The first thing you have to know about aespa is that they celebrate everything. Not just the big occasions, like birthdays and holidays, but the mundane, everyday parts of existence that often go overlooked. NINGNING drops a pen? Time for a dance party. GISELLE is being silly again? Everyone cheers. To aespa, life's messiest moments are still cause for celebration. Think of it as the Korean girl group's way of staying present amidst the tedium of K-pop idol life.
"We're people as well," GISELLE tells PAPER. And they, like the rest of us, have days when they're tired and all they want to do is slow down and relax. "When we have days like that, even if we don't have a reason to celebrate, we just make up an excuse for ourselves," the 20-year-old rapper says. "We do that pretty often."
Right now, however, aespa has actual, life-altering events to relish. It's the eve of their debut EP's release and they're sitting shoulder to shoulder in a blindingly bright conference room in their label's headquarters in Seoul. The project, titled Savage, is the foursome's first album, and at the time of this conversation it had already exceeded 400,000 pre-orders. (Upon its release a few days later on October 5, Savage topped the iTunes charts in 17 countries, and its dizzying title track reached No. 1 across multiple charts in South Korea.) For a rookie girl group, these numbers are unusual; yet, aespa is anything but ordinary.
In less than a year, members KARINA, GISELLE, WINTER and NINGNING have taken the K-pop industry by storm, thanks to the staggering success of their sinuous single "Next Level." The song's electro-funk beat, addictive charm and memorable choreography has wormed its way into public consciousness, becoming the most successful girl group release of the year. As a result, the members of aespa are certified "It" girls in Korea. Their faces are on sheet masks, makeup products, outerwear, personal finance apps and they're global ambassadors for luxury fashion house Givenchy — making history as the brand's first K-pop models.
As the newest group under SM Entertainment, one of the most storied companies in Korean pop music, aespa was always destined to be a big deal. They're carrying on the titanic legacy of labelmates Girls' Generation, SHINee and Red Velvet for a new generation, one composed of digital natives who are becoming increasingly codependent on their devices. And no group is more primed to conquer the digital age than aespa.
For starters, each member has a virtual counterpart: æ-KARINA, æ-WINTER, æ-GISELLE and æ-NINGNING that, for the purpose of lore, exist in another dimension. They're referred to as their "æs" (pronounced like "eyes"), and they're essentially online avatars that have been created from all of the data the members have uploaded to the internet. But the æs are more than storytelling devices; they pop up alongside aespa in music videos, video games and even advertisements. The æs are a reflection of aespa, but, importantly, not exact copies of them.
"The best part of having our æ members is that it really makes us different from other groups and it gives us a very unique identity," GISELLE says. "Obviously, AI [artificial intelligence] is very futuristic and that keeps us up to date with what's going on in the world. Not just only as singers, but also in business. It helps us learn a lot about technology and it also helps us learn a lot about ourselves because the æ members actually need a lot of information from us to be able to make their identity, as well."
GISELLE speaks three languages fluently: Korean, Japanese and English. Born and raised in Japan, she grew up speaking both Japanese and Korean, embracing her mixed cultural identity (her mother, a fashion designer, is Korean). "I bring a more global, international vibe to the group," she says. Her fondness for languages led her to take up a more rhythmic style of rap and wordplay. "I do a lot of rapping, so I know how to use my voice in a lot of different ways," she continues, explaining how she likes to pen lyrics and doodle in her notebooks.
Youngest member NINGNING, 18, also has an artistic eye for drawing, painting and more visual mediums. She likes to express herself through tactile hobbies, like buying vintage and customizing her shoes and accessories. She likes animation, citing Patrick Star as her favorite character, and is the member most likely to get lost in her daydreams. But her powerhouse voice is her secret weapon. Originally from China, NINGNING moved to Seoul to train at SM in 2016, joining the company's pre-debut team SM Rookies.
"I play a big part when it comes to the vocals of our songs," she says. "But it's not just me. All of the members are really versatile. Vocal members can rap in our own style and our rappers can sing. I think that makes us really unique."
No one embodies that sense of versatility more than WINTER. The 20-year-old performer is what's known as an all-rounder, or an artist who's proficient across all disciplines: Singing, rap and dance. On the surface, there's a coolness to WINTER and her performance. She's all steely gazes, sharp movements and blunt bobs. Off stage, however, is a different story. She can be shy, sometimes painfully so, but to those she's closest to, she's warm and funny. WINTER, like the films she enjoys, can be difficult to understand.
