Sunday, June 10, 2012

A K-Pop Lover's first K-pop Concert: SM Town's World Tour in LA

Do you like K-pop? Here's the post for you. Last month, a friend was able to attend a few k-pop concerts that I was not able to attend due to schedule conflicts.
This post is written by Mandy D, a 20-something female k-pop loving American!  She writes about her first K-pop concert experience and some reasons behind her love for all things K-pop. Photos courtesy of her friend, Thuy.

Before I dive into the details of the concert, I’ll give you a little background on my love of all things K-Pop. It started about two years ago with a Korean drama called Pasta. It was one of the first Kdramas uploaded to Hulu and my being completely oblivious to the fact that it was in Korean, I thought, any show called Pasta must be amazing. That one show turned into losing an entire summer watching dramas. As with most shows, the same songs are used over and over for the duration of the series. I found one I liked on Youtube from a little drama called Coffee Prince and those stupid recommended videos in the margin led me to K-Pop. I fell in love with Korean culture, language, food and the pretty boys that infect all aspects of Korean entertainment. I went so far as to buy the magical BB cream that all of them use for makeup. Yeah, I know most have had a lot of plastic surgery and they all look very hungry, but it grew on me nonetheless.

On May 20, 2012 millions of people donned special glasses, prepped cameras with sun filters and waited anxiously for one of the few solar eclipses to thrill populations on the West Coast. More than 10,000 people skipped the eclipse and filed into the Honda Center in Anaheim, California having eagerly anticipated a once a year concert staged by SMTown. The annual tour of about six shows began a few years back and one show each time has been staged in the States. Last year, California was skipped over for the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

SM Entertainment is one of the largest entertainment companies in South Korea. Focusing mainly on musical talent, SM spends years training singers, dancers, and rap artists into carefully constructed musical groups and solo performers. Some trainees are educated for as long as seven years before releasing an album or performing in front of fans. The popularity of each group is about as obvious as expecting a massive traffic jam on the I-405 on a Friday afternoon. Each group has an appointed leader, official fan club, and even official color.

South Korea is fast becoming a factory for megastars scouted domestically and internationally. As the wave of boy bands in the United States and Europe waned in the early 2000s, there has been resurgence in the form of carefully synchronized dancing and singing Korean pop stars.  Despite controversies regarding contractual agreements, unfair pay, and labor standards, companies like SM have built massive followings and astronomically profitable businesses.

At the concert, meant to increase interest in K-Pop and appease legions of foreign fans, nearly thirty individuals took to the stage to perform their biggest hits. The theme of the concert was uniting different cultures and languages through music. Obvious enough, most of the fans were Asians and Asian Americans but the audience comprised of thousands of African-Americans, Latinos, and Caucasians. Hundreds had signs (some had lights), handmade shirts and posters while Samsung, an official sponsor, gave out free glow sticks. The glow sticks were the only souvenirs from the concert unless one made a purchase from a variety of street vendors lined up across the street from the Honda Center. To my shock, about two dozen white men in their thirties walked the halls with Girls’ Generation sweatshirts. Fans from a three year old giggling in the ladies’ room to men and women old enough to be grandparents, crowded into the arena that is home to the Anaheim Ducks. SM’s most popular groups, SNSD (or Girls’ Generation), Super Junior, and Shinee shared the stage with lesser known performers, BoA, TVXQ, EXO and f(x). I call them lesser known in the sense that the majority of fans flew to Orange County from all over the country for the three headliners. Though Super Junior was missing its most popular member along with several others, and Girls’ Generation was minus two members, the concert was an overwhelming success.

Shinee opened the show with a trio of hits including ‘Amigo’ and ‘Lucifer’. Audience members went wild for the water jets shooting up from the stage leaving every performer carefully avoiding puddles and stage crews frantically wiping the floors like grounds crews at tennis matches. Disappointing was the recognizable lip-synching. Some songs were lip-synced some sung live. Joined by a few back up dancers, the five young men energized the audience from the raised center stage with their upbeat music and dance moves. At times, I swore one looked like he was about to fall off the stage which consistently lifted and lowered throughout the show. Attempting to stray from the bubblegum pop studio version of songs like ‘Ring Ding Dong’, music technicians infused heavy rock elements into several performances leaving long periods for band members to head bang to the music. Onew, the group’s leader, got so consumed, one thought he might need a CT scan after. He performed a moving duet with f(x)’s Luna in English leaving droves of girls in a complete state of frenzy, many in tears.  

Shinee's Onew

TVXQ soon took to the stage surprising even me with their talent. Once a group of five, three members sued SM over the length of their contract and unreasonable work demands coupled with unfair wages. The remaining two, Changmin and Yunho formed TVXQ. Both complemented each other very well on stage with Yunho showing off his dancing and rapping while Changmin is definitely the guy with the pipes for long-winded high notes. A standout performance of Bruno Mars’ ‘Just the Way You Are’ with Super Juniors’ Kyuhyun left thousands of teenage girls bitterly jealous of the one they selected to serenade from the audience. The bad taste lingered into post-concert bathroom discussion. A new version of DBSK’s biggest hit ‘Mirotic’, got me so excited about the blast from the past, that I forgot completely that this used to be performed by the original group.

