On October 23, 2011, the long awaited SM Town came to New York City. For those who do not know, SM Town is the official tour/concert of SM Entertainment. It is a three to four hour event, where SM Entertainment brings it’s entire line up of performers and artists for one amazing concert. And SM Entertainment is…., you ask. The best way to describe SM Entertainment for those who are unfamiliar with Korean hip-hop/pop aka K-pop is to call it the Bad Boy Entertainment of Korea. However, that’s the Bad Boy Entertainment when Biggie was at the top of the game. SM Entertainment like Bad Boy Entertainment was founded by a wanna-be artist who had the charisma and drive instead to succeed as an entertainment mogul. His name is Lee Soo-man. PS: his last name is Lee. SM Entertainment is at the top of the K-pop world and making inroads into the world of pop, fast. SM Town has gone to Los Angelese, Paris, Tokyo, China, Bangkok and there is talk of Brazil, and possibly Mexico. Tokyo had three nights, September 2nd through the 4th.

As I have found Koreans can be very driven and can go all out, so it was no surprise that SM Town NYC was held at Madison Square Garden. It may not be known widely, but it is this driven and ambitious culture that has given us global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai. So, Mr Lee put together not one group, but 7 groups and their entourage on a plane and headed to New York. The line up included Super JuniorGirls GenerationTVXQf(x)ShineeKangta, and BoA. All of these groups are stars in their own right and hold there own individual two to three hour concerts.

A little introduction will be useful here. Super Junior is a group that consists of thirteen young men. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, THIRTEEN! They have been together since 2005 and are pretty much an institution unto themselves. They have been honored by the Korean government with awards that seem usually reserved for diplomats and government officials. This is because of their wide reach in Asia. Super Junior sings in Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Their songs also have scatterings of English, as most K-pop songs do. They have release albums in Japan, and initially had a member who was Chinese.

 



Girls Generation is nine member group of young women. They are also known as SNSD and Soshi, which are abbreviations of their name in Korean. These girls were my introduction to K-pop. I remember stumbling on one of their practice videos on YouTube and been incredibly impressed at their choreography and discipline. They weaved in and out of each other, danced in unison, and in all kinds of formation. Not to mention the song was really catchy. Girls generation debuted in 2008.


The other groups were, TVXQ which is now a duo. They were five when they began in 2003 and are another Asian pop institution. f(x) is a group of five girls formed in 2009. You would be forgiven if you thought they were four girls and a guy. One of these girls, Amber, is an unabashed tom-boy and quite a good rapper. Although pronounced “eff-ex”, as one who studied many hours of calculus, I like to call them “eff-of-ex”. Kangta, a young man with an angelic voice. BoA, who was discovered at the tender age of eleven and is now twenty-five… did I mention these folks don’t play. To underscore that point, one of the members of f(x),Krystal was discovered at the tender age of five. She is now seventeen. Finally, Shinee which is a five member boy-band who debuted in 2007.

 

I showed up at the venue about two hours early to scope out the place, and several lines were already forming at the various entrances into the Garden. A few TV crews were working their cameras and interviewing fans. There were a few fan-chants here and there. I talked with a couple of SM Town guys from their marketing department who were busy escorting in some Korean VIP, as well as some of the rigging guys who’d come into play alot during the Shinee and TVXQ performances. I ran into a couple of acquaintances who are seasoned fans of K-pop. I then took a walk around Times-Square and Korea-town which is on 33rd and Broadway. At Times Square the SM Town bus zoomed right past me, moving away from the direction of the Garden. I guess the artists had just been dropped off.

At 7 PM I entered into the Garden, and to my chagrin they were not very strict about cameras. I had purposely left my video camera behind and brought along an old digital camera, in case they decided to confiscate cameras. Anyway, I will not go chronologically into how the show started and proceeded. Instead, let’s take a look at these guys performances. 


Let’s start with Super Junior. Only eight guys showed up that night. One of the original thirteen is no longer with the group, and I think a few of the other guys are undergoing their mandatory military service. Technically South and North Korea are still in a state of war, they only signed a cease-fire back in 1953. No wonder these guys don’t play. Eight is still a large number in American terms for a group. But let’s take a look at why the groups are so large. The large number is important, because these groups rarely perform to a live band and so have to hold the attention of the fans. Hence they are very dynamic, and display constant motion during their high octane performances. In addition, these groups can also be very stylish. One of the effects of originating from a very driven society is the penchant for Koreans to dress up. So I have found that Korean men won’t be caught dead without a blazer or a suit. However, I think this is eroding with the newer generation who may be becoming thoroughly westernized. Therefore Super Junior on stage that night came out always in blazers and suits, which sometimes looked like they were made of silver and gold foil. Also, Girls Generation tend to were girl suits, with shorts. However, in contrast are f(X) and Shinee who rarely were suits. Personally, I am a fan of the suits and blazers style. To me it says they mean business, and business they do mean.

