Choerry from girl group Loona performs at KCON's annual Korean popular culture event. (Photo courtesy of CJ ENM)
UC Berkeley

Review: Navigating the world of KCON L.A.

It’s not an easy feat to escape the wave of Korean pop culture. Over the past decade, Korean pop music has seamlessly infiltrated the U.S.’s mainstream market. With the help of dedicated fan bases, K-pop fans revolutionize current media platforms, transforming seemingly simple social media sites into a world wide network of K-pop fans alike.

For instance, K-pop stan Twitter has dominated Twitter’s culture, creating a dizzying amount of semi-disturbing memes that filters down to the everyday user. K-fans are almost militant in their dedication, collectively working to bring the largest views and interactions on platforms like YouTube.

“With streaming, fans now have such a large voice, and that’s how BTS really became a phenomenon — because the fans made it a phenomenon, like with the underground culture of punk and hardcore,” DJ Steve Aoki tells Rolling Stone.f

“These guys just crush it. And I think because the fans are making such a big deal, it’s not going anywhere.” 

Not only has K-pop made its cultural mark on fans abroad, the rest of Korean entertainment has permeated into household knowledge. We have become a generation of international K-pop, K-drama, and K-beauty fans, and it’s now easier than ever to bridge the gap between east and west.

K-pop artists are now concentrating on throwing concerts in the U.S., making appearances on primetime talk shows and collaborating with Western pop stars. Korean dramas have English subs uploaded online in mere moments. Nearly every “skincare expert” online references the famed Korean beauty 10 step nightly routine. 

Since its inception in 2012, KCON USA has become one of the most pivotal events to attend as a K-pop fan. 

Those on Twitter attending change their display name to include their name and a reminder that reads: “at KCON” to confirm attendance to their hundreds of followers. It’s a symbol of pride fans can take once they are able to see their favorite performer in person and attend the convention, something that is proudly announced in order to find out which other Twitter users are attending.  

Often times, the US is confused on their stance of K-pop. Some might perceive it as cult like when some fans’ bizarre behavior is coupled with their practiced demonic fan chants (an essential at K-pop shows). Some might still be indoctrinated with only the horror stories of the seedier side of plastic surgery obsession and exploitation in the K-pop world, the narrative served to the U.S. general public when the Hallyu wave was first initiated in the early 2000s.

This niche industry always intrigued those out of the immediate grasp of the Korean entertainment world. Now, it has flooded into mainstream markets, no longer needing an additional explanation when brought up to non fans. It becomes easy to make a fandom seem dominated by crazed female fans hypnotized by a group’s crotch-grab choreo, mindless in supporting their favorite good looking singers. This is akin to how One Direction’s fans were treated in their heyday, a paragon of how teenage girls are easily chastened for their interests. 

“We truly have the best fans in the world,” BTS leader RM said during his UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign speech at the United Nations.

It’s almost like a reminder, a defiant protest of how BTS’s fans are portrayed in the media. Never one to play into the hands of uninformed interviewers, RM approaches questions about their “obsessed” fans with a gentle chiding, ignoring the question and reiterating love for their fans. The generally accepted perception of fans as mindless robots is becoming dated.

K-pop fans have allowed the genre to transcend all aspects of life. We have Korean stars involved in international humanitarian work, and group LOONA, who performed Saturday at KCON, increasing representation in their music videos and becoming vocal supporters of the LGBTQ community.

Their track “Butterfly” was accompanied by a video of women of different races and different sizes celebrating womanhood and self expression. As member Yves tells Billboard, “we want to go beyond gender, race, and nationality.” Fans have intelligently cultivated networks in order to revel in fandom culture within themselves. 

KCON works in a similar fashion, providing succor to people unabashedly riding the Korean entertainment wave, relishing in its unique idiosyncrasies. Treading the complexities of the K-pop world and K-pop Internet culture can be vexing. What KCON does is create a space for fans to come together in celebration of Korean pop culture, without judgement. Its aim is to close the distance that exists not only in the K-pop world between fan and artist, but also with fans and the public.

What the immense pull to the event reminds fans and outsiders alike that above all, K-pop fans are the ones upending pop culture’s influence, transforming it to include a plethora of languages and narratives. It’s no longer an easily ridiculed, surface level infatuation, it’s become a part of everyday conversation. We’ve compiled tips in order to make the trip to maximize the benefits of an escape to KCON. 

Entering the LA Convention Center for the convention portion of KCON means being instantly bombarded with a cacophony of K-pop hits of the year permeating from all angles. Being thrust into a confined space bursting with attendees can be overwhelming. The raucous noise, the abundance of seemingly never ending booths. Despite how intimidating the size initially appears, it’s important to bask in all of its chaotic glory. Exploring all ends of the convention is truly the best way to experience everything it has to offer.

