Korean pop fans get intimate with the music at KCON

Alyssa Tolentino, 18, came all the way from Chicago to see the South Korean male pop group EXO perform in Los Angeles this weekend.

But before the show, she gave a performance of her own at the KCON convention Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Taking the stage during a midday talent contest, she donned a rubber horse mask and worked through dance moves she had picked up from a music video.

Afterward, out of breath and sweaty, she revealed her true dedication. “Today’s my move-in day for college, so I missed it,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”

That level of fandom from Tolentino, who was supposed to be starting her life as a film major at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, may seem extreme, but it’s typical among people at KCON, a convention for fans of the energetic and diverse sound and culture of Korean pop music, or K-pop.

About 10,000 people attended the first KCON last year in Irvine. For this year’s conference, organizers expanded the convention to two days. That reflects the increasing popularity of K-pop in the U.S., said Ted Kim, president and chief executive of Mnet America, the K-pop cable network and Internet hub presenting KCON, which costs $60 to $300 to attend.


The Internet has made it easier for music buffs to discover new genres, and more Americans have been introduced to the culture through the viral success of rapper Psy, who broke out in the U.S. with the song “Gangnam Style.”

Korean pop music encompasses a wide range of sounds, borrowing from European dance music and hip-hop and relying heavily on boy and girl bands, similar to the Lou Pearlman-arranged American pop singing groups of the 1990s. Girls’ Generation, a popular act whose nine members wink at the camera in brightly colored videos, and 2NE1 (pronounced “twenty one”) have both signed with major U.S. labels.

The groups are typically assembled by music companies, and performers often train for years before going public. Like hip-hop, K-pop encompasses its own world of fashion and dance. “Fans see something very positive, whether it’s the music, the fashion or the dancing,” Kim said. “This is a really smart audience and they know what’s being manufactured and force fed.”

Fans meet one another through social media and learn about new artists through online word-of-mouth. Skye Buzzatto, 30, a car wholesale specialist who lives in Rancho Park, said his introduction to the culture was a concert put on last year by S.M. Entertainment, the Korean music giant. Since then, he’s developed connections with other fans on Facebook. “Social media plays a big role,” he said.

The conference is definitely for the super-fans, as well as those interested in achieving K-pop fame. Some of the panels offered included “The Arts of Remixing & Sampling K-Pop,” “Developing K-Pop Songwriting Skills” and “Get it Beauty: The K-Pop Face.”

A significantly bigger draw, though, were the “artist engagement” events, where the singers gave autographs and interviews. At one panel, hundreds of mostly female fans of 2AM crammed near the stage waiting for the four singers’ appearance, which elicited screams and some joyful tears when it finally happened. One of the key elements is “the high touch,” a gesture in which fans lightly touch hands with the artists, much like a high five.

Christina Tran, a 19-year-old from Orange County, said this helps people interact with their idols in an intimate way, while also setting boundaries. “If you could hug them, they would get crushed,” she said, standing near the back of the crowd for 2AM. “You’re breathing the same air as them. It’s definitely a fan thing. You can’t do that with Chris Brown.”

Just inside the venue, a group of girls held up paper notecards, trying to trade passes for the artist panels. Thaovi Phan’s card read “2AM for EXO” — a popular choice. Phan, a 16-year-old student at San Gabriel High School, said she enjoys the group’s choreography and polish. “And they’re really good-looking,” she added.

Although there’s not quite the same level of costumed fanaticism seen annually at Comic Con, some people do come dressed to honor their favorite artists, whether it’s B.A.P.'s rabbit-eared Matoki mascot or Amber from the pop group f(x).

Elane Marroquin had her own angle. She stood in line for more than three hours to get into the venue, dressed head-to-toe in white and pink with a white animal cap, topped with a pirate hat. This, she said, was a reference to the singer Kris from EXO, who often walks around with a plush llama. She was dressed as the llama, she explained.

“It’s kind of an inside joke,” she said, surrounded by a gaggle of new friends she met in line because the people she was supposed to meet arrived earlier. “It’s cool because not every fan knows about it. A lot of people dress up as the artists themselves, so this is a little different.”

Ericka Shin, 16, started listening to this music in sixth grade when her friend introduced her to the band Big Bang. Now it’s the main music she listens to, other than top-40 stations like KIIS FM. “It’s kind of my life source,” she said.