EXO military exodus starts with Xiumin

It’s been a hard year saying goodbye to some of the idols who introduced me to the world of K-pop. Between December and March, SHINee members Onew, Key and Minho, entered the South Korean military. It was comforting at least to know they all answered the call of duty to country at nearly the same time, making a possible comeback all the more sooner, just two years from now.

All South Korean men who pass physical and mental eligibility tests are required to spend 21 to 24 months in the military between the ages of 18 and 28. The Military Service Act calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve. South Korean military enlistment laws changed Aug. 1, 2018, cutting the maximum age a Korean male can delay mandatory service by two years to 28 instead of 30. Previously, men could delay enlistment for reasons such as attending graduate school, serving at the same time as a sibling, or being a ambassador for Korea promotions. Famously, Big Bang’s Seungri is delaying his enlistment due to continuing investigations regarding the Burning Sun scandal.

Chanyeol posted this image of Xiumin’s farewell May 7. Leaving in style, perhaps his last luxury for a long time.

I underestimated how sad it would feel because I wasn’t very empathetic when others talked about their groups being gone. I would think, “Oh well, they’re kind of over anyway.” But K-pop often leads to cultish behavior and the feeling of a personal relationship with a particular group because of the facade of constant access via live feeds, travelogues and other constant updates. On any day, you can just check VLive or Instagram to find out what the members are up to. So it really feels like the loss of friends.

Now, it is EXO-Ls’ turn to feel the loss. Xiumin was the first to leave for military service on May 7, and it will take much longer to see a full reunion soon because of their range of ages. For instance, with the return of Kyuhyun from the military just two days ago, it’s taken Super Junior nine years to fulfill their service and perhaps return as a full unit soon.

The need to enlist is considered a societal duty so when politicians floated the idea of exempting BTS from military service because of their valuable status as international cultural ambassadors, the backlash was swift. Even though BTS was not involved with this proposal, angry citizens started circulating petitions last year requesting that they disband because of perceived disloyalty to country who did not like the idea that they were perceived as superior to any other idol group. BTS members quickly responded that they would all serve, but the wound was revealed in their tears during the MAMA )Mnet Asian Music Awards) ceremony in Hong Kong in December. The eldest, Jin, will be 28 in Korean age next year and will likely have to enlist by early 2021.

Surrounded by his EXO family on his last day as a civilian.

People have been asking me what will become of EXO in the meantime, will they need to stop promoting and will they be able to make a comeback? I can’t predict the future, but in a radio interview, Chen said their contract with SM Entertainment has three years until expiration, taking us to 2022.

Moreso than most bands, EXO may be well-positioned for a comeback after service. For a long time, EXO, which debuted in 2012, has been considered the national group of Korea, recognized by the Korean government and serving as honorary Korea Tourism Public Ambassadors.

In the best-case scenario, Chinese member Lay (Zhang Yixing), who appears only occasionally with EXO, will return from his solo promotions in China to augment the group’s vocal, rap and dance lines as he is skilled in all three areas. I am not sure he will do this because he is very ambitious and has some momentum with his solo career. Without him, they may have some trouble in 2020-21, when their main vocals are gone. Although China also has a mandatory military service policy, it has not been implemented since 1949. Because of the country’s large population, it has been able to rely on volunteers. 

Journalists are not known to be good at math, but I have tried to figure this out. Here’s a list of the members birthdays and a possible timeline of members’ enlistment based on their ages, and how it might affect the group’s ability to promote. 

Xiumin (Kim Min Seok): Born March 26, 1990, age 29 (Korean age is one year older, which would make him 30 overseas); vocalist, dancer, rapper.

Suho (Kim Jun Myeon): Born May 22, 1991; leader, lead vocal. He will be 28 by year’s end, so he will go by end of the year or possibly extend into early 2020. He will already be 29 in Korean age.

Lay (Zhang Yixing): Born Oct. 7, 1991, 27; main dancer, vocalist. Korean service law does not apply to him, but he rarely performs with the group.

Lay Zhang, right, who attended the Met Gala on May 6, is the wild card as an EXO member primarily promoting his own work in China and the United States. Whether he will take time off from his solo projects to fill in the group during lean years is a question mark. I think he would do it on a minimal basis, but cannot stop his own work while he has some momentum.

Baekhyun (Byun Baek Hyun): Born May 6, 1992; main vocal. Most fans have been calculating that the ’92 liners won’t enlist until 2021, but with the new age change I am thinking that they will also have to enlist by the end of 2020.

Chen (Kim Jong Dae): Born Sept. 21, 1992; main vocal

Chanyeol (Park Chan Yeol): Born Nov. 27, 1992; rapper, sub-vocal.

D.O. (Do Kyung So): Born Jan. 12, 1993, should be going in 2021.

Kai (Kim Jong In): Born Jan. 14, 1994; main dancer, visual, center, rapper. The ’94 liners should be going in 2022.

Sehun (Oh Se Hun): Born April 12, 1994; lead dancer, visual, rapper. 

