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Aespa releases sophomore single amid widespread anticipation

Rising South Korean girl group releases “Forever,” continues to explore inventive virtual-idol concept

Released on Feb. 5, South Korean girl group Aespa’s second single “Forever” is a sweet, polished rendition of SM Entertainment Songwriter and Producer Yoo Young-jin’s early 2000s original. The soft ballad’s late-winter feel is a distinct change from Aespa’s debut single “Black Mamba,” a vibrant dance track with a fierce beat drop and a memorable hook. 

With a slowed tempo and a background of acoustic guitar and sentimental strings, the sophomore track showcases the girl group’s impressive vocals atop the flawless execution of eye-catching choreography similarly exhibited in “Black Mamba.” Rappers Karina and Giselle demonstrate vocal prowess on par with vocalists Winter and NingNing, revealing the diverse talents and skill of the four-member act. 

Still, “Forever” does not offer much variation in its melody, accentuating the lengthiness of the five-minute track. In parsing through lyrics about love at first sight, there is a disappointing lack of identity and pizazz crucial to the strategic allure of an up-and-coming group that has yet to build a dedicated fandom. 

With Aespa’s debut “Black Mamba” recently crossing the 100 million viewer threshold on YouTube — a record that makes the quartet the first and fastest rookie group of 2020 to reach the milestone — it is evident that the group has potential to become the next big thing for SM Entertainment, the prominent K-pop label that last debuted the widely-lauded all-female ensemble Red Velvet six years ago. 

But fans of Aespa are left to wonder what SM actually has in mind for the girl group’s development. While offering a drastically different style, the nostalgic “Forever” may halt the momentum carefully built off of Aespa’s dance-pop debut. Nonetheless, there is still much for fans to look forward to in Aespa’s future releases and performances. 

After all, the quartet’s founding concept is one of SM’s most experimental in recent years. 

Beyond its four multinational members, South Korean Karina and Winter, Japanese-Korean Giselle and Chinese NingNing, Aespa features avatars from a virtual world created through personalized data and AR technology. The four virtual personas have initials “ae” added to each members’ name, which stand for “avatar” and “experience.” 

According to a Tweet by SM Founder Lee Sooman, Aespa is a group he looked forward to forming because “it projects a future world centered on celebrities and avatars and transcends boundaries between real and virtual worlds.” This world-building aspect of the K-pop industry promises fans the potential to build an even stronger, more personal connection with their idols. 

Aespa’s virtual model feels particularly timely during the pandemic era, when in-person concerts are unfeasible. It’s curious to ask whether Aespa’s marketing is rather prescient — whether they are at the fore of a digitized revolution in pop music.

The titular “black mamba” in their first single poses as the antagonistic force that threatens to sever the bond between the parallel worlds of the real and virtual, expanding the lore behind the girl group’s world-building. 

In the short introductory clips, music videos and the debut stage of “Black Mamba” and “Forever,” the four girls can be seen performing, chatting and even “live streaming” with their avatars. 

Though the concept of virtual counterparts modeled after human performers may be an innovative business strategy spearheaded by SM, it is not entirely original. In 2018, virtual girl group K/DA became wildly popular among fans of the online game League of Legends, culminating in a performance at the LoL world championship finals alongside (G)I-DLE, Madison Beer and Jaira Burns. Members of K/DA were imposed on the stadium screens for the live audience and depicted in the YouTube video. Perhaps Aespa is the creative result of SM’s attempt to venture into the digital realm of pop idols.

So far, the presence of the four members’ avatars throughout music videos of Aespa’s singles has been somewhat fleeting, making it feel like a disposable part of the group’s performance. With mixed reviews of the virtual avatars, it remains to be seen whether this inventive concept will be further explored by SM or abandoned as the label focuses more on the promotion of non-virtual members already there in the flesh.


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