"I like trying different concepts and different styles, something that's bright and bubbly and cheerful, and also something that's powerful and full of girl power," she says. "My ability to try a diversity of styles is a strength that contributes to [our] overall style and teamwork." WINTER's duality is alluring; she's both delicate and deadly, taking on the role of an "armamenter," or someone skilled in weaponry, within their carefully constructed metaverse.
As both the oldest and the leader of the group, KARINA plays an important role in creating their "great group synergy," the 21-year-old says. "Everyone is very passionate," she adds. "All of the members are cheerful, optimistic and positive. In terms of teamwork, we work really well together." There's a balance to their dynamic. They're individuals with their own interests and hobbies, but together they create a symbiotic code. WINTER and NINGNING are thrill-seekers who love scary movies and roller coasters; GISELLE and KARINA believe in the adage "less is more." When it comes to meals, they compromise: NINGNING and KARINA like salty, savory Korean food, while GISELLE and WINTER prefer sweets and desserts. "My role is bringing it all together," KARINA says.
The dancer's strength is her endless curiosity. She's self-possessed and likes to learn new things, whether it's studying songwriting and composition, collecting lipsticks in every rosy shade or diving into a new challenge.
"We know who we are as artists and what we need to work on," GISELLE says. "In the process of preparing for this album, we really worked on that. And that gave us more confidence on stage and helped us improve ourselves as artists." It's that practice, KARINA adds, that allows them to feel confident on stage. "We practice a lot," she says. "What you see on stage is the result of all of the effort and practice we've been doing to prepare for the performance."
Savage is the culmination of such diligence. If their debut track "Black Mamba" was a safe fusion of pop and EDM, then "Savage" takes aespa in an exciting new direction. It's exaggerated and eclectic, a hyperpop hodgepodge of brash synths, trap beats, earworm hooks, charming vocal delivery and piercing power notes. "When the fans see it, it will feel cool in a new way," KARINA hopes. "It's a new side of aespa." It's disorienting and potent, opening with WINTER smugly asking, "Oh my gosh, don't you know I'm a savage?"
"Our signature sound has a very powerful and strong bass," GISELLE says. "We have a lot of dynamism in our voices as well." Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment, executive produced their EP, and GISELLE says the music mogul "personally directed every small detail" of their production, including the pronunciation of every syllable. "The song is a continuation of the story we started with 'Black Mamba' and 'Next Level,'" KARINA adds. "Through 'Savage,' it's a good way to implement the SMCU, our entire worldview, to the public in order to make it more familiar to people. We're excited to do that."
The SMCU, or SM Culture Universe, is the connective tissue that links all of SM's artists and concepts together narratively. It's a shared world, an ambitious vision that ultimately hinges on aespa's success. To completely understand the story, you'd need a syllabus of sorts. Or you could listen to the album opener "aenergy," an anthemic guide to the mythos. It introduces listeners to the neo-futuristic world of aespa: "KARINA rocket punchеr/ WINTER armamenter/ GISELLE got Xenoglossy/ NINGNING E.d hacker," they shout on the track.
"Our album is very versatile," GISELLE says. "There aren't any songs that sound the same or similar. It's all very different." KARINA describes it as "music for everybody." There's the hazy, ambrosial slow jam "Lucid Dream," co-written by Hayley Kiyoko, or the energetic "Yeppi Yeppi." And "I'll Make You Cry" teems with electro synths and vocal distortion, an atmospheric nod to their cyber aesthetics.
"For each single, we mostly showcase a powerful image," NINGNING says. "It's not girly, but it's feminine in an aespa way." Their style, WINTER adds, is "feminine, but it doesn't make us look delicate. It's girl power. [It's] powerful." That is the aespa ethos: They are powerful and feminine and exist outside of the binary.
NINGNING recalls how she wanted to be a prince growing up, not a princess. In the movies, a prince always commands respect. A prince is encouraged to grab the reins and steer their life in whichever direction they want. For her, being part of aespa is a dream come true. Because beyond the complex matrix of aespa's digital universe, the story is actually pretty simple: They're four young women on a quest to save the world, reconnect with their friends and find themselves, all while being in complete control. Isn't that a life-affirming journey worth celebrating?
Photos courtesy of aespa