Who is KCON USA For nowadays?

Not legacy acts, that's for sure.

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It’s probably to be expected, but KCON LA 2023  was quite an experience. There was a near-hurricane that turned into a tropical storm, and an earthquake (my first!) There were reports of a ridiculously, disturbingly smelly concert pits after fans waited for days to get prime viewing at the barricade, without taking hygiene into account. And there were debates about Rain. Yes, Rain, the 41-years-old Jung Ji-hoon, of Rainism and K-drama fame, married to none other than Kim Tae-hee.

Rain, who has produced several boy bands who have had promising, but ultimately flat-lining, careers, which led K-pop fans on Twitter deciding en masse to turn off their lightsticks for him at KCON, creating a infamous black ocean.

Black oceans are something that K-pop stars have historically feared: it’s a show of total lack of support of attendees at an event.

There was a lot of misreporting about whether the black ocean was succesful or not. From my vantage point, it was not, although there was definitely noticeable less enthusiasm. However, despite darker lighting for his performance and less visibly enthused fans, it did not appear that the entire arena turned off their lights, though there definitely were a few that did.

@.kpop_multiverseRAIN BLACK OCEAN (almost) AT KCON LA #kconla2023 #kpop #fypシ

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But there was a bigger takeaway I had from watching Rain perform and engage with KCON’s audiences, and that was that the entire incident was less about people intentionally showing a lack of support, and it was more simply unintentional: concertgoers did not know who he was, and didn’t know his songs, and so simply didn’t care. Lights went off, sure, but lightsticks, and cheers, also went down merely as a natural cause of IDK. People just weren’t invested, and he didn’t have the chance to showcase much of his showmanship to get the crowd excited for him.


This is partially a huge conversation about how American K-pop fans are no longer “K-pop fans” as they once were even in the not-so-distant past, but rather single-artist, or rather a handful of artists’, fans who don’t necessarily engage with the history of the music genre in a way previous generations did. KCON LA has historically, pretty successfully, brought more senior acts like Davichi and Turbo to pre-covid KCON LAs, and it’s never been as dismally received as Rain’s, discourse around his producer legacy - or lack of- aside. It just seemed like most people just didn’t know who Rain was, aside from the people who knew they hated him.

Shinhwa headlined in 2015, which is just wild to think about nowadays, when recency is all that matters to most KCON goers. I could honestly not imagine a ‘90s-era K-pop group headlining, let alone attending, KCON LA successfully nowadays without a sizable, heavy push to introduce them to the crowd.

As one friend, another longterm K-pop fan, texted me from their side of the arena: “The people in front of me were googling him while he performed and I cried.”

screenshot of my friend's text

There was a noticeable disconnect between fans at KCON this year, in a way I don’t really remember in past years. These sort of multi-group festivals tend to bring a lot of fans who like many artists, or single artists stans who don’t have a chance to see an artist that will likely never tour in the US. There were both of those types of fans, but it never felt aside from Rain’s performance that people weren’t happy to be there. Most artists, even the rookies or less-popular groups with fewer dedicated fans, had cheers and applause, but when it came to the moments that harkened to K-pop of yesteryear, whether it was two or three decades ago, there was a bit of a historical disconnect.

Things like cover songs of BoA, 2NE1, and Girls’ Generation, and a legacy artist like Rain, which used to be a highlight of KCON were just… fine, and most people probably didn’t know them. The Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 covers got more applause than the older performances, but even they were songs that are around a decade old: Mr.Mr came out in 2014, and I Am the Best came out in 2011.

Taemin standing on KCON's stage awash in spotlights
Just look at Taemin and bask in an unparalleled career as a member of SHINee and a soloist (credit CJ ENM)

Which makes me wonder… Is KCON really targeting the same audience it used to? Is there a reason to host these legacy moments when the audience is there just to see who is there, and nothing more. Arguably, JO1 covering Seventeen’s recent release Super was more important to the crowd at KCON than seeing Everglow and Lapillus cover BoA.

The response to Rain was pretty dismal, and I don’t think things are going to necessarily ever bring KCON back to where it once was, because the audience for K-pop has changed. While it used to be a whole scene you engaged with as a fan, now that’s not necessary; you have enough from one or two or three faves. Unless you’re a particular sort of fan or musicophile… That’s not for you.

We’ve seen KCON change its lineup style before: they used to bring hip-hop, R&B and ballad stars, and moved away from that (to my dismay).  But it kinda feels like maybe now it’s also time to move away from legacy artists, since anything even a decade old is Old to many within the current crowd of KCON goers.

KCON’s place in the US has famously heralded the rising stars of K-pop, with many people pointing to BTS’s performance in 2014 as an important, iconic show of how far they’d come based on the audience’s approval. We’re nearly 10-years beyond that, and still that’s what people are coming to KCON for: to see the newest, brightest, rising stars. There’s a reason Stray Kids, Taemin, and ATEEZ headlined; they all represent the current state of K-pop fans, and even to some degree Taemin felt like a legacy artist who people were in awe of (hi, Allen!!!) more passively as an icon rather than actively stanning unless you’ve been a Shawol for ages now.

