It’s an ugly February day in downtown Los Angeles when the five members of Tomorrow X Together, a Korean boy band, arrive at the studio, as if on a sunbeam. The hair of each member is perfectly parted in varying fractions of asymmetry. They shimmer even in muted street clothes, a spectrum of baggy pants and cardigans and Loewe jackets and wavy Maison Mihara Yasuhiro sneakers. Their In-N-Out order—five Double Doubles and two small trays of Animal Style fries—is set before them by invisible forces on a low table. The food will remain untouched for the duration of our time together, an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude to rival 63 hours spent shivering in a block of ice while wearing an adult diaper.
The boys have been busy. They performed on James Corden the night prior (“The crowd was small, but they were energetic,” said one member). Colloquially they refer to themselves as a single entity—Tomorrow by Together, or TXT for short—and are part of K-pop’s so-called Fourth Generation, joining emergent idols like NewJeans (Hybe Corporation, formerly Big Hit Entertainment), Enhypen (Hybe and CJ ENM), Stray Kids (JYP Entertainment), and a handful of other acts, each of whom have billions of views on YouTube and diehard fans in surprising corners across the globe.
In person the TXT boys are all beautiful (yup) and reticent like shy teenagers (a little disarming), with pores so small you’d need an electron microscope to find them. The group consists of Soobin (the tall sexy one), Yeonjun (the other sexy one; also the consensus best dancer among the guys), Taehyun (the enthusiastic one who dominates the groupchat), Huening Kai (the multiracial one who makes everyone laugh), and Beomgyu (a gentle angel from heaven).
They are all roughly in their early twenties but they’ve been training for this moment their whole lives. Unlike their contemporaries, they also have the pressure of being anointed the spiritual successors to a little band called BTS: their labelmates at Hybe, the heralds of K-Pop’s Third Gen, and currently the biggest musical act on the planet that doesn’t end in -yoncé. So far, so good: TXT swept up basically all the rookie awards there were to win in Korea shortly after they made their debut in 2019, and now they have their sights set on global domination—imperialism by way of catchy tunes. TXT is, in many ways, a harbinger of pop music’s expansive and increasingly borderless near future.
Of course, none of this would be possible if the music was meh. And, well, how do you do fellow kids: The music is indeed extremely fire.
Thanks to the flattening effects of streaming, the Gen Z boys of TXT sing songs that are more or less genre-agnostic, borrowing from a mishmash of stray influences. It’s modern music by way of moodboard. Some influences can appear more aesthetic than musical: In the music video for “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) feat. Seori,” for example, Beomgyu wears a Black Flag tee and only a boomer would even think about asking him to name his three favorite albums.
The term K-pop was first introduced at the turn of the century, and it’s mostly been applied as an umbrella term for a whole taxonomy of subgenres—funk, hip-hop/R&B, EDM, etc.—that today’s Fourth Gen artists have unconsciously ingested and metabolized in tiny, indistinguishable fragments, like microplastics in the bloodstream. TXT can do tropically-tinged dancehall ( “Tinnitus (Wanna Be a Rock)”), ‘80s karaoke ballads (“Goodbye Now”), swervy bossa nova feelgood shit (“Happy Fools”), and RAWK with electric guitars (“Good Boy Gone Bad”).
But arguably the band’s best and ear-wormiest song is a little number called “Sugar Rush Ride,” which is as good an entry point as any into the TXT cinematic universe.
“Sugar Rush Ride” does a lot of stuff that’s cool and sonically interesting. The highlight is the pre-chorus that builds into an anti-drop that feels like an airlock was opened and all the oxygen gets sucked out of the chamber. Ostensibly it’s a song about temptation—“and the devil said / ha, ha! / gimme more / gimme gimme more”—but it’s less a track and more of a 360-degree multimedia experience that gets airdropped onto your head.
The song is just one component of the “Sugar Rush Ride” incursion. On the band’s YouTube channel, for example, you will not only encounter the dance video, the dance practice video, the making-of video, reaction videos, and several TikTok dance challenges, including one that features Jimin of BTS dancing next to Soobin and Beomgyu. (“We stay in touch,” says Beomgyu of their friendship.) But you will also find the high-concept “Official MV” that firmly plants the boys on the verdant duff of a sexy, gender-fluid Neverland, where all the clothes have holes in them and you don’t have to grow up if you don’t want to.
“Our version of Peter Pan is not a happy Peter Pan, but a Peter Pan who has dark sides,” says Huening Kai of the narrative concept. (The boys speak through a translator, but more on that in a bit.) “We did a lot of research in order to musically express the concerns that adolescents could feel while they grow up into an adult.”
