Step Into Aespa’s Cyberpunk, Crime-Fighting K-Pop World

The group members of Aespa
Courtesy of SM Entertainment

Under any other circumstances, this midtown Manhattan hotel room, with its white linens, laminate flooring, and drawn curtains, would be utterly nondescript. Except for the fact that, here, the walls are lined with dozens and dozens of shoes: chain-embellished Doc Martens and strappy sandals; pink platform brogues, Converse sneakers, and square-toe Mary Janes. No fewer than nine near-identical black suitcases filled with garments are stacked on top of each other inside the bathroom shower, and more luggage is stashed near the bedroom window, each one’s contents labeled in Korean on a strip of masking tape.

This is what it looks like to live as an ascendant K-pop star. It’s one of the prep rooms for the members of the girl group, Aespa: Giselle, 21; Ningning, 19; Winter; 21; and Karina, 22. When we meet, they’re in New York to promote their second EP, Girls, which came out Friday. “This comeback is definitely very powerful and strong,” Karina says through their interpreter, Hannah Jihyun Park. Sonically, it has some of its predecessor’s hyperpop weirdness combined with a broader array of sounds. On one song, “Lingo,” you can hear a harmonica and a cowbell. “It’s the first time we’re doing this type of music,” Ningning says.

Aespa is the first girl group to emerge from SM Entertainment—the label behind f(x), Girls’ Generation, and Red Velvet—since 2014. Like most SM acts, Aespa arrived in the world surrounded by a whole mythology. Theirs is a cyberpunk sci-fi concept in which the four members, and their four virtual counterparts called aes, compose a crime-fighting unit trying to take down a villain known as Black Mamba and save the world. This complex lore has earned several explainers—“an allegory about our offline versus online selves,” Teen Vogue described last year—and the devotion of legions of fans, whom they call MYs. Their first fan account, Aespa Universe, was created in May 2020. It now has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.

Courtesy of SM Entertainment

The group’s relative newness belies the success they’ve already achieved. Their first EP, Savage, came out in 2021—and immediately landed high on the Billboard Top 200. In 2021, they became Givenchy ambassadors. Earlier this year, they became the third K-pop act to perform at Coachella. And on Friday, they opened the Good Morning America summer concert series.

“Usually it takes a lot more time for groups to reach a lot of the things that we have reached so far, and for that, we are so thankful,” Giselle says. The moderators of Aespa Universe tell me later that the Aespa storyline is a big part of why fans have bought in. It unfolds across several music videos (most recently in “Girls”), like a superhero franchise filtered through powerful pop hooks.

“But obviously, with that comes a lot of other attention,” Giselle continues. (That is: trolls.) “We can’t ignore all of it when it’s in front of our face or when it just comes up. But we’ve been through quite a lot of it since the beginning, so we’ve gotten a little better at handling it.”

K-pop groups are so dominant today (think BTS or Blackpink), it’s easy to forget that it’s only in the past two decades that the genre has become a global phenomenon. The boy band TVXQ, who debuted in 2003, are often credited with helping K-pop gain international popularity. Most of the members of Aespa have vivid memories of being inspired by seeing groups like Girls’ Generation on television. Winter, for example, tells me her mom listened to K-pop and K-drama soundtracks while she was pregnant. Later, she and her brother “would play the fake guitar and sing and dance around to music,” she says. (She has the home videos to prove it.)

Still, Giselle says she wasn’t particularly interested in K-pop until high school, when it started to get even more popular. “I realized it really does have a lot of impact around the world and it gives a lot of good energy,” she says. “It also helped me through the tough times. I wanted to be that for someone else.”

They had to undergo years of emotionally and physically grueling training first. Ningning entered SM as a trainee in 2016; the following year, Winter and Karina joined her. “The training system in K-pop in Korea is relatively very competitive and intense,” Karina says. “You’re all close together and you’re all trying to reach for the same goal, but there naturally is a competition among the group as well.” She recalls some groups filming videos and being on the cusp of releasing music before their projects were pulled at the last minute. “When the three of us were training for the debut, there were a lot of uncertainties surrounding the group formation, so it was very emotionally unstable,” she says. “There’s a constant worry and fear that things might change.”

But when Giselle became the group’s fourth member in 2019, everything started to click. As a foursome, they strike a balance. When I ask what they each bring to the group, Giselle says it’s hard to put into words. She begins to describe it as a harmony. “This person is like, oh,” she says, humming a low note. “This person’s like, ah—(a slightly higher note)—“and this person’s like, ahh”—(the highest note). Karina, Aespa’s leader, says she puts out a lot of energy on stage; Winter says she brings in energy. Ningning adapts to the energy of the music, and Giselle, the main rapper, says she’s “all about vibes.”

In the video for “Girls,” the EP’s title track, Karina, Winter, Ningning, and Giselle, armed with swords and blazing finger guns, infiltrate the Black Mamba’s lair and slay the villain. It wraps up the first chapter of their fictional narrative. A refrain seems to sum up where they’ve been and where they’re going—in the metaverse and in real life: “Blooming through chaos and confronting fear,” they each sing in one verse after another, “that courage whenever we are together.”