EXO, the company’s newest boy group, debuted five months ago as two groups, EXO-K and EXO-M. Both groups comprise of six members, many still in high school, and sing the same songs though EXO-K sings in Korean and EXO-M in Mandarin. Though this concept is pioneering in the music industry, many groups release singles in Mandarin or Japanese. Several Super Junior members make up a sub-group that sing songs targeted at the burgeoning Chinese market. Performing as EXO, both groups performed together, including first single, ‘Mama’ sung in both languages. Their skyrocketing popularity was apparent despite lip-synching. Their three singles made EXO’s performance the shortest set of the night, much to the displeasure of its growing fan base.

BoA, SM’s only solo artist to perform at the West Coast concert, performed in English and Korean was probably the least known among those who took the stage. She currently judges K-Pop star, a talent competition, and sang the theme song from the show. Her interactions with the crowd showed off her incredible English skills and it was apparent she really loves the stage. Though I am not a big fan of her music, BoA’s dancing shows off years of training and natural ability.

f(x) comprising of five female singers is one of the younger groups under SM’s label and features two California natives. This group had the least difficulty interacting with the audience in English whereas some groups relied on a translator during song transitions. Krystal, the group’s youngest member is sister to Girls’ Generation’s Jessica and both were raised in San Francisco to Korean parents. Taiwanese-American, Amber, expressed her exhilaration at performing near her hometown of Los Angeles and is an unbelievably talented rap artist. She exhibited her talent with EXO-M’s Kris and Shinee’s Key for a rendition of Far East Movement’s ‘Like a G6’. Performing hit songs like, ‘Nu Abo’, ‘Hot Summer’, ‘Pinocchio (Danger)’, and ‘Chu’ the ladies dressed in near matching outfits. A few members of Super Junior joined f(x) on stage for a collaborative effort of ‘Oops’.

Super Junior and f(x) performing Oops

Girls' Generation
Girls’ Generation, probably the female group with the most notoriety in the U.S. performed carefully choreographed numbers in everything from teeny tiny sparkly shorts to basic jeans and tee shirts. Hit singles like ‘Gee’, ‘The Boys’, ‘Genie’, and ‘Run Devil Run’ allowed the men in the audience to finally express signs of life. My high altitude seat gave me a good vantage point for people watching but the stage set up left virtually no one with a bad seat. Three members are California natives and one cover song performed gave sisters’ Jessica and Krystal (previously mentioned) the opportunity to sing together to Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’. The lack of lip-synching gave me a new respect for the group. Though I’m not a rabid fan of the lady groups in K-Pop, this one is definitely my favorite despite disappointment at Im Yoona’s absence.

Super Junior's Donghae (l) and Eun Hyuk (r) singing their disco inspired "Oppa Oppa"
Since Super Junior is by far my favorite group, I left them for last. This group was my first introduction to K-Pop with a song called, ‘Bonamana’. I was astonished at how many members this group has. Currently at twelve, I thought I would never be able to tell them apart, but the fourteen year-old in me got me so fascinated by the group that I now can identify more than half. As one member is actively serving his two year military requirement and another recently completed his service, I knew everyone would not make the trek. Leaving thousands of girls heartbroken, one of my favorites, Choi SiWon was missing due to filming of a Taiwanese drama. The situation called for the group to skip singing their latest single, ‘Opera’. As for the others, I’m not sure why they were not in attendance. Eight men paraded out on stage in similar costumes and belted out their songs ‘A-Cha’, ‘Superman’, ‘Don’t Don’, and ‘Dancing Out’. The biggest cheers of the night went for ‘Sorry Sorry’ and ‘Mr. Simple’, two of my favorite songs. Most of the fans could sing along which, for me, was mind-boggling. Through binoculars, we could see girls sobbing uncontrollably and some fans mimicking dance moves all over the arena. With jackets festooned in lights, Super Junior had the most unique outfits of the night as they danced to ‘Mr. Simple’ and it added an extra element to their superb performance. 

Eunhyuk and Donghae, both popular members of SuJu came out on stage in loud 70’s suits and performed their duet ‘Oppa, Oppa’ to crazed fans and fit the style of the song perfectly. It far surpassed f(x)’s matchy outfit that oddly reminded me of the clothes made out of drapes in The Sound of Music. As the group closed out the night, two members were honored at their last trip to the U.S. before they take a hiatus to serve out their military service. Leeteuk, my favorite member of SuJu, served as MC of the night with Girls’ Generation singers Taeyeon and Jessica. He was reluctant to leave the stage with his fellow band-mate and fans were hesitant to say goodbye knowing it would be at least two years before they perform again in California.

Suju performing Mr. Simple. 

For my first concert with K-Pop, I was very impressed. I had no idea what to expect and rate it among the best I’ve seen. Better than many Western bands I’ve seen since my first concert in the fifth grade. A week later, I was crammed into Club Nokia in Los Angeles watching my second K-Pop concert. Jay Park (formerly of Korean boy band 2PM) headlined a concert tour celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). Though the APAHM concert was significantly smaller in scale (the club holds just 2,300), the years of training are shown in artists’ professionalism, intricate dancing, and precision singing and rapping. There are plans to see more K-Pop this year and I can’t wait. K-Pop is addictive, catchy, mainstream, and utterly fabulous. Once someone is sucked into the world, there is little chance of escaping.

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