After releasing 23 debut teasers and 2 prologue songs, EXO (EXO-K and EXO-M) finally debuted with “MAMA”, a majestic sounding song that appears rarely especially for a rookie group, and announced their formal and ostentatious arrival of the legend of the so-called “EXO-planet”.
The sound of the song is stunning (in its category as a pop song). By starting with a catchy and echoing chant, the song reaches an epic effect almost instantaneously without needing any emotional buildup, giving the song a mysterious and alien atmosphere as if it’s from an unknown culture, which in turn ties back to the theme and concept of EXO: twin legends from EXO-planet. What’s more, while the underscore stays epic and almost like classical, the main melody of the song pulls “MAMA” back to a perfectly Korean pop song – the overall sound of the song didn’t become too heavy, too classical, or too alternative; the overall style of the song still fits EXO’s profile as a K-pop boy group. Also, since the overall feeling to the song is already epic, composing an appropriate bridge that keeps up with the rest of the song AND stands out from the rest of the epic melody becomes a challenge – it could easily get blended in, or just ruin the vibe. But the producer of “MAMA” made it. Though some fans whine about the scary and metal-like bridge with the screaming and shouting, to me it is the perfect choice. It definitely pushes the already-heated song up even more, and the shouting, mumbling and metallic instrumental definitely distinguished the bridge from the rest of the song. In my opinion, “MAMA” is probably one of the best produced fast-paced pop song SM had produced in recent years in terms of music quality, and this level of music quality is what SM should really pursue more often instead of those cheap and easily-addictive ones.
However, the grandiose sound quality of “MAMA” does not save it from the terrible English lyrics. Let’s look at the lyrics for the epic chants that lots of people, including me of course, thought would be in Latin at first:
“Careless, careless. Shoot anonymous, anonymous. Heartless, mindless; no one, who care about me.”
Though I have been trying to look objective in my reviews, and I understand that SM is trying to make something poetic and artistic, I have to tell you this: I almost fell off from my chair and died from high-blood pressure resulted from anger when I first realize what the members are singing at the chants. It felt like being told that the extremely and unbelievably delicious dish I ate is actually made of animal excrement. Anyone, even those people who need a dictionary to find out what each word in the sentences means, would KNOW that these sentences don’t make sense, IN ANY LANGUAGE. Just using purely meaningless syllables would still make it 100 times better. Just like this:
“Ki A Les, Ki A Les, Shun An Nau Ni Mos, An Nau Ni Mos. Harr Te Les, My A Les, Nau Wo Du Kil Bol Mi.”
At least the chant then would sound like it’s in a cool alien language – which SM can totally justify because “EXO is from an extraterrestrial planet”! But no, SM loves showing off , and apparently ZERO person in the whole entire company knows any English. (No I was being sarcastic.) Also, SM, if you were really going to put these words together, can you at least make the only one grammar you can possibly have right? (Grammar can’t even be applied for the rest of them.) It’s “who CARES about me”, not “who CARE about me”. I wish I can find an excuse for SM, but sadly it comes clear that these terrible English phrases just resulted from the company’s lack of interest, lack of the sense of responsibility, and laziness.
Another flaw about the song is its title, “MAMA”. In Korean, “MAMA(마마)” means “queen”, or a very high-status, respected, powerful and expected-to-be-wise woman that supervises and is in control. The origin of this word can be traced all the way back to ancient Korea, and today it can also be symbolized as a queen-like woman who’s so charismatic and beautiful that she makes men kneel down for her. For sure Korean speakers and people who are familiar with Korean cultures know that “MAMA” means, but for foreigners, it can start to look weird because “MAMA” is usually explained as “mom”, “mother”. In fact, in Chinese, “MAMA” is exactly the very and only pronunciation for the word “mother (妈妈)” . Take in the fact that this song is also in Chinese, and throughout the Chinese version of it none of the original “MAMA” words are taken out or translated into Chinese words that would make better sense, “MAMA” just doesn’t seem to be a listener-friendly song to Chinese listeners. It’s also not listener-friendly to other foreign listeners, of course. Without reading the lyrics or knowing the meaning of “MAMA” in Korean, almost every Chinese listener and other foreign listener would think that “this new group of young guys is kneeling down, tearing heart out and crying for their darling mommy… and the song is talking about love relationship?! … ok this is very weird.” And that is surely not the effect SM originally intended to have.
But of course, “MAMA” is nevertheless a great pop song. The music quality of it overpowers the flaws of the lyrics and title, and the dance and the music video make it even more impressive.
The dance makes me speechless. SHINee’s latest title song “Sherlock” does have lots of creative and interesting movements, but in terms of dynamics and connection between movements, “Sherlock” appears inferior to “MAMA”. The choreography of “MAMA” is filled with complicated soft and sleek moves and punchy, strong and striking moves integrating into each other, creating a well-balanced comprehensiveness. The choreography also fully utilized the formation of a group – the formation shifts are also so well-done that it creates a subtle dynamic inside the entire team; each movement seals onto the next movement smoothly and seamlessly. The overall visual effect of the dance even reminds me of Taichi, a slow Chinese Kungfu style that focuses solely on balancing, smoothness and wholeness. Personally, I think I find my new favorite choreography after SHINee’s “Lucifer” in 2010. I again show my deep respect for SM’s choreographers.
The music video, on the other hand, gives totally another visual satisfaction – even though the plots don’t really make sense. Here, we get to know that EXO is a group of 12 different forces that are created to protect the tree of life on EXO-planet. Here is a brief list of each member’s “super power”:
Kai – Teleportation
Chanyeol – Flame
Suho – Water
D.O. – Earth
Baek Hyun – Light
Sehun – Wind
. . . . . . .
