K-Pop Kings BIGBANG Fly Seoul’s Soul to NYC


In a recent interview with popular U.K. television program Chatty Man, 5 Seconds of Summer drummer Ashton Irwin told host Alan Carr that their label, Capitol Records, calls them “the biggest band that no one’s ever heard of.” He’s only slightly joking, but the sentiment is there: Success, in 2015, doesn’t necessarily mean visibility — or, at the very least, it doesn’t guarantee visibility in the way it used to. Acts with the largest fan bases are able to foster and sustain them without bombarding us in our everyday lives. Some of these acts are sought out: You have to almost earn your love for their music.

BIGBANG are arguably the biggest boy band in the world after One Direction, though there’s a high probability they’re unfamiliar to you. New York is lucky enough to find itself a city steeped in diversity, so you don’t have to look to far to find traces of them. But for most of the western world, they are, in fact, the biggest band that no one’s ever heard of.

At the first night of their two-day sold-out stint at the Prudential Center, the very same arena both Stevie Wonder and the Weeknd would play days later, the magnitude of their status went all but unnoticed. The arena was littered with bright, glowing crowns (their fans are referred to as VIPs, the illuminated yellow-gold headwear confirming their status). Like any show or act predicated on a loyal, diehard fan base, the moment the lights dimmed, tears were shed. Justifiably so: It’s been three years since the boys — G-Dragon, T.O.P., Seungri, Taeyang and Daesung — last graced us with their presence in or around New York City, and everyone was ready.

This summer, BIGBANG had eight singles chart, including their namesake track “Bang Bang Bang,” the intimate “Sober” and “Loser,” the One Direction-leaning “We Like 2 Party,” the melancholic “Let’s Not Fall In Love” (Billboard sites its T.O.P. and G-Dragon vocal performances for it’s success, the pair usually rap and fall into the definitive “bad boy” member description). In the same few month period, the boy band scored three No. 1s on the World Digital Songs chart. Their YouTube videos have hundreds of millions of views. When they fly anywhere, they’re met with a stampede of fans both at the airport and awaiting them at their hotel. They are, in a phrase, rock stars.

There’s a peculiar kind of celebrity inherent in BIGBANG, especially in how they function in North America. The dates are few and far between. If you wanted to see them on the East Coast, you had to drive to one of these two Prudential Center dates. There were only three other U.S. tour dates, all centered around Los Angeles (the international hub for K-Pop groups; it’s easier to get there than here from Seoul). Unlike western boy bands, 1D and the like, the audience was predominantly female, but not overwhelmingly so: There were men here, voluntarily. But like western boy bands, these were humans from all walks of life, coming together to bask in the glory of the one thing that makes them happiest: Gyrating, handsome men.

The whole of the show was unlike anything in the western pop schema: Where we value authenticity in our stars (what else could explain the absolute reign of Taylor Swift if she didn’t come from humble country roots? Would we believe in her the same way?), BIGBANG values performance. At one point in the set, a few of the guys grabbed guitars and basses and didn’t play them — they didn’t even pretend to strum. T.O.P. spent the majority of the performance rapping behind different pairs of opaque sunglasses, each changing with his outfit to reflect the mood of the song. G-Dragon was the de facto leader, almost acting like a hype man for his own band. When it came time for the guys to vacate the stage for their costume changes, videos of the group were shown to entertain us: The guys at a club; the guys drag racing in some Nevada desert; the guys solidifying their place as total badasses (in our hearts.)

Stage banter stuck to English while most of the songs did not: There’s something really powerful about watching a group of tens of thousands singing along to a Korean chorus of “Haru Haru.” For non-native speakers, it was a battle of phonetics, and no one paid any mind.

The subject matter varied from love to lust and back again. GD and Taeyang’s “Good Boy” received the most applause of the night: Their dance moves directly channeled Michael Jackson, as that was a theme for the totality of the performance. (Heartthrob T.O.P. even toted around a bedazzled cane.) There was something weirdly powerful about watching these guys swear “I am a good boy,” when, in the traditional American-English sense, it’s not something associated with an exciting dating life. We want good girls and bad boys, and here, they pledge trustworthiness. One Direction might learn something from their M.O.

Self-deprecation, too, poked itself into the mix between “Loser” and “Blue,” two tracks that sing the blues and rue their “loser” statuses, respectively. It’s juxtaposed with the heartwarming “Wings” and the rave-promising “We Like 2 Party.” The two hour-plus performance served to reflect the rainbow spectrum of human emotion. Each song channeled a different sound, with moments that felt like they were straight out of Journey’s catalog, or biting interludes of Enya’s, even sampling Aphex Twin’s, spastic beats. It never once felt cluttered, a weird power BIGBANG may be alone in boasting. Are they the biggest band in the world that no one’s ever heard of? Definitely. Maybe that’s about to change.