Finding comfort in a virtual K-pop concert

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SuperM's Kai, Mark, Lucas, Taeyong, and Ten during the Prudential x SuperM We DO virtual concert and fan meet. Photo courtesy of PRU LIFE UK

The night before the PRU x SuperM Virtual Concert and Fan Meet, I received a DM from somebody pretending to be EXO’s Kai. To the uninitiated, Kai (real name Kim Jong-In) is the main dancer of K-pop groups SuperM and EXO. He also happens to be my bias, which in non-K-pop terms means I will do anything for him. I search out his videos on a regular (daily) basis and I collect Kai-specific merchandise. He is my phone wallpaper, which means he’s literally the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I fall asleep.

Which is why receiving a DM from someone who clearly isn't Kai feels a bit personal. Hitting me where it hurts the most, deep in the groin of my foolish K-pop desires. Which is to one day meet my bias and maybe even build a meaningful connection with them. A connection deeper than the ones I have with my life-size posters, photocard binders, and three solo album versions.

The message read: “Thanks for your lovely likes and comments on my official page, it's great to know I have such a devoted fan like you..”

I don't really know what possessed me to reply. Maybe it's the toxic fan in me or maybe it was the 500+ days of quarantine, either way I wasn't going to let this slide like I usually do with phishing scams. I decided to go straight for the jugular: “You're not Kai! Kai doesn't speak English! What do you want? My credit card???”

The funny part was how this Fake Kai continued to engage, claiming that they were indeed Kai and they just wanted to show their appreciation for fans in a more personal way. Well, they picked the wrong erigom! I wasn't about to fall for any of it. Why? Because in 2021, things like this don't just happen. The possibility of your wildest dreams coming true in life aren't already high to begin with, what more in a pandemic? I told a friend recently that this year's mantra was “Bawal Sumaya,” no one is allowed to be happy. While it is killjoy behavior, it’s a way to manage my response to bad news and cancelled plans. A way to soften the blow of otherwise crushing disappointment.

But unlike the world at large, K-pop fulfills most of what it promises. If they say Red Velvet’s “Queendom” music video is coming out on August 16, 6:00 p.m. KST, come hell or high water, it will happen as scheduled. K-pop is predictable in that sense, which is another way of saying that K-pop provides stability. It has been for me (and for many others I’m sure) a bastion of comfort these past 18 months.

READ: Escaping through K-pop

Much of this has to do with the history of K-pop and the intimate relationship it has with digital technology. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung took out a massive $55 billion loan from the IMF — the largest then in history — to rebuild the country. Their economic recovery strategy was to focus on two things: new technology and culture. They saw the need to invest in the arts as a means of “soft power,” a way to rebrand South Korea’s image as an industrial nation into a creative capital.

During the concert, the boys invited fans to do the “We DO” dance challenge. The final number is another pre-recorded performance, where the SuperM members (including my wonderful Kai) perform “We DO,” their collaboration with Prudential Asia, who is also behind this virtual concert and fan meet. Photo courtesy of PRU LIFE UK

In the late '90s to early aughties, K-pop was made with TV in mind. Choreography and styling needed to be photogenic and telegenic. But as new technologies like the internet and smartphones emerged, K-pop quickly adapted by creating content specifically for those platforms. More than just performances, K-pop expanded their repertoire of content to variety shows, dedicated messaging apps, and even free-to-play video games.

Through all of this, the Korean Wave or hallyu (Vox has an excellent explainer on the topic) was able to penetrate Western markets. This new wave of interest in Korean content has been dubbed as Hallyu 2.0, and it is marked specifically by the significant role that social media and technology play in its consumption. This is probably why K-pop’s transition from live events to digital events was a little more seamless compared to Western entertainment acts. But as we’ve been learning with everything, there is nothing in this world that is entirely COVID-19-proof.

Right after I blocked and reported fake Kai to Instagram, someone sent me the news: “Kai To Miss Out On SuperM Online Concert Due To Self-Quarantine.” I spent the next ten minutes staring at a wall. Because if we’re being totally frank, my admiration for SuperM was casual at best. I was only ever interested in the group because of the involvement of the older members Taemin, Baekhyun, and most obviously for Kai.