On that night Super Junior performed about five to seven times. They performed one of their more recent hit, Mr. Simple and some of their older hits such as Bonamana, and both versions of Sorry Sorry. Let’s look at the Bonamana performance.

It may be worth taking a look at that again from a different angle, and experiencing first-hand the effect of these guys on a fan.

What an amazing performance, amazing style, high energy, dynamic, high variety of dance steps that go in sync with the song structure. I love the leap they make at the beginning of the ​​chorus and the transition to the next dance step. You can see the original music video on YouTube.

Now let’s examine the Mr. Simple performance. I am curious as to the origin of the term “Mr. Simple.” I mentioned earlie​r how I stumbled upon Girls Generation, and later on I will go into how I stumbled upon TVXQ and Shinee, but SM Town NYC was my introduction to Super Junior. I recently purchased onAmazon.com, the MP3 album of their greatest hits. So I’ve head this Mr. Simple come up a few times in their songs. I like the term, it’s elegant. The Mr. Simple performance was the most energetic for me. These guys are even more energetic than Shinee who are about ten years younger than a few of the Super Junior members.

It’s amazing the things you catch when you look at something from another angle.

I also found this to be in contrast to Girls Generation performances. The girls’ performances were not as energetic as they usually are, except for the performance of their new single, “The Boys”. They were probably exhauted from having performed in Hong Kong like two days prior and then had to endure a fifteen hour plane trip.

Super Junior is also known as Suju. Personally, I am a fan of the character of their individual voices. In the performance of Mr. Simple, especially, I could not help but think these guys are really personifying Micheal Jackson the artist quite successfully. The whole MJ theme was on display through out the event, including the tasteless hand at intersection of the legs gesture. The blonde Suju member who kept doing this, I must admit, was especially motivated through out the night. I pretty much just watched him. Even now when I watch the videos I have to force myself to look at the other members. Through out all their perfomances he seemd to take a leading role. I’ve tried to go online to identify him, but I think I’d make a mistake on this one. So I’d leave it to the more seasoned fans to name him. I love the smooth mic hand-off he does with another member at 2:32 and 2:49 in the second video. It’s a little hard to catch in the first video. He also had a smooth mic hand-off moment during the Sorry Sorry performance, below, at minute 1:57 and 2:15 in the first video, below. You entirely miss it in the second video due to the angle.

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Now, let’s see that again from a different angle.

Even when the blonde Suju gets up from kneeling during the performance of Sorry Sorry (at 3:30 of the first video), he does so with style. Some of the other members that really stand out are the fella with the smooth olive oil type-voice, he is the one who pops up in the middle at minute 2:57 of the second video for Sorry Sorry. That was really cool. By the way, a picture of that moment made it into the New York Times. His name is Yesung. He somewhat reminds me of Taeyeon of Girls Generation. Both of them can really hit those high notes.

I stumbled upon TVXQ at the 2011 Korean Festival held at the new Overpeck Park in New Jersey. I completely stumbled upon the event. I was passing by and saw the sign for the festival. So I decided to pop in and take a look around. When I entered the park, the first thing that hit me was the size of the stage. It was huge. It also included two huge TV screens, a lot larger than the ones at MSG. Apparently one of the largest TV stations in Korea, KBS had sponsored the concert. The night featured a line-up for the young and old, including a full orchestra. TVXQ appeared later into the evening and I couldn’t help but notice their high energy, high notes and just rawness. So, I was definitely looking forward to seeing them perform. Again, at MSG, they didn’t perform until late into the show. Other groups and personalities had performed multiple times, and I dare say the crowd was getting a little worn out. So when these two guys were hoisted until the stage and through the air and over the crowd, it totally recharged the arena. And, they did not disappointment me.

The two guys are Changmin and Yunho. Changmin is the tough guy on stage, but off stage he seems entirely innocent and has a great smile. Wow, and that screech he does is entirely enthralling, it makes me wanna kick some behind. More than any, these guys performances tend to be more martial in nature. I find that also in Suju and a little in Soshi. Going back to the Mr Simple performance, you can see that at times they break up into two platoons and operate separately (at minute 1:50 through 2:04 of the second video). At other times they perform as one unit and display different formations. However they also have individual roles sort of like a sergeant or lieutenant would (at minute 3:05 of the second video). However, TVXQ takes it to another level. Anyway, it’s nice to see when the protagonists are armed only with microphones.

My exploration of Korean culture has been fueled primarily by Korean drama, and as a result I get an earful of really awesome Korean music from artists such as Jisun and Clazziquai. One of my favorite K-drama is“Boys Before Flowers”, and like the drama the soundtrack is awesome and impressive. Therefore, I was totally floored when Shinee popped unto the stage to sing “Stand By Me”. I love that song. This was the highlight over all the other awesome moments for me.

