Neo Culture Technology introduces the new wave of k-pop

Photo courtesy of The new k-pop band NCT may be the starting point for a new phase of the South Korean entertainment market.

Esther Kim, Co-Editor-In-Chief

The verse “open your eyes” repeats in the background as a group of five young boys, possibly in late teens and early 20s, dance with great precision in a red-lit room.

They are members of NCT U, a unit of a new boy band produced by South Korea’s leading entertainment company, S.M. Entertainment (S.M.). A pioneer in the institutionalization and globalization of mainstream Korean pop (k-pop) since the late 90s, S.M.’s introduction to NCT, an abbreviation for Neo Culture Technology, is raising many questions whether it will bring a transformation in the k-pop genre that has long been dominated by boy and girl group bands.

One of the biggest and possibly the most unique characteristic of NCT is that it does not have any limits on the number of members. Almost all current and past k-pop bands (including the ones exclusively produced by S.M.) have had a specific number of members, Big Bang having five and BTS seven (both are currently widely popular k-pop bands). One of the possible reasons behind S.M.’s decision for the change may be due to the recent controversy it faced with three members of EXO (a boy band that debuted in 2012 under S.M.) filing a lawsuit against the company in order to leave the group. Instead of designating a specific number of members, having an unlimited capacity could be a better alternative for the company to resolve any future legal affiliations it may have to deal with.

Currently, the only members who have been revealed are performing under the name NCT U, which is a unit of the bigger NCT brand that is to be introduced soon. S.M. has claimed that NCT will launch multiple teams around the world with different members singing the same songs in their region’s language. The first two teams, one in Korea and Japan, is deemed to debut this spring, and two teams in China will be introduced later the year. While the teams will perform mainly in their designated regions, they will have opportunities to collaborate with one another through the unit system, NCT U.

Even for me, who have long been following k-pop for years, find this quite complex. It definitely is a new form, a new system, for the Korean entertainment industry. While past trends in k-pop promoted the name of the band with its respective members, NCT will become the first group in which the brand “NCT” will be the only element that will remain indefinitely while its members continue to change.

In the first week of April, the five members of NCT (whose actual team designation have yet to be announced) collaborated under NCT U and released a single, “The 7th Sense.” The next day, three members (two who have also worked on “The 7th Sense”) released “Without You.” The two songs, although they are under the name NCT, offer completely different genres. While “The 7th Sense” is a dance song with a hint of hip-hop and an emphasis on choreography, “Without You” is sung without any dance moves and has a much lighthearted feel.

One of the biggest advantages of NCT may be that it can offer a wide range of genres to its audience, since unlike any other k-pop group it does not have a specific concept or style (as S.M. can easily form collaborations within NCT to produce a song of a certain genre).

For S.M. has already established itself as the leading entertainment company in South Korea, NCT is expected to garner tremendous attention from the Korean public regardless of its new changes. Personally, I wonder how S.M. will be able to successfully launch teams of NCT in places other than South Korea. The groups will have to adapt to the specific culture of the nations, and for a company that has long been focused in the entertainment culture of a single nation, I am curious how the teams will differentiate themselves from the already competitive foreign entertainment market.

Thus comes my biggest question about NCT. Will this be considered “k-pop”? If groups promoting in Japan and China are to succeed, they will have to appeal to the general public at their specified locations. NCT U has already released a Chinese version to the song “Without You” with a Chinese member singing alongside the three other Korean members. They sing in Chinese, and they have performed the song at a Chinese music award show. 

I believe NCT will be opening another phase of the Korean wave, or the globalization of Korean culture through its unique formation. Regardless, it also brings me to question if the pressure of globalization would clash with the genre of k-pop. It will be interesting to witness whether NCT and S.M. will decide to embrace its South Korean origins or the global appeal of the brand. Regardless, NCT is undoubtedly one of the biggest surprises in the k-pop industry this year, and I will be looking forward to S.M.’s take on its ambitious plan.