If there was a general sense of hesitancy late 2020 when aespa’s half-AI lineup was unveiled, the K-pop quartet (well, octet—more on that later) has long since blown those worries away.
With their high-tech concept chock-full of jargon-filled lore, aespa was a big swing—though one that appears to have connected, if the sheer virality of this year’s ‘Next Level’ is any indicator. Now, with SM Entertainment’s SMCU project set to weave its illustrious catalogue of artists together into a single universe, a new wave of K-pop rides on their success.
That’s a lot of pressure for four budding young adults to handle. Yet aespa—composed of KARINA, GISELLE, WINTER, and NINGNING —seem to be taking their next leap forward in stride. “‘Savage’ is like a new chapter for us,” leader KARINA tells 1883 in a press roundtable ahead of the release of the group’s first EP. With tireless practice, she says, they’ve reached “a new level of confidence” for this comeback—and given aespa’s wildly cool posturing in this past week’s teaser drops, it’s hard to argue with that. In them, the girls are ascendent: GISELLE sizes up the camera with 3D acrylics; WINTER perches in a corset top before a futuristic Eye of Sauron. NINGNING free falls in cyber-chic biker shorts, while KARINA is suspended midair by spinal, serpentine chrome, complimenting her outfit’s silver-toned hardware.
“If you look very closely, there are little details that give off a ‘female warrior’ vibe,” says WINTER, one of the group’s vocalists, on their sartorial flourishes. (GISELLE is quick to shout out aespa’s new stylist.) “It’s feminine, but it doesn’t make us look like we’re delicate or soft.” NINGNING jumps in: “It’s feminine, in an aespa way.” Aka, from look to sound, brash and unwilling to be tempered. ‘Savage,’ as an album, triples down on this characterization of the girls as badass phenoms. WINTER’s derisive drawl of a question kicks off the title track (“Oh my gosh / “Don’t you know I’m a savage?”) and the stadium-ready b-side ‘aenergy’ christens them with superpowers: “KARINA is a rocket punchеr / WINTER an armamenter / GISELLE got Xenoglossy / NINGNING e.d hacker.” Black Mamba never stood a chance.
But beyond the concept, who are aespa? “We’re people, as well,” says GISELLE at one point during our conversation. It’s a truth so well disguised by their untouchable stage presence that it bears mentioning—underneath all the digital drag are four young women, just short of a year into their newfound global stardom. They’re still learning to negotiate that public-private, work-life push and pull. “When we have free time, we like to have small parties,” NINGNING says. The other members laugh before humming their assent, almost as though we’re missing out on an inside joke shared between them. GISELLE explains it’s the seemingly trivial things that help them unwind from larger-than-life stressors: “We get tired and [think] oh my God, I just want to go home. When there are days like that, even if there’s no reason to celebrate, we always make up a reason just as an excuse. Oh, I dropped a pen. We have to have a party.”
Speaking about their hobbies as off-duty idols, aespa’s girlishness sharply contrasts their fierce, onstage personas. But this duality is precisely what they’re all about. Mirroring the way we create neatly curated composites of ourselves online, CGI ae-aespa members (the digital alter egos of KARINA, GISELLE, WINTER, AND NINGNING) form half the group, joining in music video performances. When we’re introduced to aespa’s cinematic universe, the girls live symbiotically with these doppelgängers—until the Black Mamba, this story’s villain, severs them from one another. ‘Savage’ sees aespa plunging headfirst into KWANGYA, a vast, glitched-out unknown beyond the girls’ reality, in a bid to restore their bond. Take this premise, then couple it with cosmic abilities, some 90s-style animation, and new wrinkles to the established mythos. If that seems like ambitious ground to cover in a six-track EP, it’s by design.
Earlier this year, GISELLE shared a sticky note doodle of a crying eye, surrounded by scribbled X’s. “On [subscription-based app] Bubble, I sent a couple of my drawings, and a lot of fans captured it, thinking they were spoilers,” she says. “But actually, they were just doodles.” Yet eagle-eyed MYs, or aespa’s fans, spotted similarities within the ‘Savage’ music video: WINTER’s teardrop face jewel, and GISELLE’s pale pink set embroidered with tiny black cross-stitches. “Our fans were like, Why are you lying to us, those are spoilers!”
Amid a sea of styling choices, it seems likely to be a fluke. But whether a coincidence or not (GISELLE pleads innocence), MYs’ theorizing is symptomatic of the next-level fascination surrounding this intricate and utterly enthralling new landscape taking shape in the K-pop sphere. Sweat the details, because they may be the key to unlocking aespa’s tightly held secrets—and with them, the future of an art form.
Savage – The 1st Mini Album is out now.
Interview by Abby Webster