live. But it was Super M, so I signed up.
I’ve already seen Super M live and it was one of my favorite concerts. All seven of them are talented, well trained, and amazing performers so of course it was going to be a good show (even if it was just barely 90 minutes long.) I had the same expectations for the live show, but I was mostly curious to see what this “concert” would be like. This is a whole new venture in tech and entertainment, how would S.M. make it feel like a new experience? Well, it turns out, it’s not a whole new experience because the answer involves a lot of moving cameras and bad wifi.
It was smart to start off this Beyond Live venture with some of their best trained idols because any lesser performers would have easily gotten swallowed up by the awkwardness of the format. The whole set up reminded me of After School Club, a popular variety show in Korea that brings on K-pop idol guests and includes “fan hang outs” via video chat; each “engagement” can vary depending on video quality and language barrier, but mostly come down to “Can you unmute your mic?” Super M’s Beyond Live concert felt just like that, except I had to pay for it and the budget was probably ten times higher. There were performances too, of course, and overall they (meaning both S.M. and Super M) really tried to replicate the feeling of a real live concert. But no matter what the technology, that’s just not possible.
Quick flashback to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics closing ceremony and the performance by K-pop group EXO (surprise, they’re under S.M., that’s Kai and Baekhyun’s group.) Their first song was called “Growl” and featured a stationary spinning camera while the members danced in a circle around it. “Growl” is my favorite EXO song and that performance wasn’t good. Then compare it to the song they did immediately after that, “Power” when EXO spread out around the stage and sang towards the packed stadium, which felt excited and fun. With “Growl” they were too focused on the cameras, broadcasting their performance around the world, that it felt like they forgot the live human beings watching them there. Once EXO (also great performers) turned their focus outwards––to the crowd––the energy picked up and it felt like a party, especially to the viewers at home. That same push-pull tension carried through Super M’s “live” concert… except this time, there was no audience to energize.
One of the reasons these seven members got picked for Super M is for their out of this world stage presence. Even just looking at the teaser video for the whole group, it’s obvious these men know how to work a camera. But where does that leave them when they’re torn between engaging an audience (that they can’t see or hear) versus looking dynamic on video? Depending on which side they chose, it left them with a vague flatness. And again, all of them have amazing stage presence! For the individual stages who chose the video side it worked: Taemin was his usual god-like self, Ten was arresting to watch, Kai was Kai, and Mark was scary talented. Except for the self-insert fan fiction point of view on Baekhyun’s solo, he also looked great. Taeyong––a man whom I adore for his charisma on camera––was the first solo stage and since it was still an adjustment to the feel of things, I felt disengaged from one of the most engaging performers I’ve seen. Then there was Lucas, whose solo song “Bass Go Boom” slaps and his charisma is infectious. But what was a buoyant and fun stage live felt lacking on video; Lucas is a ball of energy and joy, on camera and off, but when he had to choose between camera or performance, it felt like his performance left out all the charms fans know and love.
Those were the solo performances, which mostly worked through sheer force of charisma. You would think, then, that with all seven of them combined it would be even better, right? Live, the answer is definitely yes. In this showcase, however, the answer is a solid… yeah? The cameras either moved too much during the chorus to really get a feel of their performance or would zoom in on one member for too long and then we’d lose the others which doesn’t work live because we know the six of them are also doing something on stage and want to see that too. Not to mention the all-out LED special effects of the stage––including 3-D effects like tigers running off stage, a projected cage, and (my personal favorite) the word “jopping” wrapped around Kai–– that added an extra layer of wtf? Is this why I had to pay $30? There’s also the more nit-picky detail of their synchronization, which was way off since all of them are overworked at the moment and probably didn’t have a lot of time to practice together in the same room. I enjoyed their performances for sure, but ultimately without a live audience the whole thing felt lacking. And I might be projecting my feelings as a fan here, but I think the members felt it too.
That’s over a thousand words on just the performance part of the show, I haven’t even gotten to the “fan engagements” yet. Like I said, the video chat components of the show felt like a bad Zoom call, complete with poor wifi, audio cutting out, and muted mics. Each video call was a question for a specific member, but of course K-pop is international so the questions came from fans all over the world, Korean speaking or not. I love that, but that also means Super M is a highly trained multilingual mess. Between the seven members, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, English, and Japanese float around their heads along with snatches of other languages (which Kai proudly demonstrated.) While the fan engagement sections were awkward to watch, I did enjoy seeing all their language and team building skills come together––God bless Mark Lee, the Korean Canadian kid, for carrying the English language on his 20-year-old back. At one point a fan had such poor audio quality that he had to ask, “Do you have a mic?” followed by a soft, “Is it…near you?” My favorite moment was when a call kept having issues and you saw Mark say, “This is great.” with a very small smile.
Overall, I think the fan engagements went about as well as anyone could have expected “live” video calls to go––again, ask ASC or anyone who’s been on a Zoom meeting this past month. It led to a lot of awkward pauses that Super M had to fill using their wits and charm, which they can do because they’re goddamn professionals. The tension between “recreating” a live concert feeling versus the reality of a studio full of cameras was the most apparent anytime the group wasn’t performing, and where I felt the experiment of Beyond Live fell flattest. Idols, especially S.M. idols, are no stranger to talking to cameras to make the fans feel special. But when asked to treat a camera like it’s a live person, or a stadium or people, you can see it in their faces they don’t buy it. So why should fans? Literally, in this case.
At first I went back and forth on being mad about having to pay for these Beyond Live concerts. Compared to tickets for real concerts, $30 sounded manageable to me. It was going to be a whole “live” video production, not a rerun of past footage, and since it was new tech that meant it could lead to some really inventive showcase possibilities. Also, I imagined that a business venture between S.M. and Naver had been in the works for a while, current global pandemic aside. I know it’s the wrong mentality, but I wasn’t mad at S.M. for charging for these shows; I knew S.M. would never do something for free to begin with. But now that I’ve paid for it and watched it, I think that $30 is too much. Especially for a group I’ve already seen live, so it felt like I’ve already seen this concert. Maybe that’s on me for missing something in the messaging, but I really thought I could expect something new. Turns out that no matter the technology, nothing can replace the feeling of a live show and any attempt to do so will feel like a forced replacement.
As I say that, I already know that I will do this whole process twice over again: for WayV on May 3 (featuring Ten and Lucas) and NCT 127 on May 17 (featuring Taeyong and Mark.) Through totally legal means, I’m splitting the fees with some friends (which I did for Super M too) which is the only reason I’m signing up for three of these things. It’s also the only way I’d recommend Beyond Live to anyone else: make an event (virtually) out of it with some friends. Nothing can replicate the feeling of a live concert, that special energy you feel from the crowd and reflected back by the performers. Obviously that’s not possible now (stay home folks, for the love of God, stay home!) so I guess online replacements are the closest we’ll get for a while. But is Beyond Live the answer? I don’t think so, fam.