The group’s debut single ‘O.O’ split the K-pop community, but are they now on the road to idoldom? Taylor Glasby sits down with Lily, Haewon, Bae, Jinni, Sullyoon, Jiwoo and Kyujin to get their perspective
K-pop debuts are an expensive business, costing upwards of several million dollars to transform trainees to an idol group with their first record in hand. They’re also a tactical minefield: in a saturated market, labels carefully seed out content for months – cover songs, cover dances, photographic teasers, concept videos – to facilitate a following before a song is even released.
So what happens when a group’s first single isn’t just divisive within the walls of its fandom but engenders a kind of sputtering chaos across the entire breadth of the K-pop community? If you’re NMIXX, the seven-member JYP Entertainment girl group whose debut single “O.O” arguably created the biggest ruckus of 2022 thus far, then you dig in your heels, lift your chin and stand your ground.
On February 22, 2022, K-pop social media resembled, metaphorically, a tyre fire. Criticism from global K-pop fans poured in across every social platform over “O.O”s choppy arrangement, its mix, the loosely structured lyrics and its ten songwriters, right through to the Coke Zero product placement. Much of the ire was directed at the label rather than the group but, in K-pop, where entertainment companies and their acts are intertwined so closely as to be extensions of each other, the fallout hit NMIXX head-on.
“When I first saw the reactions,” says Lily, the group’s Australia-raised vocalist, “obviously there were a lot of mixed opinions and, well, it was sometimes sad and hard to read about it but, at the same time, I feel like mixed opinions are better than no opinions.” Around her, Haewon, Bae, Jinni, Sullyoon, Jiwoo and Kyujin nod in agreement.
To a degree, Lily has a point. Our attention spans have reduced to eight seconds. In the face of a daily content onslaught, anything that makes it through, let alone creates conversation, is valuable. “O.O” has generated 88 million views on YouTube. Its dance practice has 20 million views and the performance video sits at 22 million views. Their debut single album, Ad Mare (Latin for ‘to the sea’), which consisted of “O.O” and the tongue-twisting chorus of B-side, “Tank”, sold over 161,000 copies.
Such eye-watering numbers would be nothing in the long term if what lay beneath the hullabaloo was a group sans talent and a song unworthy of ongoing discourse. Neither are true. NMIXX are already commanding performers and vocalists. And here’s the kicker… “O.O” isn’t a good song. It’s great. Some endeavoured to portray it as the poor man’s “I Got A Boy”, SNSD’s 2013 genre-hopping cornerstone, a funny little irony given the latter was widely derided upon release before garnering redemption and acclaim years later.
So, yes, “O.O” is all that it’s accused of: shouty, abrasive and abrupt. It’s a song that hasn’t got a fuck to give, and is all the better for it. Heavy bass, EDM brass and a piercing vocal hook (“Watch out, baila, baila, baila!”) transition you with a wild exhilaration between what’s best described as sonic chapters. It was prophetic of its reception and misconception (“Come in, cross those arms, sit down. Can almost hear the roar, it's just a teaser… Don't be surprised yet, calm down, down, down”), a showcase of NMIXX’s sweet to spicy vocal duality that happens to drive with its foot to the floor on a wet highway and pulls U-turns so sharp they’ll snap your neck. One listen was never going to be enough to endear “O.O”, and in 2022 that’s the biggest, bravest risk a pop song can take.
When NMIXX first heard their songs, leader and vocalist Haewon says, “because it was new, we all thought it was fresh”. Their sound is dubbed ‘MIXXPOP’ because of the simple ethos that carries it, the mixing up of sounds and genres, a practice K-pop at large is renowned for. That the production team behind NMIXX might have pushed the envelope too hard for some listeners hasn’t deterred the group themselves. After all, if no one steps up to create a so-called ‘niche’ now, the mainstream of the future recycles itself into a coma.
“A lot of things at the start can be difficult to get into but once you get used to it, people, I feel like, can start loving it. So even though it was a little hard to see such negative reactions, I have hope that people will come to like MIXXPOP,” says Lily. Vocalist Sullyoon opts for a more precise yardstick: “If you just listen to our songs five times, you can get addicted,” she promises with a half-smile.
Like many K-pop rookies in their first interviews, they’re nervous and wide-eyed, prone to ponderance but also sibling-like camaraderie. To know that vocalist Bae has a natural comedic streak, that Haewon is their most stubborn member or vocalist/rapper Kyujin displayed a confidence beyond her years when she began training, you’d need to deep dive into their YouTube videos. But here, in the moment, they point at Haewon as the best person to make any snap decisions (“Not Bae or Lily,” teases Haewon) and they exist in each other’s spaces with a mutual appreciation, a “respect for each person as they are,” says Lily.
