ARTMS 2024
Photos: Courtesy of Modhaus

K-Pop Finally Has Its Meta-Moment with the Dynamic Art of ARTMS

The K-pop market is oversaturated, but ARTMS cut through the technicolor noise by remixing and defying lore conventions to create something drastically new.

31 May 2024

Being a fan of K-pop is an experience with few parallels. Yes, there are genre-shifting songs, ecstatic live shows, abstract music videos with tight choreography, and any number of promotions, TV shows, photo cards, and breathless fan communities that help strengthen the relationship between artist and listener.

Yet the deepest connections occur when a fan can get immersed in the lore. For a Western parallel, Taylor Swift’s loyal fan army finds joy in her elaborate record announcements and cryptic lyrics and often speculates about the real-life people her songs may or may not be about. She deliberately leans into such teases and worldbuilding with her promotional cycles, but she absolutely took more than a few cues from the South Korean pop music machine.

While K-pop groups may start with strange concepts that they later abandon (like debuting as werewolves or pirates), the lore is there for hardcore fans to engage with should they desire. These are all narrative concepts designed to cut through an oversaturated market. Any act’s failure to distinguish itself leads to only a few years of activity. Some idols even work through multiple groups or compete in numerous vocal competition shows to break through. Some label trainees spend years building up their skills only to never end up debuting in a group, never getting to participate in a lore of their own.

Thankfully, for ARTMS, they’re built differently.

While it’s not unusual for long-running K-pop acts to reference their past hits via promotions or album interludes occasionally, ARTMS might go down as one of the first truly meta outfits to exist in the industry. HeeJin, Kim Lip, HaSeul, Choerry, and JinSoul have gone through one of the most shocking and triumphant stories in all of K-pop history, with nearly all the members existing in three separate units over a two-year timeframe. Their full-length debut album, <Dall>, is a delightful listen and is the rare K-pop record that rewards not just new fans of the group but those who have followed both the member’s creative narratives as well as their headline-making real-world legal grapples.

“I wasn’t able to really feel a difference,” notes JinSoul when asking if there were major differences between the collective fandoms of LOONA (the long-running group she previously debuted with), Odd Eye Circle (a LOONA subunit that has been revived following LOONA’s suspension), and now ARTMS. “There may be slight differences between each fan, but I think most of our fans like how the lore connects between our solos, units, and full group promotions alongside the various concepts we showcase.” She further explains, “Each individual became our fan at different times, but I can tell that they like our units and full group.”

Being a fan of ARTMS means you were likely already a fan of LOONA, the 12-member group that debuted in 2018 at the relatively new label BlockBerryCreative. Jaden Jeong, LOONA’s director, and producer, was more obsessed with lore than anyone, giving all 12 members a long pre-debut rollout that included their own mini-album and promotional video starting in 2016, followed by grouping some trios into subunits (who had their own mini-albums), all before making LOONA an official outfit premiere with the full-length album [+ +].

If it seems overambitious, that’s because it absolutely was, but it was a unique rollout that gave each member a chance to shine individually. Partway through LOONA’s run, Jeong left BlockBerry due to creative differences, eventually setting up his own label, MODHAUS. Yet while the LOONA girls remained with BlockBerry and worked on promotions, the 2022 dismissal of member Chuu over a contract dispute rocked the industry. Chuu not only prevailed in her legal battle with the label, but shortly after, the other remaining members filed injunctions and were eventually freed from their contracts. The attempted release of a LOONA record without Chuu got fans so incensed that they rallied and called record stores, asking them to refuse to stock the record. Amazingly, the gambit worked, and BlockBerry’s attempt to release an 11-member LOONA album was abandoned despite it being completed. It was one of the most astonishing acts a fandom has ever accomplished.

Knowing LOONA fans (dubbed simply Orbit) had their backs gave each idol a sense of confidence that they could sustain a career post-BlockBerry. Some of the LOONA girls went solo, setting up their own labels or getting signed to giants like Warner Music Korea. Others formed new outfits like the cheekily-named Loosemble. Yet for HeeJin, Kim Lip, JinSoul, and Choerry, pursuing their musical futures meant partnering up with Jaden Jeong, signing to MODHAUS as a quartet in 2023, with HaSeul joining a few months later.

“Our CEO is the person who knows the members the best and is also the person who started the LOONA lore,” notes HaSeul during a late-night call with PopMatters. “So we wanted to continue our lore by joining MODHAUS. It took around a year for ARTMS to stand on stage in front of everyone, which was a long time, but we’re very satisfied with what we have done and do not regret joining this company.”

Odd Eye Circle, the acclaimed pre-LOONA subunit consisting of Kim Lip, JinSoul, and Choerry, quickly reformed and released <Version Up> in 2023, with the striking dance single “Air Force One” being heralded as one of the best K-pop songs released that year. Yet, for a unit whose previous record was back in 2017, was there any worry about fan retention all those years later, much less on a new label?

“We haven’t been promoting in the group Odd Eye Circle in a long time so we were worried about if the fans would still be supporting us,” admits Choerry. “However, the fans were always by our side and sent us a lot of support, even through communication on our fan messaging app. We were also worried since the fans had to wait a long time for the release of ARTMS’ album, but thankfully, the fans really like the album, which makes us even more proud.”

Creatively energized, Jeong allowed the new signees to pursue their artistic impulses. This also meant involving the idols in the creative process, which some labels aren’t too keen on allowing. For Kim Lip, however, she got to continue the lyric writing streak that she started with LOONA, penning some of the lines on “Air Force One”.

