One dreary Saturday morning in New York, I shuttled across the river into New Jersey for what can be best described as fandom gone wild: KCON, an annual K-Pop festival. It draws fans from all over the region for a two-day celebration of everything Korean culture.
KCON describes itself as bringing "all things Korean wave" to America and it's not wrong. The convention started in Los Angeles in 2012, but it has since grown to be an international affair. This year, conventions are happening not only in America, but in Japan, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Australia and Mexico.
Traditional Korean dance.Photo: CJ ENM
While KCON's selling point has always been the artist stages — this year, the setlist included big names like Super Junior, EXID, and Red Velvet, among others — I've always found the most interesting part of K-Pop to be the fans and their love for a niche but growing lifestyle.
K-Pop isn't just about songs. In the past decade or so, it has ballooned into a cross-media behemoth, as audiences demand to be closer than ever to their idols. If you consider yourself a fan of a particular artist, it's not enough to just listen to the music: you have to stream their videos so they can win on music shows, catch all of their live broadcasts and television cameos, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram for surprise announcements. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
A sea of K-Pop fans at KCON New York.Photo: CJ ENM
At KCON, I interviewed as many fans as I could, and besides their obvious enthusiasm for finally seeing their idols live in concert, I noticed one common thread: the shared joy that came from finally getting an outlet to share their passions with like-minded people. There were impromptu flash mobs, fan stages, and a general sense of excitement in the air. I never saw a single frowning face.
While K-Pop is often (correctly) derided for perhaps being a little too manufactured and fake, the fans that make it a part of their lives are very real. For two days in cloudy, drizzly Newark, they all came together to bask in the fandom. It was glorious.