Earlier this summer, Fusion checked out two events heralding the arrival of K-pop, or Korean pop, on the east coast—a debut U.S. tour by the group Block B, and the East Coast’s first K-pop convention, K-Pop Con Miami. Those two events marked firsts, but they pale in comparison to the mother ship of all Korean culture events in this country: Kcon, a weekend-long event which kicked off yesterday at downtown Los Angeles’ Memorial Sports Arena.
Fusion is at the event all weekend, and the prevailing mood is one of overwhelmingly positive fun, a celebration of the crest of a wave that’s just about to crash on the mainstream’s shores. That’s not to say that K-pop remains a secret in this country, by any measure—some 40,000 fans are projected to attend Kcon over the weekend, twice of last year’s 20,000. And while past editions of Kcon featured only one nighttime concert, this year features two—evidence there’s more than enough fan interest and money there to support it.
Kcon prominently features Korean pop music, but that’s just one aspect of the South Korean cultural tidal wave that the event heralds. Organizers bill the event as “all things hallyu”; “hallyu” is a word that refers to the new wave of Korean cultural exports. That includes music, soap opera-style shows known as k-dramas, e-sports (ultra-high-level competitive gaming), choreography styles, makeup and hair trends, and more stridently youth-centric pop culture.
Each night of Kcon peaks with an indoor arena concert with a hit-parade-style show of some of K-pop’s biggest names, to be broadcast on the weekly K-pop chart cable television show, M Countdown. (It’s broadcast in 14 countries, on Mnet America cabel network in the U.S.) But the afternoons leading up to the concerts function as part Warped-Tour-style outdoor festival—with panels and workshops replacing, say, bands—and part massive commercial for Korean business and tourism.
This even came in the press kits. All other countries, step up your synergy game.
At Kcon, it feels like all of South Korea is banding together to make K-pop happen to increase the entire country’s economic exports. Official Korean tourism commercials played between acts at the concert; there were entire rows of booths featuring South Korean companies that had nothing to do with music. One lucky fan at Saturday night’s concert even won a round-trip ticket to the country on Asiana Airlines, which, the show’s polished host reminded us, offer a new fleet of super-fancy planes.
In fact, an entire outdoor marketplace, food truck alley, and stage area remained open and free to the public, and it could have been possible to make a day of entertainment out of that alone. A huge chunk of the fun here was snagging merchandise for everyone’s favorite K-pop groups, whether they were performing at the event or not. (For K-pop fans, you buy merch wherever and whenever you can get it, whether you’re at an event for that specific group or not. The stuff can too hard or expensive to get otherwise.)
Idol socks, anyone?
There’s basically all the Korean barbecue you can eat.
A daytime stage in the marketplace hosts, throughout the weekend, a number of performances by up-and-coming musicians, YouTube stars, dancers, and, well, a grab bag of other people. Saturday featured a talent show—with a $5000 grand prize—that included this group, Xplore Taekwando, who perform choreographed dance/martial arts routines to pounding EDM. Think high spin kicks followed by iso dance moves, followed by synchronized board-breaking, all to a thumping, four-four beat.
The featured entry part of the marketplace remained devoted mostly to the various interests of the South Korean conglomerate CJ, which, as it appeared at Kcon, basically somehow owns a piece of almost everything that comes out of that country. CJ owns foodservice giants, clothing companies, and an entire sub-company focused on entertainment, which owns other companies like the Asian-American network Mnet, which in turn produces Kcon. CJ is basically the inception of companies.
CJ owns the Korean bakery chain with the inexplicably French name, Tous Les Jours, whose wares you could buy, but not sample (nothing seems to be totally free in the world of K-pop fandom).
They also own various clothing and purse brands.
Baked goods and dresses alike get woven smartly into promotional campaigns involving K-pop idols and K-drama star actors. It’s genius, really.
Inside the ticketed part of the convention, workshops offered a number of ways to obsess over your favorite idols, like styling your hair exactly as instructed by the pros from Atelier by Tiffany, Los Angeles’ stateside salon to the Korean stars.