Rapper Jiwoo points out that they’ve “had a long time training together, so we’re close. Recently, we switched roommates, but even then there was no awkwardness at all. We have that kind of close, comfortable relationship.” Adds Lily: “I feel like each of our members have very distinct and different personalities that come together to create a great mix.” She laughs as she inadvertently leans into their namesake.
At 16, Kyujin is the 막내 (maknae/youngest) but she’s also ‘the mom’ of NMIXX due her ‘caring nature’. “It’s good being the baby but I wish I could show a more mature image,” laughs Kyujin in response to her bandmates cooing. They might have debuted in February but they’ve been a sisterhood for much longer. NMIXX were already training as a team when informed they were to debut with the same line-up. Jiwoo recalls they “were a little nervous at first but our excitement was even bigger.” Bae shrugs off the notion of feeling out of their depth: “Since we’d trained together for so long, instead of feeling uncomfortable, we felt anticipation and the feeling of ‘we've worked hard, let's show them all!’”
Such close relationships are commonplace in K-pop but it never becomes less reassuring or heartfelt to see them bloom and strengthen. “We all have a lot of talks together with each other,” says Haewon. “We share the good things and the hard things, and when we’re discussing this with each other, we’re able to withstand [it all].”
The bond extends among the young women of JYP Entertainment; Lily has spoken of her appreciation for TWICE’s Tzuyu helping her out in the past, while vocalist, rapper and dancer Jinni says she’s “close with ITZY’s Yeji because we trained together a long time ago, and we once even shared a dorm. We contact each other a lot, and lean on each other.” Their seniors, smiles Lily, “cheer us on”. According to Haewon, they also frequently check in on the girls’ health and, adds Jinni, “they say nice words, ask if we’re OK and give us their regards.”
And NMIXX are OK, really. There’s been seven months between “O.O” and their latest single “Dice”, which leans into a souped-up fusion of jazz, EDM and pop. There’s been no backing down from the mid-track switch-ups but on “Dice” it’s less frenetic and more concordant with all that surrounds it. “When we debuted everything was new and we had a lot of hard times,” says Bae, “but now we’re much better at things like spotting the camera while on stage, and everything feels like it turned out well. We’ve had more opportunities to gain new fans, so this is a much happier round of promotions.”
“Our debut passed in such a crazy haze but our confidence went up, right?” asks Haewon to her bandmates. “We’ve developed more as we’ve gone on, so yes, it’s up,” Jinni agrees. Lily nods, adding “I was always comfortable with my members but at the same time everything was so new to us that it was kind of hard to get used to it. This comeback has been way more comfortable for us to perform, and I think we're definitely feeling more like a team right now.”
Their second single album is titled ENTWURF, a German word meaning design, sketch or blueprint. To NMIXX, says Haewon, it means “we’ll continue to move forward and create our own destiny. ‘Dice’ is about NMIXX defeating enemies and looking at our adventures as a game.” Its music video, which riffs on Alice In Wonderland/Through The Looking-Glass, tightens up their world-building, in which an alternate universe is real. There’s even a mirror version of their Twitter – XXIWN – filled with games and riddles.
Alice In Wonderland happens to be the first book Lily read in Korean. She laughs. “I think it’s a coincidence but also at the same time, kind of like destiny?” It sparks a short, good-natured quarrel over the existence of fate. “I don’t believe in it. I believe in making your own results,” says Haewon. Bae pushes back: “I believe there is destiny.” Sullyoon and Jinni side with her. Lily looks around sheepishly. “I like saying it because it’s fun but I don’t really believe in it, to be honest.”
A “Dice” fan theory is that the enemy NMIXX face is their own fears. Haewon looks coy. “That could be it,” she hedges. Lily grins. “We can’t say for certain what it could be, but I feel like for every person, we all have different enemies and it’s the same for NMIXX. We have multiple enemies, or maybe just one, but as the story goes on, we can find out more about who the enemy really is.”
There’s a lot planned that they’re not giving anything away on but, equally, there’s a blank slate waiting to be written. NMIXX aren’t short of ideas: they’re eager for an opportunity to write and compose on their records, and go on tour. MIXXPOP offers them an untapped trove of sound and Jiwoo hopes “NMIXX will be able to show many, many different genres. We haven’t been able to show everything we can do yet, so I hope we can show a lot.”
Sullyoon sees potential to greater hone themselves as multi-faceted entertainers: “On stage, we want to show a cool image. Outside of that, we want to show a variety of sides to ourselves but they’re all us, the real us.” And as recently named global ambassadors for Loewe, NMIXX also wants to visit the brand in Madrid while Kyujin is keen to attend one of their catwalk shows in Paris. They grin like, well, a bit like the Cheshire Cat. “I’ll go anywhere,” deadpans Jinni. “You just call me.”