Amid EXO CBX contract battle, fans turn to memes & humor

For K-pop fans, who often turn to their faves for a dose of comfort and support, it felt like a major milestone

June started off with a drama nobody ever wants: EXO’s Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin, collectively the subunit CBX, announced that they were filing to terminate their contracts with SM Entertainment. Their legal representation cited abusively long “slave contracts” and lack of openness regarding pay, asking to see, and allegedly being denied, accounting statements as it was unclear whether SM had been giving them what they deserved throughout their career as one of the company’s biggest acts.

In the following few days, SM and CBX’s law firm went back and forth in a variety of statements, fighting a PR battle as each side explained why they were in the right. SM claimed third party forces were involved, and that the EXO members had been treated fairly. Lin Law Firm, representing the trio, shared many statements, and even presented excerpts of Baekhyun’s original contract with SM to show allegedly unjust terms regarding the timeline of his, and ostensibly the other two’s, contracts and debut dates. Lin also said that he had been forced to renew an unfair contract with SM, which SM denied, claiming that nobody was forced into any terms and revealing that one member of EXO has not yet renewed as their declaration of proof of that. CBX/Lin argue that SM’s current contracts are already things they have been told be regulators to change, while SM claims they’re ignoring certain facts.

It also was alleged that SM had kept artists in the dark during the recent fight between Kakao and Hybe for the company’s management, and that artists had been learning about certain issues within the company, such as founder Lee Soo-man making millions in profits, without any clarity and perspective, making the question the state of things.

This is a very brief summary, but I’ve been reporting the statements on Twitter as the two sides are still battling it out if you want more details. The TLDR is that CBX have filed a suit with regulating Fair  Trade Commission, but are also currently about to begin filming a variety show with the other members of EXO (sans Kai, who is in the army) and the group’s long awaited album is still apparently in the works.

Meanwhile, however, based on my own personal observation, fans have been reacting both with concern and anxiety, but also very prominently in memes and humor.

This is a big fucking deal.

As a longterm K-pop hag™️, this is not my first time experiencing a contract dispute. It’s not even the first time experience an SM contract dispute. No, I have the honor of having having become a fan in 2008, so got to experience the pain and suffering of 2009, when famously faced both three members of TVXQ, later known as JYJ, and Han Geng (Hankyung) of Super Junior file to terminate their contracts with the company. (That was a rough year in general!) Back then, and during subsequent upsets, it was around the start of English-language K-pop fandom, a far cry from where things are now, and the chaos, confusion, and misinformation feel the same, but the comedic tone does not.

It’s not that K-pop fans for time immemorial haven’t turned to humor, but it feels so pervasive right now that it was a bit of a shock to my system when I realized I had seen more viral tweets about something ridiculous than information about parts of Baekhyun’s original contract being shared, which is a rarity in K-pop.

Which begs the question…why is this how fans are reacting?

I have to think it’s multi fold: firstly, Gen Z (or MZ if you’re Korean) has grown up in the age of memery, it’s just what people do nowadays, and times have changed for K-pop fans versus way back when prior issues took place.

Secondly, the perception of K-pop companies, particularly SM, and their treatment of artists has taken a major change. Whereas back then, and with subsequent contract disputes (BAP, EXO-M, etc.) it felt overwhelmingly like a confusing, concerning experience for fans, likely to not only end a group’s career but the individuals’ lives in the spotlight. This time still has many of the same concerns, but with a healthy dose of comedy. Paired with EXO literally still releasing music amid it all, and I have to assume Baekhyun’s bargaining power as one of SM’s bestsellers has to come into play a tiny bit, it feels a bit more like things will turn out okay.

Thirdly, I think that the way artists, companies, and, at least in this case, law firms, relay information to fans has changed. There’s a sense of openness, and fans being able to seemingly follow more of the nuances of lawsuits and legal issues.

Fourthly, SM Entertainment’s current state is less than it used to be. When the news first broke, it felt pretty apparent to me that this was a lawsuit coming in part because of what happened with SM’s corporate governance earlier this year. Lin Law later confirmed that in a way, sharing the bit about artists being caught unawares and questioning finances due to various things shared with media. But it was also seemingly confirmation, or at least inspired by, rumors that artists were going to leave the weakened SM when they could get better contract terms elsewhere, or start their own companies.

There’s so much going on there, I’ll maybe discuss it another time, but I think this overall “fun” response to allegations of contract abuses and potential career changes is especially borne out of this feeling that maybe, just maybe, the power dynamic has changed so much that CBX are indeed more powerful than SM, because SM can’t really afford more upset this year. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s just my observation about fan reactions.

Fifthly, amaybe we’re all just so traumatized by recent years the only way we know how to publicly engage with emotional turmoil is joke or breakdowns. Luckily joking won out here by and large.

There are honestly too many moments to explore in one post, but it felt rather comforting, if not cathartic, to see that fans were reacting not with panic but with playfulness. Whether it was the Chen (Jongdae) cat stock convo (though take it with a grain of salt) or fans asking news outlets to use the X-CBX imagery versus the more typical CBX brand of upbeat, colorfully cute chaos , and all the other memes and moments that followed in days to come, it felt like maybe things were okay.


