In an interview with Conan O’Brien back in July 2015, when The Amazing Spiderman diva, Emma Stone mentioned K-pop as an answer to what her recent obsession was, Conan exclaimed, “There are some people here who thought you are talking about a weird drug!”
Well, he wasn’t wrong. Men have fallen; battles lost and won, and yet K-pop has managed to make its room in your heart and life, almost like an addiction. K-pop is not just a music genre anymore. It’s its own personal being that has come to life and it lives and breathes in the people all over the world. You may imagine it like an old oak tree, enormous, and beautiful, vibrant. And when you look at its lush leaves and strong branches, you begin to wonder –
Who planted the seed? Who took care of it? Because the tree has outlived the lives of the men who planted it and those who looked after it for years. However, even though the tree has outlived its gardeners, it would have ceased to exist if not for them.
EXO is one of those men, the gardeners who grew this tree and ensured that its branches casted its shadow over as many people as possible.
While Boa was definitely the first one to reach K-Pop in Japan, and Super junior in China, Thailand and eastern Asia, Bigbang treading vehemently, what they hadn’t managed to achieve were the sales. K-pop industry brought fame to its artists but the sale brought the money. And in that decade, when CDs and DVDs had started replacing cassette tapes, making the songs more easily accessible on the internet, the sales had dwindled. Like a curse had befallen, no K-pop album after Kim Gun-mo’s Another Days in 2001 sold a million copies.
It was EXO who had broken the curse and had revived the market. Selling a million copies of its first full length album, XOXO, EXO had awakened the tree after twelve long years!
In K-pop industry, you are a rookie idol till another group from your company has debuted, consequentially making you a senior or you’ve won a Daesang (the grand prize of an award ceremony), whichever comes first. For EXO, the rookie phase ended too soon or even prematurely if you may; because they won a Daesang with GROWL – the title track of their very first full-length album XOXO. On Nov 22nd 2013, precisely at 11.34.44 pm KST, hardly a year after their debut (Apr 8th 2012), EXO had become the youngest artist to win a Daesang! No one before them, including Big Bang, Super Junior, or H.O.T and Shinhwa before them, who were all the veteran groups of their respective times, had won a Daesang so soon in their career.
With the title of their first full length album, these twelve boys became a sensation! It didn't matter how old you were – a teenager going to school with earphones plugged in as you took the bus, or a housewife channel surfing while making kimchi at home, or an office worker pushing yourself to earn more for a better life for your family, or a grandmother sitting in the wet market with fresh sea cucumbers and eel from the last night’s plunge. It didn’t matter who you were, you knew this song –
Na eureureong eureureong eureureong Dae~
Na eureureong eureureong eureureong Dae!~
In an interview when a common South-Korean youth was asked if he knew EXO, he said, “If you don’t know EXO in Korea, you’re a spy!” Of course, he was looking for a witty way of answering but jokes still hold an amount of truth to them. The truth that he implied – everyone knows EXO.
This was 2017.
By the end of 2018, EXO had earned entry in the Guinness Worlds Records book for the “Most Daesang ("Grand Prize") awards won at the Mnet Asian Music Awards” with five wins at the time.
In 2017, EXO received a Prime Minister's Commendation award at the Korean Popular Culture & Arts Awards, which was given in recognition of public service or excellence in their field.
EXO were also named by Forbes on their Korea Power Celebrity list as the Most Powerful Celebrities in South Korea for 2015 and 2016, and within the top five for 2014, 2017 and 2018. Overall, EXO has received 168 awards from 286 nominations.
In 2018, with Don't mess up my tempo album, EXO became quintuple million seller made a new history by becoming the first music band debuted in the 21st century to sell over 10 million physical albums. EXO did that in just 6 years!
They became the standard of success for every band in Kpop.
The success, however, didn’t come easy to EXO.
With the onset of 2014 and EXO’s comeback, controversies started surrounding the group as a then-active-Chinese-member filed a lawsuit against the company before leaving the band. With the decampment of the mentioned member, followed by the subsequent departure of another Chinese member, and a dating scandal of a Korean member, EXO faced several backlashes and negative attention through 2014. Not only did the fans of the said members abscond the fandom out of disappointment, the group was heavily criticized by netizens who called them “the Biggest Mistake of SM”.
Despite being the youngest recipient of Daesang, and holding the million-seller title, EXO had become a rookie group, once again, whose success seemed unlikely to everyone. And the unspoken question had been posed –
Is 2014 the end of EXO?
