Last night's K-Pop Festival was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. From the bizarre pre-event press conference to the post-concert wave-a-thon, I felt like I had been transported to alternate universe. Or plied with acid and let loose in Koreatown. The result was not entirely unpleasant but I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. Maybe I should just start at the beginning. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a casual fan of K-Pop. I was one of the first sites outside Asia to feature the Wonder Girls and am probably the only person alive that still stans for Mina but I don't live and breathe the genre like some people. Which allows me to be more objective than most. I just went along hoping to be entertained. I got that and a whole lot more.
ANZ Stadium was already buzzing when I arrived at 4:30pm. There were cultural activities outside the venue, a live stage courtesy of Pop Asia, delicious food stands and thousands of excited fans. After wading through the crowd I finally found the entrance for the press conference and made my way into a half-empty room full of media giants like the Christian Review and Hello K-Pop. As far as I could see none of the major newspapers or TV stations had sent reporters, which reflects their complete lack of interest in the event. Some of that has to do with the Festival's incredibly poor marketing campaign but there's definitely a pre-conception in the media that K-Pop's appeal only extends to the Asian community. It's disappointing and blatantly incorrect. The line-up included global stars that have sold millions around the world. But I'll get off my soapbox.
I was excited they announced that all 12 of the artists would be attending the press conference. My fellow bloggers were almost hyperventilating when the acts started arriving and they were truly a sight to behold. The girls looked like pretty dolls in their colourful costumes and the boys did their best to smoulder. Then they sat down and just looked bored. I think some of them might have even fallen asleep. Three pre-submitted questions were asked before the convener told us to take some pics (from a five metre distance) and then herded the acts away from us like cattle. I definitely get the impression that the bands are kept under tight wraps. Like Britney but worse. The highlight for me occurred right at the end when I randomly waved at the missA girls and caught the pretty blond's attention. She smiled and waved back until she was told to march off. As I was to learn later that night, K-Pop is big on waving.
After being dragged to the front of the stage two hours before kick off by my increasingly excited/annoying friend, I was finally able to soak in my surrounds. ANZ stadium was quarter full of people holding SNSD signs and lovesick teenagers of both genders discussing which TVXQ boy is hotter. It was a sight to behold. At 7pm our glamorous hosts took the stage to talk about the cultural significance of the Festival - it marked 50 years of friendship between Australia and Korea - and to introduce the acts. First up was SHINee. They came out and delivered a high-energy three song set complete with cute choreography and live vocals. Which, to be honest, I didn't expect given their TV performances in Korea. "Hello" was the only song I recognised but the others were catchy and they deserve credit for kicking off the event on such a high note.
Next up were my new homegirls, missA. They looked and sounded amazing - which might have had something to do with them singing over a backing track - but they put on a show. Unfortunately they only got to perform two songs. I can't help but feel they got a bit shafted. They were shoved in the corner at the press conference and performed before several smaller acts. Aren't these girls huge in Korea? Rude. SISTAR then upped the trash quota of the event with their matching pink-sequined dresses and bad miming. I love their music and sexy dance moves but it was a bit too Eurovision for me. The same could be said of the first of four inter-group collaborations. Members of SHINee and Girls Generation danced to a medley of songs I didn't recognise with the exception of Michael Jackson's "Jam". It was odd but good to see the acts mingling.
If you think K-Pop is all frenetic choreography and pulsating dance beats, then check out 2AM. They are the Korean equivalent of Il Divo and belted out three power ballads. It's not my thing but the gays next to me were clutching their pearls and waving their phones in the air, so I guess something was lost in translation. Secret's appeal is more universal. This quartet of curvaceous stunners - apart from Sunhwa, who is a complete mess - has a very distinct style that sets them apart from the other girlbands. I loved their camp Cabaret-inspired entrance and the almost Andrews Sisters sound of their music. Some of their songs ("Starlight Moonlight" for example) could be mistaken for nursery rhymes. They were up there as one of my favourites. It was then time for the next collaboration. 2AM were joined by singers from 4Minute and SISTAR to cover Beyoncé's "Halo". I've heard better versions at my local Karaoke bar but it was all kinds of amazing. King B runs Korea too.
