In another world, TOMORROW X TOGETHER (TXT)’s schedule for March 2021 would have been packed with in-person activities. March 4 was the two-year anniversary of the Korean boy band’s stratospheric debut, the mini-album The Dream Chapter: STAR, and in the K-pop world, anniversaries are a big deal. There would have been fan meetings and maybe even a commemorative live performance. Instead, with the COVID-19 pandemic severely limiting the scope of public life, the boy band’s five members focused on their already well-honed virtual fan activities, uploading their usual week's worth of nonstop content (dubbed "DREAM WEEK" this year) to their social channels. Other than that, they likely passed the milestone the way they say they’ve spent most days this past year: writing music, working out, and watching a lot of TV.
“I also eat ice cream with various toppings,” says Hueningkai, the youngest member of the group. Yeonjun, the oldest, tells cheesy dad jokes.
This is not to say that TXT have lost any momentum due to the pandemic; they’ve used it for inspiration. Consider the COVID-themed hit “We Lost the Summer,” from their October 2020 EP, Minisode1: Blue Hour, an anthem for every young adult whose life the pandemic put on hold. “Our favorite cafe is now locked shut,” the boys sing. “Hiding my sigh behind a stifling mask… A nightmarish week, another month, a year… We lost the summer, when we lost each other. Give us back our season.”
“I cannot listen to this song without crying, even though it sounds so optimistic,” one of the music video’s 17 million YouTube viewers commented. That emotional connection wasn’t a fluke; part of TXT’s appeal is the band’s willingness to explore darker corners of youth and modern life.
When TXT, made up of Soobin, 20; Yeonjun, 21; Beomgyu, 19; Taehyun, 19; and Hueningkai, 18, released their debut album, with an accompanying music video and live performance, they were under intense pressure to succeed. They were the first group to launch under Big Hit Entertainment, South Korea’s most prolific entertainment agency, since 2013, when it introduced BTS, the K-pop band that sold more music worldwide in 2020 than any other artist, including Taylor Swift. K-pop has been a booming industry in Korea since the ’90s, but it’s seeing more and more international demand with each passing year. K-pop generated more than $500 million in export revenue in 2018, according to a study released last year by the Korean government. Even amid the pandemic, the biggest K-pop groups saw their album sales increase in 2020. BTS sold more than 4 million copies of Map of the Soul: 7. Because it is so visible and, for some, lucrative, K-pop attracts far more aspiring stars than will become actual ones; some groups work tirelessly for years before they’re recognized domestically. Even the most successful groups with major labels backing them may not ever make it big in Western music markets.
TXT made an impact right away. The Dream Chapter: STAR topped the iTunes charts in 44 countries, and the group swept all of the major K-pop new artist awards. TXT’s first studio album, The Dream Chapter: MAGIC, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s World Albums Chart in November 2019. Considering that Big Hit is now one of the most powerful labels in the world, exposure was never going to be a problem for TXT. Talent wasn’t either: Like most K-pop stars, they have gone through rigorous training required and provided by their label. They are skilled singers, dancers, and rappers; Yeonjun’s talent in particular has been called “legendary.” The biggest hurdle for the group was distinguishing themselves artistically from their mega-hit “older brothers” BTS but also the rest of their musical peers.
K-pop is known for its cheerful, happy portrayals of youth. TXT have regularly deviated from that standard, straddling the line between shadow and light from the beginning. Their debut single in 2019, “Crown,” explores the loneliness of a boy who grows horns on his head, perceives himself as a monster alone in the world, and eventually finds comfort in friends who share his suffering. The heaviness of the lyrics is balanced out by a cheerful melody and colorful, eye-grabbing visuals.
The shadows in TXT’s music continue to evolve and became visible in the music video for “Eternally,” from their May 2020 mini-album, The Dream Chapter: ETERNITY. At more than 19 minutes long, it resembles a short horror film more than a pop video. The boys stand in the middle of an apocalyptic landscape of ruins, wander through dark corridors and infinite rows of doors, and even come across dead versions of themselves as they sing about the despair of being trapped in a “darkness that swallowed the scream,” in a “fragmented world” of nightmarish dreams.
