If you’d told me my first assignment as a reporter would be reviewing a K-pop gig, I’d have probably never left the cosy confines of the sub-editors’ desk. My heart sank as I pictured a tedious evening of screechy music and rabid fans. I like discovering new music, though, and I hadn’t found my way into K-pop yet, so I gave it a go.
I like my music pretty heavy and angry-sounding. The sugary synthpop and perfectly styled hair sported by Korean popstars didn’t exactly fit with my idea of a fun show. The band, iKon, were described in the press notes as Asia’s “hottest up-and-coming rookie band”. Whatever that was supposed to mean. The band were playing at Asia-World Expo, so they clearly had a fan or two in Hong Kong.
Koreans are known for being edgy dressers, so I decided to make a bit more effort than my usual jeans-and-T-shirt gig outfit. I picked out a studded leather jacket and beret for the occasion. A quick swipe of purple lipstick later and I looked the part. I got on the train to the Expo and spotted my K-pop komrades all decked out in black and white-striped baggy shirts and squeaky clean sneakers.
Six out of the seven band members made their debut on South Korean reality TV show, WIN: Who Is Next. Members B.I, Bobby, Jinhwan, Junhoe, Yunhyeong and Donghyuk lost out to the team that would become Winner. Everyone loves an underdog – especially when they have cute hair – and the guys appeared on follow-up show Mix & Match, where they recruited youngest member Chanwoo. Hair gel and stylists were brought in, and iKon was formed.
I arrived at the arena and got to my seat just as the band stepped onstage. The screaming was like nothing I’ve ever heard before: relentless, shrill and painful on the eardrums. I could have probably heard it from Shek O. Not a single person clapped during the show – it all seemed to be about who could reach a window-smashing pitch with their voice alone. The fans, aka “iKonics”, all had glowing, red mini baseball bats, or “konbats”, as they’re known. It didn’t look like a single person gave their arms a rest from waving the sticks around throughout the whole 100+ minute show.
I got swept up in the fun of it all and bopped along with everyone else, while also trying to avoid getting clobbered by the whirling konbats. With every hair flick and costume change, the slick septet whipped the crowd into a screaming, hormonal frenzy. The songs ranged from bass-heavy electro to hip-hop to piano ballads, and themed sections were broken up by (mostly very cheesy) short films projected onto a fallen curtain.
Mid-way through the set, a strange feeling began creeping over me. I’d never wanted to be Korean more in my life. The dancing, the clothes, the bouncy, musical language, the impossibly beautiful faces and sculpted bodies ... Being Korean looked like one big party that I wanted in on.
Cheeky joker B.I. and band leader seemed to be the fans’ favourite, Tupac wannabe Bobby was actually a great rapper, Junhoe-with-the-dreamy-eyes made half the girls faint with every model-esque pout, and sweet Chanwoo stole hearts with his baby-faced charm as the band tore through hit after hit.
The highlight of the show was a short movie where the guys sat round a table discussing which other K-pop band they should parody. After reeling off a bunch of other superstars and choosing who would sing each part, the real band re-emerged onstage and rocked through a medley of other acts’ hits. Jinhwan was the life and soul of the party, appearing onstage wearing a wig and dress to sing GFriend’s Me Gustas Tu.
The atmosphere was amazing for the whole show – the iKonics showed their devotion at every opportunity, and the band, loving the attention, hammed it up as much as possible. There was a lot of weirdness that I wasn’t used to from gigs: the show starting and finishing with Rhythm Ta, a strange fixation with mirrors as props, the very staged “banter”, huge piles of water bottles onstage that were only there for the band to flick water at the crowd ...
It was an intense, draining sensory overload. As the stage exploded with yet another round of streamers and fireworks, I found myself yawning and feeling slightly numb to it all. As the credits rolled at the end, I shuffled away with my mind on tinnitus and a nice cup of tea. It was one of the most impressive shows I’ve ever seen, but far too manufactured to be inspiring. The iKonics can keep their K-pop heartthrobs, but I might take a peek from time to time.