SMTown in Taiwan: Turn Up The Heat
This weekend’s SMTown concert in Taiwan’s Hsinchu County Stadium marked SMTown Live World Tour III’s second stop, following its successful run in Los Angeles last month. While the set list for the Taiwan concert was virtually identical to that of the LA concert (an issue that will be discussed later on), it nonetheless proved itself to be a show of its own — for better or for worse.
It’s no secret that Taiwan hosts a large SM-idol fan following, making this SMTown Live concert a long-overdue treat for SM fans in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the concert was also scheduled on the same day as the national high school entrance exam in Taiwan, thus depriving the concert crowd from the typically ever-present hoards of middle school fangirls. Nevertheless, the concert venue was nearly sold out, with over 28,000 attendees.
With an average temperature of 34 degrees Celsius in the outdoor stadium throughout the evening, this SMTown concert could probably be dubbed the sweatiest SMTown concert to date. Even Zhang Li-yin was looking slightly soggy during her ballad numbers. Several SNSD members had their previously free-flowing hair piled up in decidedly un-fabulous, workout-style ponytails, and the high humidity of the Taiwanese summer had taken a clear toll on the hairstyles of other artists. I don’t think we’ll ever know if Ryeowook’s tragic frizzball was done on purpose or not. SHINee‘s Minho wound up taking off his jacket in the middle of a song, wearing only a fishnet tank top whilst galavanting across the stage. Yes, I enjoyed it.
The concert line-up featured the usual: BoA, DBSK, Super Junior, SNSD, SHINee, f(x) and EXO, along with Kangta and Zhang Li-yin, both of which did not perform at the LA show. Zhang Li-yin opened the show with two ballads, “Happiness’ Left Shore” and “Moving On” — both of which are over three years old. Hey, I’m just glad she’s still alive and kickin’.
Kangta also performed two songs from his year-old Mando-pop mini-album, “Remember” and “Love Frequency.” Even though Kangta’s the designated senior citizen of the SM fam, I personally really enjoy the guy and his performances. However, he does win the award for “Worst Chinese Accent” in SM, narrowly beating out Jonghyun of SHINee and Chen of EXO-M.
The rest of the show ran along the same lines as the LA concert, with an added Chinese ballad cover by Ryeowook, Eunhyuk and Chen, as well as a surprise appearance by Zhou Mi (previously thought to be AWOL in light of Henry’s announced absence from the concert), who performed a duet with Victoria. Apart from that, however, the set list remained unchanged.
This concert marked EXO’s second SMTown performance ever, and while the group only performed “History” and “MAMA” (lip-synched, of course), they were really endearing and had that cute rookie-like charm to them during their group intro. Chen was particularly adorable, telling the audience in Mandarin that he was working really hard at learning Chinese lately, and that he had learned to say that he had four people in his family — mom, dad, older brother, and Chen. On top of that, Chanyeol said in Mandarin that he really, really, really, really, super, super, super, super, super loved everyone, while Kris countered that by saying that he was really, really, really, really, super, super, super, super, super happy to be there. Despite their flaws, I think it’s safe to say that my love for Kris and Chanyeol is not going to die anytime soon.
The fan favorites amongst f(x) were pretty obvious — the screams were deafening any time Victoria, Amber, or Krystal took the stage. (Victoria was five feet from me when she rolled by in one of those stupid pink carts during her duet with Zhou Mi, and she looked like a Barbie doll with her new blonde hair. Heart palpitations, for real.) On the contrary, the lack of love for Luna and Sulli was painfully obvious, and it broke my heart to see Luna noticing her comparative lack of cheers and working really, really hard to try to make up for it.
