One evening in Seoul I snagged a ticket to a Hallyu pop festival. Crayon Pop was set to be the opening act. I started off for the venue beneath a neon skyline. From a long way off I could hear the noise of the concert. As I hesitated at the entrance, I could see the concert was packed with shrieking teens, singing along and waving light sticks. I looked round at the girl beside me. She had dyed-blonde hair and wore a striped headband. Her friend wore stacked bracelets and jeans that rode low on the hips. The third girl had a pixie cut and wore a jean skirt and ankle length boots. They were speaking English so I could catch snatches of their conversation.
“It’s sort of crazy here,” the blonde said. She spoke animatedly. She sounded like a Korean American.
“TVOL is on next!,” the girl with the pixie cut said, excitedly.
The two girls teased her affectionately.
“Is Tae Min your bias?” asked the blonde
“Your favourite band member, silly.”
The group was obviously popular with the girls. They talked about how the band had won number-one trophies on a variety of music shows and how their daily movements were chronicled on social media.
Just then the music started up. I was suddenly transported by a spectacle. The visual excitement of pulsating neon and flashing strobes filled the stage as TVOL were set to perform. The audience was amped, screaming in excitement, clapping, shouting the names of the group members. Suddenly, TVOL appeared through the haze of a fog machine.
The guys all had slight builds and wore bright print outfits. They had an androgynous look, glammed up, wearing heavy eyeliner and coiffed with flamboyant hairdos. The main vocalist had neon blue hair. They made gliding movements to a synth-pop sound. They crouched down, dropped to the floor and did leg-sweeps. Tae Min, the main dancer of the group, had bleached hair and was energetically pumping his arms.
I was a bit ambivalent about most of the songs. The screaming frenzy made it difficult to hear the singers. Fans waved lightsticks that blinked to the music. Blue was their fandom color. As the song faded out, they came off stage and were mobbed by fans as a phalanx of security men moved the screaming teenage girls away. During the interlude my ears still rang from the high-pitched screaming.
Secret Red performed as the closing act. They had slim waists and glitter lips. The budding fantasies of teen boys, they were four cute girls with sultry vocals, wearing short skirts and high heels, doing a hip-swaying dance. They sang to an electro-pop dance track. Soo Mi was the main vocalist. Before joining Secret Red she’d been the trainee singer of a project group that didn’t make it. She had a breathy voice and did hair flicks in a sassy way. That was the part I liked the most. With finesse, they turned on a certain beat. In lockstep, they made synchronized dance moves, doing body rolls and hip thrusts. The girls next to me took photos on their smartphones, posing together, snapping selfies. The concert gave them a good feeling – and something to post on Instagram.
I went out into the hectic city the following morning, the streets teeming with busy people. I walked by a karaoke parlour and a bubble tea store, down a winding side street and then looked around a store that sold medicinal teas. For lunch I stopped at a small restaurants in a side alley. Everything was written in Korean, but fortunately there was a picture menu where I could just point to the beef ribs and ginseng chicken soup. The TV above the bar played a South Korean soap opera.
A young women at the next table, wearing a button-down shirt and an A-line skirt, had a school-girl look. On her phone, she pulled up her Instagram account. Thumbing through pictures, she nibbled on some mandu dumplings, checking out the amount of likes her last photo had received and the photos she’d been tagged in. Scrolling through the curated and filtered photos, liking and commenting on them, she was sustaining her online persona, feeling somehow less alone in her virtual life.
After lunch I went down a back alley, past a tent bar with a blue tarp that served rice beer and soju liquor. An old man sitting by a heater drank a milky rice wine and snacked on chicken feet. The next stall sold live baby octopus that were eaten raw with the tentacles still squirming. Continuing on, I passed a tearoom illuminated by paper lanterns. There was a delicious sampling of street food up ahead. I ate some pork belly boiled in a spicy broth that was really flavoursome. A woman plucked some dumplings from a bamboo steamer and handed a steaming plate to the man seated next to me.
