Mandopop Month: WayV’s ‘Take Off’ sets the bar for Chinese idol groups

Society & Culture

We’re hijacking the Friday Song column this month to focus on Mandopop, which technically refers to all Mandarin-language pop music, but these days more often implies boy and girl bands, the type with seemingly interchangeable parts and high-energy, highly produced dance tracks.

To set the record straight, it’s debatable whether WayV 威神V fits the category of Chinese idol groups, depending on how strict you are with the definition of “Chinese.” Yes, all the songs they put out are in Chinese. And yes, the group’s seven members are mostly Chinese, with only one exception. But at the same time, it’s tough to ignore the act’s close ties with SM Entertainment — the South Korean entertainment conglomerate responsible for launching the careers of many K-pop heavyweights, such as Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and the hugely popular EXO.

On the surface, WayV, which debuted in January with a digital EP called THE VISION, is another attempt by SM Entertainment to make a footprint in the Chinese market. In fact, trying to corner the Chinese demographic isn’t anything new for the big-league agency, which created Super Junior-M and EXO-M (M stands for Mandarin) in 2008 and 2012 as Chinese subunits of two extremely popular SM K-pop groups.

Like its predecessors, WayV also belongs to something bigger, but this time it’s not a Korea-based group made of definite members. Instead, WayV is born out of an ever-expanding and ambitious collective called NCT, which stands for Neo Culture Technology and features an unlimited, fluid roster of performers from not just Korea, but also Japan, China, Thailand, America, and beyond. As a sub-unit of NCT, WayV is composed of seven members: Kun, Winwin, Lucas, Xiaojun, Hendery, Yangyang, and Ten, who is the only non-Chinese member.


Despite its association with the NCT assemblage, what really separates WayV apart from its China-oriented predecessors is its emphasis on localization and originality. Ahead of WayV’s launch, to assure the group’s independence from the rest of the entity as well as to avoid potential political pressure stemming from the fluctuating relationship between China and South Korea, SM Entertainment created its first China-exclusive label, Label V, which now has full control of WayV’s operation.

While specifically crafted to court the Chinese market, WayV’s debut was not a triumph, to say the least. The skepticism it drew was largely based on the group’s first single, “Regular,” which is essentially a Mandarin version of a Latin trap-infused song that was originally performed by other NCT units in Korean and English. Although the song’s Chinese release was accompanied by a brand-new well-produced music video that highlights WayV’s charisma, “Regular” was met with lukewarm feedback from industry insiders and casual listeners, who suspected that SM Entertainment hadn’t fully committed to the Chinese market and WayV, like EXO-M, would never release original songs with lyrics written in Chinese.

In this context, the arrival of “Take Off,” the title track from the group’s first EP, which was released on May 9, feels like a more proper introduction to the act and a clearer indication of which direction it wants to move. Here, the band delivers a high-energy dance track that features a dazzling combination of melodic rap verses, layered vocals on the hook, and dynamic instrumentals like distorted guitar and funky bass. Lyrically, taking on a swagger persona, the boys rap and sing about their determination to achieve a breakthrough in China. “We are ready to take off,” WayV proclaims in the chorus, exuding a level of extreme confidence that’s rarely seen in rookie groups.

The song is a banger on its own, and the appeal of it is greatly enhanced by a mesmerizing music video featuring epic visuals and a futuristic vibe that seems to be the overarching concept that ties the whole NCT universe together. In between striking visual effects, the captivating video also emphasizes WayV’s performance element through a number of shots of the seven members performing the intricate choreography with their unique styles. (Check out this dance practice version of the song that fully captures the member’s awe-inspiring dance skills.)

SM Entertainment may not be trying to be trailblazers, but the next-level craftsmanship that made “Take Off” happen feels it should be imitated by other Chinese boy groups. In a way, “Take Off” is a showcase of K-pop’s unrivaled production standards and its unique package-product approach. In another way, with “Take Off,” WayV, as a hybrid boy group that has rooted itself in China, is setting the bar for Chinese boy groups.

Mandopop Month will continue next week.