By merit of sheer physical endurance alone, SHINee takes the prize for being the most impressive group of the night. They performed five dance-heavy remix songs in a row without skipping a beat, only stopping at the end of their set to say a few words to the audience with the aid of a backstage translator. I don’t think the members introduced themselves individually, unlike the other groups — but judging from the sheer fan fervor in the audience, it probably wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. This marks the third time I’ve seen SHINee live, and their live performances have always impressed me. However, there was something about SHINee’s aura that struck me as being a little bit weird during this concert. Nearly all of their songs were remixed as heavy-metal, super-macho head-bangers — most of which were taken from SHINee’s concerts both in Korea and Japan. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not exactly the image I’ve come to expect from SHINee, and nor do I think that it’s an image that suits them well. Their performance of “Love Like Oxygen” was also a rock remix, and they didn’t even perform “Noona Neomu Yeppeo,” which has practically become the group’s trademark song. Their pseudo-Irish step dancing during one of the dance breaks alongside Jonghyun’s repeated cries to “ring his bell” during the “Ring Ding Dong” remix made it a little hard to take them completely seriously, despite their unquestionably impressive skill and endurance. But then again, the SHINee fans around me were fainting all over each other during SHINee’s headbanging extravaganza, so perhaps I’m in the minority.
SNSD was slightly disappointing, even with the addition of the performances from TaeTiSeo to the list. Their performances were fairly standard in that MuBank/MuCore/Inkigayo sort of way, and with a group with such a large following in Taiwan (or anywhere else, for that matter), I expected a little more.
To no real surprise, Super Junior received the most frenzied screams from the audience — Taiwan hosts a ridiculous amount of Super Junior fans, and Super Junior knows it. Super Junior was probably the most entertaining group of the night, and even though it was clear that many of the SJ-M members had forgotten the Chinese they learned during their long stay in Taiwan last year, the members’ introductions in Mandarin were the most hilarious and charming of the bunch. Eunhyuk repeated his groan-worthy “Chinese is as easy as eating” gag (which I’d honestly missed hearing), Kyuhyun‘s intro was long and fluent and fabulous, and I won’t lie — I just about died when I heard Donghae call me one of his “親愛的寶貝們 (beloved babies)” for the first time in person. Even tight-lipped Yesung cracked a few jokes in Chinese, while Leeteuk came under fire by his members for practically yelling his less-than-fluent intro into the mic, which is something I’ve noticed that he’s prone to doing when it comes to speaking in any languages that are not Korean. Siwon and Eunhyuk even managed some Taiwanese during their performance of “Oops” with f(x). All in all, ridiculously cute.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about DBSK was the sheer awkwardness of the duo’s intros. Considering the fact that most of their audiences have been either Korean or Japanese and that both Yunho and Changmin are able to seamlessly communicate to either of those audiences, it was somewhat entertaining to watch Yunho and Changmin squirm while trying to communicate in a language that they’re not completely fluent in. In the end, however, their performances spoke for themselves. DBSK performed the full versions of “Mirotic” and “Rising Sun,” which I’ve personally never seen the duo perform prior to this concert — and as a former diehard OT5 fangirl, it made me a little sad to see the emptiness of the stage during those two songs.
BoA was the most disappointing act of the night for me, but this has to do completely with the audience fervor and nothing to do with BoA. When I saw BoA in New York last year, her stage charisma and ability to work the audience made her the most impressionable act of the night in my book. However, she couldn’t seem to work up the audience during the Taiwan concert no matter how hard she tried. Part of this probably had to do with the fact that almost all of her songs were from her English album (the crowd finally showed a little more excitement when she performed “Hurricane Venus“), but the audience, while respectful, seemed fairly unexcited during BoA’s performance. It’s definitely not because she isn’t well-liked — the screams from the audience were loud as ever whenever BoA’s face showed up on one of the transition videos — but it seems that Taiwanese audiences generally regard BoA with respect, not fervor. And that’s kind of unfortunate to me — I think BoA has the best stage charisma and energy out of the entire SM fam. And while it’s understandable, it’s a teensy bit disheartening for me to see the crowd go absolutely nuts over Super Junior performing “Bonamana” for the umpteenth time but have next to no response during BoA’s performances. (Not even Taiwan fan-favorite Key dancing up against BoA during “I Did It For Love” could manage to get the crowd going.)
