A journey into Korean pop

Seoul, South Korea

In the late morning I went on a shopping excursion to Myeongdong. Throngs of shoppers were going by in the street. I meandered through the crowd, past cosmetic boutiques that sold Korean beauty brands. Across the way was Cat Playground, a cat cafe where young Seoulites drank coffee among playful felines. Mall-going school girls frolicked along. I walked past the Face Shop where a man made a polite, short bow to another man carrying a shopping bag from the iconic Lotte Department Store.

I walked over to the Stylenanda Pink Hotel, a hotel-themed fashion store with a pink facade. The interior of the hotel was decorated in shades of pink. All the walls were pink The couches, tables and chairs were pink. The boxes of all the beauty products were pink. It was like an Alice-in-Wonderland happy place for girls. A pop song played on the store’s sound system, a saccharine ballad with auto-tuned vocals. Standing by the entrance was a girl who checked her pink phone and tapped a text message. She was a pretty fast thumb typist. Some tourists were recording the milling crowds along the pedestrian walkway on their phones.   

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Through some large glass doors I entered a mall. Faux trees with polyester silk leaves decorated the main hall. I made a stop at a clothing store. A girl stood behind the counter, wearing a plastic badge. A few others were working the cash registers. Flipping through a rolling garment rack, I browsed some T-shirts with a detached curiosity. 

Checking the size tags on some shirts with neon colors, I decided to go with something more toned down and picked out a bleached denim jacket. I took it up to a sales girl at the cash wrap, a girl wearing pale lipstick, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She rang up my purchase and gave me a smile as she handed me my bag. I was hoping my cool, new jacket would help me fit into the stylish Korean scene. 

Near a mannequin modelling distressed jeans, some girls were mixing and matching outfits. The one wearing big sunglasses propped against her bleached hair fringe tried on a ruffled pink skirt. Her friend preferred a sweater emblazoned with glittering letters. They peered at each other, giggling compliments and taking selfies before disappearing into the changing room again. Pretty soon, they came out again in different outfits, turning around to look at themselves in the mirror, joking around, tossing their hair and playfully sticking out their tongues. 

They finally decided on a purchase. At the counter I made a comment about their choice, and they mentioned they bought the outfits to wear at the Day6 concert tomorrow night. I asked them why so many bands were named after time conventions. 

I don’t really know,” said one of the girls. “I just know I got into Day6 when I heard their first mini album The Day. I loved it.”

“Are they a sub-unit of One Day?” I asked.

“No. One Day doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “They were divided into two sub-units. 2AM and 2PM.”

I laughed. “What’s the difference between 2AM and 2PM?”

“2AM is for romantic ballads. 2PM is for upbeat dance music.”

“So was 2PM’s first album called Two in the Afternoon.” I continued, joking.

“No,” her friend added, seriously. “2PM’s first album was 01:59PM.”

“I heard there’s even a group called 4Minute. Are they still around?”

“That was a girl group,” she said as they prepared to leave. “They disbanded when their contract ended.”

I walked out behind them and stopped at the next shop to look in the window. The store sold cute socks with cartoon characters, clothes popular with K-pop stars and other eclectic fashions. K-pop singers are important fashion influencers and the styles they wear are quickly bought up by the fans who emulate them. Near the back, a girl wearing pink eyeshadow was sleeving a jacket that had been worn by Got7 in their latest video. The store also sold mini skirts and net stockings worn by many of the girl groups. I thought K-pop fashion was much more colorful and interesting than the clothes worn by most pop acts in the West. 

The store also sold face stickers and eyelash gems, caps with long straps, ruffled skirts and hoodies. A guy with moussed hair sensor-tagged some bootcut jeans and then walked back to the stockroom. He came out carrying some bucket hats and leather berets and sorted them on a shelf. On the wall above the shelf, hung a large poster of the group BIGBANG. 

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From posters plastered all over the mall and a crowd that was gathering near a stage I found out that some K-pop bands were doing a mall tour. I was keen to get to a concert, wanting to know what all the excitement was about. Flashing colored lights dazzled me as the fans surrounding the stage pulled out camera phones.

The boy band 2Nite had just launched a music video teaser to promote their new mini album. The crowd stood up and screamed loudly, even before the troupe rushed onto the stage. Wearing coordinated outfits in technicolor, they energetically performed a mash-up of pop and hip hop, the stage backdrop a burst of wildstyle graffiti art. The main singer had fluorescent green hair and went by the stage name Super-K. He had won a reality survival show, a fan-voted competition to get a place in the band. I was caught up in the energy of people dancing,  jumping up and down and waving their hands to the rhythm. 

The main rapper of the group, Jun Ho, had long bangs that covered his eyes. They launched into a frenetic song of dance pop, their comeback track, a song with a propulsive beat. With quick footwork they locked into it, hitting their moves, gliding and spinning, dancing across the stage. I was very impressed by the sharp choreography, their synchronised, strenuous dance with quick steps and arm pumps.             

They were followed by the girl group Lavender who were playing an encore concert here. Six girls sauntered on stage. They had a sexy-baby look. Wearing bow headbands and skimpy tennis skirts, they promenaded around holding pinwheel lollipops. They were the third generation of the rotational Lavender group. Eventually, new members would replace them to keep the group forever young, forever with a girlish innocence. 

A screen behind projected images of a plastic, bubblegum world, a world of candy-canes, pajama parties, and girls wearing kitty ears. They performed a pacey song with danceable beats. The main singer was really cute. She’d been scouted at a mall and became a trainee at Starlight Academy. She pointed at me and winked – or so I thought. They then did a formation dance routine. Some fans waved fluorescent sticks. They were performing in the mall as a farewell tribute to their fans and after this performance they were slated to go on an overseas tour. First to Tokyo, where they would sing Japanese versions of their songs, and then on to some cities in North America.

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After the show I strolled by cosmetic counters displaying eyeliner pencils, mascara tubes and shades of lipstick. I looked around. Free samples of cosmetics were being offered. A girl in a pink tube top rubbed perfume on her wrist and sniffed it. A beauty expert applied lip liner to a woman with angular cheekbones. She recommended sheet masking daily for a week to get a nice glow. 

I continued down an aisle selling anti-ageing creams and lotions. A girl with a bob cut was getting her makeup done. The stylist was giving her a new eye look. For radiant skin, she recommended the 10-step routine that involved using cleansers, toner, serum, masks and moisturisers. As she sat in the make-up chair, the counter girl told her the ingredients of the products. I only stayed there a short while and then walked into the main hall of the shopping mall.      

On a large-screen TV in an electronics shop played a music video of BIGBANG. In the opening scene G-Dragon had smudged, wound-simulating eye makeup and long orange hair and wore a black and white striped suit. Set in a futuristic world, the video had a dystopian feel.  A shirtless, frozen Taeyang was being thawed out. Some of the shots had a steampunk theme. The resistance, wearing white futuristic masks, were protecting their pop kings and going up against the anti-music forces. 

In the next shot, G-Dragon was crouched on the hood of a destroyed, rusted-out car. A bare-chested Taeyang in black jeans, doing hand-hurling gestures, wore a futuristic silver metallic plate on his left arm. Fans in white masks battled anti-music soldiers in full riot gear. Some extras in white masks were freestyle dancing. Others were performing the traditional Korean lion dance. 

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