I’m So Into Hallyu: I Experienced My First K-Pop Concert at KCON 2016
I have a confession to make: I don't really listen to all that much K-pop.
I mean yes, I'm obsessed with 2NE1, but isn't that the equivalent of answering with Metallica when someone asks you what your favorite metal band is? Anyway, I really vibe with Tiffany's new EP and I always love everything that CL puts out. Oh and sure, I still occasionally bop along to Psy's "Gangnam Style," and isn't Hyuna super pretty? She's like South Korea's answer to Britney Spears, right?
Okay, I think I've made my point. To be honest, I only have a handful of K-pop songs on my iPod (yes, I still use my iPod, but we'll save that for another time or thinkpiece), most of which include the above artists who are, admittedly, more known in the mainstream international music sphere than most. So when I was offered the opportunity to attend New York's 2016 KCON, I was excited but also a little overwhelmed. As a K-virgin, how could I possibly catch up?
It was a near-sweltering day when I arrived at the convention at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ on Friday June 24, and the first thing I noticed was the sizeable crowd. I've been to ComicCon in the past, so I was well aware that the audience at an event of this capacity would be way more than the typical Terminal 5 turnout, but I could not have imagined that lines would wrap around the building, or that the fandom would be so beautifully diverse — or passionately devoted.
KCON, which was founded in 2012, provides a fantastic introduction to the wild world of Korean pop music. What may, upon first glance, seem like an uncontrollable spectacle of South Korea's ever-growing foothold on the global dancefloor is actually an intricately curated buffet of all that hallyu (which basically means Korean culture and entertainment) has to offer, with entertaining panels, educational workshops, shopping and performances to satiate obsessives and entice newbies.
Want to discover Korea's most emerging young YouTube talents? You can do it at KCON! Want to try kimchi or bibimbap for the first time? You can do it at KCON! Want to learn how to get effortlessly glowing, luminescent skin like a K-pop idol? You can do it at KCON! Want to see thousands upon thousands of shrieking American fans fill an arena and sing along to their faves in Korean? You can do it at KCON!
After hours of sun-drenched outdoor Korean cooking seminars, makeup demonstrations, taste-testing and yes, souvenir shopping (hello, new poor-minimizing face masks!), I made my way into the arena for the big musical event: the concert. With a lineup featuring acts like R&B artist and rapper Crush, boy groups Seventeen and BtoB, and rising K-pop star Ailee, the fans were hyped and after a little settling in, so was I.
And, in a wholly unexpected turn of events, I realized within minutes of the first performance that I was secretly a K-pop stan all along.
Look, I could care less about boy bands. Sure, in the '90s and early '00s I had my fair share of Backstreet Boys CDs, but even then I was more into No Doubt and the Spice Girls. Since then I've never really connected with any all-male bands (though I do hold a soft spot for The Killers during their Hot Fuss era — "Mr. Brightside," anyone?). I don't really care too much about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and I certainly don't care about One Direction. No shade intended, really: It's just not my cup of tea.
Thus, I figured my sentiment towards Western boy bands would be echoed after watching some Korean boy bands perform... but I was wrong, because K-pop boy bands are a whole different beast, touting a sort of lovably dorky sex appeal and frenetic energy that is instantly contagious.
Seventeen, the first performers of the evening and a thirteen-member group which was formed only last year, stole my heart the moment they bounced onstage with their color-coordinated outfits, flirty winks and impressive dance moves. As they jumped over one another, slid across the platform and flashed their dazzling smiles to an increasingly hyper crowd, I found myself smitten and grinning at their boyish antics, as well as amazed by their vivacity and individual abilities to stand out each as their own special talent considering the size of their troupe.
But truly it was the lone female performer of the night, Ailee, who won me over with her incredible vocals, effortless stage presence (watching a single singer command an enormous arena is quite a sight to behold) and humble personality. I've never seen an artist so thankful and grateful to perform, or to be back "home" — she actually hails from NJ — and I've also never witnessed such a flawless recovery to suffering technical difficulties.
Moments into her first song, the saxophone-assisted banger "Mind Your Own Business," the backing audio and video panels cut out, leaving the singer belting into her microphone a capella — and revealing that the girl can really hit those notes. But Ailee didn't crumble, continuing through the end of the verse and leading the audience in a sing-a-long, before charmingly exiting the stage to await her well-deserved do-over. I was sold... hook, line and sinker.
Soon, I found myself bobbing in a sea of moving bodies and glow-sticks, not understanding a lick of the lyrics being sung but totally invested in the larger-than-life atmosphere around me nonetheless, furiously Shazaming each track so I could revisit them on YouTube later.
Here's what I learned on Friday: You don't have to be a hardcore K-pop fan to enjoy KCON, or Korean pop music for that matter. You don't have to be a junkie for all things hallyu and you certainly don't have to know the language or every name of every member of BTS. You just have to be willing to shed your preconceived notions and lose yourself — all of yourself — in the music.
Yeah, I had my cherry K-popped at KCON 2016... and I liked it so much that I may even do it again next year.
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