Five years ago, a friend posted a K-pop music video on her Twitter, saying that it was “fun, but a bit too much”. Feeling adventurous, I decided to see for myself. Little did I know that one click would be so significant—I became completely hooked in a way I hadn’t been since childhood, when I watched the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC on MTV.
My story is just one among the many who have discovered the wonders of Korean pop music through social media. As part of the Hallyu Wave, the genre has been expanding its way out of the peninsula for almost two decades—but the significant shift in popularity only came in late 2007 with the growth of Web 2.0. Through social networks, K-pop has established loyal fanbases who engage, create content, and promote their favorite artists with a passion rarely seen in the West.
This dynamic is fostered by Korea’s weekly music shows. Broadcasted on different channels and later uploaded online, they work as platforms for artists to promote their music—a much needed boost in an oversaturated market. Every show has a different scoring system, but all of them hand out a trophy for the artist who gets the most votes in the end—and that’s where fandom support comes in, since streaming, album sales, and even YouTube views make for important percentages.
Winning a trophy is a landmark both for the artists—some rookie groups only have access to smartphones when they get their 1st ‘win’—and for the fans who helped them, as the newfound success can mean the difference between a thriving career or an impending disband.
One of these weekly shows, Music Bank, has its own World Tour arm—where for once charts don’t matter, trophies aren’t distributed, and the celebration is turned towards the city it is held in. This year, it was Berlin.
As soon as I saw the announcement, I didn’t think twice about going. Even if it meant traveling from Portugal to Germany and spending a not-so-moderate amount of money, it was a rare chance to see a stellar lineup, composed of new sensations Stray Kids and (G)-IDLE, global phenomenon Wanna One, SHINee’s Taemin and EXO—one of the biggest names in the industry, and one of my favorite groups.
My adventure started as soon as I landed in Berlin, the day before the show. I headed straight to the venue, where fans had been waiting since the early hours to get unofficial numbers given by fans themselves until Live Nation, the organizers of the event, distributed official wristbands. It was only noon , but my number was in the 400’s. By the end of the day, the line would go as far as the 2,000’s.
Around me, people were speaking in English, Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. They had traveled from as far as Colombia just to attend. And everyone’s dedication could be seen through their favorite group’s shirts, colorful makeup inspired by MVs, and the famous light sticks being carried around—these in particular being popular for their use in identifying different fandoms.
As most K-pop fans range from teenagers to young adults, identification is key when we talk about experiencing the genre. It works a lot like sports—each group is the equivalent of a team with their logo, official colors, accessories, and even fan chants. This deep immersion provides an easy route for fans to embody their passion as a lifestyle. For example, many fanbases create, sell and distribute various kinds of merchandise, such as plastic fans, paper slogans, stickers, prints, and so on. Most of it is done from their own pockets, and acquiring those objects is not only seen as a way to belong in the community, but also as a form of support to the groups who give them so much happiness.
The day of the concert was a perfect demonstration of this system. Fans—usually in groups, sometimes accompanied by parents—made the most out of the long waiting hours by transforming the area into an impromptu convention, where you could meet people, acquire goodies, eat and drink, and even dance to some of the latest K-pop tunes blasted through smartphones. The organization of the queue was astounding—according to the wristbands, every fifty people had their own railed box, with space enough to sit down and relax. Used to chaotic lines, I found this measure reassuring and was hopeful that the concert would be as peaceful as my previous experiences in Europe.
Alas, it wasn’t.
MCs, VCRs, and EXO
As soon as the doors opened, confusion settled in and a stampede rushed in to claim the spots closest to the stage.
The excitement of the public was palpable when the lights went out and a VCR started to play. First presenting some history on previous editions in countries like Mexico and Indonesia, it followed with a special message by wildly popular girl group Twice, who announced each act of the night as they stepped on stage to greet the public. The pushing and pulling of the crowd intensified in that first moment seeing their idols in flesh, and before getting claustrophobic, I gave up and moved to the back of the pit—plenty of space to breathe and view all the choreographies, albeit from distance.
