Live: 2NE1 Says Hello To America At The Best Buy Theater
Better than: The monoculture.
Korean pop group 2NE1 waved at their fans from a wall-sized window above the Best Buy Theater Monday night. "Music is truly becoming a borderless thing," MTV VJ Sway said while introducing the program, which had been curated by MTV Iggy, a globally minded MTV offshoot. It was a two-hour showcase of their Best New Bands, of which 2NE1 received the most votes.
"Ladies, take a bow!" Sway requested. The four womenDara, CL, Minzy, and Park Bomdid not bow; they kept waving. This would be their first American performance.
"I've been at MTV for ten years now," Sway said. "Britney Spears has been on this stage. Lady Gaga has been on this stage, and now you are on this stage." There was a feeling of passing a baton from America to the rest of the world.
Later, Sway asked Matt Pinfield for his opinion on the matter.
"I am here with legendary music expert Matt Pinfield," Sway announced. "Ladies and gentlemen he's been with MTV since back in the day... Looking real sexy today Matt."
"Not as sexy as you, Sway."
Then Sway asked Pinfield to profoundly assess the current world of music. "So Matt, there's pop, there's trip-hop, there's hip-hop, there's J-pop, there's K-pop, there's popcorn." Sway was pretty overwhelmed. "There's all kinds of music out there. How has the world of music changed in your perspective?"
"Well, 15 years ago, things were very different," Pinfield said seriously. "Really the only way you could get music was to go out to a store and buy a CD or a cassette or vinyl. Now of course things have changed with the internet and being able to purchase music online, and find websites quickly to find out what's going on in music all over the world. It's endless."
"But back in the day we used to go to the record stores," Sway said, full of nostalgic energy, "We'd dig in the crates and thumb through the vinyl. Remember that? Who used to do that, anybody?"
The crowd cheered.
"Got like three people raising their hand," Sway counted.
"Half the people here haven't even bought a CD," Pinfield said.
Sway directed Pinfield to a world map and instructed Pinfield to relate a history of music. Pinfield's ideas of rock and history are usual and American. "The English took our rock and roll and sold it back to us." "The English sent all of their criminals to Australia." Later Sway described his own idea of music. He drew four lines that intersected vertically and horizontally, across the world. He drew an X on Africa, the source of the "first rhythms." He drew an X on South America, where, he said, rhythms were also happening. He drew an O on America, for some reason. He misidentified Asia as Europe and drew an X there, in order to affect a tic-tac-toe across the world.
This kind of lazy equivalency persisted throughout the evening, which tried to project an image of a politically and economically anachronistic global world that had been elevated by music. The Best New Bands themselves didn't much play along, remaining politically and culturally ensconced when possible. The first act, La Vida Bohème, played a kind of radical dance-punk while uniformly splattered with paint, which according to the band referred to Jackson Pollock and violence. Of everyone in this whole enterprise, they were maybe the most self-aware. Between songs, the lead singer addressed the crowd: "For those of you joining in, we are Menudo." And later, in a serious engagement between performer and audience: "Most of you come from countries where you have facilities. Facilities to grow, facilities to eat, facilities to become better persons. There are countries where we don't have those facilities. You have a responsibility with us. We live in a global community. Never forget that."
The performances were interrupted by MTV Iggy commercials, which seemed culturally indebted (one delighted in foreign shaving, the audience laughed; one melded Hinduistic culture with American cool via sunglasses emblazoned with the MTV Iggy logo, the wearer smiling in his transitional, absurd state, the audience laughed) or like directionless Levi's commercials, not even containing the uniformity of jeans to lend a sense of place. Everything is hip everywhere, everything is neutrally similar.
Later in the program it seemed MTV Iggy was primarily a venue for Diplo to make outstanding, apocryphal statements. In a segment about Yuna, a kind of Malaysian coffee house singer who had covered Nirvana's "Come As You Are," he ascribed to her "a Williamsburg-y vibe." Among MTV Iggy's list of new bands was explicit dubstep producer Skrillex, whom Diplo described as "kind of like the whole package. He's one of the best mixers I've ever heard." This association seemed less dissonant after a rapid cut to Skrillex single "First of the Year (Equinox)," which felt massive and physical through the speakers, a song built for a cavernous arena, where it can groom the most distant observer.
Sway announced the Skrillex digression, describing Skrillex's home country, America, as, "last we checked, still part of the world." Which I guess he felt needed to be said, at that point, as if the fine Americanization of all things were threatened perilously.