“With Neverland, people think that it’s heaven for children and kids and a world full of laughter and hope,” says Soobin. “But Tomorrow X Together’s perspective is that Neverland could be a world where it can hinder your growth and where devils are. Where devils live.”
Where devils live!
What are your personal devils? I ask eagerly. Your guilty pleasures?
“Purchasing items in video games,” says Heuning Kai. “RPGs.”
“Eating ramen before bed,” says Yeonjun. “The spicy, spicy one. I don’t get a stomach ache but my face gets puffy.”
“Buying candles and little toy anime figures, like from Chainsaw Man,” says Soobin.
“Working out too hard and adding too much weight!” says Taehyun.
“Soda,” says Beomgyu. He smiles and nods. His wolf cut bounces. “Coke!”
I suspect part of the reason K-pop is having such a global moment is because so much of the entertainment we consume is rushed, underbaked, ill-considered. Streaming TV is bad, most new music is bad, documentaries are bad, Marvel movies are bad, blogs are bad, Twitter is bad, TikTok is bad, and Instagram is borderline unusable and bad. Wired called the phenomenon the “enshittification” of everything, specifically as it pertains to platforms, but the concept translates nicely to pop culture, I think: when hockey-stick growth is prioritized above all else, the consumer suffers.
In practice this very quickly leads to a race to the bottom. Any hottie can steal some choreography and post three times a day to reach the biggest possible audience on TikTok on their way to becoming famous. Movie studios can put out half-finished films and muscle past bad reviews to big opening weekends.
But with K-pop, there’s a shared understanding that the finished product is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath a No. 1 song is a massive collective effort and many thousands of trainee hours spent in singing lessons, learning choreography, dress rehearsals, media training, acting lessons, learning foreign languages, and more, all from a young age. It takes years of sustained excellence to even be considered being picked up by a label. In return, idols are paired with the best songwriters, the best producers, the best choreographers, the most fire stylists, the most imaginative creative directors. The sheer amount of time and energy and consideration and rigor put into the product is undeniable, and more often than not, the art is good.
CedarBough Saeji, a professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University and a K-pop scholar, explains that hard work is central to the mythmaking. “Part of being an idol is being aspirational for your audience,” she says. “So you have to be somebody who seems like an ordinary person. Just a boy next door, a girl next door, who had a dream to become an idol. And they worked really hard. And so, the creation myth that’s created for idols is: He trained for five years. He was in the dance studio. He wore out this many pairs of shoes. He was there for 17 hours a day. He, you know, sprained his ankle or whatever. The creation myth is about hard work. And so it’s a very neoliberal myth actually: If you work hard, you can make it happen.”
One of the weirder dynamics of interviewing TXT through a very friendly label-supplied interpreter is the triangulation of the question and the answer. It’s a difficult job—a conversation on tape delay. Some of the message gets lost in the ether. You will, for example, ask Beomgyu a question about his musical influences growing up, he will provide what sounds like a long, thoughtful answer in Korean that includes the English words for “guitar” and “Radiohead ‘Creep.’” Then the translator has the unenviable task of relaying as much of the answer as possible in realtime which results in something akin to I loved playing music.
This dynamic was most evident when I asked a question about possibly being friends with other Fourth Gen idols—specifically NewJeans, their white-hot sorta label-mates (the girl band operates under another subdivision).
Being in a K-pop group is hard work and a lot of pressure. Do you have conversations with other Fourth Generation idols like NewJeans who can empathize with your position?
The translator nods, scribbles some notes, and takes a beat to communicate all of this. The boys take a moment to consider the question before Taehyun answers for the group:
“We are just best friends with each other!”
The boys of TXT first met in 2016. They lived together on the label’s campus and bonded after rehearsals—usually about four hours a day—by going out to “this pork barbecue place that’s in the same building with our company,” says Taehyun. (To unwind, he and Huening Kai would often watch UFC fights together. Their favorite fighter is Dustin Poirier.)
When assembling Tomorrow X Together, Hybe wanted Gen Zers who cared deeply about the men they were becoming. “Their authenticity and individuality were key factors in developing the band,” says Shin Young Jae, president of Big Hit Music, a subdivision of Hybe, who worked on TXT’s concept, which was a collective effort and standard industry practice. “By staying true to who they are, we believed that the band and its members would resonate with the current generation of youth. They don’t fit into a mold and we think that’s what makes getting to know them so exciting.”
The members of TXT all figured out at young ages that idol-dom was something they wanted to pursue. Beomgyu loved playing acoustic covers and always thought he’d become a guitarist in a band. Yeonjun, who’d spend hours in his room studying dancers like Brian Puspos and Ian Eastwood on YouTube, first knew he wanted to be famous after performing with his crew in middle school to a medley of BTS songs: “I still have a very vivid memory of it because I enjoyed the stage so much.”