I had another Shinee moment when I noticed some commotion in front of me. I sat right behind the entrance to my sitting area, and I noticed two official looking guys suddenly enter the area and look around, then motion for someone I couldn’t see to enter. At that, I noticed probably before any of those around me two of Shinee members literarily popped up in front of me.

My favorite of the Shinee members is the young fella who dressed in the blue jeans cut-out and had wild hair. From the Stand by Me video you can see that he definitely has an olive oil voice, and also he is probably the most energetic of the bunch, as well as has much better rhythm than some of the others. I believe his name is Junghyun. However, all together, I’m not as impressed with Shinee and f(x) as I am with their sunbaes (the Korean word for someone older). But the teenage and tween girls love them, and there were a lot of them at the Garden that night.  I am surprised though to learn that some of the Shinee members are in their early twenties, they all look like kids. I think the secret to youth may be found somewhere is South Korea.
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After the show I went to my favorite Korean Restaurant in NYC K-town, and would you believe that the pink SM Town bus pulled up not long after I entered the restaurant. It turns out that the SM Town folks like to have a post-performance meal together and had come to the restaurant opposite the one I entered.  I only noticed too late, and only saw the last of them disappear into the restaurant.

So, how does SM Entertainment do it? Why are they so wildly popular in all of Asia, and increasingly globally? I believe some of the major components of their success can be ascribed to their adaptability and readiness to assimilate aspects of other cultures. It can come as a bit of surprise to western fans to find that the same group that just performed a very alternative rock high tempo song or electro-pop song, will a few minutes later get on stage to perform an R&B song, and then even later a Ballad. They don’t seem to be worried about boundaries, it’s whatever works. From the artists perspective it’s what sounds and looks good, and from a management perspective what sells. It is probably for this reason that Super Junior forms sub-groups that sing different genres of music, like trot, ballads, and so called happy songs. Also, how do they get away with such large groups and not have all kinds of ego clash, etc. For that one you need to understand Korean culture and history and its high regards for authority and seniority, and I will give you a small window to peer through. When a Korean meets an older Korean they bow. Koreans have two ways of speaking to one another. There is the familiar way of speaking to your peers and friends and there is the more formal way of speaking to strangers and older people. I am not just talking about adding sir and ma’am at the end of a sentence. Words entirely transform. If you ever listen to Koreans talking, you at times hear a lot of words ending in -imnida and -yo. For instance, if I say the word “go” to a friend, I say “Ga”. But if it is to a stranger or older person, I say “gayo”.  Even “hello” transforms entirely. If I say hello to a friend, I say “anyong”, but to an older person it is “anyong-haseyo” or “anyongashimnika”.     


I think these qualities which can be admirable, that is respect for adults, etc, can also be used to take advantage of people. Koreans are of the eastern thought, or Confucian philosophy. The Korean flag features a very prominent yin-and yang. Which pretty much can be summed up that the idea of good and bad is very relative and essentially co-exist. It can be a very practical way to view the world, and they as well as the Chinese can use it very effectively against westerners in all manner of things. So, I believe Mr. Lee, as in Lee Soo-man has used this to his great advantage. Mr. Lee has had a reputation of being a hard task-driver, and SM Entertainment in general of being a not very nice place for artists contractually. Some of these artists are signed to thirteen year contracts, which effectively is the entire career of an artist. This is unheard of in the west or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. This is part of what caused Suju to go from a thirteen member group to twelve, when the only Chinese member, Han Geng successfully sued SM Entertainment. However, recently SM Entertainment has taken a softer tone and has actively sought to soften its image. This was on display at the concert, whereby in-between performances SM Entertainment commercials would play on the big screens. They featured the various artists dressed in white shirts and saying really cheesy lines and also gesturing in sign language. It was very effective, though. It totally melts your heart. I believe SM Entertainment is going out of its way to develop a softer image, because of its growing global presence. You are not going to sell music in the U.S. if you are viewed as a sweat shop for artists. Also, SM Entertainment is a public company listed on the Korean stock exchange, and I believe the Super Junior fans have gone out of their way to obtain a significant stake in the company in order to influence decisions made in the company. Did I mention the official color for SM Entertainment is pink?!

Finally, I believe the success of SM Entertainment artists come from their display of masculine virility in its male artists, and in its female artists sweetness and femininity in a very innocent way. I will say though, that some of the Soshi shorts can get really short! This concept of innocent femininity has changed a bit with the U.S. released Girls Generation “The Boys”. If you wanna sell in the U.S. all that femininity gotta come with some edginess. All that cutie-patutie stuff goes out the window. I will admit that I’m not too much of a fan of “The Boys”. I actually don’t think I’ve ever watched the video from beginning to end. But let me say my favorite personality is Sunny, and favorite voice in the group is Taeyeon. She can belt those notes and I think she has the warmest personality of the nine.

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