For K-pop fans, who often turn to their faves for a dose of comfort and support, it felt like a major milestone in that even in a moment of turmoil many people could still find a sense of, well, perhaps not joy but wit that got them through it. While it may be a coping mechanism, it’s far more positive than spirals into defeatist, destructive upset over what may or may not happen.

Everything is still up in the air, except, oddly enough, EXO’s comeback with their upcoming EXIST album, which is set to drop on July 10, and was preceded by the music video Let Me In on June 12, which featured all of the members. The immediate future of EXO seems to be okay, and how things turn out as the CBX and SM sides duke it out may change that but overall… things are, for now, work as usual. Possibly in the dog-in-flames- “this is fine” way, but also just kind of fine, in the actual way. It’s a nice evolution, to be honest, in comparison to past upsets. I kind of hope things stay this way, and things work out, but… we’ll see.

Now, all of this is not to say that fans’ emotional turmoil in the past or present facing contract disputes is a bad thing. It is an outpouring of passion, and I think so too is this habit of responding rather comedically. At the end of the day, EXO, and K-pop, is entertainment, and although it is based around humans who are facing a serious legal issue right now, it’s nice to see that even amid chaos fans can find something entertaining.

What I worked on

For UPROXX, I spoke with K-pop fans about the phenomena of barking at concerts in the US. The whole thing is still a bit of a mystery re its origin so I tried to peg that down, and heard from some people about how they love it while others truly hate it. I think it’s a bit funny, personally, but I respect all perspectives, and hope artists are never made to feel uncomfortable by any fan behavior.

On the video side of things, I was featured in a KBS documentary on K-pop girl groups, but haven’t watched it yet since it’s not been made available in the US yet. I have learned I was CGI-ed into a background that looks like I’m sitting on the moon or a planet, which I think is hilarious. Can’t wait to watch this once KBS’s team subtitles it. (If you’re in a country where it is available, please send feedback, as I’m eager to hear how it turned out!)

What I’m watching

I had a ridiculous 48 hour trip between NYC and LA last week, and it totally wiped me out. The only thing that I could focus on is the sweet, adorable Play It Cool, Guys (Cool Doji Danshi), which features NCT/NCT 127’s Yuta Nakamoto and Takumi Kawanishi of JO1. It’s very lighthearted, and honestly verges on lite BL, but I’ve been told falls merely in the slice of life genre according to a friend who works at Crunchyroll, which airs the anime version. I’m pretty behind, so please don’t share any spoilers on my timeline!

I’m also, finally, watching the historical K-drama Mr Sunshine. It’s pretty heavy, and I find myself looking up a lot of the historic moments, so I feel like maybe I need to read some more non-fiction histories of that time.

I can always use recs for when I finish both of these shows, so please drop me your faves in the comments below if you love me! Otherwise I’ll be binging Pororo in my ongoing embarrassing struggles with speaking Korean after over a decade since I first began studying.

What I’m listening to

EXO is ostensibly continuing on as usual, as seen with the release of Let Me In on June 12, arriving in between me writing this and hitting publish on this. It’s really nice to see EXO back after their long break due to enlistments. Honestly, this smooth tune hit the spot first thing Monday morning, so I’m happy I didn’t hit publish on this Sunday night as planned.

This is a big week for big name boy bands, with BTS celebrating their tenth anniversary (more on that tomorrow!) I spent a lot of the weekend listening to their new song Take Two. An airy, pop acoustic show of affection to their ARMY, it’s really nice and comforting to hear the septet’s earnestness.

I wasn’t joking about big week for boy bands!!! SHINee also returned with their pre-release The Feeling ahead of their upcoming 15th anniversary album. Based on my group chats, this song had some mixed responses, but the initial pre-chorus harmony is truly amazing, and I’m excited for this heralding a new era of SHINee’s musical adventure.

Speaking of SHINee, sending well wishes to both Onew and NCT’s Johnny, both of whom SM Entertainment announced are each dealing with medical issues, the former needing to take a break to focus on his health and the latter fracturing his collar bone while filming something (?????). I hope they both have full recoveries, and in general everyone in the industry, and all you lovely readers, stay well.

Also been listening to Stray Kids and Taeyong’s new releases, but honestly… What a great week this has been!!!!!!!! Summer 2023 is clearly here.

On the female side of things, I have two album recs that I think are must listens. If you want to ever talk to me ever again, you have to listen to fromis9’s Unlock My World, which is currently in the running for my favorite girl group album of the year, which is saying a lot since it’s been an all around amazing year for the women of K-pop so far.

On the less pop side of things, jerd’s BOMM is amazing. Do yourself a favor and listen to it, it’s an absolutely brilliant alt electro R&B album.

That’s it for me today. There’s going to be a double update this week, so stay tuned. Or not. Your choice!