In a designated area inside the L.A. Convention Center, the slippery EDM intro to the huge hit song “Fire” by K-pop superstars BTS blasts from the speakers. Suddenly a mass of young girls (and a few boys) rushes into the center of the carpeted floor and starts to dance in unison. About 50 tweens and teenagers, moving en masse like the inside of some human clock — and they all know the moves.
This is the scene at the fifth L.A. edition of KCON, a convention of “All Things Hallyu.” Hallyu refers to the Korean culture wave that has improbably spread to the world from the tiny peninsular country roughly the size of Kentucky. Hallyu refers to the global influence of K-pop, K-dramas, K-beauty and Korean food. And KCON, according to Angela Killoren, the COO of CJ E&M America, the company behind the convention, is all about the fans.
“I’m absolutely a huge fan of the fans,” she tells me on Sunday afternoon, sounding weary on the last day of the three-day convention. A total of 76,000 of those fans walked through the KCON doors over the weekend, the largest total ever for the flagship edition.
There are fandoms, and then there are K-pop fandoms. The mostly youthful fan base is obsessed not only with the music but also with the drama that goes on behind the scenes. Daily on social media, they eat up each transcendent moment, judge each misstep (or “mess”) and flock to defend their “bias” (K-pop-speak for favorite member of a group).
At KCON, their idols leap from YouTube into reality. Beyond the dance area, there are opportunities for “fan engagements,” an element of which is the “hi-touch,” a receiving line in which the K-pop star or stars sit behind a table and a row of lucky fans double-high-five them. This usually leaves the fans in a blubbering puddle as they descend the staging area. I watched a hi-touch with rookie K-pop group I.O.I., and the faces of the fans made me question every time I previously thought I had seen joy.
Killoren sees KCON as a safe space for American K-pop fans, who despite the global Hallyu invasion are still a small subculture in the U.S. Many K-pop fans connect in thriving online communities but might not be able to chat about the latest G-Dragon news with their classmates at school. “Fans just want to come and geek out together,” says Killoren. “We’re bringing their digital experience to real life.”
And there are opportunities for fans to become stars themselves. For most K-pop hits, a separate dance video is released showing the choreography featured in the video. On the convention hall stage, a group of 10 UCLA students called The Koreos dances a flawless interpretation of Seventeen’s “Very Nice.” The Koreos have done K-pop dance covers on YouTube — a cover of EXO’s “Monster” posted in June has over 819,000 views — since they met in 2014.
When I ask member Annie Joo if she feels like a K-pop star when she’s dancing, she replies, "Not really.” But she’s giggling while holding a four-foot-tall trophy the group will share after winning the "Kpop Battles" dance competition.
Third-place winner D2, a talented African-American duo made up of sisters Diamond and Destiny, is an indication of Hallyu’s appeal beyond Koreans and Korean-Americans. In fact, many of the fan performers are non-Korean, and the crowd in the convention hall, while predominantly East Asian, is more diverse than at most music festivals. KCON itself has been expanding into different markets. Last year, the first non-U.S. KCON debuted in Tokyo, and this year there were KCONs in Paris and New York, where Korean populations aren’t nearly as high as in Los Angeles. “Everybody has been pleasantly surprised by how well it travels,” Killoren tells me.
But the L.A. KCON is still the centerpiece, and there is truly something for everyone.
Out on the L.A. Live courtyard, L.A.’s best Korean food vendors — Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ Taco Truck and the trendy Raindrop Cake among them — serve long lines of people sweating in the midday sun. Inside, a screening room shows episodes of the best K-dramas, like Answer Me 1988, Cheese in the Trap and Descendants of the Sun.
There are panels that range from “Korean Celebrity Beauty Inner Secrets,” featuring YouTube beauty vloggers Belinda Yoo and Victoria Loi, to “Queering the Family in and Through Korean Dramas” featuring a panel of gender-studies academics, including Dredge Byung’chu Kang, a Ph.D. in anthopology at UC San Diego. He describes how the Flower Boy trend of South Korea, in which “pretty boy” men act aegyo (cute) and feminine — regardless of sexual orientation — has spread to Thailand’s LGBTQ community.
Later, on a fascinating panel called “Behind the Scenes With the Producers of S.M. Entertainment,” Ryan Jhun, the man behind a good portion of K-pop’s biggest hits, leads a panel of songwriters — all Americans who work on songs at the Seoul headquarters of S.M., one of the top labels in Korea — though a very intimate audience Q&A session. By the end of the panel, Jhun has offered his contact info to everyone in the audience who wants to send him demos. He also tips that the new I.O.I. song was written by 20 writers, and will be “like nothing that has ever been done before.”
On the convention floor, attendees test the programs of Korean VR companies and sample the wares of Korean startups like 247 Security, which is showing off its Volt smartphone case, which doubles as a stun gun, sending out a 50,000-volt shock to attackers. And if you purchased a one-hour reservation, you could sit in the Flower Boy Café, a small coffee shop–like area where pretty boys sit and chat with you. “We literally walked around Koreatown in an extensive casting process,” says Sain Lim, an events coordinator at CJ, who co-produced the café with Emily Koh. “It was hard work looking for all these cute boys.”
There's a little cosplay at KCON, but not much. Amanda Yang from San Francisco is dressed up like Girls’ Generation (better known as SNSD), and tells me she keeps up with the drama on K-pop subreddits. More typical than full costumes are fashion accessories that signify K-pop fandom. Larry and Audrey, two ladies from Irvine, and Andy, their friend from Pasadena, sport surgical masks printed with the logo of their favorite band, BTS. And the Chinese sprout fad — wearing a plastic flower or bean sprout clipped to the top of your head — seems to have spread to KCON as well.
But the most surprising fad isn't wearable. The K-pop community, particularly its rappers, seems to have an affinity for the Atlanta hip-hop dance move the dab. It can be seen everywhere during KCON, from attendees posing for pictures to the mainstage during the concert at Staples Center.
The centerpiece of KCON is the MNet “Let’s KCON Let’s MCountdown” two-night concert series, featuring top K-pop acts, new and seasoned. Other years have been more cohesive, but this year’s selection of acts is impressive. Younger acts and groups like I.O.I., Twice, Eric Nam, Dean, GFriend, Astro and Monsta X set the mood with high-energy performances, usually capped at three songs.
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The younger acts give way to veterans like SNSD subgroup TTS, Amber from EDM superstars f(x), balladeer duo Davichi, hip-hop crew Block B and iconic dance-pop group Shinee. Even Turbo, a popular group in the 1990s, make an appearance. Superstar actor Lee Min-ho (Boys Over Flowers) emcees Saturday night along with Amber, whose boyish style has made her something of a K-pop gay icon. Headlining Saturday night, a sportswear-dressed Shinee cruise through an unexpected selection of fan favorites like “View,” “Beautiful” and “Everybody” before tipping off that they’re in the process of recording a new album.
But the love for Shinee was nothing compared with the sound that tears through the stadium when Bangtan Boys (better known as BTS; Bangtan is a little-used Korean word meaning
gunpowder bulletproof) take the stage as the headliners on Sunday night. Louder than a space shuttle launch, a packed house screams all the way through the set of hits like “Forever Young” and “Fire.” The Boys cap off KCON with their hip-hop/EDM smash hit “Dope” before an explosion of confetti rains down on the crowd.
Fans pour out onto Figueroa Street, exhausted but unsatisfied with the 72-hour convention. “It was too short,” I hear one girl complain, her voice hoarse from screaming. That typifies the Hallyu experience: Once it sinks its hooks into you, you can’t get enough.