Inside the festival area of Verizon Amphitheater, giddy fans crowded in a massive white tent. A sea of hands holding cameras and cell phones shot up into the air. "Oh, my Gooooood!" girls squealed, holding their hands over their faces. Some jumped up and down to get a better view.
Tumbling out of the chaos was Tami Lee, a 15-year-old from Northridge, who had just gotten a glimpse of her idol, Bang Yong Guk from the K-pop band B.A.P.
"It was like heaven!" she said, trying to catch her breath. "I didn't die, so I'm happy."
Lee was dressed in a Tigger onesie, which she bought for $200 on eBay specifically for this event. Tigger is said to be Bang's favorite character, and she wanted to impress him.
"Honestly, I don't think he's that good-looking," she said of the Korean star. "I just love his personality. His songs are all about not giving up and getting a second chance. Being in high school, I can relate."
On Saturday, 9,000 giddy K-pop fans wearing oversized hair bows, neon sunglasses, spiked accessories and futuristic sneakers flooded the Irvine venue for KCON, the largest K-pop convention in the U.S. Guys and girls of all ages and ethnicities (though mostly Asian tweens) traveled from across the country--New Mexico, Georgia, New York--to see some of their favorite K-pop artists up close and celebrate "all things hallyu." (Over the past months, there've been stories of people selling possessions and offering to run errands for cash all to pay for the cost of getting there.)
Before the big concert, headlined by 4Minute
, guests checked out booths and workshops. One panel, "YouTube Idols: Up Close & Personal" featured internet sensations David So
, Just Kidding Film
and Eat Your Kimchi
. They talked about turning a YouTube channel into a career and the work that comes with maintaining a certain level of popularity. So discussed his most recent video, a "Gangnam Style" parody called "Byuntae Style,"
where he plays a perverted, gochu-waving version of Psy.
"We slept about six hours in three days," So said of making the four-minute clip. "I booty-popped half-naked on a beach! I was like, 'If this doesn't get a million views, I'm gonna kill someone!' The video currently has more than 11 million views.
Nearby, vendors sold funky press-on nails, skin whitening creams, Korean-made electronics and piles of K-pop merch. In one booth, reps from Pledis Entertainment, a South Korean music label that manages groups such as NU'EST, After School and Hello Venus, was hunting for the next big Korean star. "We're looking for singing, dancing and acting skills, but the most important thing is potential," said Jeonghee Yoo. "People can be trained."
Also happening was a K-pop-style speed dating event, hosted by Paul "P.K." Kim, founder of mega Asian talent show, Kollaboration. It was a chance for potential friends and lovers to connect over their passion for the genre. "Make some noise of you think Asian guys are sexy!" Kim later yelled to the masses. The crowd roared.
"I think my eyes watered up," he wrote on Facebook of that moment. "Times are changing. Rapidly. When I was a kid and told other kids I was Korean, they would ask, 'What's Korea? Is that in China?"
While notably not in attendance, there was much talk throughout the day about Psy, the chubby, suit-clad viral wonder. Fans believe the video has opened doors for the genre here in the States, but debated its true reach. "Instead of appreciating the music, people might just see some funny Asian guy," said 15-year-old Kaylah Griggs of San Diego. She and her friends, however, love the video and each have their own Gangnam-style signature pose.
At last, after a full day of events, fans spilled into the amphitheater for the big show. A kaleidoscope of glow sticks waved in the air as Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, who is Korean-American himself, took the stage and said, "Hallyu transcends all philosophical differences." He said he wants Irvine to be the home of KCON for years to come.
On a stage bombarded by dizzying, nearly nauseating lights and graphics, the show started with the bleached-blonde boys of B.A.P., clad in bright yellow, who performed hits such as "No Mercy" with high-energy, synchronized moves and formations. Fans waved around digital signs on iPads. (Man, back in my day, we had to use glitter and poster board!)
G.NA and her long-legged, booty-shaking backup dancers then graced a platform singing "2Hot." The artist then launched into a popular ballad roughly translated as "I'll Back Off So You Can Live," which a friend described as "a Korean F-you." "She's saying, 'Goodbye, have a good life," he explained. Everyone in the audience seemed to know every word. Her tunes had a Katy Perry-eque feel.
After VIXX, EXO-M and NU'EST came the grand finale, 4Minute, whose lead singer is featured on the sequel track to "Gangnam Style." The four girls walked out in zebra-print skirts belting their hit "Volume Up," which is about getting dumped by a jerk who doesn't care about you. While the girls sure looked hot, their voices seemed thin, drowned out by the bouncy, dance-pop beats.
Still, as a storm of confetti rained down, the cheers were deafening.
Can these acts really make it big here in the U.S.? For now, it's unclear, though on this night, nobody seemed to care.