But besides the “official” stars of the industry, self-made stars reigned supreme at K-con, too. We caught up with popular K-pop YouTube vlogger Mister Popo—a longer interview about his start is forthcoming—and with every step, a new fan stopped him to ask for a selfie. Mister Popo is the guy on the left, below, in the purple shirt; look how stoked the kid in the middle is just to be in his presence.
After a panel by the bloggers of Creators Group, a network of top K-culture YouTube vloggers, fans climbed over seats and up the wooden stage to clamor for photos and any kind of contact.
E-sports figured large as well. CJ owns – guess what? – an e-sports game network and also sponsors gaming teams, so Kcon features a League of Legends tournament all weekend in a special tent.
The lines to get in were as long, as or longer, than any of the waits for other workshops. The gamers present enjoy bona fide superstar status in their world, especially this guy, SHY.
Still, for all of these other cultural detours, K-pop remained the focus of the night’s main event, a concert to be recorded and broadcast on Mnet’s M Countdown show next Thursday. Again, the theme here was togetherness—and the effort to spread Korean culture.
The entire mega-high-budget, intricately lit show served as a guide for anyone who didn’t know what was going on. Every time a new host, star, or group would appear, the arena’s screens would illuminate with the person’s name, biographical points, and sometimes a highlight reel of their stardom.
When dapper, suit-wearing host Lee Seung Gi appeared, for instance, screens reminded you he was a top star. And he, in turn, played his role, addressing the crowd in English: “[Tonight] Korea and U.S. become one through the love of K-pop.”
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kcon
When the group’s first act, the ensemble boy band VIXX, appeared, each of the six members’ names and photos flashed above, basketball-player style. VIXX came pre-vetted by fans, having been put together through online votes on an Mnet reality show, "MyDOL."
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kcon
VIXX was quickly upstaged, though, by solo act IU (“top female Korean solo artist” according to the screens). Fresh-faced IU is a true ingénue force, the star of popular K-drama “You’re the Best, Lee Soon-Shin,” as well as a perky, bubbly singer who writes much of her own material and bucks trends. Instead of going for thumping EDM or R&B, IU’s selections for the evening, including hit “The Red Shoes,” were brass-heavy and retro, heavily influenced by jazz and swing.
Though she powered through extended dance numbers in a pair of adorable red, patent-leather heels, she played the role of the nervous, humble, reluctant star. “It’s my first time in L.A.,” she said to the crowd halfway through her set, a bit breathless from dancing, “so I’m very nervous. English is so hard for me.” The aw-shucks routine act endears, and coupled with her unflagging energy and eclectic visual and sonic style, it’s enough to make an instant convert.
Here she is on the red carpet before the concert:
Photo credit: Getty Images
Boy-band B1A4 presented probably the most squeaky-clean version of pop to ever exist, complete with schoolboy-inspired uniforms, completely lust-less lyrics about school-age romance, and a visual world of cartoon hearts and balloons.
Teen Top, in comparison, seemed almost hard-edged, even though they’re one of the youngest boy groups on the scene. (When the group debuted to the public, some of its members hovered in their mid-teens, still). The group’s extreme youth comes through in its music, full of harder-edged EDM inflections and ultra high tempos, like on the song “Crazy,” one of the set’s peaks. (Click here to listen to it.)
Still, if any of last night’s acts seemed poised for a proper “crossover” though he probably doesn’t really need it), it was G-Dragon, leader of the group Bigbang and now also a solo artist. Beatlemania-level shrieks nearly drowned out his set, which featured a harder-edged hip-hop sound and swagger combined with just enough choreography and sung hooks to keep it in pop territory.
G-dragon boasts hordes of open-walleted fans, ready to buy anything he touches, along with serious stage presence, heavy helpings of English lyrics, and collaborations with artists like Missy Elliott (who appeared with him onstage at last year’s Kcon). All he needs now is one last push into the mainstream U.S. music industry. Marketers, pay attention, because you’re already behind.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.