Maybe the even more recent past doesn’t have a place anymore at KCON, which itself put the spotlight on newer acts with special stages at the convention to highlight some groups that wouldn’t be performing during the main concert, and brought some rookie groups, like Limelight and most notably SM’s pre-debut RIIZE, to perform at the preshow.

There is obviously always an audience for legacy music. But after witnessing KCON this year, it’ll be interesting to see how senior acts continue to perform, if they opt to come at all. Personally, I think that the upcoming Immortal Songs concert at Metlife in October, with variety ranging from Patti Kim to Psy to ATEEZ to NewJeans, may be more the place than KCON nowadays.

What I’ve been working on

I rounded up the KCON concerts for Grammy.com. I tried to highlight not only the most popular but also some personal faves, so hope everyone checks this out. I really enjoyed writing this, and it seems fans enjoyed reading it too, which always makes me happy.


For Los Angeles Magazine, I wrote a general roundup of the weekend. I also gave away a few tips to make a better KCON convention experience, so take a peak if you hope to attend anytime in the future!

After KCON, I went up north to San Francisco to go see Blackpink, and to enjoy the city. I’ve never been before, and it was a really great concert, which I got to review for SFGate. To be honest, I don’t typically consider myself someone who enjoys writing reviews, but this trio of stories were banged out in a period of 72 hours, and I loved every moment of writing them, so maybe I learned something new here about myself.

I also interviewed several artists on Day 1 of KCON for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore. I compiled all the videos here, since they can be found across TikTok and Instagram.

What I’m listening to

NCT’s 2023 Golden Age album. I’m someone who often takes a few listens to enjoy something, to the point I jokingly say I need to be brainwashed. I think it’s because my brain is jumping all about, but unless there’s a really strong, sudden force gripping me by the shoulders, I need sometime to decide whether I love something or not. When I first listened to Golden Age, I was a bit disappointed.

I still don’t particularly love either promotional single, Baggy Jeans or the titular Golden Age, the former which is just fine to me but sure to be fine live in-concert, while the latter of which to be franks sounds like a Christmas choral. But the rest of the album? This is the campiest thing NCT has done, and it’s perfect because of that dedication to being fun and creative in the most absurdist ways while taking itself seriously. K-pop is best when it’s creating art that is as fun to engage with as it is musically pushing the conversation forward, and NCT is very succesful at doing that. If you can make me enjoy batmobile and basketball anthems that sit side by side an upbeat song about kangaroos, that’s just as good as it gets to me.

tripleS’s Girls’ Capitalism is one of my favorite things to come out of K-pop in a long time, simply because of the idea around it, let alone it actually being a good song. The LOVElution album is similarly great, so definitely check it out if you haven’t yet. They’ll be touring in the US later this year, and I’m, sadly, unable to attend the NY-area date but still hoping I get a chance to see them because they’re really impressing with all their releases.

What you’re listening to

Thank you Elliot for making the decision to support Notes on K-pop as a paid subscriber! This newsletter is for all your readers, and I really appreciate the time, energy, and any support from you all, paid or nonpaid. Paid subscribers do get the perk of getting to share a rec, and Elliot shared their “absolute favorite” My Sea by IU, an absolutely beautiful, soulful song from the songstress.

I’m not sure if readers know this, but IU is one of my absolute favorite people to write and think about. I’ve never seen one of her concerts live, but picked this version of My Sea from The Golden Hour concerts, which is going to be in cinemas worldwide in September. It’s probably going to be the only time I’ll ever see one of IU’s concerts, so see you all at the movies!

What I’m reading

I really enjoy  take on Chinese fandom, and this latest edition explores how Seventeen’s GoSe (aka Going Seventeen) is “nicknamed 地球球综, “Earth’s representative reality show” in China” and what makes them succesful as reality idols. This read is also a bit of a teaser for an upcoming edition of Notes on K-pop, where I’ll be talking about the current state of K-pop idols and different generations, and one big thing that sets aside earlier gens from the current state of things is variety show appearances, but Seventeen definitely feels a lot more like second gen varietydols than the current crew we’re seeing, so I may talk about GoSe a bit more in weeks to come.

Kate Halliwell wrote a hilariously engaging piece about surviving KCON for the Ringer, and I got a subtle shout out as a journalist wondering about the grammar of (G)I-dle’s hit, Queencard.

What I’m watching

I was sick a bit this week, so honestly couldn’t get myself to focus on emails or writing, and luckily I’m a freelancer and didn’t have anything immediately due. So I decided to take care of my health and sit on my couch while recovering, and worry about work later. I binged all of the episodes of the JYP x Republic Records A2K competition show, and next on my list is Boys Planet 999 then RU Next, because at KCON I realized I really missed out by not watching all of the multitudes of audition shows that are going to spur the next generation of K-pop. I’m not really a big fan of these competition shows because I feel like they craft the narrative too thickly and would rather more typical intro variety shows to groups post-debut, but they’re definitely the trend of the past few years, and especially at the moment. I’ve been really impressed by the talent of A2K’s competitors, and am intrigued to see what comes out of them.

It’s not out yet, but I’m similarly keeping my eye on the Hybe x Geffen The Debut: Dream Academy, which is a similar idea.