The biggest difference between my SMTown experience IN LOS ANGELES and the one IN NEW YORK was that, in the intervening months, I had finally made some Internette Frandz who were into The Whole Korea Thing but were (1) not complete loons; (2) able to look at different styles of pop music with an thoughtful, critical eye.
At the same time, I was also making a sincere effort to understand the physics of the Korean Wave myself, without freaking out over ridiculous fan behavior or the spammings of bored English-as-a-second-language kids all over the social web. The fact that my Internette Frandz also thought poorly of these psycho-fans was a big help, I think. It all came down to being on a similar wavelength: worship your idols, but don’t be a doof about it. And if you must spaz, spaz with dignity.
So it was with that reformed mindset that I woke up on the morning of Sunday, October 23, and … made sure to go to church first.
THEN it was time to make the trip to my true place of worship: Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, IN AMERICA.
I arrived at around 2:30 pm and discovered an already-long line just waiting for the merchandise booth to open up. Gosh, even if Koreaboos don’t have proper “conventions” the way the Japan/sci-fi/fantasy kids have conventions, they certainly have captured the feel of it by making people wait in lines for EVERYTHING. Fortunately it wasn’t too long a wait once the booth opened up, and I came away with a souvenir t-shirt, a cheer fan of MY WIFE Seohyun and one of Hyoyeon that would eventually end up in @hopeandmemory‘s hands. Then came the hard part: waiting for the concert to start.
I whiled away the hours by people-watching as I sat on a ledge outside the Garden, and at some point I found myself eavesdropping on a couple of “SMTown Grandmas/Aunties” who were chaperoning their girls to the concert. (In that sense the demographic was not too different from, say, the folks who take their kids to see Swift/Bieber/Jonas/whoever.) They swapped stories like grizzled veterans of the pop-culture wars: “My granddaughter recently got into this Korean stuff,” they would say—”she found it on Youtube and from her high school friends and we flew all the way from Florida/Texas/Istanbul for this concert.” It sounded just like the weeaboo explosion from a few years back: a bemused older generation, wondering what their kids saw in this bizarre foreign entertainment, not realizing that that was exactly the point. You old people wouldn’t understand.
One of the SMTown grandmas also bemoaned the seemingly trivial, overpriced SMTown merch: “I paid $8 for this man on a stick,” she said, holding up a cheer fan of Super Junior’s Ryeowook. Yes, but your granddaughter is going to cherish that eight-dollar man-on-a-stick forever … or until she goes off to college and discovers Danish country-metal, I dunno.
When the time finally came for doors to open, I muscled my way through the crowd and into the entrance lobby … only to find that the entrance for General Admission was, in fact, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BUILDING.
Which was incredibly annoying because it was already 6pm and everyone else was lining up and General Admission was freaking FIRST COME FIRST SERVED.
So I scooted all the way around the city block, from 7th Avenue to 8th Avenue, and sped past the already long-ass line while clutching my “GIRLS BRING THE BOYS OUT” sign. This, of course, got plenty of approval from SNSD fans waiting in line, so I was glad to have provided some brief entertainment as I finally found the back of the line way on the opposite corner of the building—33rd and 8th.
It was also while waiting in the GA line that a member of the Japanese press came up to the mother-daughter pair in front of me, and started interviewing them in English about “Why do you like K-pop and why does it appeal to you over American music and are you familiar with any J-pop and what do you think are the differences between American, Japanese, and Korean music.”
OHMIGOD I HAD SO MANY ANSWERS IN MY HEAD but all I could do was stand there, listen to the interview, and cringe in my mind as the 14-year-old girl gave out lots of shallow, 14-year-old-girl answers that tried to sound deep. Something about autotune. Image vs. talent. SHINee having “smooth” dance moves compared to their peers. I dunno. I was so ready to jump in and offer MY EXPART OPINIONNE but lemme tell you something, Far Wiser To Keep Your Mouth Shut And Appear Stupid Than To Open It And Appear Even More Stupid. I’m sure that, in her own little world, that 14-year-old girl is already a KOREA EXPERT who knows everything she will ever need to know about music performance and production. But one day, once she’s grown up, maybe she’ll realize just how much—or how little—she truly knows.
