Lightsticks and screaming fans in a 90,000 people stadium.
Korean Pop Music – or better known as “K-Pop” has really started to take off worldwide. For others, it allowed them to discover East Asian culture and Korea. For me, it made me remember why I’ve always appreciated East Asian culture and made me revisit Korea with a different set of eyes.
My favourite K-Pop group, BigBang, was a group I got into really late – I had never been to their concerts before, because by the time I discovered them, one of the rappers had already enlisted in the South Korean military. South Korea has a mandatory conscription, where men must serve two years of compulsory military service prior to the age of 35. The members of BigBang, having enjoyed more than a decade of popularity in the K-Pop world and beyond (they were named “The biggest boy band in the world that you’ve never heard of” by various media such as CNN and USA Today), have approached the age where they are meeting the end of the compulsory military service. As such, all 5 members are due to be enlisted by the first half of 2018.
K-Pop concerts are very much unlike western concerts, it really is a culture. Having been to numerous K-Pop concerts in LA, I quickly caught on to the culture and routine of the concerts. There are many “hurdles” you need to cross to attend a K-Pop concert; the first being getting a ticket. Tickets are sold out almost immediately for concerts worldwide. In Seoul, concerts of up to 90,000 seats often sell out within seconds of release. While there may be a few more seconds or minutes prior to selling out for LA concerts, it is still a fight to go to a concert every time. Lines are another hurdle when entering the venue – fans from around the world often line up to two nights before a concert outside the venue to ensure good standing spots near the stage. Merchandise where prices are through the roof are also sold out almost immediately, along with the most important merchandise to bring to a concert – the group’s designated lightstick. Each K-Pop concert groups have their own official lightstick, while optional to purchase or bring to the venue, most fans go in a concert with one.
Some die-hard fans for groups will create “fan projects” to show their love for the performing groups, such as making words out of lights to spell out their affection so the members can read it on stage, or creating pictures like rainbows with their lightsticks. “Fanchants” are also a part of the K-Pop concert culture where fans learn – well, chants – that they shout out during various breaks of the song.
While it was fun going to all the various K-Pop concerts in LA and experiencing this culture, as a K-Pop fan, I was missing one important thing – going to my favorite group’s concert. When BigBang announced their “Last Dance” concert in Japan and Korea as their last performance prior to all members enlisting in 2018, I knew I had to go. Although my personal favorite member would not be performing with the group due to being in the military, it would still be my first ever BigBang concert nonetheless.
Remember when I mentioned those hurdles to go through in LA concerts? Tickets to go to Japan concerts specifically have a MUCH higher hurdle to cross – the first being, you can’t buy a ticket if you don’t hold a Japanese resident card, or you are not part of their Japanese fan club (and to get into the fan club, you must be a Japanese resident). Korean concerts are a bit more relaxed with this rule – only, Korean ticketing systems are often nightmares where you have to navigate through a bunch of Korean and the systems often fail to process your order when you finally complete the order (which, of course, is not useful when concerts sell out within seconds of release)!
The K-Pop Gods must have been on my side in December 2017, however, as I managed to get a ticket for BigBang’s Last Dance in Japan, a ticket to their “special event” (where the members play games on stage and sing a couple of songs) thanks to resellers and a friend in the Japanese fan club, I managed to navigate the complicated Korean ticketing system with the help of my friend that lived in Seoul to get a ticket to their Last Dance concert in Seoul.
Asian concerts are always fun to go to – when I lived in Hong Kong, I was a regular concert goer, and definitely missed the atmosphere that only a concert in Asia can give. The same artist that performs in Asia for three hours often changes numerous sets of clothes and has an elaborate stage with moving parts and many dancers can have the same concert in North America that lasts only for 90 minutes with a few sets of clothing changes (if any), a static stage, and half the dancers they used in Asia.
