The lights dimmed, the chanting of the crowd echoed the beat of the music, and then suddenly, in a flash of lights and color, the group burst onto the stage. It was my first live K-pop experience, and it changed me. My K-pop story is now forever rewritten.
In my professional life I research and lecture on the intricacies of literacy. As readers we bring our own background to the page. We take the author’s words and weave them with our own memories and schema to create meaning. This same process happens when we listen to music. I know this on an intellectual level, but I witnessed and experienced it during my first K-pop concerts.
Within the last few months I have attended two K-pop concerts: B1A4 and BTS. The B1A4 concert was at a small venue. All tickets were standing and I had splurged on the highest priced tickets with high-touch. My husband came too. He had no interest in high-touch (an opportunity to high five the idols and maybe whisper a few words of appreciation). Instead, he gave his high-touch wrist band to a fan I had met online before the concert. This little bit of generosity on his part led to a lovely burgeoning friendship with a fellow fangirl, adding a new character to my K-pop story.
The concert was amazing and full of energy. I danced, sang along, and smiled the whole time. Even songs I didn’t know that well before are now on my playlist because I now picture the choreography and remember the way I felt during the concert. I also developed a new appreciation for some of the group members. I came in partial to the idols I knew through dramas: Jinyoung and Baro. I was captivated, however, by the voice of Sandeul. That boy can sing! I also was moved by the fan service of the entire group. They really tried to use English to communicate (some more successfully than others) and they leaned forward into the crowd, taking selfies and responding to the handmade signs waved by the audience. Even while security tried to rush us through high-touch, the group members were kind and understanding. Jinyoung didn’t even call a bouncer when I forgot myself in the moment and squeezed his hands instead of high-fiving. I had even practiced what I wanted to say in Korean, but my mind went completely blank, so I babbled on in English about his dramas, and it took me a second to realize his shocked look was not because I had said something so profound, but because I had locked fingers and was squeezing his hands as I gushed. He did understand what I was saying, though, because he thanked me for watching his dramas. I was grateful that he was polite and did not immediately assume my energetic hand grab was an attempt to kidnap him. It made me like him even more.
The concert euphoria stayed with me for days. I would find myself remembering a moment here or there and I would smile fondly. I stayed in touch with people I met at the concert and we exchanged pictures and stories. The fangirl we gave high-touch to had gone on to attend the next concert in Chicago and a Got7 concert in Florida. Then, on a cold day in March, I happened to mention how I had tried for BTS tickets, but they were sold out. And my new friend helped add a new chapter to my K-pop story.
Within the hour, I had a ticket for the BTS concert in Newark, a place to stay (sharing a room with my B1A4 friend), and a plan to take a vacation day and go to the concert. It was completely spontaneous (well, as spontaneous as you can get when you are planning for something two weeks in advance), but the PLAN was spur-the-moment, so I think that counts.
On the day of the concert I dropped my kids off at school and drove my minivan to Newark. I must admit that I had a few misgivings. I am not young and Asian. Would I really feel comfortable at a BTS concert all by myself?
My worries were soon completely forgotten. The crowd was an eclectic mix of races, ages, and background. It was this difference in background that truly drew my attention. Everyone came to the concert as a result of different life journeys. As the bass pounded and lyrics in Korean and English swirled around us, I pulled myself out of the moment to look about. Each person in that crowd was having a very personal experience. One girl had tears streaming down her face during one of the songs. When I had a chance to talk to her later, she shared that she had gone through a very difficult time in high school, even contemplating ending her own life, but that song is the one that gave her strength. Someone else I noticed just completely gave herself to the music and was dancing along. She shared that she had recently graduated from college with a pre-med major, but in the process she had given up dancing and K-pop. She felt like she had lost a part of herself. This concert was her graduation present, a reconnection to the person she once was. I wish I could have interviewed every person there because I think I could have filled a notebook with the stories, each one unique. We all heard the same songs, but each person co-created something very personal as a result of their connection to the music and their connection to their own life.
At the same time, however, we all had a collective experience. We were living this new moment in time together. This was beautifully illustrated by the “rainbow ocean fan project.” Each section was assigned a different colored bag. These were distributed before the concert with directions to cover light sticks or phone flashlights with the bag during the encore. I was sure it was going to be a project that would flop. How could they possibly get thousands of people to come together and follow the same set of directions? We are in a divided country where we can’t seem to agree on even the most basic ideas. But, when it was time for the encore, the whole stadium became a waving rainbow of lights, and I was part of it. Nobody cared that I was a middle aged white lady. I was just a fellow ARMY and that was all that mattered. We were all part of the same chorus, chanting and waving our lights. We were united in our excitement and appreciation. In the unified chanting of the crowd, we all added a similar chapter to our K-pop stories.
I walked away from my first K-pop concerts with new friends, new memories, a deeper appreciation for the music and artists, and a better understanding of myself. Being in that moment with all those other people, experiencing that shared joy, is something that made me feel alive. I want my life story to be full of more moments like this, so although these were my first concerts, they certainly won’t be my last!
If you have attended live K-pop concerts, or even if you haven’t but you connect to a particular song for a particular reason, what is your K-pop story? Please share and continue the conversation in the comments below.
Until the next concert…