Lu Han – Telekinesis (not telepathy as the picture indicates)
Kris – Flight
Lay – Healing
Tao – Time Control
Chen – Lightening (not light, Baek Hyun has Light)
Xiu Min – Frost
Yes, it sounds a bit cheesy, but the high-budgeted special effects shown in the music video cannot be ignored. Kai disappears into thin air and then appears within one second somewhere else, Chanyeol walks leaving flames on the ground, Kris jumps off from the top of the building, Lay brings the frozen flower back to life… Chanyeol and Kris even summoned a fire phoenix and a fire dragon! Even though the music videos don’t have a clear theme other than showing off each member’s super power, nor does it connect to the theme of the song itself, SM has successfully produced a grand music video fulled with professional and realistic special effects that attracts audience.
Of course, the special effects are not the only things that stand out in the music video. For example, the scenes in the beginning and at the end in which 12 members are presented as some sort of religious figures, or maybe “gods of supernatural powers” creates an intriguing and mysterious atmosphere. As the 12 “gods of supernatural powers” gather under moonlight and slowly look up to the moon, mumbling the occult chants, the atmosphere becomes epic, which fits the feeling of the song perfectly. In addition to the special effects, these scenes also make the music video look like a mini-movie instead of just a music video, except this “mini-movie” doesn’t have a plot.
Around the bridge of the song, I believe most of the audience of the music video experienced a huge shock – some of them probably got frightened – when they suddenly saw Kai (for EXO-K’s version of the song), Xiu Min and Kris (for EXO-M’s version of the song) with frightening prints painted on their faces, shouting. That is a huge breakthrough – at least for SM.SM has done fancy make-up and erratic hairstyles in TVXQ’s “Triangle” and Super Junior’s “Don’t Don”, but nobody would ever expect a scary face print on any SM entertainer, since a cute and perfect image has always been what SM uses to keep fans.So it was a great step forward. Also, the patterns are designed and drawn on artistically and professionally; it’s art, I would say. Kris’ asymmetrical pattern of a crystal is sharp and glittering; Xiu Min’s scary skull print is shaded and outlined very professionally to create a very realistic view;
and if you look close, you will find that what Kai’s got on his face is not some scary skull print, but a brief introduction statement of EXO-K! I was amazed, because it is so well-designed that the overall look resembles a frightening skull pattern while all the words are still in their original shapes (none of the words were twisted to get that visual effect).
EXO’s debut with “MAMA” can be considered one of the most grandiose debut ever in the entire Kpop industry so far: The debut was advertised with twenty-three teasers (that’s the most teasers I’ve ever seen for one single album or for a debut); the debut was preconditioned by two prologue songs, which each has its own music video as well; the members were softly advertised
by shooting photographs for a high fashion magazine High Cut before debut; the debut song “MAMA” is delicately composed and sounds grandiose; the music video of “MAMA” is filmed with high budget for the special effects and many new ideas; the choreography of “MAMA” is also fancy and comprehensive… The efforts SM has put into EXO’s debut is unbelievable (of course, the members worked really hard too).
. . . . . . .
At the end of this tremendously long and tiresome review (Sorry… and thank you so much for reading the whole thing), please allow me to comment a little bit more about SM’s fabulous marketing skills (read my other analysis here)
Many people have been confused, annoyed, or even upset by how much Kai is getting the attention – he is in more than half of the teasers before the debut, he’s always in the center, he gets the most camera shots, he even gets the crazy face painting and the entire bridge of the Korean
version of MAMA… Why is SM so unfair? Let me tell you: it’s just another of their commercial skills. EXO has 12 members, and therefore it is almost impossible to make 24 teasers, giving each member 2 teasers, and expect people to remember each of them before EXO debuts – in fact, people wouldn’t even have that much an impression on EXO as a whole because there is not a center, a focal point, a point that sticks out and gets caught easily. By repeatedly giving attention to Kai alone and almost “ignoring” most of the other members, SM successfully prevented this loss of focus. By doing so, SM also established a well known name, “Kai”, which in terms gave people and the press an easy access to get to know EXO through the name of Kai. Conversations then can easily go like this:”Do you know EXO? The new group that Kai is in?” “Oh Kai? Yeah I know his name! I want to see his group! I will check it out.” What’s more, by almost ignoring most of the other members before debut, SM established a sense of mystique for EXO and triggered people to think: “How about the other members? Why did SM only focus on Kai? I want to see the whole group!” So people started doing some research about EXO, and people had the curiosity to stay tuned about EXO, and people started to talk about EXO. Like it or not, SM has allured lots of audience, listeners and fans for EXO this way.
What’s more, SM has utilized the logo of EXO very well throughout the music video. The hexagon shaped logo is imbedded everywhere (costumes, buildings, rings…)throughout the two music videos, which visually increases the impression of the music video and the group for the audience, visually making the name EXO memorable. As far as I know, EXO is the only group from SM that has a simple and representative logo; it may be another new technique SM is experimenting on, and it surely is getting its effect as expected.
Overall, SM certainly does great “conspiracies” marketing and advertising. If you are interested in further analysis, you can read my article analyzing some other skills SM has used to make money here.
* All pictures are snapshots taken by me from the official MV of “MAMA”. All rights related to pictures and MV reserved to SM Entertainment. All rights related to the writing reserved to Asian Music Invasion.