2NE1 Invades America: Behind the Scenes With the K-Pop Phenomenon
Billboard exclusively goes backstage at K-Pop darlings 2NE1's first U.S. arena show.
"I have to kill it. They've been waiting so long, I just have to kill it," says CL, leader of K-pop sensation 2NE1. It's almost 9:30 p.m. and she and her bandmember's Prudential Arena show in Newark, NJ was supposed to begin an hour and a half ago.
CL's bandmembers are in various states of readiness: Minzy continues to receive quick lipstick and hair fixes as she chats quietly with CL in Korean, the adorable and nymph-like Dara shuffles in and out of the dressing room nervously (despite a fierce half-shaved haircut), and Bom is still in the make-up chair having her hair and face re-touched. The dressing room has handlers everywhere (at least two per girl, though none are pressuring them to get a move on), a steaming vaporizer machine, a deli platter no one's eating, two boxes of American cigarettes, and a lone piece of red velvet cake.
It's a big night for 2NE1, not to mention K-pop in general. 2NE1's "New Evolution" tour makes them the genre's first girl group to have a global tour, as well as the first to hold a solo arena show in the U.S. Perhaps this is the reason for delay; the girls need to be perfect for such a big debut.
This important show is the latest in a series of happenings that have allowed 2NE1 to emerge as one of the leaders (if not the leader) of the K-pop movement in America. Their fresh, forward-thinking fashion sense has made them designer Jeremy Scott's muses, there's talk that will.i.am will produce their English tracks and bring them on his new solo album, they star alongside Nicki Minaj in a new Addidas promo, and their music is as accessible to Americans as music can be when sung in another language.
The band kicks off the concert by showing their video for their signature song "I Am the Best" (which currently has 50 million YouTube views and counting). As the show's intro video begins, CL and Minzy have rushed behind the stage without their other half. Dara and Bom make their way shortly after (with at least six handlers between the two of them) as they make their way on high-rise platforms to kick off the show.
Ear-piercing screams supplement the zipping synths of "Best" with the hyper-dedicated K-pop crowd proving it is equally devoted to each band member, as shrieks continuously erupt when they sing a solo section of the song -- CL typically gets the biggest reaction, but Dara also gets a comparable volume.
The show has a heavy emphasis on branding and performance; each member has their face spray-painted on their jacket and wears a Flavor Flav-esque necklace with a letter of their band's name on it (though the "1" Dara wears looks like it could topple her over). Each also gets their own solo stage to display their unique talent with Bom showing off her vocals with a ballad, Dara displaying English skills announcing "Tonight, I want to be sexy!" for her track "Kiss," and Minzy's dance section confirming her as the group's secret weapon as she hits the splits to Missy Elliott's "I'm Really Hot." CL plays DJ during her solo stage moment, announcing Madonna's "Hung Up" was one of her favorite songs with the entire arena first pumping in mania during the set.
As impressive as the group's performances is their dazzling stage set. A concert highlight comes during CL and Minzy's duet, where the stage is turned into an LED rollercoaster as the two sing in a car against a backdrop depicting the two flying down a track. A blackjack symbol (a nod to the group's fanbase, 21=blackjack) transforms into a heart during "Stay Together," which inspires awes from the crowd, though no one can hear them over the bumping bass, and 2NE1's newest single "I Love You" gets a huge response from the crowd as confetti shoots out into the crowd for the final exploding chorus.
Amongst the pyrotechnics, constant screaming, and flashy costumes, the end of the concert shows 2NE1 at their most approachable, as the group dons comfortable clothes to accept fan gifts and give the crowd their sincere and heartfelt thanks. A few short years ago, it would have been untinkable that a Korean girl group would have been able to fill up an East Coast arena. But 2NE1 proved that they -- and K-Pop in general -- are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in today's ever-shrinking worldwide pop landscape.