If they follow this timeline they will be able to reunite as a full group in 2024, five years from now. Depending on the group’s promotional capability without certain members, some of the members might decide to enlist earlier to reduce the group’s hiatus period. In the best case scenarios, those born toward the end of the year may be able to push their enlistment to early the following year.

A shaven Xiumin.

2019
Seven members, missing Xiumin. Still able to promote well. Although he is a very good dancer, Sehun and Kai can capably fill this void. Xiumin considers himself  to not be the best singer or dancer in EXO, but has a strong presence and provides a vital supporting role that bolsters EXO’s group dynamic. Although he is the oldest, he looks like the youngest in the group and also has the role of “fake maknae,” bringing cuteness to the group’s appearances. The real maknae, Sehun, may have to step up his role in this regard.

2020
Best case scenario: Five members, missing Xiumin, Suho and Baekhyun. Vocals: D.O. and Chen
Rappers: Chanyeol, Sehun and Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
In this case they will be missing one main vocalist, but may still be able to promote well with only Chen and D.O., with Kai, Sehun and Chanyeol contributing more vocals.

Worst case scenario: Three members; missing Xiumin, Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol. 
Vocals: D.O.
Rappers: Sehun and Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
With two main vocalists gone and essentially only one vocal and two dancers outside, they probably won’t be able to promote EXO material. Perhaps they will tailor new material to remaining members. This could work if Lay were to take a more active role the next three years.

During his last concert with CBX in April, Xiumin performed “Don’t Go,” and expressed his desire to meet with fans again one day and requested that we wait for his return.

2021
Best case scenario: Five members. Xiumin will return in spring. Missing Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol. Lay fills in.
Vocals: Xiumin, D.O., Lay
Rappers: Sehun, Kai, Lay
Dance line: Sehun, Kai, Lay
This will give them two vocalists and two dancer/vocalists/rappers, which could sound good with new material tailored to their strengths.

Worst case scenario: Three members (Xiumin, Kai and Sehun) if D.O. leaves.
Vocals: Xiumin 
Rappers: Sehun, Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
It may be impossible for them to promote as EXO, but perhaps Kai will try going Taemin’s (SM label mate and member of SHINee who is promoting solo while the other members are in the military) route as a solo dancer. I don’t know whether his vocals are strong enough to duplicate Taemin’s success. If Kai and Sehun were to leave this year, a year ahead of their mandatory time, the group would also be able to reunite a year earlier, in 2023.

2022
Best case scenario: Six members. Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol return. Missing D.O., Kai and Sehun. Lay fills in.
Vocals: Suho, Baekhyun, Chen, Xiumin, Lay
Rapper: Chanyeol, Lay
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekhyun, Chen, Lay

Worst case scenario: Three members. Suho and Baekhyun return. Missing Chen, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai and Sehun. 
Vocals: Xiumin, Suho, Baekhyun
Rapper: Xiumin
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekhyun
At this point they will have suitable vocals, but will be missing their main dancers, center and visuals. Perhaps they would be able to move forward with more vocal/acoustic style concerts.

Farewell little one, stay safe. We will wait for your return.

2023
Five members. Chen and Chanyeol return. Missing D.O. Kai and Sehun.
Vocals: Chen, Baekhyun, Xiumin, Suho
Rapper: Chanyeol
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekyun, Chen
They are starting to look like EXO again but missing main dancers. Again, Lay’s presence would help considerably, but Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin have proven themselves more than capable as subunit EXO-CBX.

2024
Full reunion with the return of the youngest, Kai and Sehun. At this point, Xiumin will be the oldest at 34.

In the worst scenarios, EXO may not be able to carry on with three members, but with four members they could pull it off if you consider what SHINee has done with only four members, three of whom are not as strong vocalists as most of EXO. In the meantime, I think we can try to be happy and enjoy most of EXO intact for the next two years. After that, it gets tricky for them to perform their material as is. Be strong EXO-Ls! Remember, as the chart below shows, Super Junior fans had it worse, waiting nearly a decade!


Dance Diary: Chung Ha ‘Gotta Go’

By Nadine Kam l

Skipped ahead to March 14, 2019, because I wanted to post this in honor of Xiumin, who danced a bit of Chung Ha’s “Gotta Go” as part of girl group dance medley to entertain fans during his “Xiuweetime” fanmeet May 4, prior to his May 7 departure for the South Korean military.

We danced this during beginner K-pop dance class. The video with Xiumin is followed by another segment featuring more of the dance.

This dance called for bringing out a little sexy, which is not really me. So this is part of the psychology of dance that I always talk about. It really calls for acting and embracing certain feelings, emotions and characteristics that one may not possess.

You have to will yourself to be sexy, strong, cute, whatever the dance calls for. Sometimes I’m really resistant, which makes it hard to perform well. I really hate cute dances because that’s so not me. I think of myself as a strong person and my preference is for strong male dances. When we do cute dances, everyone is always smiling, and I’m the only one who looks really grouchy and serious. I just cannot smile. So these dances really call for a strong will to overcome one’s prejudices and predilections, and embrace the choreography presented.

