KCON LA 2019: What is the Status of Hallyu?

LA’s biggest K-pop convention added an extra day to create a four-day experience. Although this year saw its fair share of last minute changes, in which CHUNGHA and ONEUS had to cancel their appearances due to visa issues, the convention ran like business as usual (again). However, it’s becoming abundantly clear that KCON’s target audience is becoming younger and stagnating. Falling on the same weekend as 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds Festival, rave-adjacent “cool kid” cousin, KCON looked like Disneyland in comparison for those who are “kids at heart.” Despite the lineup and last-minute changes, this year’s convention felt more or less the same as the years prior.

This year’s KCON tested the organic general interest in K-pop, as this would be the biggest event following BTS’ tour. Excluding KCON NY 2019, which did not have as impressive of a lineup as LA’s this year (sorry, not sorry), KCON LA was the first event exposing an array of different bands for new K-pop fans to explore. Performances from new groups like ITZY and ATEEZ and comebacks from big stars MAMAMOO and SEVENTEEN should’ve fed fans who had come in through the widespread popularity of BTS. So, did the Hallyu wave anchor itself in the wider mainstream?

Not quite. The additional day of KCON did little to provide more activities for attendees to enjoy. Although the extra day helped disperse some of the crowding for certain events, such as the dance workshops and high touch opportunities, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between KCON 2019 or KCON 2018. Major brands, such as Chips Ahoy!, decided to dip their toes into the K-pop crowd by providing fans with a chance to directly interact with their favorite idols.

General interest and awareness of Korean pop culture has hit its highest levels this year, with much of the credit going to the collective efforts of the industry, its stars, and fans. K-pop fans themselves are varied and often overlap with other subcultures (anime being the biggest one), and so are their interests in idol groups. However, like any growing subculture, all parties involved are struggling to react to the sudden insurgence of mainstream attention. Eyes are still very much focused on male groups, both rookie and veteran (i.e. BTS, Monsta X, ATEEZ, Stray Kids, etc.), but KCON LA proved that girl groups are quickly progressing back into the limelight.

To no one’s surprise, Loona’s feverish fanbase staked their claim as the leading star of the KCON performances. Iz*One and ITZY also drew fervid screams, and had CHUNGHA performed, there’s no doubt her legion would’ve drowned out the rest. To replace CHUNGHA’s set and to make up for lost time, Solar of MAMAMOO had her own solo performance where she covered Jasmine’s new song in the live-adaptation of Aladdin, “Speechless.” Because of the mainstream appeal of “tough girl” groups (i.e. BLACKPINK, MAMAMOO, ITZY, etc.), US fans are craving for and showing more love towards those types of groups as there are plenty of cute idol groups (i.e. fromis_9, MOMOLAND, Iz*One, etc.) to satisfy them.

This isn’t to say that no one cares for male idols outside of BTS; in fact it’s quite the opposite with younger fans looking to be early adopters of upcoming rookie bands. Even though this would be ATEEZ’s second LA performance, their fan cheers made them the spotlight focus of Saturday. Following a BTS tour desert, ATEEZ and Stray Kid’s high intensity modern tracks which blend trap, dubstep, and EDM were the perfect concoction for thirsty fans. N.Flying’s covers and their own rock songs were a welcome variety in the mix of pop and electronic monotony.

Yet, one of the most staggering patterns of this year was the prevalent use of yami-kawaii type makeup for all male band members. The pale complexion paired with red lips and dramatic red eye shadow didn’t fit with most of the male idol groups in attendance, particularly N.Flying and Stray Kids. SEVENTEEN got a pass as the makeup fit with their sexy tuxedo look for their newest single, “HIT,” but the striking look felt out of place once the group closed off with their pop hit, “VERY NICE.” Compared to their summer-fun Cali-inspired outfits from last year, their transformation into goths in black blazers was a complete 180.

All in all, this year’s convention and concert performances did highlight that the Korean culture wave is here to stay, but continues to run into the same problem of stagnation. Will KCON face the same fate as LA’s Korean Music Festival, which has seen plateauing interest and attendance in past four years despite growing interest in Korean pop culture?

Meanwhile, it’s possible times are changing for KCON. More acts holding individual concerts is a sign of investment as K-pop becomes more popular in mainstream music. More companies are willing to invest in standalone shows, even for their rookie bands. This can be moving the flow of fans towards purchasing piecemeal shows for their favorite groups, instead of a catch-all at big events.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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