As the doors opened up and the crowd started to trickle in, I thought I had prepared myself enough for this moment. I’d been listening NOT ONLY to Girls’ Generation’s newest album and the latest of f(x), BUT ALSO some well-known hits of SHINee and Super Junior so at least I wouldn’t be confused and bored when the boy bands came out. My signs and lightsticks were on hand, ready to wave at a moment’s notice. And I’d been to enough K-pop concerts now to know about the fangirl screams. MY BODY WAS READY.
But nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for the experience of actually being on the General Admission floor.
Let me explain it like this. You are THE CLOSEST POSSIBLE to any of the performers on the stage. You are also standing room only. And since everyone else also wants to be as close to the performers as possible, you will all be crammed up against each other like sardines in a can. Personally, as a 125-pound weakling, I can probably maybe take on one high school girl if I had to fight for space. But an entire mass of them, united in the cause of screaming at hot Korean guys? HELLO, IMPENETRABLE BRICK WALL.
So it was in that spot, surrounded by impenetrable bricks, that I stood for another 40 minutes waiting for the concert to start—while the same couple of commercials cycled on the projection screens above us. By the 7th go-round I was about ready to buy an iPhone just to play that damned Super Junior Shake game and get “Mr. Simple” out of my head.
Finally, at around 7:20 pm, IT CAME. SMTOWN NEW YORK.
I think my playlist of fancam videos (starts with the one above) can explain the feeling better than anything else. It was chaotic, it was wild, and half the time the performers would use the forward stage so all I could see was their rear ends … but it was a time that I truly felt alive, the flashy outfits and ridiculous haircuts on full display, the R&B/dance-influenced beats swirling around me, the screams of excitement raining from the rafters … I think that, by preparing myself better and not trying to be a snarky troll this time, I finally got into the feeling of what SMTown was all about.
(Those interstitial videos about SMTown artists being your “Friend” are still mildly cultish and creepy, though.)
Being two weeks removed from the event, a lot of the memories are already starting to fade … but the impressions left on my mind still remain. The sight of Girls’ Generation taking the stage for the first time, and learning to appreciate Sunny’s curves up close. (Those thighs, my God, you could never understand them until you’ve seen them from like five feet away.) MY WIFE cutely tripping over her English as she said, “I’m honored to be … honored to be … HERE.” Seeing three-fifths of SHINee rise up in the sky like the angelic beings they are as they performed the extended, dancepop-on-steroids version of “Lucifer.” And of course, the most epic of all epic happenings—seeing the English version of “The Boys” performed on stage for the first time ever IN THE WORLD.
Even though the concert was four hours as usual, this time it felt too short by the time everyone came out for the finale—I wanted to stick around just a little longer, maybe stick around forever, and breathe in the excitement one last time. Then came the downpour of confetti, and unlike last year, I was close enough to be showered in the paper rain this time, my hands grabbing randomly at everything, even though plenty of it ended up in my jacket pockets and souvenir bag anyway. In the thrill of the moment, tears of exhilaration came to my eyes, and I stopped paying attention to who was crossing the stage—all that mattered was being there, the sensation that only so much love and so many people could bring, the feeling of a night unlike any other night.
“Now I’m sad again!” I thought for a second, as the audience filed out of the stadium still buzzing but physically worn out. But that sadness would not last for long. I met up with @hanachan01 and friend (thanks for the pins, btw!) by the merch booth and, as expected, spazzed with dignity over our respective experiences. “I think I got stuck in the SHINee fangirl section.” “I WAS the SHINee fangirl section.” We also got a photo taken together with my AKB48 Troll sign, and I’m pretty sure I overheard someone walk past saying, “Anti-fans, maybe?” But no, it was just a jocular way to end the night, blowing off some steam before finally returning to the NORMAL WORLD (although in my case the Normal World would have to be delayed one more day since the Soshi fan meet was immediately the day after).
New York remains, for me, the city of dreams. It’s where I’ve chased those dreams and made them come true: AKB48 in 2009, Girls’ Generation in 2011, and in another two years, another five years, another ten years, who knows what else. And it’s not necessarily just about stalking idols and GLORIOUS NIPPON or GLORIOUS KOREA or anything like that. There is more to the gridded streets of Manhattan than just playing host to the biggest Asian stars—it’s about the infinite realms of possibility, and knowing that those who venture there can make all those possibilities happen. And so I remain, forever a dreamer, in the city that doesn’t sleep. [Frank Sinatra quote]