However, very interestingly – while K-Pop is huge in Japan and obviously Korea, BigBang in Japan was different culturally than BigBang in Korea. Seating for tickets also is randomly assigned – you can’t choose whether you want to be close to the stage or be in the last row; you’re paying the same price and find out about your seat assignment when your tickets are printed, a couple of weeks prior to the concert. The Japanese merchandise line was much much longer than in Korea (granted, the merchandise was a lot prettier than in Korea), and fans were lining up overnight to purchase items prior to the concert. A lot of merchandise is packaged so that you can’t see what members’ merchandise you’ll get (there are merchandise for individual members, but randomly assigned), and fans often stand outside the venue holding up the member they’d like to trade out. What surprised me about Japanese concerts was the lack of lines to enter the venue though, given the lines for the merchandise – fans would just walk in minutes before the concert started and find their seat (also, standing sections do not exist in Japan, which could explain the reason for lack of lines).
99.99% of the fans in the venue carried the group’s lightstick. While most fans do carry the group’s lightstick to US concerts, the percentage is much lower. Also, some lightsticks have a fancy bluetooth/wifi functions where lights can change colors according to the concert director’s wishes, and they had this function available with wrist lightsticks only for the Japanese concert. It really was an amazing sight to behold when every person is holding a lightstick, and all lights (including the light on stage) are turned off. K-Pop fans call it “the ocean”, and I finally understood why in that concert. The Japanese fans though are very tame, due to the Japanese culture. They laugh when they’re supposed to, clap politely when they’re supposed to, but are quiet the rest of the time to enjoy the music. Additionally, guards walk around the entire concert to ensure that you are not taking any photos (taking your camera out can result in being pulled out of the venue immediately).
In Korea, travel agencies were responsible for selling tickets to overseas fans – at three times the cost of the original price. Luckily for me, as previously mentioned, with the help of my Korean friend, I was able to pay regular price. Because of my far away seating assigned to me for the Japanese concert, I was quite keen to try the standing floor sections for the Seoul concert, knowing full well I needed to line up early to ensure a decent spot, and may be getting squished by crowds during the concert. Due to the Japanese group lightstick being different than the Korean group lightstick, and I’d bought my lightstick from Japan, I’d brought that along – and was practically the only one with a Japanese lightstick, while every one else carried a Korean one. Additionally, fans from all over the world prepare flower wreaths and rice packs (to donate to charity after) and send to the concert venue to congratulate and wish BigBang a successful performance; this is truly only in Korean concerts, and I was excited to see them outside the venue. Korean fans are much less ‘tame’ than Japanese fans. While we were orderly lining up and waiting for the concert to start, chaos immediately ensued the second the music went on. I could no longer control my body parts – when I jumped, where my body moved as the crowd from behind me pushed and shoved in excitement of the nation’s biggest boy group performed their final concert on their home turf. Due to safety reasons and having gone to many K-Pop concerts already, I knew the safest way was to inch back, but even that took a lot of effort with the amount of fans excitedly jumping and pushing. When I did manage to find a space where no one was pushing and shoving, I managed to immerse myself in what turned out to be the best concert experience I’ve ever had. Being on their home turf, fans knew how to sing the lyrics to ALL BigBang songs, and when the members talked, they were able to converse freely in their native language. Fans understood and were able to give appropriate reactions (although I was with a few international fans who looked puzzled at the talking sections, of course). Being in a standing section meant I could jump up and down freely, bopping to my favourite songs; however, the downside was that I was in one of the back sections, and with a stadium that could hold up to 90,000 people meant that BigBang members looked like fruit flies on stage, and I had to rely on the massive LED screen to watch their performance. And because it was a stadium that held 90,000 people, it took almost 2 hours to leave the venue and try to get on the subway to go back to my hotel.
Still, having watched 4/5 members of BigBang perform in Japan and Korea was an ultimate dream come true. Now that they’re on hiatus due to the mandatory enlistment, I look forward to 2019 when all 5 members come back and hold their comeback concert in Japan and Seoul. Maybe by then, I’ll know Korean well enough to navigate the Korean ticketing system by myself!
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