Asia Song Festival 2011: K-Pop Inferno

It was inches from hitting my head. I turned to my right to get a better look. It was so close that I couldn’t keep it in focus. “Whatever you do, don’t stand up,” my friend, who had a clear view of the impending danger, warned. The blinking light stick came down again, perfectly in time to a thudding, incessant beat. Somewhere behind me, a girl shrieked loudly, the hysteria evident in her voice. Middle school girls rushed by, holding towels and other goods with the names of famous K-pop boy bands on them. The girl behind me continued to shake her light stick menacingly to the beat. I was surrounded by 30,000 K-pop fans, most of them female and under the age of 14, and I was frankly a little scared.

I had come to the Asia Song Festival at Daegu Stadium in southern Korea to see Perfume, a Japanese techno pop group that I have something of an obsession with. The free concert was billed as a pan-Asian event, with artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Thailand and Japan, but it was mostly a Korean affair, the K-pop groups out-numbering the international artists three to one.

And where K-pop groups go, rabid middle school girls follow. A majority of the audience had come straight from school. Still in uniform, their ranks overflowed the bleacher seats at the stadium, their allegiances proclaimed on signs, balloons, and with light sticks raised in formation to spell the names of their favorite boy bands. I even heard shouting matches between rival fans, each one ready to throw down for their favorite non-threatening teen sensation. It’s a serious business, this K-pop.

We arrived at the stadium at 3 pm, well ahead of the 6 pm start time. We had downloaded vouchers from the event site weeks ahead and were already assigned seat sections. All we had to do was exchange the vouchers for tickets and head on in. Or so we thought. After waiting in line for more than an hour, we were finally allowed to… wait some more. Sections were kept waiting outside the stadium in a kind of K-pop purgatory and escorted in one at a time, security guards yelling at us to walk slowly and stay in formation. It was bizarrely regimented and frustrating. And all unnecessary, for as soon as we were inside the stadium it was a free-for-all, with our section already almost full, the people in the higher sections having helped themselves to our significantly closer seats.

The first hour of the show was devoted to new Korean artists that no one had ever heard of. Each group came out, did their two songs, and disappeared. It was like running a K-pop gauntlet, each group more insipid and awkward than the last. At last the real show started, but for an old dude like me, the established artists were indistinguishable from the new ones. The crowd certainly knew who they were though and made sure their beloved artists heard their screeching. All that old footage of girls going crazy to Elvis and The Beatles? It was all starting to make sense.

With some time left before Perfume, I decided to get away from the maddening crowds and find a beer. Dodging hysterical, sprinting teens, I searched vainly for a concession stand with beer. Instant ramen, check. Canned coffee, check. Bottles of Pepsi, check. But no beer. How could this be possible? This is Korea, where alcohol is as ubiquitous as water. Actually, in Korea it’s more appropriate to say that water is as ubiquitous as alcohol. But I seemed to be trapped in the only dry place in the country. I was determined to soldier on and see Perfume, however, even if it meant another hour of sobriety amidst 30,000 shrieking teens.

Only a little while longer, I thought, taking my seat. I’ll just keep my earplugs in, grit through the K-pop, and then all of my determination will be rewarded when those three girls take the stage in shiny, matching outfits, their… Wait, was that a raindrop? My friend pointed to a puddle on the field where percussive ripples were clearly visible. I put up my umbrella and started to shiver as the temperature dropped a good 10 degrees. We were lucky: the roof above us offered some protection from the rain but those people in the VIP seats down front were completely exposed. Poor Leo Ku, who took the stage right as the rain started, had come all the way from Hong Kong only to see his audience abandon him.

photo © Asif Quadri

Eventually the rain stopped and the stage, mopped and covered in plastic, was turned over to Perfume. At first it was hard to believe that I was really seeing them live. I had waited almost four years to see them and was resigned to waiting even longer, as they rarely played outside of Japan. But that wasn’t why I was having trouble believing it was them. The stage was so far away it was hard to make out anything at all. I spent most of the show looking up at the two video screens, which actually wasn’t all that different from how I usually see their performances: on screen.

And then their 10 minutes were up. As quickly as they had come, they were gone. It was like the concert scenes in That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ 1996 ode to rock ‘n’ roll. Each group gets only a few minutes to sing their hit song and then they’re gone, replaced by another. This concert model always seemed quaint and outmoded to me, a relic of a past age, but here in Korea, where all bands are singles bands, and where each new single is trumpeted as a “come back,” even though it’s only been six months since their last release, it makes sense. But for a group like Perfume, with 10 years’ worth of material to pull from, 10 minutes is a woefully short period of time.

Well, now I can say I’ve seen Perfume play live. And I can brag to my students that I’ve seen K-pop group X and singer Y. But I’d better do it soon. By next week they’ll have forgotten all about them.