- Words Solly Warner
Despite illness, injuries, battles with anxiety (and of course the pandemic), ATEEZ have already proven that they’re the unstoppable 4th generation boy group who is breaking the K-Pop mould.
Before jumping into the rise of ATEEZ, it’s worth learning about who has controlled the K-Pop market over the last few years and how this has somewhat changed. For those of you who aren’t so well acquainted with the world of K-Pop, the “Big 3” refers to SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, the three companies that have dominated the K-Pop entertainment market over the last two decades, setting up programs in which they train up trainees and form groups. They produced almost all of the successful solo artists and groups during this period. Fast forward a few years and a big shift in this dominance occurred when a little-known boy group called BTS debuted in 2013 under the label Big Hit Entertainment.
BTS didn’t gain much attention during their first years but what set them apart from a heavily saturated market was that they spoke about the unspoken in their lyrics – mental health, youth problems, social issues and the journey towards loving oneself. Their endless list of record-breaking achievements is made all the more impressive as they started off as underdogs in the K-Pop industry, struggling without the support of big capital or media promotions.
Now, this isn’t a piece about BTS, but it is important to understand their influence on this very regulated industry. It’s pretty impossible to compare anyone to the success of BTS but ATEEZ certainly shares some similarities with the K-Pop giants. It is no easy feat for new talent to advance through the ranks of this enormous machine-like structure, but like BTS, ATEEZ are showing that smaller, lesser-known K-Pop companies can create groups that offer something new and can compete in the big leagues.
KQ Entertainment, founded in 2016, started plans for a new boy group when it’s now leader Hongjoong sent a letter and sample mixtape to the company. Hongjoong became the company’s first official trainee from which he would be joined by Yunho, Seonghwa, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung, and Jongho over the next year, with Yeosang and Wooyoung even previously training at Big Hit. To breakdown ATEEZ’s success, we must dive a little deeper into the group’s core.
ATEEZ first caught the attention of online fans on May 18th, 2018 when the group, initially named KQ Fellaz, released the YouTube video “KQ Fellaz Performance Video I” which featured all eight members dancing together for the first time. Moving in perfect unison to Famous Dex’s “Pick It Up”, the boys instantly oozed a contagious charisma whilst they mouthed along to the explicit lyrics with effortless confidence and a clear sense of humour. This would be the first time fans saw ATEEZ’s now trademark facial expressions. Facial expressions are integral within the group, taking each one of their routines to the next level; fully embodying their performances and making them seem experienced beyond their years. Now sitting at over 12 million views, the internet instantly went crazy for the boys in black and their supreme dance moves, with people wondering who they were.
ATEEZ are supported by dance crew B.B Trippin’ to create their choreography, who masterfully construct dance pieces that place the group very much within the K-Pop space, whilst referencing and including more “Western” styles, even throwing in a TikTok move here or there. Many K-Pop groups place focus on perfect synchronicity, whereas although ATEEZ are most certainly not out of time with one another, the group’s choreography is created to highlight each member’s individual style, showing different dynamics. From San’s raw explosiveness, to Mingi’s swagger, to Seonghwa’s grace, ATEEZ’s performative superpower is uniqueness. With every music video there is something new, but the group also like to cleverly re-use moves from previous songs in order to further tie together the narrative and universe of ATEEZ.
Whilst their performances always seem perfect, ATEEZ hasn’t gone without a few setbacks. With back-breaking performances comes injuries. Over their first few years there have been multiple injuries sustained by the members due to their intensive schedule, with three members even sporting eye patches at times due to conjunctivitis. Most recently the group has been without Mingi, who went on a hiatus in November due to psychological anxiety where he is still focusing on treatment.
Whilst mental health still remains to be an issue that surrounds K-Pop and its artists, this example does seem to show progress in that agencies now appear to be more accepting of the serious issues in question and are open to sharing the importance of rest and returning to full recovery with the public. This extends ATEEZ’s message to their fans, continuing to highlight that K-Pop groups no longer just make music but provide support in more ways than one to this generation’s youth. Whether there’s a missing member or new accessory to be worn, the group always comes to together and performs regardless; ATEEZ always lives up to their motto, “8 makes 1 team”.
