æspa and the Rise of Digital Idols

Like most preteens I had a favorite singer. Her name was Rin – she had blonde hair – and Rin’s songs echo through most of my middle school memories: the field trip to a Civil War reenactment, my eighth grade promotion, and several mile runs. But, unlike most preteens, I couldn’t see my favorite singer in concert at the time. Rin was a Vocaloid, a virtual persona that only existed in my laptop. 

International K-pop fans face a similar situation. With most idol groups, especially smaller groups, their activities are mainly focused in Korea. Tours are often logically focused in East Asia. Most fans, both international and domestic, would interact with their idol through the Internet. 

But, with SM’s new girl group æspa, the interactability of some members may be limited to the Internet. The group consists of eight total members, four real members and four virtual members. 

æspa’s debut music video and song, Black Mamba, is mostly composed of wide shots, punctuated by fast cuts from scene to scene. These shots not only help capture æspa’s dancing, but also frames the music video’s sets very well. The video’s bright colors heightens its sleek atmosphere. 

Black Mamba’s wide shots serve an additional purpose – to emphasize the contrast between different sets. Unlike the bright colors and futuristic atmosphere of the previous environments, the music video transitions into a dark fantasy-esque set midway through. A black background, with the girls framed by gold headpieces and jewelry, has a red smoke cloud explode in the background. This scene may appear out of place, but it heralds a transition in the video’s tone. Early scenes of the girls dancing were occasionally interspersed with the darker sets, but now, they primarily appear in these darker sets. 

Although the lighting for both are relatively dark, the backgrounds are different in tone. The blue-purple, aurora borealis-like sky illuminates the trees. The trees in the first set (left picture) are covered with glowing orbs and willow-like branches, whereas the trees in the second set look more barren. Also, the different colors in the blue sky are vertical while the pink clouds remain at the bottom and top, creating a horizontal strip.

The contrast between the two subway car sets go beyond just two separate types of lighting .They are decorated with complementary colors – purple and green – with opposing states of growth. Unlike the green car that’s filled with dark vines, the purple car is covered with cheerful flowers. The plants in the purple car are concentrated on the floor, whereas the plants in the green car cover the walls and ceiling.

Given the video’s emphasis on technology, I was surprised that the first appearance of their digital selves was at 2:34. Black Mamba blurs the line between the real and the virtual by introducing their virtual members as reflections. By doing so, the virtual æspa members are portrayed as extensions of the human members’ selves.  Just as æspa can exist within two entirely different sets, the group can also exist within two separate dimensions: real and virtual. Additionally, æspa’s virtual members are framed within the window and mirror. These shots parallel how the audience might view æspa also through the frame of their phone or laptop screen.

Overall, the video emphasizes technology and social media. The theme stretches beyond just a music video concept; it’s part of æspa’s identity as a group.

SM has never shied away from introducing groups built upon unique concepts into the K-pop market. The company has a long history of attempting to introduce a rotational boy group – groups that allow members to leave while the group remains active – to the Korean pop market with varying degrees of success. Super Junior was intended to transition into a rotational group, only for an intensely negative fan reaction to halt the project. EXO was rumored to have a rotational concept, ultimately settling on two groups (one for Korea and one for China). NCT provided the natural expansion to EXO’s concept – initially planned to have a group per country – which currently seems to have halted at five. A rotational group could significantly change how the fandom surrounding that group operates. While having biases being rather important in merchandise sales and even allowing certain trainees to debut (through competition programs like Produce 101), rotational groups would emphasize brand loyalty rather than loyalty to an individual member. 

æspa seems to be a continuation of SM’s attempt to alter the relationship between fan and idol. K-pop fandoms are built upon parasocial relationships. Perse and Rubin describe how parasocial relationships are “developed with media personalities through shared experiences existing only through viewing of the personality or persona over time.” K-pop fans may find their experience similar; although they may have never personally met their idol, they have followed their favorite groups from comeback to comeback.  The same study proposes a relationship model in which liking is replaced by attraction as the factor that increases relationship importance. As a result, the idol industry’s high beauty standards only seem to encourage attraction. 

With virtual idols, æspa fans could potentially have their bias – or at least, the avatar of their bias – living at home with them, which would further blur the definition of a parasocial relationship. Virtual members, whose presence you can purchase and appearance you can potentially customize, provides more intractability than posters or photocards. This trend seems to follow SM creating merchandise with virtual reality experiences that make fans really feel like they are speaking to their idol. For example, the SM Atrium boasts virtual “dates” with idols like EXO’s Kai or Red Velvet’s Irene. 

Although æspa’s concept might be unique to the industry, digital idols are not unique to æspa. Vocaloids and K/DA both represent groups of popular digital singers. First released in 2004, Vocaloids were voice synthesizers that had virtual personas with each voice. K/DA, produced by Riot Games and Stone Music Entertainment, first became active in 2018. Like Vocaloids, K/DA members took their voices from real singers. However, these singers had separate careers and personas outside of the group. Riot Games also produced several other virtual bands made up of alternate universe versions of champions from the popular game, League of Legends. 

However, æspa is unlike these previous groups in one aspect – they have real members. Although Vocaloids and K/DA draw their voices from real people, they do not have human members as part of their groups. Human members will eventually age, possibly leave the agency, pursue solo activities, etc. But virtual members? They would be able to sing and perform for decades.

Some have already expressed concerns over æspa’s digital members. They worry that the possibility of purchasing the virtual counterpart of a living human would blur the already thin line between an idol and their private life. Because æspa’s NingNing is still underage and most members just barely past 18, there are troubling implications about the types of interactions available to fans and consent as well. æspa’s human members and their virtual counterparts must be clearly distinct from each other; not only from appearance, but also with boundaries.  

With æspa’s debut, another preteen girl might have them become her favorite virtual singer. But now, she’ll be able to see æspa both in person and online.

Author’s Note: Hey, everyone! I’m another new writer on the Reel K-pop Team. Feel free to click on the “About Us” page to learn more about me and my fellow new writer, Erika. Thanks for reading!