The MCs of the night were actor Park Bo Gum, singer Somi and German presenter Laura. After a brief introduction, the stage was emptied as the first act of the night started their performance. Stray Kids, who debuted earlier this year, showed relentless energy while performing their singles “District 9”, “Hellevator”, and “My Pace”. During their introductions pause, a special “Happy Birthday” was sung for member Felix, who was turning 18. Fans, who already planned to sing it anyway, were even more enthusiastic as the whole arena celebrated. Projects like this, usually accompanied by personalized slogans raised during specific moments, are common and continued to happen throughout the night.
(G)-IDLE, the only girl group of the lineup and also a powerful debut of this year, came straight up next, performing their two past singles, “Latata” and “Hann”, and the entrancing b-side “Maze”. The charisma of the quintet overflows, and while their success was unexpected—they are currently the second fastest girl group to win a music show, after only 20 days since debut—it’s easy to see that they’ve earned it.
In a brief interlude, Chanyeol from EXO sang and played the guitar to German rock band Scorpions’ “Wind of Change”, a welcome slowdown before Wanna One took the stage. The 11-member group, formed through survival show Produce 101, debuted in 2017 but is set to disband in December, making this night their first and possibly last presentation in Europe. As one of the most awaited acts, they performed five songs with a synchronicity and perfection that makes you feel as if you are watching machines.
The tributes to German artists continued, this time celebrating Boney M.—Stray Kids covered “Happy Song” as if it was made for them, and (G)-IDLE covered “Sunny” with Daniel Lindemann, a German known for his participation in the Korean TV show International Summit, on the piano.
The next act was Taemin. His prolific solo career included hits such as “Press Your Number” and “Move”, all performed with laser focus by the skilled veteran. Taemin is only 25, but debuted a decade ago in the group SHINee, giving him an undeniable aura of expertise. Midway through the presentation, his group members Minho and Key appeared on a VCR and sang some verses of SHINee’s “I Want You” together, a surprise that deeply touched the public. After the passing of member Jonghyun last year, the group seems to be more united than ever—honoring his memory by continuing with what they’ve always done best.
Suddenly, top boy group BTS appeared on a VCR to announce the curious “Autobahn” section. In it, Stray Kids covered songs by both BTS and GOT7, MC Somi covered soloists Chungha and Sunmi, and Wanna One covered Big Bang and themselves with Produce 101’s theme “Pick Me”. It’s striking how a simple segment perfectly displayed bubbling trends in K-pop: authorial work and international focus (marked by BTS’ and GOT7’s successes, steps that Stray Kids seem to aim for), the rising relevance of soloists (as in Sunmi’s and Chungha’s successful careers, and a possible future for Somi as well), and temporary groups capable of moving multitudes and changing the scene in unexpected ways (such as Wanna One).
As the public cheered louder than ever, it was finally time for what could be called the headliners of the night, EXO. It was an intensely awaited moment, as it was the group’s first presentation in Europe since their debut six years ago, and was heightened by the expectations of an upcoming comeback. Performing songs from their latest album such as the hit “Ko Ko Bop”, they also had their own interaction game where members posed for photos, sang happy birthday for Chen, and gave a sample of their impressive vocals, before resuming with the energy-filled “Power”. And just like that, the individual presentations of the night were finished.
All Good Things
If all this felt like a lot to process, it’s because the event was. After two and a half hours that felt more like twenty minutes, the frantic rhythm reached its end with all of the artists coming back onstage and waving goodbyes while PSY’s “Gangnam Style” played in the background. AsI left the arena, amidst the rainfall of sparkling confetti, I struggled to define what I was feeling.
I still do. What I managed to process is that Music Bank is genius in its purpose of showcasing the best of K-pop to the world—but that endeavor can leave a bittersweet taste. Like an appetizer to a whole menu that doesn’t exist, its exquisite ingredients lure and tease you, but then it’s all over and you can’t help but wanting more.
We’re left with what the fandom gives us. The friends we made, the merchandise we acquired, the photos and videos we recorded, incessantly trying to relive those moments—the magic that briefly touched our fingers after so many days, years, of waiting. And, you know? Maybe that longing is a key to our passion too, after all.