Taehyun knew he wanted to be famous when he was six or seven. “It was this Shinee music video,” he says. “I got chills watching the music video! It was so cool.” Soobin also performed a bunch in middle school. His favorite song to perform was “Beautiful Night” by Ulala Session. Huening Kai, meanwhile, learned to play music from his dad, and loved Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” (he said see you later boy).
What the K-pop industry has figured out better than anyone is the art of inspiring fandoms, turning passive consumers into active participants who, in turn, create things for their idols. They make dance covers. They translate lyrics. They cover songs on guitar and run fan accounts that aggregate news. Some of them become wiki moderators or police the forums. It’s a symbiotic relationship: duty as identity.
TXT’s fans are called MOAs, short for “Moments of Alwaysness.” The group announced the fandom name in a 2019 tweet, writing “(1) Always and forever, all of the moments that TOMORROW X TOGETHER and fans spend together,” and “(2) TOMORROW X TOGETHER and fans ‘moa‘ (gather) pieces of each other’s dreams to complete one dream.”
TXT talk to their MOAs all the time online. See them as being an extension of who they are.
“We are in constant conversation with them,” says Taehyun. “We not only talk about music, but I also like to listen to their concerns and I update them about what we are doing. I think that’s what being a best friend is about.”
Living together in a dorm naturally cultivates a closeness among idols. It’s basically all the excitement of freshman year but you’re replacing humanities core with pop-locking, and the job awaiting you when you graduate is slightly more glamorous than an Excel sheet. “I think our friendship is very unique, because this kind of relationship is actually difficult to forge,” says Taehyun of his bros. “We have four best friends in one group.”
In addition to singing, dancing, and performing, today’s idols have the added responsibility of being livestreamers, sketch comedians, fashion models, and vloggers, with the content they produce uploaded to YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, WeVerse, and more. An enormous chunk of their lives is made public and commoditized.
This is, of course, part and parcel of the whole K-pop infrastructure and what makes it so successful. For fans, seeing how a group like TXT interact and genuinely care about one another provides a deep layer of enrichment, and entrenchment. It transforms listeners into lifers. “You get to see this person be such an amazing sweetheart,” says Saeji, the K-pop professor. “You see them being a sweetheart to the people they’re closest to and you’re like, ‘I wish I had a friend just like that.’ And so you really get this parasocial relationship where you really feel this closeness and you imagine these people being close with you as well.”
“It’s very fulfilling to so many fans,” she adds.
I ask the guys what the hardest part of their job is, especially since they have to always be performing to some degree.
“The most difficult part is showing different aspects of ourselves,” admits Huening Kai. “Every time when we try out new things, we do sometimes face difficulties, but I think that’s where members come in. We really support each other fervently and we talk to each other.”
“I think we are not only performers, we’re also creators,” adds Taehyun. “So in order to create a quality album and express the album in the right direction, we have to put a lot of effort into it and rehearse a lot. I actually enjoy it and I think it’s a healthy pleasure. And I wouldn’t say it’s hard.”
K-pop sometimes gets mischaracterized as soulless, factory-produced music, but that’s not exactly right. Becoming a K-pop idol is more like becoming a pro athlete. These guys are hoopers. They’re there alone shooting in the gym and only a lucky few ever get drafted. “Idol is totally the right word to use for them,” says Saeji, “because we’re all looking for a good example to look up to. We can be like, ‘That’s how I’m supposed to be. That’s what friendship looks like.’
“They’re embodying this as a person who supports their parents,” she adds. “They donate to good causes. They care about the world. They do not smoke. They do not act bad. They’re gentlemen.”
As our time draws to a close, I start to notice a few of the TXT guys stealing glances down at their In-N-Out burgers, which are growing colder by the minute. (For the record, the group agrees that Soobin and Huening Kai have the biggest appetites.) Before we part ways I ask one final question.
You all work really hard. But who works the hardest?
The translator relays my question. The TXT boys all look at eachother and spitball ideas back and forth. A few of them laugh. They eventually land on a collective answer that in Korean sounds long and meandering but is unattributable to any one of them.
“Everyone,” says the translator diplomatically. “Everyone is the hardest worker.”
Chris Gayomali is a GQ articles editor.
Photographs by Sandy Kim
Styled by Brandon Tan
Hair by Seung Won Kim
Makeup by Seulki Noh
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina and Zoya Melenteva
Produced by Annee Elliot
Set and prop design by Christopher Katus