I didn’t get it. But I do now.
As Eun-Ji encouraged the audience to participate in call and response with “L-O-V-E LUV,” I thought to myself, You’re trying so hard for a crowd that’s half-filled with people who don’t even know who you are—I really hope they’ll do this for you, Eun-Ji.
By the end of the song, I realized almost everyone was participating the callback. I was, too. I was so into it that I’m pretty sure my “love” response actually sounded like “LUV.”
It was official—I’d been bitten by the K-pop bug. More accurately, by a pink panda.
Apink is among a cavalcade of K-pop girl groups that are not only hugely popular in South Korea, but which have gained a notable amount of success in the U.S. BTS is the most popular of the groups, achieving all manner of success, but the girl groups have strong followings as well. Apink, whom I watched perform during the first night of Anime Matsuri 2019, a massive anime convention in Houston, Texas, lacks the name power of the most notable girl groups like BLACKPINK and Twice, but is still stunningly popular. They have 700,000 followers on Instagram and another 800,000 on Twitter; many are fans who can recite their lyrics, but wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation in Korean.
There’s an comparison to be made to the Latin music explosion of the late 90’s and early 00’s, though what’s remarkable is that popular releases from Ricky Martin and others were mostly in English, while K-pop remains almost entirely Korean, with English words dropped into lyrics (not entirely different from the Korean language). As is the case with many fans today, I used K-Pop to help develop my Korean skills, though I was listening in the 90’s to bands who would become pioneers of today’s girl groups, like Fin.K.L (Fin Killing Liberty) and my favorite, S.E.S. I wasn’t some trendsetter—K-pop groups had some measure of popularity even back then—but none of us could have predicted just how massive the genre would become some fifteen years later.
Apink is almost a bridge to that past. Not only are they enduring, reversing a trend and growing in popularity eight years after their formation, but Apink has also been compared to past groups, especially to S.E.S., with both featuring a more wholesome image than some of the most popular girl groups of today. In the last few years, Apink has embraced a more contemporary style, but perhaps that makes the comparison stronger—S.E.S. also transitioned to a sexier look as they progressed.
But the selling point for Apink and other bands isn’t just their looks (though all the members are beautiful)—it’s the mixture of intelligence, naivete, and style that the girls exude. They make the audience want to be friends with them, just as they’ve made a whole generation of Korean-Americans want to be them.
The girls’ strong personalities were on display during a Q&A held a few hours prior to the concert at Anime Matsuri. Their responses were cute and confident, and the crowd was absolutely charmed. One audience member brought a prop of Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, and found an opportunity to run up and give it to Eun-Ji, who has come to be associated with the Marvel character because of a photo that makes her look like the god of lightning (not to mention her toned physique); she hammed it up and posed for the delighted crowd, many of whom likely had no idea what this was all about.
Even with interpretation frequently required, the girls delivered some humorous lines:
Anime Matsuri Panel question: What’s your favorite APink memory?
Ha-young: I cried when we first started.
Ha-young: …because I was so happy.
— Beneath the Tangles (@AnimeTangles) June 13, 2019
Anime Matsuri Panel question: If you could have one super power, what would it be?
— Beneath the Tangles (@AnimeTangles) June 13, 2019
Apink Panel Host: If you weren't in music, what career would you pursue?
Eun-ji: I might become a police officer. I cannot forgive unfairness. That’s my personality.
Host: I can imagine her in a police uniform.
— Beneath the Tangles (@AnimeTangles) June 18, 2019
Other fun comments from the girls included the following:
- When asked what superpowers they would want to have, Bo-mi and Ha-young both also expressed they wanted to be like Thor; Bo-mi added that she recently watched Aladdin, and “I want to be your magic lamp.”
- Cho-rong expressed admiration for BTS, saying, “Nowadays, BTS has spread K-pop all over the world, and we will do our best to become one of those popular groups.” Ha-young, when asked the same question about a favorite senior in the industry, responded, “I really like Beyoncé. I really respect her as a senior and I want to be respected like her.” When it was explained to Ha-young that Beyoncé is actually from Houston, where the girls currently were, her eyes went big like she was going to be make a surprise appearance. Alas, no Beyoncé—perhaps next time.
- Although Bo-mi expressed that it’s better to live together when asked about residing outside a dorm now, she admitted, “Having my own space and privacy is good. When I want to cry and want to laugh, I can do so comfortably.”
- Nam-joo kept repeating the refrain of enjoying “Texas steak,” even when she was asked about a career outside of the music industry: “Maybe I would be some company CEO? Maybe of a restaurant…Texas steak is really delicious. I love food.” Na-eun, to the same question about career, said, “I think I might be an artist. I’ve been learning art since I was young. But I’m very appreciative to have an opportunity to be part of Apink.”
The entire group was very loveable—their personalities shined through not only at the panel, but at the concert as well. In between songs, the girls would stop to speak to the crowd. Bo-mi was the MVP, outrageous and hilarious. At one point she asked if anyone just found out about Apink today, which felt totally improvised. Also off-script was the heat—more than once they asked the crowd if it was as hot down there (it wasn’t) as it was on stage. Through the temperatures, physical stage performance (the dancing was very much on-point), and jet lag, Apink performed very well. I was surprised at how strong the singing was, especially from Eun-ji and Bo-mi, who sometimes let the vocals rip to the applause of the crowd.
Consummate performers, they were completely entertaining even when things didn’t go entirely well, including difficulty with a mic for their translator. I need to emphasize what an unusual concert this was Apink. Besides the aforementioned flubs, they were performing before an audience comprised of many participants who didn’t know them (it seemed like 90% of the attendees surrounding me didn’t know their music at all), speaking in a language not all the girls were comfortable with, and dancing and singing in an arena better suited for a rave (which it held later) than a K-pop concert. But Apink brought class to the festivities, from their one-by-one appearances via car drop-off to the stage to their glittering dresses to sharp vocals to a conclusion that left the crowd chanting for more. Most of us left as fans that night if we weren’t already, getting a glimpse of a group whose music gets play here, but who rarely tour in the U.S.
I think the greatest appeal of Apink and of K-pop girl groups in general is that the mixture of two worlds. At once very staged—Koreans put a high value on keeping face—but also earnest; sexy but innocent; friendly but with an edge; manufactured but talented; foreign but accessible. It’s been years now since I was into K-pop, and I’ve avoided jumping back in because you can’t be partly invested in music sung in a foreign language (and my Korean, though never good, has languished to the point of virtual nothingness)—you’re all in or you’re not. Because of Apink, I’m now understanding that I can no longer avoid the phenomenon. Once again, I’m all in.
During the introduction for the Q&A, Anime Matsuri’s CEO, John Leigh, asked a provocative question: “Does K-pop belong at an anime convention?” That’s up for debate. But his follow-up isn’t: “Should we have more K-pop in the future?” If the next group you bring to Houston is anything like Apink in talent, personality, and authenticity, then the answer is, Yes, John. Please, please yes.
Featured photograph by Judy Escalante (printed w/permission)