The amount of pandemonium that breaks loose at a major K-pop concert is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey was engulfed in hysterical fandom, as it was the final stop of K-pop super star group Exo’s US tour. The show was a full-blown spectacle with impressive choreography, pyrotechnics, and visuals, in addition to the thousands of adolescent girls screaming at the top of their lungs to get the attention of their adored hearth throbs. I’ve been to countless concerts and very few have matched the overall energy of the Exo show, which made the entire experience fascinating on various levels.
I’m not a fan of K-pop, but I’m aware of its significance and sometimes over the top nature, so when my friend, who works in the music space in Korea, offered free tickets to the show, I gladly accepted. After learning that Exo was one of the biggest things in K-pop, I was really interested in seeing the hoopla.
K-pop, or Korean pop, is an international musical phenomenon that initially emerged in the 1990s. With its kitschy sound and endearing personas, the genre has extended beyond its South Korean roots to become a global success, grossing over $4 billion worldwide. The business is so thriving that TIME Magazine calls it South Korea’s greatest export. One reason for K-pop’s consistent success is its formulaic process. Many of its stars were handpicked out of intense “pop star” boot camps where kids as young as nine or ten years old are rigorously trained to sing, dance, and entertain. These programs could last up to seven years because manufacturing a K-pop idol can be expensive and grueling. “Making the Band” and “American Idol” have nothing on this.
I could sense the organization and planning that went behind Exo. Everything they did, from the smiles, waives, and interactions between one another, seemed a bit preconceived with the mission of getting the fans to go nuts. Also, each of the eight members was given their own distinct personality and look, which helps Exo appeal to different fan segments and increase the group’s appeal. Many girls wore merchandise or held signs that showed their loyalty to their favorite member. Overall, there was very little improvisation or steering away from the game plan, which was executed perfectly as there was no lull in energy all night.
Another thing I noticed was that there was a very high emphasis on performance. While researching for this piece, I read that K-pop songs are often an accompaniment to the dance routines, and that the presentation aspect is a bigger selling point than the actual music. At the show, I chatted with a non-Korean girl on why she liked K-pop, and she said that it was mainly due to the choreography and live performances. To her, K-pop artists put more effort to putting on a memorable show than American ones. In music, the live experience is where you really connect with fans, and Exo did put on quite an entertaining show.
One last thing I found eye opening was that there was a good amount of non-Asian people at the concert. My friend, who gave me the tickets, said that 60% of attendees of K-pop shows he worked on in the US are non-Asians, which was very interesting. At the show, I watched everyone, Asians, Whites, Blacks, and Hispanic, surprisingly sing along word for word to Exo songs. Even if they didn’t understand anything they were saying, there was something about that constructed pop music that made them a fan and they took the time to learn Korean.
Overall, the concert was very fun, as I got to experience a new niche culture. It’ll be interesting to see if K-pop can gain more traction in America (without PSY). Just from the observation I listed, the music has a mass appeal due to attractive stars/artists, elaborate performances, and catchy tunes. Hell, even Americans are trying to jump on this wave. Last year, Exo’s Exodus album was the highest sales week ever for a K-pop act’s album in America, so we’ll see if things get any bigger.