Never too late for your first K-pop concert
Here I was, flaunting my bootleg lightstick and crowned headband, falling in line to see Red Velvet’s “Be You: The World Will Adjust” concert at the SM Mall of Asia Arena on a humid July night. The sun had just set, and the line was already snaking around the arena, flanked by murmuring scalpers and sellers peddling bootleg merch. For Reveluvs — which is what Red Velvet’s fans proudly call themselves — the excitement in the air was palpable. It was my first K-pop concert, and I came without expectations, completely open to whatever would happen.
I was a pandemic-era K-pop convert, finding solace in its unabashed embrace of spectacle. It all began with Red Velvet, and Seulgi Kang’s vocal flourish in the second verse of their 2021 single, Psycho. And Irene’s pristinely white fluffy headband. I could pinpoint it precisely.
Red Velvet drew me in with music first. They’re a force to be reckoned with, easily treading the spectrum between bubblegum cuteness and dominating ferocity. Their production is a crate-digger’s delight, drawing inspiration from the best of the popular music canon, like the 8-bit-tinged synthpop anthem Power Up, and the soul-tinged breakbeat of Really Bad Boy. Did I mention that their music videos draw from B-horror films and Hieronymus Bosch? Anyway, after a year of stanning them at home, I was finally going to see Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri in the flesh.
Once I got past the ticket gates, I saw concertgoers in all sorts of expressions of love and fanhood. There were people who meticulously copied the girls’ music video wardrobes. There were people absolutely slaying the TikTok dances that they were recording — and Red Velvet’s choreography is no walk in the park. There were lovers on dates, too. Before I got into K-pop, its feudal fandoms, however formidable in their numbers, still seemed like they occupied their own worlds, unconcerned with whatever flavor of the month that Hollywood was fawning over.
I don’t think I would have gotten into K-pop three years ago, but it found me at the right time in my late twenties.
As much as I tried to be interested in what was coming out of the West, I’d grown tired of the self-awareness and irony. The Nineties already happened. Why listen to Olivia Rodrigo when I have Liz Phair? Detached and disinterested pop stars seemingly borne out of major label focus group discussions didn’t resonate with me when the world was steeped in crisis.
Red Velvet didn’t give me answers, but they resuscitated something in me. People I knew, from musicology professors to former emos, found solace in being ARMY, Onces, or their K-pop fandom of choice. I couldn’t speak for all stans, but my relationship with Red Velvet wasn’t one of worship or romantic love. Do I want to meet them personally? It’s not like I’d ever be within immediate proximity of Irene, and I’d probably keep my distance, or else she’d kill me with her stare. However, do they make me want to become a better person? Absolutely.
After climbing the spiral maze of the arena, I took my seat. The fan club RVPH left envelopes on every seat, containing flyers with cheering kits. People were actually pretty friendly, compared to the prog rock and punk international concerts I’d attended while growing up. They reminded me of the folks I’ve met who’ve stoked my Reveluv growth, sharing their photocards, photos, and favorite videos with me. It was a pleasant surprise to bump into some people I hadn’t seen in years, and would never have expected to be into K-pop too, but there wasn’t much time to talk.
The lights dimmed, and a countdown appeared onscreen. Five silhouettes stepped onto the stage. What happened in the minutes afterward was a blur of five heroines onstage to an overwhelming outpour of love and adoration from the thousands gathered in the stadium. Honestly, I hardly heard anything above the cheers and screams. But it didn’t matter; I lost myself in the euphoria. I was so stunned to finally see Red Velvet, I even forgot that I had a light stick until the second song (even if it wasn’t as impressive as the official lightsticks some people around me had).
Red Velvet’s performance ended too soon, after only five songs. Following them were P-Pop acts Bini and BGYO, who were absolutely top-tier performers. Although I do wish that the concert organizers scheduled them before Red Velvet, for the benefit of the folks who were sadly walking out as soon as Red Velvet ended. With the scale of the concert, it was a perfect opportunity to introduce K-pop fans to homegrown talent, and I wish the organizers had recognized that.
I left the arena grinning wide, ears ringing. The concert felt momentous in a personal way. There’s something special about finally getting new music, and diving into a whole new world. Falling in love with new music is, to me, also a journey of self-discovery.
I don’t think I would have gotten into K-pop three years ago, but it found me at the right time in my late twenties. As I age, I find that the BS that once seemed important fades into the background, leaving what matters: I want to dance even with my two left feet. I want to sing along to a language I don’t even know. As Twice’s Nayeon sang: Pop, you want it. Yes, I do.
After two dark years of uncertainty and societal collapse, I’d like to think that everyone in the arena was celebrating this no-small-victory called living. And when Red Velvet sang the line that goes, “Hey now, we’ll be okay,” I sang along, too. I could wholeheartedly say that for that brief, yet precious moment in time, I knew that much was true.