The first time I was in Korea, I was too busy for K-pop. I was more interested in “serious” Korean culture: temple stays, palaces, museums. My encounters with K-pop were confined to the LCD screen at the local GS 25 and cell phone ringtones. It wasn’t until I left Korea for Cambodia that I began to realize what a big deal this Korean wave was. When I came back to Seoul last year, I was ready to immerse myself in the wonders of K-pop.
“You start screaming uncontrollably,” said my mentor, “and it completely surprises you.”
But first, I would need a mentor. I found one in a fellow teacher who quickly showed me the ins and outs of K-pop, the gossip, fan signings, and concerts. Her favorite group was Super Junior: a thirteen member boy band made up of singers, dancers, actors and MCs. “They put on the best show,” she told me. Soon I found myself spending hours on YouTube watching music videos, listening to Super Junior on my running route, and chatting with my students about their favorite groups (who are, by the way, Big Bang and Shinee.)
I, on the other hand, had a soft spot for Super Junior. The song that shot them to international fame—“Sorry Sorry”—was popular with a lot of my friends in Cambodia, and still reminds me of Phnom Penh. So when I heard that Super Junior was doing an encore performance of their latest tour, Super Show 4, I knew I had to see them. Enough research. I was ready to be a real fan.
Thanks to my mentor—and with a little help from my friend Google—I was able to take the plunge and go to my first concert. Here’s a little bit of what I learned, in five easy steps, so that you too, can get the most out of your K-pop experience.
Step One: To Sit or to Pit?
The best way to buy tickets for a K-pop concert is to flex your Korean language skills and log on to Gmarket (or Interpark’s more limited English ticketing page). Each ticket costs about 88,000 won, but you have to be fast, because a group as popular as Super Junior can sell out in less than twenty minutes (their Taiwanese concert sold out in just 17). So check your wireless connection before they go on sale. You should also buy as many tickets as possible, compare them with your friends’ and then keep the best seats. Unwanted tickets can be cancelled and will go up for sale again. The downside is you may not end up sitting with your friends, but who needs friends when you have Donghae, right? Even if you don’t speak Korean, as my mentor points out, “Google translate and a bit of common sense” can go a long way.
Your biggest dilemma when purchasing tickets is whether to sit or stand in “the pit.” If your ultimate goal is to get as close as possible to your favorite idol, then the pit is your best bet. A standing ticket will allow you to wiggle your way to the coveted rail where an idol may smile at you, shake your hand, or even throw you his sweaty T-shirt. But be warned: the pit gets violent. Be prepared to shove and be shoved as fans fight their way forward for a brief touch of stardom.
Step Two: Survival Gear
Here is the hard truth: K-pop concerts are long, loud, and physical. Super Junior got their groove on for over four hours. While you might want to increase your odds of being seen by wearing heels and a giant flashing bow, you should first consider the practical approach: sneakers. Make sure your bag is packed with basics like a bottle of water and some snacks like nuts or banana chips. You can also just drop by one of the numerous GS-25s both inside and outside the concert venue to stock up on chips and chocolate. It also isn’t a bad idea to pack some earplugs. The chances of a fifteen-year-old girl with a strong set of lungs and a passion for Leeteuk standing right behind you are high. Don’t bring a camera – security at most K-pop shows is tight and they don’t allow fans to film the concert – and be careful where you point your phone. I noticed at least one person being evicted from the crowd for aiming her cell phone in the wrong direction.
Your gear wouldn’t be complete without a placard. The trick is to make it big enough so that your idol notices it, but not so big that an overzealous fan behind you clocks you on the head with her light stick for blocking her view. Don’t forget to personalize your placard. I made mine a tribute to Donghae with carefully colored drawings of a fish and a dog. (Donghae has a fondness for dogs, and is nicknamed “Fishy” by his band mates.)
Step Three: Get in Line
Getting to the concert venue with time to spare is a must. Fans start lining up for official concert memorabilia as early as 10 a.m., so if you want a t-shirt with Eunhyuk on it, then you best arrive early. But don’t worry, waiting in line isn’t as painful as you might think. It gives you the chance to soak up the atmosphere, meet your friends, and let yourself get into the concert mindset. Buy a light stick from one of the stalls outside the venue. Look out for tribute performances from fan clubs and wave hello to fans wearing masks of your favorite idols. If you’re feeling overzealous, you can go in for the hug and pretend that they really are Donghae.
K-pop concerts have become much more accessible to non-Korean speakers over the years. Most signs have English translations, and it’s likely that someone will speak at least a little English if you need help. Fans should queue by ticket number for the pit so any number from 1 to 200 is highly sought after as these ticket holders have a much better chance of fighting their way to the front. Particularly ruthless fans will try to cut in line, so hold your ticket high and make sure you—and everyone around you—are in the right spot.
Step Four: K-pop!
Once you get inside take a moment to admire the glow of thousands of light sticks in an otherwise dark arena. Also, check out the “Happy Family Zone,” an area of seats reserved for family and friends. There’s a chance you will spot another celebrity munching on some popcorn with sharp-suited bodyguards in tow. At Super Show 4, SM diva Boa and heartthrobs Yunho and Changmin from DBSK made an appearance and their presence in the audience attracted almost as much attention as Super Junior did on stage.
Clapping at a K-pop concert is usually reserved for ballads. At all other times you can show your appreciation by screaming and waving your light stick like a maniac. Give yourself over to the spectacle: fireworks, elaborate costume changes, water effects, and the perfect synchronization of nine grown men (for various reasons the original 13 have been whittled down to nine). Let yourself cry in the ballads. Sigh at Siwon’s chocolate abs. Scream as if you were fourteen again.
Then comes the moment you’ve been waiting for: when you first see your favorite idol—the one you’ve been watching on YouTube and whose name you’ve been scrawling all over your school notebooks. Your heart climbs into your throat, and suddenly you go from being a relatively calm and responsible adult to a raving lunatic. “You start screaming uncontrollably,” said my mentor, “and it completely surprises you.”
This is pop at its frothiest, its sexiest, and its silliest.
Step Five: Debrief and Depart
When the third encore is finally over and you’ve wiped away your tears, peel yourself off of your seat (or if you’re in the pit, from the hundreds of other bodies pressed against you). Outside, trying to get a glimpse of your favorite star after a concert is nearly impossible since security is so tight, but you can always give it a shot.
As you leave, avoid the first row of cabs you come across—many of them are unregistered and are waiting to rip off tired concert-goers. If it’s too late for the subway and you don’t feel like hailing a cab, consider crashing at a love motel in the area. There are plenty around Mongchontoseong Station (몽촌토성역) near Olympic Park, where most of the big K-pop concerts are held.
I left Super Show 4 exhausted and elated. Surrounded by a group of grown women giggling like teenagers, I finally understood the appeal of K-pop: it’s an excuse to laugh, freak out, bond with your friends and momentarily let go of the responsibilities of adulthood. K-pop is about being a kid again.
Photo Credits: MBC & YouTube K-Pop Concert by Janice Go.