“We didn’t know [the music video] would be over 19 minutes,” says Hueningkai. “As we kept shooting, the video expanded. I’m happy we were able to show new sides of ourselves. MOAs seemed to love it,” he says, referring to the TXT fans collectively called MOA, or “Moments of Alwaysness.” According to Allkpop, the name refers to “all of the moments that TXT and fans spend together always,” as well as the moments they share to create the unified dream referenced in the group’s album titles.
The songs explore the confusion of adolescence and the role friends play in getting you through it… as they’ve navigated the confusion of adolescence with their friends, and shared those experiences with their combined 22 million YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook followers. The group’s October 2020 EP, Minisode1: Blue Hour, peaked at No. 25 on Billboard 200 and topped charts in Japan, the world’s second-highest grossing music market after the United States.
“We became trainees when we were in high school and middle school,” says Soobin, the 20-year-old leader of the group. “There were a lot of things we hadn’t experienced. So when we debuted, we faced a lot of difficult ordeals, thoughts, and tribulations for the first time, trying to resolve conflicts and learning about the world.”
“When we debuted, it was difficult for me to even stand on stage,” Hueningkai says, laughing. “It was particularly hard to look at the camera. I didn’t know where the [camera] lights were; I didn’t make good facial expressions.”
Beomgyu, who writes music as part of his pandemic self-care routine, fondly remembers the 2020 song “Maze in the Mirror.” “We composed it during our trainee days,” he says. “It was eventually included in the same album as ‘Eternally’ [in 2020]. When we recorded the song, we remembered all those times we’d had together, crying, laughing. That’s why this song was particularly special to us.”
He thinks sometimes about life before TXT. “I loved the moments of walking to [Big Hit] and walking back home. In spring, I loved the weather; after work, I loved seeing the crowds of people on the street. [Because of fame,] now that is gone.”
Taehyun, perhaps true to fans’ sense of him as “unbothered,” feels no such nostalgia. “I don’t really miss my life before debut,” he says. “I think I’m much happier now.”
If success has made some aspects of normal life harder for TXT members to access, that doesn’t prevent them from imagining what something as simple as a great date will look like after COVID: “Going to the amusement park. A stroll on the beach at night,” Beomgyu says. Soobin and Yeonjun chime in, “Same here!”
TXT’s third year together is about broadening their musical horizons. “We have to learn about music beyond the repertoires we like,” says Soobin, who is a major Bebe Rexha fan. “We’re making an effort to participate in composing and writing songs, and finding our own styles.” Part of that process includes regularly covering the work of other artists — Marteen’s “Sriracha,” Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” and others — on SoundCloud.
Taehyun, who says he likes “genres that mix hip-hop and rock,” learned the power of getting out of your comfort zone while making TXT’s first album in 2019. “I have loved listening to a variety of songs since the trainee days. But there was a particular song in the debut album, ‘Cat & Dog,’ that was challenging because I hadn’t rapped before. It was incredibly meaningful to tread the line between rapping and singing. After this experience, I started liking this kind of music.”
TXT couldn’t have debuted during a more uncertain time. No one knew the pandemic would disrupt the entire music industry, making live performance impossible and thus changing the way artists engage with fans. In a separate interview with Elite Daily published last May, Soobin said he was optimistic about the group’s ability to connect with fans amid social distancing: “Physical distance doesn’t equate to emotional distance.”
One year later, he’s even more convinced that music is a means of connection and understanding. “I get deeply comforted by listening to music,” he says now. “I’m still this way. I listen to songs I can relate to, and realize that there are so many people who feel like me. TXT also tries to make music that many people can empathize with. I hope we can keep creating lots of songs that comfort others, songs that they can relate to.”
The last two years have brought Yeonjun around to a similar sense of a larger purpose, which he didn’t always feel. “Whereas in the past, I kept running forward for my dreams, now I have members who dream together with me,” he says. “And we have fans who love us. For their sake, we want to work harder.”
Top Image Credit: Alexander McQueen clothing and shoes
Photographer: Ahn Yeonhoo
Stylist: Kim Gyunam
Hair: Kwak Minkyoung
Makeup: Han Areum
Art Director: Lee Hyunju, Rakta
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Like Studio