Yuna eventually performed, softly yet insistently, real subtle channels in her voice. The Nirvana cover is negligible, weakened acoustically yet vulnerably opened by her delivery. In her later interview with Sway, she was asked if her type of artistry was common to Malaysia. "It's common to have a Malaysian singera girl who sings," Yuna answered. "But we always stay in Malaysia and don't try to break into the international market."
Gyptian, a Jamaican lovers rock artist, appeared on stage with a DJ and roughly six or seven women who swayed without direction by bar tables on which were tiny golden lights in cylindrical tubes. Gyptian's music is a sort of skittering dubduring one song he references Shaggy's "Bombastic," which feels appropriate even as it makes me feel lazy. He purred as a kind of punctuation. Meanwhile the women somehow danced haphazardly through the whole set as if in a limited, anachronistic restaging of The Grind. They seemed trapped there, in a twilight zone. Gyptian apparently discovered his nickname from his practice of tying a t-shirt around his head and curling his beard, as a pharaoh would. Sometimes, in between acts, everything would seem dark and uncertain.
Outside, people had lined up against a barricade I had considered tangential on arrival. They were later revealed to be 2NE1 fans, unable to enter but encouraged to brave the cold and tweet by Bollywood actress Shenaz Treasury, who promised "the biggest and best tweeters" their kind of mecca: attendance, nearness to 2NE1. Later, cameras panned over a strangely empty and red Times Square. The fans had been chosen, everyone had left presumably to attend the live stream at home, but it felt like Total Request Live in an emergency state.
Then there were screams, all animated by a rising love within for 2NE1. It recalled 1998 MTVa simpler time, when you could love a band through sheer vocal terror. A video meant to instruct MTV viewers on the looming shadow of K-pop was narratively obstructed by them, which were meant for whomever had just appeared on screen, briefly, in bright, distant flashes. You had to scream if you were ever going to reach them.
"We've been standing out here since 10 a.m.," one girl in the barricaded line said. All night 2NE1 fans were required to explain themselves, explain to the world a self-contained love. "They're so inspirational," one said, searching, really articulating this for the first time, for Sway's benefit. "Without them I would feel... I don't know. I changed my class ring to say 'K-pop' because of them."
I guess it supported a kind of accepted, social narrative of fandom, one in which passions are legitimized in silver lettering on a ring while also seeming, finally, like deranged investments. This is how we come to interpret and omit a whole population and set of desires from our concern. But there is also a power to this extreme fandom, an overwhelming kind. The screaming hadn't stopped.
Before 2NE1's performance fashion designer Jeremy Scott appeared on stage, describing the clothes he had designed for 2NE1 and how they fit into his aggressive technicolor realm. Does Scott design with Korea in mind or attempt to understand Korea while having visions of clothing for 2NE1? "Honestly I think that music unites the world," he said, receiving the confused energy of the night. "We can all be, without having to be regional. The style transcends all of that."
But Scott acknowledged the Blackjacks (2NE1's fans) and acknowledged each member of the group by name and personalityCL's "got great style," Dara's "a sweetheart," Minzy's "got the moves," Bom will "sing out her heart for you"and the crowd roared at this sudden, television-sized affirmation of their identity, inextricably tied up in this Korean group, obscure to others but approaching visibility. I often feel as if K-pop would be successful in North America for its direct engagement with pop forms here were it not for a kind of inborn, historically inextricable xenophobia. Even strong, passionate fanbases can remain ghettoized, recognized only once in a while by the media for the absurdity of their affections. But something about the branding, the specificity, the knowledge with which MTV catered to this audience last night electrified the air. It didn't matter how Sway and Pinfield weirdly, earnestly trivialized the event. It didn't matter much that the MTV Iggy segments were all fractured, stereotypical ideas of foreignness. It felt as if something had infiltrated.
Scott's fashion designs for 2NE1's debut were more modest and minimalistic than his usual work: red, black and gold outfits of varying, triangular cuts. 2NE1 music videos illuminated the backdrop but were rearranged, tessellated, made kaleidoscopic. Against this, the four women danced, aggressively perfected. Dara's hair, an extreme vertical ponytail ringed in silver, looked vaguely weaponized, while CL's red and strict top seemed determinedly militaristic. But it also read as Michael Jackson in 1995, running, royal and tasselled, with his team of security, a time when American pop felt imperial but also weirdly vulnerable.
Critical bias: 2NE1's "Ugly," not on the set list, is the best song of the year.
Overheard: "As soon as 2NE1 came on, he started lifting her up. And I know he was thinking, 'I'm getting busy tonight.'"
Random notebook dump: Non-New Yorkers "Shake Shack" with exotic reverence.
2NE1 set list: Fire Can't Nobody Lonely I Am The Best
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