After a tiring evening of street-food sampling I went to my hotel and straight up to my room. I had a street-facing room so there was nonstop noise from the traffic below. My phone was out of power so I plugged it into the charger. I took out my laptop and searched Youtube for K-pop videos. Scrolling through the sidebar of related videos, clicking on the thumbnail, dragging the scrollbar on the time display at the bottom, scanning through the opening beats of the song, I finally found one I liked. My attention was caught by a video of toned women in Adidas body suits twerking to trap beats on a dance floor.
Next morning I went to check out Gangnam, the affluent district of Seoul. There were plastic surgery advertisements on the walls as I exited the subway station. At street level I was overwhelmed by high-rise buildings and bright LED displays. I walked along, passing endless fashion stores and beauty parlours.
At the crowded food court at COEX mall, I found a place next to a guy with close-cropped hair, wearing skinny jeans. He smiled, looking up from his phone. His name was Jin Woo. I talked with him about the concert I had seen. He was a fanboy of Secret Red. He’d seen two of the girls on the K-pop survival show Produce 101. He gave me the thumbs-up and made a point of telling me how beautiful they all were.
“They have a beautiful sameness,” I said.
“Many idols get plastic surgery,” he said, “Double-eyelid surgery to make the eyes look bigger. The face gets reshaped. They do V-line surgery.”
“It’s when they break and shave the jawline to get a pointed chin. What they call a V-line face. They end up with a small face, big eyes and a little nose, ‘cause the labels want them to look more like anime cartoon characters.
Some bands had nonsense acronyms, he told me. B2ST stood for ‘Boys to Search for Top’ and H.O.T stood for ‘Highfive of Teenagers ’
This lead into a conversation about NCT.
“How many members are in their group?”
“Right now? Eighteen, I think. But they keep adding more. Probably be the first unit to have an unlimited amount of them. That way they can have sub-units in different cities around Asia, localized to train and perform there.”
Later while strolling the mall, I came across a shop that sold a line of pop merchandise – K-pop gear and CDS. There was a life-size cutout of G-dragon with yellow spaghetti hair. They sold SHINee key chains, Super Junior folders, Girls’ Generation caps, Red Velvet shirts. I bought a 2NE1 photobook because I liked their style.
Next morning I took breakfast at the hotel restaurant. After a coffee and rice porridge, I thought of making a trip out to the DMZ to have a look over at North Korea, to satisfy my curiosity about that strange communist country. But like a good capitalist, I decided to go shopping instead. Luckily, a short walk from my hotel was a mall with an endless choice of consumer goods. As I walked along the street below the high-rise buildings, I passed a boy in an oversized sweatshirt and a women wearing a surgical mask.
At the mall I went over to a fountain where some kids were hanging out. I sat on the edge next to a girl wearing a cartoon T-shirt, looking at her phone, scrolling through her Instagram feed. She complained to a girl next to her that a friend had been ignoring her texts. Some young guys were doing selfies together in front of the fountain. I tried to talk to them, but the best I could do was say a few words in Korean. They asked what I was doing in Seoul. I said that I was just travelling around.
A guy, wearing chequered-print trousers, was joking around with his friends. A girl wearing cat-eye glasses waved to them from across the way. I felt a sort of sad emptiness being in a mall again, a sterile, safe place for people who had nothing better to do. To distract my thoughts, I felt in my pocket for some gum. I looked over at a girl. She was wearing a black vinyl jacket and drinking a Starbucks coffee while tapping at her phone. I sat at a table across from her and ordered an orange juice. A boy and a girl sat together at a table, eating frozen yogurt. They had the ‘couple look’, dressing alike, both wearing newsboy caps, matching red shirts and ripped jeans. Bored of being in just another mall like every other mall, I drained my glass of juice and headed back to my hotel.
Back inside my room, I sat on the brown bedspread. Leaning back on the pillows against the wooden headboard, I picked up my phone, checked out my notifications on Facebook and scrolled through my feed. Then I turned on Korean TV, flipping through game shows and period dramas. I stopped and watched I Can See Your Voice, a music game show. A black exchange student from the United States came on to sing a cover of the pop song “Saldaga.” It was interesting to see a black guy influenced by the music style of Korean culture after seeing so many young Koreans influenced by the music style of black American culture.