Missy Elliot, 2AM, EXO, f(x), and others
KCon is a massive K-pop festival, and the 2013 edition went down this weekend at the Sports Arena. What was it? Well, it felt like a particularly fashionable church camp. America's next batch of millennial missionaries is smaller, savvier and smilier than you might expect. Their prophets are the talented and lovably artificial newest wave of Korean pop stars.
See also: The 10 Sexiest Women in K-Pop
This year the event moved from Irvine to L.A.'s Memorial Sports Arena, featuring elements from every corner of the hallyu (“Korean wave”) culture across two days. During more than 40 panels and performances, thousands of mostly teen fans, mostly from outside California, learned how to start K-pop fan clubs (Do: Greet bands at the airport. Don't: Write them “letters in blood”) and perform K-pop dance moves. “You guys are the cogs in the K-pop machine,” they were told. They had their photos taken with cut-outs of Psy, and they heard multiple music execs claim to like Psy before it was cool. They got to ask their idols questions. (They even got to just blurt statements, like, “Write your name with your butt.”) And most importantly, they got to witness them in shiny, well-oiled action.
KCon offered an opportunity to worship Korean culture in like-minded company on this continent, and this year's much larger KCon ended with the first U.S. live-taping of M Countdown. The enormously popular weekly K-pop TV show, which hails from South Korea and is broadcast in 14 countries, is as polished, enthusiastic and over-the-top as the teen idols it spotlights. True to form, last night's two-and-a-half-hour American inauguration was heavily choreographed: Every fan entered the festival gates with a free rainbow light (!) wand.
Dreamy girl group f(x) was the first act to appear quasi-magically out of nowhere, its five one-named members strutting like life-sized dolls out of a car parked conveniently stage left. Decked out in sporty, sassy and sultry varieties of the same black-and-yellow patterns, the girls looked like leftovers from Tina Knowles' Destiny Child days as they took turns ducking deftly in and out of the spotlight during catchy jams like “Electric Shock” and “Hot Summer.” Although the group features both Korean and Chinese members, it was Los Angeles native Amber who raked in the most applause during f(x)'s brief shout-out to the audience.
See also: The 10 Sexiest Men in K-Pop
The rest of the sets followed a similar structure: one or two highly choreographed songs, a brief introduction (usually led by the member most comfortable with English) and then a closer during which the band's breathing to dancing ratio tended to tip more in their favor. The second act, Dynamic Duo, featured two dapper rappers, the central difference apparently being that one absolutely always wears a hat and the other doesn't. Because the K-pop empire is overfull of babely singers with great vocals, moves and hair, branding is especially important. Case-in-point: Dynamic Duo's set grew softly gritty, thanks to the stunt team riding skateboards and mini-bikes between the rappers and their graffiti-printed backdrop.
And then there's the soft-hearted boy band, of course. In the questionably translated festival guide handed out upon entrance, 2AM's bio describes them as “an attractive four-member ballad boy band,” and what they lack in motion (they do a lot of standing), they make up for with soulful looks and soaring solos. During an impressively nimble cover of Bruno Mars' “Just the Way You Are,” the crowd cam highlighted more than a few teen tears.
After 2AM, the show traveled through a successful solo story (Henry, of the group Super Junior-M, needs his full band about as much as a last name) followed by a rising star (Crayon Pop, a truly bizarre sextet dressed in bike helmets and tennis skirts, recently achieved viral video status with the quirky jump-dance in their “Bar Bar Bar” video) and a former American Idol contestant (Heejun Han, the first Asian to join the show's top finalists, took the stage with teen singer Yu Seung Woo, the only performer to touch an instrument the whole night).
Decked out in gold lame and black studs, the six members of Teen Top earned honors for the night's best dance moves and shiniest clothes, though they also suffered from the harshest hair cuts. Thanks to their bangs, which came in black, blonde, blue, purple and red, the guys were never able to gaze longingly into the audience with more than one eye while they leaped and bounded through hits like “Driving Me Crazy.” During the song's addictive chorus, lyrics projected on the side screens reminded the audience to “stop, stop breaking my hear.” The tiny typo captures the K-pop movement's quick rise in America to a T: Small things might be lost in translation, but the driving enthusiasm never is.
Anyone still griping that Arcade Fire has too many members should refrain from buying EXO tickets anytime soon. Divided into two sub-groups, EXO-K (who sing in Korean) and EXO-M (who sing in Mandarin), EXO's sheer size made them appear, during a dramatic entrance sequence in which one member even wielded a staff, as if the guys were everywhere at once. With so many dudes to love and so much happening onstage at any given time, the blazer-wearing, last-airbending supergroup whipped its devout following into hysterics during songs like “Wolf” and Growl.”
But even the dozen smooth operators behind EXO couldn't rival the force of the applause generated by showstopper G-Dragon and his surprise guest: Missy Elliot. Elliot hit the stage without fanfare for a quick medley of hits like “Get Ur Freak On” before exiting to admit G-Dragon and generally allow the crowd to lose any shit it still had left after eight acts.
former member of K-pop boy band Big Bang, performed the loudest set of the night, which says a lot considering the tremendous decibel levels already established by his peers. During “One of a Kind,” “MichiGO” and “Crayon,” a confident, swagger-heavy G-Dragon ran the entire length of the stage to greet his fans, who couldn't get much louder at that point, before Missy Elliot rejoined the stage for “Niliria.” The new collaboration between the K-pop hearthrob and the established American hip-hop star is catchy, busy and rife with both posturing and potential.
Based on lessons from the festival, K-pop's rising profile in America will be much the same.
Personal Bias: I am no longer a teenage girl, but I often enjoy feeling like one.
The Crowd: So many bows and microshorts! An aerial shot would have looked like Hello Kitty ralphed on Coachella.
Overheard In The Crowd: “My mom says she can't tell if he's a boy or a girl, but I mean, duh!”
Random Notebook Dump: 2AM has an awesome bio: “The name '2AM' is to reflect the band's sensitivity by capturing the feeling of early morning (2:00am), a time when you can sit back and reflect upon your day.”
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