Pity the hapless dude who thought he was getting a lap-dance from Dara of the South Korean pop group 2NE1 on Friday.
The singer dragged him up from the audience onto the Nokia Theatre stage during the single “Kiss,” and plonked this twentysomething white guy -- who looked as if he might actually crumple from petrified delight -- in a chair facing the stage. Dara, with her Skrillex-inspired haircut and pixie-thug getup, leaned come-hither close, surely about to crib a classic R&B; stage-seduction move.
That is, until she promptly shooed him offstage with nary an actual kiss for his trouble. 2NE1 had subverted another American dance-rap cliché with feminine swagger – a sly move from maybe the most exciting new pop group since Lady Gaga first donned hotpants.
The quartet – Dara, CL, Minzy and Bom, leads a tide of South Korean pop groups who currently dominate Asian charts and are beginning to make major inroads with American audiences – Korean American and otherwise.
But of the dozens of groups grappling for the brass ring of hallyu – a catchall term for contemporary South Korean pop – 2NE1 might have the best chance to capture mainstream American audiences. That’s not just because they’re reportedly working with the unerring hitmaker will.i.am on a forthcoming U.S. album.
It’s because 2NE1 represents every direction that pop culture is going – female, global, digital and danceable.
In that respect, their L.A. debut performance to a packed 7,100-capacity Nokia Theatre proved that K-Pop today looks a lot like the future of music everywhere. There were shirtless male dancers with pink mohawks trapped inside giant kick drums; there were huge inflatable slides shaped like lipstick tubes; there were Jeremy Scott-designed dresses made to look like the girls were trapped in the jaws of fluffy space monsters.
Why anyone would ever settle for a white guy emoting on an acoustic guitar again is beyond baffling (and there’s some free advice, “American Idol”). But more importantly, 2NE1’s chemistry made the spectacle click. They have an appealing way of subverting their roles in the band – the doe-eyed, 18-year-old Minzy turns out to have dance moves to make Snoop Lion renounce Jah and come back to hip-hop; the brash Dara builds coy steam, but proves unattainably fierce.
This show was a test case of how K-Pop can play for a mixed American crowd. While heavily Korean American, the audience was also a fascinating mix of gay couples on date night and swag-happy hip-hop aesthetes.
Western audiences can sometimes lose the plot of hallyu, because to be frank, the music is sometimes sort of beside the point. 2NE1 has laser-efficient singles like the techno-saturated “Fire” and the blippy house hit “Go Away.” K-Pop’s ballads are often treacly, but 2NE1’s are workable – the weeper “Lonely” is self-aware enough to avoid camp.
But sometimes they succumbed to the Gaga Problem – the size of their stardom and aesthetic vision can outweigh the actual songs. When zipping over mobile phones in four-minute video bursts, this isn’t a big deal. But at a major two-hour L.A. headlining show, filler like a 10-minute DJ break and a Dodger Stadium-style "Kiss Cam" montage felt like a sugar crash.
But 2NE1 is pop is the best ways – the music, the charisma and the gun-noir pyrotechnics all complement each other to create a bigger essence. When will.i.am and apl.de.ap of Black Eyed Peas came out for the closer – the barnburner dance single, “I Am The Best” - anyone who didn’t know better would have assumed they were there to fix a microphone outage.
2NE1 were the stars Friday, and they’re about to become much, much bigger ones.