“As I joined MODHAUS, I had thought about wanting to participate in lyric writing,” notes Kim Lip. “I thought writing the lyrics to a song I was going to sing was a reasonable yet difficult task to achieve. While preparing for Odd Eye Circle, I had asked Jaden Jeong, who was in A&R for years, about wanting to participate in lyric writing, and he agreed without hesitation, so since then, I’ve been getting great opportunities to participate in lyric writing for our songs.”

Soon after, HaSeul dropped her sultry solo single “Plastic Candy”, and HeeJin dropped her dynamic <K> EP. The releases started piling up, new lore slowly building, leaving the five idols to come together to form ARTMS, a fresh group that was boldly unafraid to embrace their past.

It’s customary for most K-pop acts to debut with a few standalone pre-debut singles, usually dropping an EP or mini-album to announce their new era. Yet ARTMS wanted to differentiate themselves instead of crafting a full-length record. All members were actively involved in its creation, including HeeJin, who was penning lyrics on her solo release and wished to continue doing that with ARTMS proper.

“I had participated in lyric writing and other production aspects of my solo album, and this really made me feel like I was producing my own album,” HeeJin notes. “I was so involved that the CEO would not move on with the production of the album unless I gave my approval on certain aspects. Through this whole process, I realized that I love being creative and being part of this process. This opportunity helped me become more active in participating in the album <Dall> and gave me lots of confidence.”

“When the CEO gave us the opportunity to write lyrics for our songs, he kept it open for us to write freely and creativity rather than giving us a certain subject to write on,” adds JinSoul. “And I think that helped make our lyrics sound more organic as well.”

The lyrics in <Dall>frequently reference subjects like love, empowerment, and freedom, but what makes ARTMS so different is their incredible meta-perspective. Nearly every aspect of the album points to the group’s past, extending all the way back to LOONA. Even the record’s title, an acronym for “Devine All Love & Live”, is itself a winking reference to Love & Live, the 2017 album that HeeJin and HaSeul released when part of the LOONA 1/3 pre-debut subunit.

Yet as ARTMS started rolling out pre-debut singles, the references to the group’s prior recordings weren’t just in the titles and lyrics, no. The album roped in the actual melodies, instruments, and vocal tics of prior songs and effectively remixed them into brand-new works. It’s radical to hear Odd Eye Circle’s “Air Force One” hook get slowed down and transformed into “Air”, a track with a completely different tempo and has all the girls now singing on it instead of OEC’s three. Their lore wasn’t a monolith to be worshiped, but instead, artistic tools used to create exciting new sonic experiments.

“We can speak about each song that used samples from our previous releases,” HaSeul starts. “‘Candy Crush’ was a completely different song to my solo song ‘Plastic Candy’. However, for ‘Flower Rhythm’, which used HeeJin’s solo songs ‘Kehwa’ and ‘Algorithm’, we had re-recorded the hook of the song and compared it with the original in ‘Algorithm’ so see which version suited the song better. The same went for ‘Air’, but there are parts of the song that use the original and parts that were re-recorded. I think it’ll be fun for the listeners to figure out which part of the hook was original and which part was re-recorded. The members had recorded the parts and discussed which recording was best suited for the song.”

It’s a radical new process that feels fresh and different in a stacked K-pop market. Even their pre-debut track “Birth”, with its crashing horror movie strings, felt like an abrupt change to the group’s aesthetic. It sounds like nothing else on <Dall>, and despite announcing ARTMS’ first preview track, it ends up serving as a dramatic album closer.

“Rather than thinking of it as a closing for the album, and as the title of the song suggests, ‘Birth’ is like a ‘rebirth’, making the last song lead back to the first song and making the whole tracklist go full-circle,” notes JinSoul.

The fans are rewarded for their loyalty in more than just references to the group’s past. When asked about what songs didn’t make the record, HeeJin notes that some listeners got involved before ARTMS even debuted: “Our group holds a fun system called Gravity, a voting system where fans can vote for aspects of our promotion. We had actually recorded lots of demos for the Gravity but they weren’t chosen by the fans. Some songs that weren’t chosen from the Gravity aren’t on our album.”

Yet the ones that were chosen clearly have an impact. While “Candy Crush” goes cruises to the City Pop discotheque, a lot of fans immediately latched onto the mid-tempo groove of “Butterfly Effect”, which stretches beyond the MODHAUS-era lore to quote lyrics from “Butterfly”, one of LOONA’s most celebrated tracks. While it’s an acknowledgment of where they came from, it’s also the kind of easter egg that makes being a part of a fandom so rewarding, enhancing K-pop’s all-important connection between artist and listener. At this point, even the lead single “Virtual Angel” could see itself broken into pieces and reintegrated into a wild new ARTMS song in the future.

Kim Lip notes that the tour iterations of the songs sound different to her, but that’s largely due to fan participation: “I love it when the fans sing along while we perform on your and listening to that sounds different to the version we had recorded in the studio. I take out my in-ears to listen to the fans singing along so I look forward to the fans singing along this time as well.”

While future plans beyond the tour are kept under wraps (“You might be able to see a solo or subunit release in the future,” JinSoul teases), ARTMS are carving out a unique path for themselves. While the journey to <Dall> was filled with tough choices and bold risks, the end result feels like something new and previously unseen in the K-pop universe. Few groups can rival ARTMS’ ever-evolving lore, but after seeing just how intricate their meta-narrative is, one wonders how other fandoms could ever compete.