K-pop wave in the US yet to take off

South Korean band CNBlue (above) at a concert in Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday as part of the KCON festival; and festivalgoers at the Kpop Battles event.
South Korean band CNBlue (above) at a concert in Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday as part of the KCON festival; and festivalgoers at the Kpop Battles event.PHOTO: NYTIMES
South Korean band CNBlue at a concert in Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday as part of the KCON festival; and festivalgoers at the Kpop Battles event (above).
South Korean band CNBlue at a concert in Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday as part of the KCON festival; and festivalgoers at the Kpop Battles event (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

Their music is infectious, but South Korean bands often leave show business at their peak for military service - hence they are unable to grow their fanbase

NEWARK (New Jersey) • That K-pop - the pop music scene that dominates South Korea and, increasingly, the rest of the world - has not yet had a chart-topping, cross-cultural Despacito moment in the United States is vexing.

The affinities between K-pop and Latin American pop are natural - the music is thick with references to American pop, hip-hop and R&B. And it is both decadently visual and relentlessly energetic, in a way that needs no translation.

K-pop continues to embody all of this potential, as was clear last Saturday, the second day of KCON, an annual festival - this was its third year here and it will go to Los Angeles for the sixth time in August - that tries to make a global phenomenon feel like an intimate subculture and underscores why that strategy is a savvy one.

All day and night, through panels, workshops, dance-alongs and opportunities to meet stars and, finally, a concert, KCON made an effort to condense this huge scene into a series of small, consumable gestures.

This was the case even in the most choreographed moments - on the red carpet, where the pop stars dutifully took turns facing each part of the room, so different swaths of screaming fans could get great shots; and during the show, where groups such as Twice and NCT 127 interrupted their tightly structured sets for fan interactions (also planned, but still effective).

NCT 127, which released their debut EP only last summer, were the highlight of the concert - their hits, including Fire Truck and Cherry Bomb, are flamboyantly chaotic and unerringly entertaining. The concert also featured the boyband UP10TION and Twice, a squeaky- clean girl group.

KCON is set up to take advantage of the intimacy and fluidity of this still-growing scene (in the US at least) in which superfans - the closest observers - are the real experts. Many of the afternoon panellists were YouTubers, fans themselves who were probably only a couple of years removed from being just regular attendees.

On one afternoon panel, Storytime: I Met My Idol!, a handful of them related giggly tales of offhand conversations in lifts or of simply locking eyes with their favourite singer. And at least a couple of the day's panellists were also in the press pit at the red carpet, shooting photos for their websites.

The K-pop world has developed its own lingo: "hi-touch", a way for artists and fans to connect quickly, a sort of extended high-five; "bias", the member of a K-pop group that you favour; and so on.

Much of KCON is devoted to efforts at fan education and inclusion, especially during the daytime part of the festival - a dancefloor was set up so fans could re-create the moves from their favourite K-pop videos en masse and, at myriad sponsor tents, teenage fans sang and danced along to hits such as BTS' Blood Sweat & Tears. Merchandise booths offered cheap ways to show loyalty: posters, enamel pins, bracelets with stars' names spelt out in glittery letters.

Most of the extremely diverse fans here were teenagers, not that much younger than the performers onstage.

K-pop skews young as a genre - one reason is that South Korea mandates military service for its men, a law that extends even to pop idols.

Many in the most recent wave of the genre's superstars, including the members of BigBang, have recently entered the military or are about to.

Groups such as BTS are beginning to fill that void and, if their reception here is any indication, NCT 127 are hot on their heels.

All of which made the headlining performance of CNBlue all the more curious. Though they are all-male, they are not a classic boyband. Rather, they are a pop-rock band and all the members, including the charismatic frontman Jung Yong Hwa, played instruments.

Of Saturday night's performers, they were the most established, having been releasing music since 2009. Their music, which had glimmers of Abba and also Phoenix, had little to do with what was happening during the rest of the show.

Their set was colourful, but also loudly served as a reminder of how young everyone else was, and by extension why K-pop has not been able to gain steady, reliable traction in the US.

Just as artists are reaching the peak of their renown, they are snatched away, leaving behind seeds that are only just beginning to take root.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'K-pop wave in the US yet to take off'. Print Edition | Subscribe