NEW YORK, NY—If you were in midtown on Oct. 23, you would have noticed something was up. At every turn, there were fans in pink T-shirts carrying cutout faces of K-Pop idols. Korea’s hit machine had reached America.
Korean pop music (K-Pop) is currently experiencing a peak in popularity. After investing many years in training children to become entertainment superstars, talent agencies, such as S.M. Entertainment, are beginning to reap the rewards of their investments. Throughout all of Asia, K-Pop artists have topped the charts, broken sales records and smashed touring records. Reflecting the size of this growing movement, S.M. Entertainment hosted a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden—a first for K-Pop.
SMTOWN LIVE, as its acts were collectively billed, featured solo artists BoA and Kangta, girl groups Girls’ Generation and f(x), and boy bands Super Junior, SHINee and TVXQ.
For a one-off show, the production quality was tremendous. Pyrotechnics, giant video screens, flying contraptions, laser claws—you name it, they had it. The show ran as a non-stop showcase with artists rotating on/off after almost every song. This kept fans on their feet and added a level of unpredictability. As the show neared its fourth hour, this constant barrage of acts and lack of order gave birth to frustration and exhaustion among some, but kept the die-hards screaming for more.
While fans hammered away with their glow sticks, f(x) opened the show to highly selective cheering. Although f(x) is in many respects a typical girl group (cute, vibrant, playful, etc.), it was clear that the audience didn’t care for much of what the group delivered. Amid resounding silence, the crowd would erupt into applause whenever Amber, the group’s androgynous rapper, got on the microphone. This made sense given that she was the most charismatic of the group, but calls into question why the band’s image hasn’t been modified to fit its star member.
The most polished and refined group of the night was the nine-member ensemble Girls’ Generation. Carefully choreographed songs such as “Run Devil Run,” “Oh” and “Genie” played out precisely as they have on television with perfectly timed winks, nods and smiles.
The group managed to interact with the crowd during the older songs “Ha, Ha, Ha” and “Kissing You,” both of which had them waving, blowing kisses and making heart-shaped hand signals. Compared to some of the other artists, these moves came across as staged. Additionally, it’s curious that they chose to perform those mediocre tunes over their more current Japanese singles “Mr. Taxi” and “Bad Girl.”
The night marked the concert debut of its English single, “The Boys.” Produced by Teddy Riley, the Gwen Stefani-meets-Britney Spears song aims to break the group outside of Asia and continue its trajectory toward making songs that have increased global appeal and less K-Pop influence.
Perhaps the most endearing moment of the show came as the singers took turns introducing each other. When it came time for the youngest member, Seohyun, to speak, she stumbled and repeated her line, “I’m honored to be…” American-born Tiffany came to her aid with, “Here.” She went on to defend her bandmate explaining that Seohyun had spent the past hour practicing her few lines in the mirror. Evidently, it may take some time before they’re ready to fully break in America, but they’re certainly trying.
SHINee, the least famous of the boy bands, was probably the most happy to be on stage. When breaks in choreography allowed, the singers bounced around the stage, seized every opportunity to fly from the rafters and grabbed cameras from fans and took self-portraits surely to end up in a bedroom mural.
BoA, the concert’s most established artist and its closing act, performed very few songs for someone of her stature. Of those she played, a high number of English tracks made the cut including “Eat You Up” and “Look Who’s Talking.” With heavy Janet Jackson influence, the petite singer put her heart into aggressive hip-hop dancing and was more than capable of owning the stage.
As confetti cannons showered the audience with pink paper, it marked a triumphant showing for the genre. Currently, Girls’ Generation is preparing to release more English material via Interscope, so it remains to be seen what will come of the current K-Pop movement. For now, it’s off to a promising start.