It was difficult for me to fully love SuperM because of how manufactured everything felt. It started out as a joint project by South Korean label SM Entertainment and American megalabel Capitol Music Group in an attempt to ride the Korean Wave in the West. The Avengers-style supergroup consisting of members from existing K-pop acts like SHINee (Taemin), EXO (Baekhyun, Kai), and NCT (Taeyong, Ten, Lucas, and Mark Lee). The desired effect was to combine the powers of their respective fandoms, an attempt that was met by mixed emotions especially from dedicated one-group K-pop fans. But SuperM went ahead and debuted in Hollywood in 2019, where they even appeared on The Ellen Show to perform their mostly English song called “Jopping,” a portmanteau for jumping and popping.

With Taemin and Baekhyun currently in the military and Kai on self-quarantine, what else was there to look forward to? “So it’s just an NCT concert,” I joked to my friend. In short, bawal sumaya.

On the day of the concert, I couldn’t log in. After several frantic and harried emails, restarting my computer twice, and refreshing the page every second, I was finally able to log in just as they were wrapping up the Q&A. The entire maknae line (or the youngest members of the group), were swiveling in their seats as the host was ending her speech. “Stay right there,” winks Lucas, and a beat later the virtual audience reacts with muffled cheers as everything cuts to black.

Photo from PRU LIFE UK

The screen comes back on and I’m surprised to see pre-enlistment long-haired Taemin singing the opening to “100” in the backdrop. Even more surprising is that there are five members on stage: Kai was present. Words flash on the bottom of the screen: This performance was fully pre-recorded while thoroughly following the prevention guidelines of social distancing. A little relief washes over me as I watch Kai dance in his tight pants and cropped military jacket.

As they go through their next song called “Wish You Were Here,” they go back to being four members. This time, a video of Baekhyun opens the song while the four NCT boys dance and harmonize together. Afterwards, a pre-recorded video of Taemin and Baekhyun plays, where they ask fans to wait for them to come back from their time in the military. Then they invite us to take part in the “We DO” dance challenge. The final number is another pre-recorded performance, where the SuperM members (including my wonderful Kai) perform “We DO,” their collaboration with Prudential Asia, who is also behind this virtual concert and fan meet. The stream cuts and I’m back with a blank screen.

SuperM is an Avengers-style supergroup consisting of members from existing K-pop acts like SHINee (Taemin), EXO (Baekhyun, Kai), and NCT (Taeyong, Ten, Lucas, and Mark Lee). Members Taemin and Baekhyun are currently serving their mandatory military service. Photo from PRU LIFE UK

After I recounted my experience of the Phishing Scammer Kai to a friend, he jokingly asked “But what if that was the real Kai?” And for a small part of the evening, I actually entertained the scenario. Just the thought of having blocked Kai — main dancer of EXO and SuperM — was enough to give me just a shot of happiness. An opportunity to laugh and smile at a mere possibility, something rare in the Lord’s year, 2021.

It’s the first weekend of the country’s third Enhanced Community Quarantine. Happiness is still pretty scant these days, but even in the absence of Kai, watching the SuperM virtual concert was a reminder of the joy a good performance can bring. COVID-19 has kept us separated for the most part, but things as simple as pre-recorded videos are a way to compress time and space. Taemin and Baekhyun send their wishes to the future from the past. Kai performed a dance for a concert he didn’t know he was going to miss. K-pop isn’t immune to disaster, but they sure know how to cover a lot of their bases.

While I did wish to see Kai in the Q&A and in the rest of the songs, I did not walk away from this concert empty-handed. In fact, I’ve decided that for the rest of the quarantine (unsure of when it is going to end exactly), I’m going to devote my attention to NCT 127 and WayV. I haven’t stopped watching Ten’s “Paint Me Naked,” which by the way is slowly solidifying his place in my life as my NCT bias. Does Lucas know how cute he is? Yes, says my NCTzen friend, he does. K-pop has always been good at this. K-pop has always provided me ways out of my own sadness and despair, even if just for a little while. With K-pop, pwede sumaya kahit saglit lang.