My disappointment over BoA’s performance could be said for my disappointment for many of the collabs between the SM artists. Almost all of the collab songs during the Taiwan concert were directly adapted from the LA concert. The songs covered during the LA concert were a perfect fit for the audience there — songs like “DJ Got Us Falling In Love,” “Like a G6,” and “California Girls” are popular American pop songs that would be well-received at any Western party. But when they were performed at the Taiwan concert, the crowd seemed to be completely unenthused. As a western concert-goer, I found the contrast in audience excitement between danceable cover songs like “Like a G6” and overdone old lead singles like “Gee” to be astonishing, but understandable. I was still kind of disappointed, and I wish that I was there to enjoy these songs in LA for the sheer merit of audience fervor alone. But make no mistake — I was still dancing my stupid, American butt off while the Taiwanese concert-goers around me half-heartedly waved their lightsticks.
Perhaps this speaks to the importance of variation of a concert set list when the concert is touring in different countries throughout the world. While world tours are certainly not a new thing, most of these tours are well-received in all different countries because the set list mostly consists of songs that any fan in any part of the world would be familiar with. If SM really wanted to maintain the same level of audience fervor in every single venue they perform in, then their set list should consist of every lead single that every SM artist has ever done. Have SHINee pull out “Jo Jo,” for God’s sakes, and it’d still be well-received almost anywhere. But when it comes to a company-wide concert like SMTown, it’d be a waste to not do any cross-group collabs. These collabs oftentimes take the form of cover songs. Back when SMTown was still limited to Korean audiences, these collabs would oftentimes be covers of Korean songs (Changmin and co’s cover of “Flying Ducks” back in SMTown 2008, for instance), and they would be extremely well-received amongst Korean audiences. But with SMTown’s worldwide expansion, the obvious choice would be to cover American pop songs, particularly those that are known worldwide. And while it was clear that many of the Taiwanese audience members knew of the English cover songs that were performed, they weren’t too excited about it in the same way that an English-speaking audience member would be excited to see their favorite idols covering a song that they already knew and loved.
The appeal behind cover songs seems to be limited to the audience’s prior familiarity with the song that’s being covered. If the audience doesn’t know and love the covered song, then the cover performance isn’t going to hold much value. At the same time, it’s not as if SM has the time or resources to prepare covers of songs that are popular in Taiwan and the US and France and wherever else SM plans on taking their world tour. To remedy this problem, SM could try doing remixes of well-known SM songs and include features by other SM artists, or cover Korean songs or parodies that any K-pop fan with a reasonable amount of Korean entertainment knowledge would know. What SM should not do, however, is copy a set list designed for one country’s audience and transplant it to another. Of course, it’s not necessarily the set list that’s going to sell tickets, but the set list is incredibly important to the level of energy in the audience, and I think that’s what counts the most when you’re talking about any kind of live concert.
As for me, I found the concert to be highly enjoyable but nonetheless forgettable, in the same way that a high school dance is highly enjoyable but nonetheless forgettable. Granted, I was situated pretty far away from the stage so there wasn’t any excitement garnered from being close enough to see the pores of my favorite idols, but I don’t think that would have mattered if the audience was a little more energetic. I always found it kind of funny whenever idols go on variety programs and mention how Western fans “dance” during concerts, but having been in the floor sections of SMTown concerts both in New York and in Taiwan, I didn’t really realize how starkly different Western concert-goers are compared to Asian concert-goers. At the same time, there are merits to quietly and attentively listening to a concert while not moving a bone (save for a wrist, waving a light stick in time with the music), but I prefer the jumpy, hyper-energetic, club-like atmosphere that makes more frequent appearances amongst Western concert-goers.
I’ve been spending a lot of time taking careful note of Taiwan’s consumer culture and the impact of K-pop in Taiwan during my stay here, and I’m glad that this concert gave me a chance to see Taiwan’s K-pop culture manifested en masse. K-pop holds an interesting post in Taiwan’s culture and economy, and Taiwan’s rapid and oftentimes indiscriminate absorption of K-pop culture says a lot — not only about Taiwan’s consumer culture, but also about how K-pop is starting to be marketed outside of Asia and how non-Asian audiences should react to the “power” of an industry that has managed to easily win over the hearts and wallets of entire countries in Asia. Watch out for upcoming articles discussing these issues, only on Seoulbeats!