The group EXO performs at KCON 2013, a festival of South Korean pop culture… (CJ E&M. )
It’s enough of a tout for a young rapper when Missy Elliott, a giant of the genre, jumps onstage to spit bars on your single. It’s extra meaningful when that single isn’t in English. So, South Korean superstar MC G-Dragon probably woke up feeling pretty swell Monday, after Elliott tag-teamed him on his own deep-banging track “Niliria” to close out Sunday’s KCON 2013 at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena.
The weekend-long festival tackled any and everything to do with South Korean pop music culture -- songwriting panels, dance classes, Korean cooking and fashion tips. But the closing concert was a three-hour K-pop Christmas morning for fans who rarely get it to see it live.
Spacey hip-hop, screwy dance-pop and wet-eyed ballads all came together under the mantle of the “hallyu” subculture. The KCON concert was less about any particular sound and more about the kind of American fan who gets into K-pop: earnest, obsessive and a little underground-nerdy in a way that’s now the vanguard of cool in America.
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Heck, you don’t have to speak (or even be) Korean to fly the hallyu flag. One of the show’s first sets was from Chad Future, a white guy from Detroit reinventing himself as a K-pop artist in Los Angeles. It’s hard to tell what, precisely, gives him the “K” part of his mantle (as opposed to just being a pop artist). But that’s the flexibility of K-pop gone global: It’s all in the sensibility and attitude, and if you love it, you can claim it.
The show started a bit strangely, where most of the top-billed artists came out en masse to wave at the crowd before performing. So much for big reveals, but K-pop stars would rather be social-media fiends than cultivate mystery.
The girl-group quintet f(x) had one of the night’s strongest sets rights away. Its singles such as “Rum Pum Pum Pum” use one of K-pop’s best tricks -- putting candy-hued major-key harmonies on top of sinister, spy-movie dance tracks. The effect is so compositionally weird that it feels like a distinct new kind of pop music, especially when paired with the limber choreography that most Anglo stars are avoiding these days.
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The longstanding hip-hop group Dynamic Duo proved that the genre’s roots in South Korea run deep -- tracks such as “BAAAM” had a Golden Era swing to them, and the dance-rap meld of “Friday Night” could totally find a home on today’s Power 106 FM.
But the diversity of K-pop showed in the transition to 2 AM, a harmony-centric ballad group that recalled '90s acts such as Boyz II Men, if they were stripped of their Motown heritage and revamped with that particular, ineffable K-pop juice. Yu Seung Woo is kind of the Jack Johnson of K-pop, with his breezy acoustic single “Hello” clearly built for Seoul dorm-room make-outs. He collaborated with HeeJun Han, the best-finishing Asian American on “American Idol.”
The boy band Teen Top (judging by the screams, a crowd favorite) and movie-star crossover Henry each do the Bieber-y move of putting sweethearted vocals atop rowdier productions. Henry’s “1-4-3 (I Love You)” in particular had a pop-EDM immediacy and K-pop’s laser-focus on hooks and melody.
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A fully reunited EXO was one of the show’s big gets, and its dozen-strong members were up to the occasion -- “Wolf” was as dubstep-harsh as Skrillex, but veered between triple-time rapping, choreographed howling and bursts of bright harmonies. Again, the effect was that K-pop is finding a sonic template all its own, totally distinct from Western pop mores.
Plenty of today’s K-pop producers must have had copies of Elliott’s landmark “Miss E … So Addictive” in their stash growing up. Elliott’s singles pioneered the now-staple relationship between techno-futurism and hip-hop. She was enthusiastic and on point for her own set (and is very due for a new album), but her presence also reminded fans that today’s K-pop is continuing the work she started.
There might not be a better standard-bearer for that mission than G-Dragon. The rapper and Big Bang bandleader is right at home in contemporary’s hallyu’s weird sonic spaces. He’s a deft MC (Elliott wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t), but his sci-fi aesthetic used every angle of K-pop to take hip-hop into a whole new terrain. The Elliott imprimatur is a nice feather in his cap, but who needs an English language top-40 “crossover” when the original article is so darn original?