Behind every successful K-Pop group is a devoted and loyal fanbase, so we can’t talk about ATEEZ without mentioning their fandom, ATINY. As K-Pop is more popular than ever before, ATEEZ grew up as trainees with an international mindset and were one of the first groups to actively cater to international audiences. From subtitling digital content in English, to including African lyrics and dance moves in their song “Wave”, to multiple conventions and fan signs, where fans are able to speak with each member individually one by one, across the U.S., Europe and Australia, to dedicating their song “Star 1117” to ATINY, ATEEZ is highly skilled in providing fan service.
Even when faced with a global pandemic, the group still managed to say connected with their fans. They uploaded a series of individual member vlogs to YouTube, goofed around on TikTok, created a hashtag #StayWithATEEZ to showcase ATINY covers of their song “Answer”, appeared on countless V LIVE videos, a service that allows artists to live stream and chat directly with fans, and even released a completely English song “One Day At A Time”. It’s clear to see that a big part of ATEEZ’s success comes down to their unwavering connection with their diverse fanbase.
Unlike other K-Pop groups whose sound is controlled predominately by leading figures of the company, ATEEZ have a very intimate method of creation. Being signed to a smaller label that works together as a team allows the boys to have unrestrained freedom and creative control over their art. The group’s lead producer, Eden, works with a collective of producers to create ATEEZ’s sonic identity. Together they then work with the dance, marketing and visual teams to focus on constructing a cohesive vision. Leader, Hongjoong also has a more direct hand in shaping ATEEZ’s music, helping to write and produce multiple songs for the group. Also, companies like the “Big 3” often build an extensive library of hundreds of sounds from outsourced producers, whereas Eden and his team have been with ATEEZ since the very beginning so there is a shared understanding of how the group’s sound started and where it is headed. This working dynamic is quite rare for the K-Pop world but for ATEEZ it’s an effective method for experimenting with different styles and sounds whilst still expressing a unified story and clear identity.
ATEEZ are not shy of displaying a variety of concepts in their music, exploring themes such as youthful exuberance, the battle between light and dark, self-doubt and yearning to achieve something out of reach. Most recently the eight members released the latest addition to their grungier prequel mini album series at the start of this month. “ZERO: FEVER Part. 2” carries on the passion and confusion of youth from “Part. 1”, that saw the absolute spectacle and banger lead song “Inception”, but speaks of chasing their dreams and guiding one through the obstacles in place. The new mini album can be split into two sections, with the title track “Fireworks (I’m The One)” showcasing a fierce and relentless attitude amongst a bass heavy build up and multi-layered, hard hitting, gunshot firing chorus. “The Leaders” continues this hip-hop heavy beat fest with Hongjoong bringing back his unique whispering rap style, much like on “TO THE BEAT”, in the pre-chorus.
The next few tracks speak more to those who are seeking comfort and support. Breezy, summery synth pop vibes fill “Time Of Love”, spreading some much needed positivity with lyrics like, “Nobody’s perfect” and “It’s about understanding each other”. Next, we see ATEEZ’s take on the recent 80s revival from the likes of Dua Lipa and The Weeknd with “Take Me Home”. A message of reassurance is accompanied by whirling synths, rolling bass and a stunning saxophone solo towards the end of the track. The final new song is “Celebrate”, a gospel inspired and soulful ode to self-love.
ATEEZ officially debuted in October 2018 with the release of their debut EP “Treasure: EP.1: All to Zero” and in less than three years they have released four Korean EPs, one full-length album, two mini albums and two Japanese albums, with their first mini album “ZERO: FEVER Part. 1” becoming the group’s first album to be certified platinum on the Gaon Albums Chart. With a sold out 2019 “Expedition Tour”, Next Generation award at the 2019 Golden Disc Awards, Worldwide Fans Choice at the 2019 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), Best Korean Act at the MTV EMAs and most recently taking home the World Rookie of the Year award at the 2021 Gaon Chart Music Awards, this is only the beginning for ATEEZ. The group has also been named “4th Generation Leaders” by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, and are official global ambassadors for Korean culture and tourism.
ATEEZ continue to show that they are the true experimenters of the K-Pop. Whilst some ideas work better than others, it’s refreshing to see a group share projects with a wide variety of unique sounds, leaving you curious to see which new territories they’ll explore next. Remembering that this eight-boy group is only 20 to 22 years old, ATEEZ have already gained widespread recognition and have shown they are remarkably persistent in their pursuit of global success. With an unrivalled passion and huge promise, ATEEZ is proving to be an unstoppable force.