Calgarian travels to New York to see a concert full of music she can’t understand

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September 9th, 2011 was one of the most stressful days of my life. It wasn’t stressful because of an exam, or a date, or a doctor’s appointment — it was the day the tickets for the SM Town World Tour in New York went on sale.

If I managed to get tickets, I’d be spending hundreds of dollars to fly to the east coast, stay at one of the most expensive cities in the world, and fight thousands of other fans to see most of the performers managed by the biggest entertainment company in South Korea — SM Entertainment.

At 8 a.m. on the dot, I started refreshing the Ticketmaster web page as if my life depended on it. I wanted floor seats; I wanted to be right against the stage.

20 minutes later, one meltdown, a freak out on Twitter and many swear words later, I finally got them: Floor. Section GA3. Screaming with excitement in my room, anyone within earshot would think I was going crazy.

I was going to New York City to see the people I’ve been following day-by-day for more than five years.

October 23rd couldn’t get here fast enough.

Korean pop: My obsession

Most people give me a blank or confused stare when I tell them I like listening to Korean music. I have yet to figure out why they seem so genuinely puzzled that someone who’s not Korean listens to music from that country. They seem doubly confused when they find out I don’t understand a word of Korean.


Five-member group SHINee (left to right: Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun, Minho, and Key) greets fans at SM Town in Madison Square Garden.
Photo courtesy of: Allison Adams
I just answer with “I have no idea why. I just like it.”

Korean pop, or K-pop, isn’t the most musically inspiring genre, nor does it have the most talented people.

But the whole package that is sold as K-pop is well-groomed, somewhat-talented boys and girls in their late teens and early 20s. The appeal is similar to boy bands from the ’90s.

There are so many pop groups in Korea that it’s next to impossible to keep up with all of them. Most of these bands follow the same format to make their break into the industry: get scouted or audition at a young age for a certain entertainment company, train in singing, dancing, and image coaching with said company for at least three years.

Then they get picked to be part of a group, and debut. The next few years are spent sleeping three hours a night, eating when they can, and having next to zero personal life, all in the hopes of gaining popularity in their home country, and abroad.

It’s astounding how many people actually want to live that life, but as fans, we don’t complain too much. We have celebrities, or “idols” as they’re labeled in Korea, to fawn over on a regular basis and keep us entertained.

For some people, music is good enough on the radio or in a playlist, and whether they ever see an artist live or not, there’s no difference to them. For others, no price is high enough to stop them from seeing their favourite artists live. U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lady Gaga, and a few other artists have followers passionate enough to travel to places far away to see them in person.

To me, Korean pop is the U2 of my life. It is a release and a somewhat-unhealthy obsession.

For some Korean pop groups, like TVXQ and SHINee, I would go to the ends of the world and back.

Or, at least to New York City.

Getting there

Being a university student with a part-time job means living day-to-day on a really tight budget. Trying to save enough money to go to a concert in New York City required sacrifices of epic proportions.

It took me a month of parking 15 minutes away from school, not eating out, and no clothes shopping to scrape up enough money to buy the plane ticket, the concert ticket, the two nights at the hotel, transportation, and some extra cash for eating and concert merchandise.

That’s $900 out of the wallet for an already-indebted university student.

But I figured, I only live once; I might as well go now.

New York, New York


By the time I got to Manhattan, I just wanted to lie down and sleep the night away. Although the flight wasn’t long, the jetlag was bad enough to make me fall asleep on the bus ride from the airport to the hotel. But New York City was waiting for me, and I wanted to explore the city. I knew the next day I wouldn’t have time to sightsee.Youngest member of SHINee, Taemin (18), dances and sings to one of SHINee’s hit songs at Madison Square Garden.
Photo courtesy of: Allison Adams

Some friends I met online wanted to get together to eat Korean food; so all 12 of us went for Korean barbeque in Koreatown. Then, the plan was to go for karaoke — or noraebang, as it’s called in Korean.

After eating a big plate of pajeon (a thin, stuffed Korean pancake) and Korean barbeque, we realized we had an hour and a half to kill before our reservation at the noraebang so we ran out of that restaurant as fast as we could with one destination in mind: Times Square.

Why Times Square? Well, earlier that day, our favourite singers were Tweeting pictures of themselves surrounded by the dozens of screens that light up the tourist area. Through networks of fans, we also knew that the all the singers were staying at the W Hotel in Times Square.

Stalkerish? Maybe. But in the K-pop fan base, stalking idols is an everyday occurrence.

When we got to the hotel, there were about a hundred fans outside the front door, waiting anxiously with signs and cameras, chanting group names occasionally, hoping to catch a glimpse of the singers.

Needless to say, we didn’t see any of them leaving the hotel in the half-hour we spent there, so we decided to head back to Koreatown.

We hadn’t even left Times Square, however, when I saw a slim Asian boy, dressed in a black-hooded sweater and a black cap walking in the opposite direction from us. I stared at him for a few seconds before I realized it was Cho Kyuhyun from 13-member group Super Junior. My jaw dropped, and my mind went blank. Super Junior isn’t even my favourite group, yet my heart started pounding in my chest.

He’s real, I thought. He’s not a bunch of pixels.

He’s real.

Some of the girls in our group followed him for a few metres before he walked into a restaurant.

We looked at each other’s faces in amazement.

We had just seen the Cho Kyuhyun, youngest member of Super Junior.

We couldn’t believe it.

We walked back to the karaoke place in a collective daze, with huge grins on our faces. We knew tomorrow was going to be great.

