On the 8th, SM boy band and record breaking K-pop group Exo celebrated their 5th anniversary. I remember that time in 2012 so vividly — the speculation, the nonplussed initial reaction, the fervour that gradually built up until I and my fellow fledgling fans could not eat, sleep, study, talk, basically function, without Exo on the mind. Sure, the ‘prologue’ singles “What is Love” and “History” helped fuel the excitement (fun fact: that weird jumper pull move Chen does in “History” is how he became my bias. Please don’t ask me to explain, because I don’t think I can); but what really got fans hyped, more than the pretty pictures and nice songs, can be summed up in two words.
It’s normal for K-pop groups to shower us with teasers of all kinds. There are photoshoot stills, trailers for MVs, and album spoilers, not to mention the nifty little schedules we now get ahead of a release, informing us on the who, what, where, and when (the why is implied). Debuts work a little differently, with a hint of mystery attached to each unveiling. With Exo, there was definitely a LOT of mystery, especially since specifics on the then-incoming SM group were scant. How many members in the group? Is Jino in this? And why is this Kai guy all over everything? Also, is he a Taemin clone or something?
But as each new teaser dropped, we kept finding new things to attach ourselves to. For some, it was seeing a particular member in action; for others, it was the focus on choreography; for others still, it was Kai; and for many more, it was the music. Knowing that these snippets could potentially be part of Exo’s sound was an exciting prospect for those who enjoyed it, and we couldn’t wait to hear more. They don’t call this period of time “Teaser Era” for nothing.
Perhaps, it was too optimistic to have expected every single piece of music encompassed in Exo’s debut full album as fully fledged songs. We did get two, at least, in debut mini Mama, and gradually, that collection was added to with Exo’s next record breaking albums. If you will indulge my nostalgia, readers, I would like to use this edition of Side B to explore Exo’s music through the group’s pre-debut teasers, and see how fove of my favourite pieces of music (since it’s Exo’s fifth anniversary) from the Teaser Era meet with the reality of their full form in Exo’s discography.
For each song below, there is a YouTube playlisst comprising the relevant teasers, followed by the Korean and Mandarin versions of each song — so if you want to listen to any iteration of a song while reading, just click play!
1. “Baby Don’t Cry”
This is my favourite track from Exo’s first studio album, 2013’s XOXO. We had heard “Baby Don’t Cry,” fully fledged, in Teaser 21. In my favourite Kai clip from the entire Teaser Era, the piano melody is highlighted through the use of shadows, and the extra clothes flapping sound effects are considerably toned down to put the aural focus on the singing.
The lyrics are based on Hans Christian Anderson‘s The Little Mermaid. In this version, the lovelorn mermaid is offered the chance to return to her mermaid body, and avoid death, by taking the life of the prince she loves. Here, Exo perform as the prince willing to give his life so that the mermaid can return to her world:
Say no more (baby) no more (don’t cry)
Please don’t hesitate at the moment you’ll become foam
Say no more (baby) no more (don’t cry)
So you can remain as a shining person, burn me with that dagger instead
It’s basically fanfiction, but a different take on a classic tale is always interesting to see.
“Beautiful” was only in one of the many pre-debut Exo teasers, but it left an indelible mark on my psyche. Maybe it was the soft cooing; maybe it was the gentle twinkling; or maybe it was the fact that it, weirdly, reminded my of Ape Escape. We’ll never know. The song was reprised as a 90-second Suho solo on tour, before finding its place as the outro on the group’s second studio album, Exodus. In its full form, “Beautiful” builds on the simple, yet strong, adoration portrayed in Suho’s version, adding on elaborate metaphors for what exactly this love means to Exo:
The sky is the color of the ocean, a golden light enters
(Look) You don’t know when it will come, a love like the sunset
It quietly spreads (love)
Even if you’re a different color, I’m being colored into your world
Needless to say, the melody also becomes a bit more complex than the Suho version, which is capably managed by the multiple voices on the track. The verses flow like a run on sentence, and juxtapose beautifully with the more spacious chorus, allowing the instrumentation its moment in the spotlight.
3. “Black Pearl”
Teaser 8 not only revealed how many members would be in Exo, it gave us our first experience of the dramatic “Black Pearl.” Considering the content of the teaser, the song seems an apt choice to score it. The full version of “Black Pearl” uses measured intonation and crashing synths to create peaks and falls between the choruses and verses, as the Exo sub-units sing about their desire to reach an enchanting paramour, likened to a new moon (hence the name, “Black Pearl”):
My beautiful black pearl that reflects dimly above the high tides in the thick mist
(ho- oh- my beautiful black pearl yeah)
My beautiful black pearl that can be faintly heard above the melancholy tune in the deep silence
(ho- hey she’s my beautiful beautiful black pearl)
The dubstep from the teaser is retained for the rap breakdown to signal the increasing perilousness of their journey — I’m not the biggest fan, as it disorents the listener a little too well with its cacaphony, but D.O and Chen bring us back to a soaring final chorus to right this ship before it fully capsizes.
4. “El Dorado”
Another Exodus track, we were first introduced to “El Dorado” at the same time we were introduced to Chanyeol. Teaser 20 is all kinds of pretty, from the visuals (a tall and floppy-haired Chanyeol moving fluidly and diligently solving mysteries) to the music (a gentle progression of percussion and synths that hints at intrigue and discovery). Interestingly, Chanyeol and “El Dorado” both managed to wildly subvert my expectations of them.
The full version of “El Dorado” ups the tempo to give the melody a sense of urgency, further underscored by the extra percussion. Before you get too comfortable with this change, though, we suddenly veer into a Middle Eastern soundscape, before eventually reaching the fervent chant of the chorus. Thankfully, the road to the chorus is more straightforward from the second verse.
Like “Black Pearl,” sailing references abound (what is it with Exo and ships?), as does the use of travel and questing as a metaphor for finding and attaining love. Unlike “Black Pearl,” though, “El Dorado” features a stronger rap breakdown, with the tempo keeping the flow under tight control. My only qualm about the entire second half of the song is giving Baekhyun the high note in the K version over D.O, as the latter’s voice may have sounded less harsh during that ad lib.
5. “Into Your World”/”Angel”
“Into Your World,” rechristened “Angel” in the Mama tracklist, won over many before they’d even heard the full thing through its choreography, featured in Teasers 22 and 23, as well as the music of choice for Sehun and Lu Han’s Teaser 9 (AKA the one that started all the Hunhan shipping) and Kris’ only slightly ridiculous Teaser 17. Yes, that teaser, along with Kai’s omnipresence, became more understandable after the members’ super powers (remember those?) were revealed, but that doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, it did look a bit ridiculous.
Coming back to the song, “Angel” is a must-listen just for how it starts: that first note needs to come in at exactly the right time, and Lu Han and Baekhyun acquit themselves beautifully in the M and K versions, respectively. Unlike the prominent guitar and belting in “What is Love,” the instrumental takes a backseat to the feather-soft vocals. Also unlike “What is Love,” “Angel” makes enough room for each subunit’s third vocalist, Lay and Suho, to join the two main singers. Suho, especially, sounds divine in his first lines of the song (Xiumin is also in the M version, but barely, so don’t worry about it).
Those were just a few of my favourite Teaser Era tracks that managed to cross over into Exo’s albums — what are some of your favourite Teaser Era music pieces? Are there any we haven’t heard yet in full song form? Share your thoughts in the comments below!