One of the biggest K-pop production & management companies, SM Entertainment has recently presented a new girl group called ‘aespa’. It became immediately a hot potato yet controversial due to its interesting setting, which is about including virtual members in the group. ‘Ae’ in ‘aespa’ is a combination of the initials of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Experience’. The founder of SM Entertainment, Lee Soo Man has claimed that “The future will be the world of celebrities and robots. We want to present ‘aespa’ as a part of SM Culture Universe and open the door of this future world”.
The group ‘aespa’ consists of four human members and four avatar members who resemble the human members. It is based on the concept that virtual members and human members are interacting, communicating, and growing together based on their connection in the digital world. According to SM Entertainment, alongside the human members, the avatar members will participate in digital content and promotion, and the members from both worlds will collaborate in various ways.
Virtual celebrities: a new way of immersive storytelling in the music industry
Virtual celebrity is not a totally new thing in K-pop history though, as there was a singer called ‘Adam’ who was an animated character back in 1998. Moreover, a character like Hatsune Miku from Japan is also a well-known example of a virtual celebrity who releases many songs and has concerts with lots of audiences.
As K-pop idols are heavily influenced by the interaction with their fandoms, storytelling and concept of the K-pop idols are crucial in their success. K-pop fans love to be part of the universe of K-pop groups, and they actively create fan contents like fictional novels, music videos and stories. Virtual members make this interaction more compelling to the fans as they offer a huge room for imagination. Furthermore, once the virtual members are built, it’s easier and cheaper to create digital contents with them.
However, the appearance of avatar members in the K-pop world could be problematic in many ways. First of all, it can reinforce the sexual objectification of the K-pop idols. The animated K-pop idols suggest unrealistic body images. As for the group ‘aespa’, it is problematic because the avatar members resemble the human members, which some of them are still underage. The digital version of the members can be easily used in pornographic contents. It is also dehumanizing human members.
As ‘aespa’ has just debuted, it is too early to judge how the interaction between the actual members and the avatars will develop. In any case, the K-pop world must concern about the possible ethical problems in using virtual idols.