Comfortable shoes are an absolute must to venture on this trek of a Korean pop wonderland. There’s also the potential to run into famous attendees as well. YouTuber FoodWithSoy, who has attended all seven KCONs, was seen walking with Rina Sawayama around the convention taking photos with anybody who asked. 

Fans can purchase typically hard to find merchandise at booths toward the back selling posters and CDs at discounted rates. Compared to last year, the focus for KCON has shifted from a K-pop merchandise convention, to a place chock full of snapshot worthy opportunities.This year, KCON had brought in a plethora of photo booths for snapshot opportunities, each intricately decorated and above all, aesthetically pleasing.

KCON is divided into areas regarding K-pop interests, beauty, food, and miscellaneous interests. Booths and other photo taking opportunities are located in each section, making ample chances to capture a quick photo. A wall drenched in a radiant pink with a #KCONBEAUTY in a pool of plastic balls and inflatable flamingos cultivates a lengthy line for the photo op. 

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K-pop song cover group East2West covers Blackpink’s “Kill This Love.” (Photo courtesy of Kelly Nguyen)

Once initially entering, you’re greeted with the tradition of random dance play, where companies choose hit K-pop tracks with an empty stage at the ready. Once fans recognize the song, they jump to their feet and flood the stage, attempting to find enough room to contain flailing arm and leg choreo from months of practice now coming to fruition.

Toward the back of the convention, there is a similar group dance occurring, as fans get the opportunity to take a dance class from K-pop cover groups with their own sizable fanbases from YouTube or Instagram fame. Cover groups like Koreos and East2West took center stage on the main stage covering euphoric Korean songs with complex costumes and as much stage presence as the idols they’re mimicking.

If craving for a momentary snack break after the vigorous journey, just venture to booths by brands Tous Les Jours, Bibigo, or even McDonald’s. Right outside the convention, you can easily find delectable Korean street food with the numerous street vendors they have. 

Venture out into the beauty section, and you’re met with samples, face masks, and BB cream galore. There’s makeup and skincare tips and tricks with various influencers on stage, a host revealing to the rapt audience that she has stopped “using face wash or soap” on a daily basis.

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Fans gathering to cover Twice’s “Fancy” in a random K-pop dance cover event. (Photo courtesy of Raymond Nguyen)

Throughout the day, others take the stage to explain commonplace staples of the K-beauty regimen, or recreate popular makeup looks.

For instance, KCON guest Joyce donned a platinum blonde wig to imitate star Chungha’s makeup look from her music video for the song “Snapping.” Trending brands that have bled into the American beauty knowledge, like COSRX, are easily found at a plethora of booths.

Staying until the last few moments before the convention met its demise at a scheduled 5 p.m., was nerve wracking. One thing to appreciate about the convention is how timely it is, rarely deviating from the set times posted on their website and social media.

Even as security guards bellowed a strict reminder, it largely fell on deaf ears. A majority of booths began last minute slashing prices, and face masks began flying off the shelves in all its snail mucus glory. 

 

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KCON’s Beauty Station talking about various skincare and makeup tips and tricks. (Photo courtesy of Raymond Nguyen)

KCON has evolved from simply K-pop or skincare related fervor, understanding their audience. It’s no longer simply about the aesthetics for K-pop fans. As a result, in the middle of the convention is an intricate wall displaying notes from attendees who donated to further the education of young women in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam. 

K-pop has steadily transformed its appearance throughout the Western world. No longer seen as an outdated machine pumping out robotic performers, the industry had a perspective shift that has greatly benefitted international fans.

As fans arrive in handmade T-shirts, often times handing out homemade merchandise, it makes you think how this unspoken culture had begun. Go to any K-pop concert or event, and fans are seamlessly conversing, trading tickets, or meet and greet passes.

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Tous Les Jours Bakery hands out samples to lines of hungry attendees. (Photo courtesy of Raymond Nguyen)

They’re giving away photos of their beloved idols for free. Clad in fashion largely determined by the offerings of Yesstyle.com and what K-pop idols are dressed in, somehow K-pop fans have commandeered a society of simultaneous rules and freedom of expression.

 

It’s bereft of judgement, and the overall mood in the convention and outside is serenity. No stress is to be found in this momentary reprieve. As fans of all ages excitedly wait for the concert, chattering about what potential cover performances would be happening, they eagerly begin the extensive line.

All restraints of age is suspended, and I hear a young girl reprimanding her father for singing an Itzy lyric incorrectly.

Because K-pop fans continue to exert their influence on the world of entertainment, it’s only becoming more apparent that this K-pop “phase” is simply here to last. In all the passion and blood, sweat, and tears (a potential BTS reference), what many people forget is that these fans come together with the sole purpose of enjoying the music, and having fun.

This reminds us that these fans are wholly human, lovers of the Korean music and pop culture that isn’t commonplace in their lives. It’s a moment of to flee the normality, and step in the proud world of KCON LA. 

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A list of those who donated to benefit the educational progress of young women around the world. (Photo courtesy of Raymond Nguyen)

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