Chad Batka for The New York Times
SM Town Live Super Junior joined a cavalcade of South Korean groups at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Think of the work required to make just one Justin Bieber. The production, the management, the vocal training, the choreography, the swagger coaching — all that effort to create one teen-pop star in a country that’s still starving for them. South Korea has no such drought, thanks to several companies that specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols, in groups of various configurations. One of the longest-running of these companies is SM Entertainment, which on Sunday night hosted SM Town Live, a sold-out showcase at Madison Square Garden for several of its acts, any one of which any American reality-TV talent show or major-label A&R department worth its salt would be thrilled to have discovered.
American teen-pop at its peak has never been this productive. K-pop — short for Korean pop — is an environment of relentless newness, both in participants and in style; even its veteran acts are still relatively young, and they make young music. Still, there were subtle differences among the veterans, like BoA and TVXQ, and the newer-minted acts like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and SHINee.
Members of the younger set are less concerned with boundaries, drawing from the spectrum of pop of the last decade in their music: post-Timbaland hip-hop rumbles, trance-influenced thump, dance music driven by arena-rock guitars, straightforward balladry.
Of these groups, the relative newcomer SHINee was the most ambitious. From the looks of it, the group’s men are powered by brightly colored leather, Dr. Martens boots and hair mousse. Their music, especially “Replay,” “Ring Ding Dong” and “Juliette,” felt the riskiest, even if it only slightly tweaked that polyglot K-pop formula; these vocalists were among the night’s strongest.
But SHINee came in a recognizable format, the same size as American groups like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But what K-pop has excelled at in recent years are large groups that seem to defy logic and order. Super Junior, which at its maximum has 13 members, was one of this show’s highlights, appearing several times throughout the night in different color outfits, shining on “Mr. Simple” and the intense industrial dance-pop of “Bonamana.” (K.R.Y., a sub-group of Super Junior, delivered what may have been the night’s best performance on “Sorry Sorry Answer,” a muscular R&B ballad.)
Super Junior was complemented by the nine-woman Girls’ Generation, which offered a more polite take on K-pop, including on “The Boys,” which is its debut American single. Girls’ Generation gave perhaps the best representation of K-pop’s coy, shiny values in keeping with a chaste night that satisfied demand, but not desire. (It was an inversion on the traditional American formula; in this country young female singers are often more sexualized than their male counterparts.)
Male and female performers shared the stage here only a couple of times, rarely getting even in the ballpark of innuendo. In one set piece two lovers serenaded each other from across the stage, with microphones they found in a mailbox (he) and a purse (she). In between acts the screens showed virginal commercials about friendship and commitment to performance; during the sets they displayed fantastically colored graphics, sometimes childlike, sometimes Warholian, but never less than cheerful.
In the past few years K-pop has shown a creeping global influence. Many acts release albums in Korean and Japanese, a nod to the increasing fungibility of Asian pop. And inroads, however slight, are being made into the American marketplace. The acts here sang and lip synced in both Korean and English. Girls’ Generation recently signed with Interscope to release music in the United States. And in August Billboard inaugurated a K-Pop Hot 100 chart. But none of the acts on the SM Town Live bill are in the Top 20 of the current edition of the fast-moving chart. This is a scene that breeds quickly.
Which means that some ideas that cycle in may soon cycle out. That would be advisable for some of the songs augmented with deeply goofy rapping: showing the English translation of the lyrics on screen didn’t help. The best rapping of the night came fromAmber, the tomboy of the least polished group on the bill, f(x), who received frenzied screams each time she stepped out in front of her girly bandmates.
If there was a direct American influence to be gleaned here, it was, oddly enough, Kesha who best approximates the exuberant and sometimes careless genrelessness of K-pop in her own music; her songs “Tik Tok” and “My First Kiss” (with 3OH!3) were covered during this show.
But while she is simpatico with the newer K-pop modes, she had little to do with the more mature styles. Those were represented by the Josh Groban-esque crooning of Kangta, lead singer of the foundational, long-disbanded Korean boy band H.O.T., who made a brief appearance early in the night, and the duo TVXQ, a slimmed-down version of the long-running group by that name, who at one point delved into an R&B slow jam reminiscent of Jodeci or early Usher. BoA, the night’s only featured solo artist, has been making albums for a decade, and her “Copy & Paste” sounded like a vintage 1993 Janet Jackson song.
She’ll also star in “Cobu,” a 3-D dance film to be released next year, previews of which induced shrieks before the concert began. The crowd also screamed at an ad for Super Junior Shake, an iPhone game app, and for the SM Entertainment global auditions, which will take place early next year in several countries, and will keep the machine oiled for years to come.