👁 🎧 The official music video:

The war: EXO-Ls vs. SM Entertainment

SM Entertainment

By Nadine Kam I

Across social media you’ll find EXO’s fandom, EXO-Ls expressing their hatred for SM entertainment and wonder about the source of all the vitriol.

It would be funny if it were not also a sad demonstration of the brief lifespan of a K-pop band.

EXO has long been one of the brightest stars of the K-pop galaxy. Beyond making great music, the group has been a cultural and travel ambassador for South Korea for years.

On Twitter:

EXO-Ls were already miffed that it took more than a year and a half for SM to release an EXO comeback album. (Note: “comeback” doesn’t mean the same thing in South Korea as in the West. It just refers to a group’s new album; not a return following years or decades of inactivity or return after rehabilitation.)

So, EXO-Ls were thrilled to see the group return with “Don’t Mess up my Tempo” earlier this month. That happiness was short-lived when they learned that SM was spending only a week promoting the album. That means, aside from a few music program appearances, there were no accompanying variety shows, concerts and few fansign opportunities scheduled.

I thought that SHINee was short-changed when the company spent only six weeks promoting “The Story of Light” in May this year, but its number of variety shows, live shows, radio shows and performances was an oasis compared to the desert that has accompanied “Tempo’s” release.

I am not an EXO-L although I am a fan of the group and my bias list includes Chen (Kim Jongdae) and sometime member Lay (Zhang Yixing). I also consider Xiumin (Kim Minseok) a bias wrecker.

👁 Watch: “Don’t Mess Up My Tempo”

Considering my newbie status to the world of K-pop, at seven months, I feel like I just met these guys, even though they debuted seven years ago. I’ve only heard about other bands disbanding or losing popularity over time, but never experienced it firsthand, so this feeling of discovery and potential loss comes at an accelerated pace for me.

The attachment fans feel for various bands come after several years of “togetherness.” For the most part, the fans grow up with the boys into adulthood and the loss if they were to disappear feels as strong as losing a best friend or brother. The time and loyalty fans invest in these “relationships” gives them an intensity that does not usually exist in the West, where stars keep fans at a distance. Western music acts come and go with little impact.

Building collective relationships is encouraged by the Korean companies, and those who are really good at it, like BTS’s Park Jimin, go as far as telling fans, “You don’t need a boyfriend. I’m your boyfriend. Look at me only.”

👁 Watch: “Growl”

They are some kind of vampires, little changed since this video debuted five years ago!

It seems as though SM is giving up on EXO in favor of supporting one of its newer acts, NCT.

To a certain extent, there’s no need to put money behind EXO. Because of the strength and numbers of EXO-Ls, “Tempo” easily broke sales records with little promotion. EXO-Ls have proven time and again that they will show up to support the boys and all their endeavors, with all the money that brings. This has made the band a cash cow for the company, confirmed in a recent interview with SHINee’s Key, who pointed out that the income earned from EXO’s “Growl” alone, paid for SM’s glossy building in Cheongdam-dong. In comparison, he noted that SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong” might have paid for four elevators at that time.

On Instagram:
Another factor in SM’s seeming lack of interest is the fact that members of EXO are reaching military age. The oldest at 28, Xiumin, will have to enlist next year. As more enter mandatory military service that lasts two years, EXO activities will wane. The youngest, Sehun, will have to enlist around 2022, making it 2024 when we can see a full reunion of the group.

Few bands survive such a hiatus, a time when hundreds of newer bands emerge to take their place with a new generation of fans.

Another factor behind SM’s decision may have been the rise of BTS in the west, which has every company looking toward the United States as the next viable territory to conquer.

Xiumin will be the first member to enter military service the end of the year. I hate to see him go. He’s often called the fake maknae of the group, the oldest who looks and acts as if he might be the youngest.

While many K-pop bands have at least one member fluent in English to communicate abroad, EXO has none. Its best English speaker is Chinese member Lay, who spends little time with the group, opting to promote his solo efforts in China—and with recent collaborations and the debut of his Mandarin- and English-language “Namanana”—the U.S.

Meanwhile, SM sent NCT127—the English-speaking subunit of NCT— to the American Music Awards on Oct. 9, and to make the talk-show rounds in L.A.

Also, EXO’s contract may be nearing its end. I’m not sure of the term of their contract, but it could be next year, or in 2022, the year that contractual obligations end for the three Chinese members—Kris Wu, Luhan and Tao—who sued to be liberated from their original contract from SM. (They must continue to pay a percentage of their income to SM through 2022.)

I actually see no reason for SM not to renew contracts because EXO is still one of the best groups in the business, with great voices and particularly sharp dancing. They have shown that they can still bring in sales without promotion thanks to their loyal fandom, but it hurts to know that they know they are being slighted by the company they have sacrificed their personal lives to enrich.