EXO finally got to reply question when they won Album of the Year as well as Artist of the Year at Mnet Asian Music Awards 2014. After thanking SM, their label mates, staff members, parents and EXOLs who had loved and supported them irrespective of everything, member, Lay addressed everyone with his poignant words, “I want to share this award with 2014. Everyone thinks that 2014 is the black year for EXO. From today, from this MAMA stage, its colour shall be redefined. And do you guys know? I believe, we will receive colour in 2015!”
(MAMA Artist Daesang speech 2014)
As promised, EXO rose from their ashes in 2015, re-emerging stronger than ever. Their full-length studio album EXODUS was the highest selling album of the year making EXO the double million sellers. The title “Call Me Baby” was a huge commercial success, charting the song not only in Asia but in US digital charts. It had also set the record for the Highest number of music show wins, precisely 18.
The departure of yet another Chinese member in 2015 left a gaping wound in EXO as well as EXOLs but no one questioned EXO’s credibility or their talent anymore. Year after year, EXO gave their best comebacks, winning numerous other awards – including many more Daesangs, popularity awards – and honoured with many more titles as one of the most influential boy-groups in Asia and the World, imprinting them in the history of K-Pop and Music Industry. As Nation’s pick – the term only ever used for an idol group instead of the more conventional “Nation’s boyband” – EXO performed at the Winter Olympics 2018 held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Who would have thought that the boys were once called “just a bunch of pretty faces” by the media once would be bestowed with the Prime Minister’s Commendation award and be given the honour of representing their country in front of the world?
EXO has not only written its name among the most successful K-POP groups but they have also gained recognition in individual activities. Their subunits namely EXO-CBX comprising of Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin and EXO-SC consisting of members Sehun and Chanyeol have not only done well commercially, they have been loved and appreciated for their colours which are different from those of EXO as a whole.
Five out of nine members of EXO have already had their solo debuts. And they’ve broken old records, set new ones. Often referred to as the Powerhouse of Vocals, and Vocal Kings, EXO embodies few of the most talented vocalists of K-POP. That seems to be a plausible reason behind the success of their subunits and solo ventures.
Apart from singing, almost every member of EXO has acted in dramas, movies and musicals before and they have been appreciated and loved by the viewers as well as their co-stars for their hard work and talent. So far, DO and Lay has had the most successful acting careers among their team mates. However, Sehun, Chanyeol, Suho and Xiumin have also landed with lead roles in web dramas and played supporting roles in miniseries. Baekhyun has been adored for his supporting role as Wang Eun. Chen is the only one who hasn’t acted before but he more than compensates it by lending his voice for OSTs which have charted really well.
What is, however, more important than charts and awards to an idol group and their fans is the bond between them. Despite being the fandom that has many wounds, it is blessed to have idols as EXO who love them as they do. The only way EXO knows to reciprocate the love they receive is by working hard and giving back the fans the reason to smile.
EXO’s latest album spoiler released on their 9th anniversary is definitely a reason for EXOLs to smile again. Having half of its members enlisted, a content was not being expected from them. Yet the group took everyone by a pleasant surprise with the teasing video.
It is evident from the fans’ response that it was unexpected but very welcome.
Fact is, as years pass, fans stop mentioning about the accolades of their idols. Records are set to be broken and media outlets remember the most memorable ones. Many records that EXO set at one point in the past may or may not have been broken. May records that the group will set in the future may or may not be broken by other artists but it’s not about the throne anymore.
Today, after 9 years have come to pass from the day these boys had first called themselves EXO, the memory of their first war-cry, “We are one, EXO Saranghaja!” makes the EXOLs nostalgic and happy beyond tears. That feeling is inexplicable, the depth of it unfathomable.
For EXOLs, EXO is not Nation’s Pick, or Vocal Kings. For EXOLs, EXO are not the pioneers of K-POP or any other fancy title that they’ve been given. For them, EXO symbolizes the struggle they went through over the years, the wounds which remain as scars. EXOLs wear those scars because it’s their privilege and they only allow EXO to conceal the blemishes in the rouse of their music and their smiles. For EXOLs, EXO is the reminder of the stage they lit with their fire, the promises they made to each other. For them, EXO is the reminiscence of the youth they spent together, the times they laughed and cried together. For most of the EXOLs, EXO is not just an idol group that they stan, it’s the group of boys they pray for, wish the best for.
For EXOLs, EXO is love.
And the strength that still lies within them because of that love.
When the tiring day comes, remember
us who were beautiful
(remember that) the power to get up again,
it’s inside you
Happy 9th year anniversary!