Highly-anticipated girl group Nmixx leaves listeners... confused?
Good-looking members, a visually impressive music video, an enigmatic world view and major management agency — these sound like all the ingredients for a smash-hit K-pop debut. But the public's perplexed reaction toward JYP Entertainment's new girl group Nmixx has raised a question for K-pop fans: Can a song be "too edgy?"
As K-pop powerhouse JYP Entertainment's first girl group in three years since ITZY, the highly-anticipated Nmixx dropped its debut song "O.O" on Feb. 22. In the spotlight from its inception, Nmixx's music video for "O.O" garnered over 40 million views in five days on YouTube. However, despite the remarkable amount of attention, the song is receiving largely negative reviews. While the members' talents and high-budget music video impressed many, critics and the public alike describe the music and lyrics as "abstruse."
The song raised eyebrows with frequently-changing beats and tones, along with cryptic verses like "Baby, you are ma superhero; Try before it's too late [...] And finally, we'll win; Watch out, baila [dance in Spanish]; Watch it, how nice."
Screenshots of the lyrics, which includes mathematical symbols and an infinity sign as part of the text, went viral on Korea's popular online communities for being nearly impossible to decipher.
"I think it's easier to understand the physics behind a black hole than the structure of this song," reads the top YouTube comment with over 4,400 likes under a lyric video of "O.O." The second-most-liked comment expresses disappointment, "Imagine training for years just to debut with a song like this."
The Daily Mail reported on Feb. 24 that the song went "viral on social media for all the wrong reasons" and that "K-pop fans have branded it 'the worst song of all time,'" with the headline quoting a tweet that reads "My ears are bleeding." Because of its disjointed nature, many criticize that the song tries to push for an edgy and provocative image but is difficult to follow as it lacks a basic musical structure. Even those more favorable toward "O.O" describe it as closer to a "concept" or "energy" than a tune.
The negative reaction may be unexpected because Nmixx seems to have followed the formula deemed necessary to become the next big star. On top of Nmixx's inherently high publicity as a JYP girl group, "O.O" includes the most current K-pop trends: chant-like shouting, rap-singing and an ever-changing beat that sounds like multiple songs of different genres have been merged together. Since 'world views' or intricate fictional backstories have become a must for K-pop groups to immerse fans, the music video for "O.O" also presents curious imagery such as an enormous galleon in the sky and sea creatures in the air, laying the ground for Nmixx's mysterious world view.
Comments on "O.O" often mention that the song is reminiscent of girl group aespa's "Next Level" (2021) and "Savage" (2021). The songs similarly conjoined wildly different segments into one track and puzzled listeners with convoluted lyrics, earning comments like "this song's lyrics are harder than the reading comprehension exam I took today."
But aespa's two songs became chart-topping hits and saw largely positive reviews — so why is the reaction so different toward Nmixx? Critics say the criticism is not really about abstruseness.
"I've always said that what matters most is the music and world views are only secondary," said pop music critic Jung Min-jae, a member of the annual Korean Music Awards' selection committee. "It doesn't matter how elaborate a group's world view and storytelling are if the music is difficult to listen to."
"It also means that no matter how abstruse a song is, it will attract people if it is high in musical quality," Jung continued. "Because most K-pop groups have been debuting with their own world views, being hard to understand no longer discourages people from becoming fans. I don't think 'O.O' would be seeing [negative] reactions if the song was catchy, no matter how convoluted."
When done right, cryptic world views can in fact lead fans to gather online and analyze even the tiniest details from songs, lyrics and music videos in order to decode the storyline. This helps them bond with each other and feel a deeper connection with their favorite idol groups.
"World views may come across as unfamiliar at first, but once a fan becomes drawn in, it's difficult to come out of the story," said pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun. "Because it's like a special story communicated between certain stars and fans, it creates a sense of connection and becomes sort of an addiction, which contributes immensely to uniting the fandom."
The best-known examples are the world view of boy band BTS and major K-pop agency SM Entertainment's SM Culture Universe (SMCU), a fictional universe which launched in 2020. SMCU aims to connect every artist under the SM label under one coherent storyline, similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Although it is mocked for being over-the-top and often results in lyrics that are incomprehensible without background knowledge on the world view, SCMU also keeps fans emotionally invested. Often times, the singers themselves express confusion regarding their world views and confess that they do not fully understand either, which becomes a source of comedy and relatability for fans. However, pop music and media studies professor Lee Gyu-tag says that kind of immersion only happens after a K-pop act has already attracted fans with its music.
"Nmixx follows K-pop's current trend of emphasizing edgy concepts," said Lee. "But the trend doesn't mean aespa gained popularity thanks to its concept [of each member having alter-ego avatars in the virtual world]. The song 'Next Level' gained popularity thanks to its catchy tune, and only after that did people start showing interest in their avatar concept.
"'Next Level' sounded like a complicated mix of several different songs too, but it was much more melodious and had smoother transitions than 'O.O." Without a standout melody that stands out, 'O.O' feels difficult to follow. It's easy to overlook because world views and visual aspects like music videos and performances became a large part of the K-pop discussion, but K-pop is fundamentally about music. Success depends on the quality of songs."
"In fact, when aespa debuted [in 2020], the avatar world view was initially ridiculed as absurd," said critic Ha. "The success of 'Next Level' for its music was what made the world view, which is additional content that comes after musical content, gain momentum. If a group's primary content [music] isn't good, people don't bother to look up its fictional backstory, let alone try to understand it."
Prof. Lee added that other so-called fourth-generation girl groups like ITZY, STAYC and IVE were able to produce hits purely based on their catchy tunes without presenting a world view at all. These groups' conventional lyrics about confidence or love appealed to a wider general audience as they are easier to understand and relate to.
Even rookie girl group Kep1er, which has a heavy space-inspired world view, had simple lyrics about aspirations in its debut song "Wa Da Da" (2021) and set an all-time-high record for a K-pop girl group's debut album sales. Without being able to relate to the lyrics, listeners seem to find "O.O" as a grandiose trailer for Nmixx's world view.
Although "O.O" made many K-pop fans lament that entertainment companies today would rather make bizarre songs than normal ones to come across as different and edgy, a 19-year-old K-pop fan surnamed Park suggested it might be an inevitable strategy.
"I can't say that this song suits my taste, but it certainly left an impression on me," she said. "If we consider the saying that bad publicity is better than no publicity, 'O.O' is not necessarily a bad song for a group's debut. Positive reviews would be ideal, but word of mouth as 'weird' is better than people thinking a new song is 'decent' and soon forgetting about it. With so many new K-pop groups debuting [almost] every week, it's hard to be memorable. I think it's not that bad of a strategy to be remembered as strange. At the end of the day, people are talking about Nmixx's song."
On the other hand, critic Jung pointed out the different nature of male and female K-pop acts may affect the outcome of such approach.
"Compared to boy bands whose fandoms tend to be very loyal, girl groups depend more on appealing to a wider general public," said critic Jeong. "That means girl groups' songs need to sound more approachable. I don't think 'O.O' was a safe choice as a debut song. We'll have to see Nmixx's future releases."
"Although it may not have met people's expectations for a JYP debut song, considering the case of aespa, it won't be too difficult for Nmixx to flip [the public response] if the next release is catchy," Prof. Lee said. "It did remind us that music comes above everything else, no matter how visual and performance-heavy K-pop seems."
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]