Madison Square Garden

It was no surprise to any of us that at 10 a.m. on the day of the concert there were people already lined up for the concert. Doors were opening at 6 p.m. That meant having to stand in line for about eight hours, plus more than three hours at the concert.

We took turns going to the washroom and making food runs, yet every minute felt like an eternity. Korean broadcasting companies would go around the line with their cameras asking us questions, to show people back in Korea how big their artists are in America. I’m sure my face appeared in their evening news a couple of times, even if in passing. It felt like the longest eight hours of my life.

By the time six o’clock rolled around, we were all cranky, tired, and hungry. However, the moment the doors opened to let us in the arena, all our negative feelings disappeared to be replaced with anticipation.

The concert

I was so close to the stage I was sure my idols would see me. To me, there are few things in the world more satisfying than making eye contact with my favourite singer and seeing them smile.

As we were waiting for the concert to start, the problems started. There were so many people at the pit, that we were crushed towards the front constantly. The concert hadn’t started, yet I felt my body was shutting down from lack of proper food. Finally, when I was able to get something to eat and get some water for my hungry body, the concert started.

 {acepolls 12}

I can do this, I thought. I can get through another three hours without food or water.

F(x), a five-member girl group, opened the show. That’s when people started crying around me, pushing even more, and screaming. Next was Kangta, a solo artist, and garnered a polite amount of cheers from the crowd.

Finally, SHINee, a five-member boy group, came onstage and Madison Square Garden exploded in screams, and so did I. They were basically the reason I flew to New York.

Honestly, all I remember from their first set was how sparkly Key’s shirt was, Jonghyun’s muscular arms, Onew’s blindingly bright smile, and their playful bantering onstage. I don’t think my brain had enough fuel to process anything else.

After four songs, SHINee’s first set was over. It felt like it was too short, but I knew there was more to come.

I walked out from my spot knowing that I wouldn’t get my place back, but I needed to eat something, or I would have passed out.

As it turns out, walking out was the best decision I could have made. I missed a couple of songs while I was getting food. When I came back with my water and sweet potato chips, Key — my favourite member of SHINee — and his band mate Minho, along with a couple of members of Super Junior, were coming down from the stands while rapping to a song called “A-YO.” I realized that from where I was standing, I could see them up close as they walked back to the stage.

Key walked by first. He was so close I could see the dimples on his cheeks as he rapped his lines, his barely-visible scar on his left cheek, how soft his dyed-blonde hair looked. I tried to get a picture, but my camera was in video mode, which I didn’t notice at the time because I was too busy screaming like a banshee. I felt tears coming to my eyes. He was so close.

I screamed, “I love you, Key!” at the top of my lungs. I don’t think he heard me over the dozens of fans screaming around them.

Three seconds later, he was already up on the stage, and the best moment of my life was over.

The next few hours passed in a blur. I could feel my throat getting sore, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak the next day. F(x), Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, BoA, Kangta, and SHINee sang song after song, set after set, driving the 14,000 fans to scream themselves hoarse.

It reached a peak when the duet TVXQ took the stage. Members Yunho and Changmin slowly floated to the stage from the back of the arena while the instrumental version of one of their songs played in the background. Once they reached the main stage, they came together and started performing.


Changmin, one half of duet TVXQ, floats over the crowd on his way to the main stage.
Photo courtesy of: Allison Adams

At the risk of sounding incredibly fluffy, I have to say that any words I use to describe TVXQ’s performance won’t do them justice.

I’ve been a TVXQ fan since 2006, and I’ve followed them through their highs and lows, from their beginnings in Japan as nobodies, to sold-out arena tours in Asia, and the loss of three members because of legal problems with their company.

The two remaining members of TVXQ were incredible onstage. I had never seen TVXQ up close, so my jaw dropped when they first went up onstage — they were gorgeous, and they put so much passion into the performance. They commanded the stage like no other group I had ever seen, not even the ones performing before them.

The arena seemed to light up when they started singing their older songs, as if everyone in there had been a TVXQ fan at some point and learned to sing their songs. I knew every word, of course, and I sang along faithfully, and screamed at the appropriate times. They were seriously pure magic on that stage.

I still shiver from thinking about their performance.

TVXQ sang a couple of songs, then the other groups finished with their most recent or most popular songs, like SHINee’s “Lucifer” and BoA’s “Hurricane Venus.” I knew the concert was coming to an end.

After BoA sang her last song, all the performers took the stage to sing a last song. They spread throughout the whole stage and interacted with fans. Luna, from the group f(x), was standing in front of me singing and waving. She even leaned down and grabbed the hand of a girl standing next to me.

When the song ended, everyone moved together to the main stage, bowed, said goodbye, and walked away.

The concert was over.

The aftermath

I walked out in a bit of a daze.

My friends caught the scarf of one of the Super Junior members, and the other fans would have mobbed them if they hadn’t left in a hurry. So I was left to somehow find my other friend in the sea of overexcited concertgoers who were exiting along with me.


After finding her standing by a convenience store across the street from the venue, we walked to Times Square to see if any of the performers would be there. We Girl group f(x) opened the show at Madison Square Garden.
Photo courtesy of: Allison Adams
realized our effort was in vain after we got a text message saying the singers were having a post-concert celebration in Koreatown. Well, bummer.

There was a sense of emptiness that I felt after the concert was all over. It was like that concert filled a void I didn’t know I had, and now nothing can fill it up again, except seeing them live again.

I know I will see them again some day. In Toronto, or New York, or London, or Seoul, I’d go anywhere I can to experience that rush again.

Watching my favourite performers live was like a really powerful drug.

And I can’t wait until I get my next fix.

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