To be honest I had never heard of B2ST before the event but they now have a new fan. In fact, I think they outshone just about everyone. The boys definitely had the best choreography and their live vocals were flawless. If I had to choose the best song of the night it would go to "Fiction", which was superb. That performance was hard to follow but Girls Generation were greeted with deafening applause when they took the stage. They started with their current single "The Boys". I was a bit disappointed that they choose to perform the Korean original instead of the English version designed to give them international appeal but they are a machine. Everything runs like clockwork. They never miss a dance step and sounded surprisingly good given that it was, at least partly, live. It was nice to hear "Kissing You" but "Gee" was the undeniable crowd favourite. Next up was the third collaboration - this time between CNBLUE, B2ST and MBLAQ. I went to get a drink when they came on but I'm sure they were great.
4Minute heated up the stage with their electro-trash tunes but there was nothing to distinguish these girls from the pack. In fact, I found them rather boring. MBLAQ was a different story. G.O. wins the award for being the hottest man in K-Pop and I was blown away by their singing and dancing. However, the loser wearing the Harry Potter cape needs to go. I can't wait to dig further into their discography. CNBLUE came out next and really shook things up. First of all, they are a rock band and play their own instruments. I had never heard of them before but I liked their catchy brand of pop/rock. "I'm A Loner" is a particularly good song. Our glamorous hostesses then announced the final collaboration of the evening between 4Minute and missA. It was a cover of Kylie's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" as a tribute to Australia. I loved every second of this. Their pronunciation was great and they even busted out some of the original choreography. The elder Minogue would be proud.
That left two acts - KARA and TVXQ. I can understand why they left TVXQ till last given their incredible popularity but KARA? I'm not here for those flops. The PVC clad girlband were fine but hardly a standout. They mimed for starters and their dancing was sub-par. However, it was great to hear "Mister". Such a cute song. After their three-song set, TVXQ took the stage looking every inch the Kings of K-Pop. On Twitter I joked that they looked like extras from Star Wars and I'm still not sure about those Comic-Con outfits but they definitely have presence. I was expecting big things from them and the boys partly delivered. Their vocals were good but their famous choreography wasn't as impressive as I was expecting. They just did a lot of jumping. The crowd lapped it up though but I was slightly underwhelmed until they delivered a killer punch with the amazing "Keep Your Head Down". That song ended the three hour Festival and all 12 acts were called back on stage to wave at the crowd. Which they did for what felt like an eternity. Waving to the left, then waving to the right and then waving to the fans in the stands. On the left and the right. As I said earlier, waving is extremely important in K-Pop!
So what to make of this curious event? On one hand, being exposed to that much K-Pop in one hit was overwhelming. A few acts of the acts tread very similar ground and it became a bit repetitive. If you asked a newcomer the difference between 4Minute and KARA, I'm sure you would just get a blank look. Also, the quirky choreography and colourful costumes that define the genre work against it in bulk. The event had a distinict Eurovision vibe to it, which isn't going to help sell the genre as hip and edgy. As a whole these artists need less pageantry and more originality. They also need to try and show more personality. There was something quite robotic about a lot of the performances. On the other hand, K-Pop devotees were treated to the night of their lives. They got to see all their idols and clearly enjoyed the aspects that grated on me. Furthermore, organisers sold 20,000 tickets with no publicity. Can you imagine the turn out of people knew about it? Perhaps most importantly, the event offered an insight into why the genre is exploding in popularity. There is no pretense. These acts are, quite openly, manufactured to entertain. And they do a very good job of it. All in all, there's a lot to improve on but I really hope this isn't the last time the K-Pop Festival rolls into town.