March 3, 2016


EXO Is Filling U.S. Arenas, And Still Has Time to Perfect Its Craft

SM Entertainment
SM Entertainment

When it comes to the traditional benchmarks of being a successful pop artist today—high album sales and big tours—very few K-pop artists can claim success in the American market. But after the completion of the North American leg of their EXO'luXion world tourEXO can declare all-out victory. 

The boy band nearly sold out New York's massive Prudential Center at the end of last month, marking only the third Korean act to come close to filing the East Coast arena—not even the four superstar acts could do that for the inaugural KCON New York. This comes after landing two albums on the Billboard 200 chart (2014's Overdose and last year's Exodus, the latter which earned the largest first-week sales ever for a K-pop album ever), a chart one rarely sees Korean acts crash. 

EXO was already huge in Asia (they've scored No. 1 hits in Korea, Japan and China), but that type of success certainly does not guarantee a U.S. crossover. What EXO has managed to accomplish, however, is much more impressive than one chart-topping single.

At their Feb. 22 Prudential Center show, EXO opened with their single "Overdose" and quickly immersed fans in the impressive display of huge LED screens and fireworks shooting from the stage. While the K-pop outfit has showcased its intense choreography in music videos and TV performances, it was clear from the get-go that the guys weren't as together as YouTube viewers would expect, and relied mostly on flash to entertain the crowd.

Throughout the show, EXO struggled to appear like one cohesive unit with moments that showcased sloppy choreography and what felt like not-nearly-rehearsed-enough segments. In most cases, this wouldn't be an issue: One Direction is known for a free-for-all stage presence, while BIGBANG at times focuses on group choreography and then at other times sees each member do his own thing. But the lack of synchronicity with EXO becomes an issue because the boy band focuses so heavily on appearing as a single unit.

The guys addressed the crowd twice during the show (once to introduce themselves and another time to say goodbye), which didn't leave a lot of time to get into their personalities. Meanwhile, there were no solo stages for the members to showcase individual talents or let their uniqueness shine. Every section saw the group presenting themselves as the collective "EXO" instead of the individual members that come together to make up the group. They had little wiggle room to connect with the crowd individually.

Standout moments included the group huddling around a grand piano to perform "My Answer" and Baekyhun busting out a solo on the keys, while "Baby Don't Cry" saw individual dance sections from Kai and Sehun. "Lucky" was another highlight, where the boys changed outfits behind a screen onstage; their silhouettes drove the crowd insane, which inspired several boys to playfully pop their heads out and take in all the energy. 

But what's perhaps most remarkable about this group is that, even without forcefully pushing their individual identities, promoting much in America or even learning the language, this 18,500-seat arena was nearly filled with fans screaming for the Korean boy band. When even the Oscars focus on making diversity the main topic of the night and there are still two jokes at the expense of Asians, EXO is proving that Asian music is heating up in the U.S., even if it's not in the traditional way fans and casual purveyors have come to expect.