Even among the big four companies of K-pop, SM Entertainment stands out for its huge roster of notable and active artists. The company has made a habit of semi-regularly gathering their mighty family for SMTown concerts. These performance spectacles have the dual benefit of generating tons of revenue, and serving as visceral evidence of SM’s enduring strength. 

Like so many other things, future SMTowns have been indefinitely delayed due to the pandemic. That is, future in-person SMTowns have been indefinitely delayed. Online concerts are an increasingly viable option, something SM chose to take advantage of by hosting SMTown Live Culture Humanity (wow, that’s a mouthful). The nearly four hour festival featured more than a dozen SM acts. It was streamed live and for free on the first day of 2021, drawing an impressive 35.8 million viewers from all over the world. Given the popularity of the artists performing, and the quality of the concert itself, it isn’t hard to see why. 

SM has been a leader in K-pop’s pivot to online events, starting their Beyond Live concerts in the very early months of the pandemic. SM’s efforts throughout 2020 to hone its online performance technology showed in SMTown Live. The concert was technically spotless, with crystal clear image quality, zero buffering, and fairly consistent real time English subtitles. That last bit may have been helped by the fact that the majority of the speeches seemed scripted, but it was nonetheless appreciated by an English-speaking viewer like myself. 

The truest sign of SM’s virtual capabilities was that its online concert had impact. There is no way a virtual event can hope to match the kinetic energy of an in-person K-pop performance. Still, the excitement SMTown Live was able to generate is nothing to shrug at. 

The concert was opened by a friendly but forgettable inspirational video. Then, it was time for the first of three NCT sets. Over the course of SMTown Live, the various NCT units performed nearly every title track they released this year, plus a few extra tunes, which is a staggering number of songs. Despite the members’ charisma and commitment, the NCT stages eventually began to blur together because of their sheer number. Some performances did break through the haze though, like WayV’s “Turn Back Time” and NCT U’s “90’s Love”. 

One of SMTown Live’s innovations was to regularly flash song titles, and sporadically flash performer’s names, at the bottom of the screen. A whole group’s names would pop up at the beginning and end of their opening stage, and individual’s names would appear during their first closeup shot. This pattern repeated again for groups that performed multiple times but spread out through the show. The device was genuinely helpful, especially during NCT’s billions of unit switches, if a bit clunky.

No names were flashed more that NCT’s Mark and Ten. They ran from one NCT unit to another, to SuperM, to guest appearances in other artists’ sets, and then right back to NCT. Watching them hustle between stages was head spinning in a simultaneously humorous and vaguely concerning way. More than anything, it was a tangible reminder of just how absurdly hard they, alongside many other SMTown Live performers , have worked this year. 

Another early performer was Red Velvet. They were perhaps the most buzzed about act prior to SMTown Live. The concert was the first time all five members have performed since Wendy’s injury in December 2019 and Irene’s more recent Gapjil scandal. While Irene seemed nervous during the group’s greeting, their stages of “Bad Boy”, “Peekaboo”, and “Psycho” went smoothly. It was wonderful to see Wendy looking so healthy, and Red Velvet seem poised to move onwards and upwards in 2021. 

Someone who didn’t look so healthy was NCT’s Taeyong. Despite a previous announcement that he would be taking a break from activities due to a relapsed disc injury, he put in a few limited appearances during SMTown Live. Taeyong was as captivating as ever on stage, but he looked noticeably strained in some moments, particularly while executing the demanding choreography of NCT 127’s “Kick It”. You have to wonder who cleared him for performing when he was seemed to be in pain and risked exacerbating his injury by doing so. 

Perhaps Taeyong’s less than ideal condition impacted the dynamic of SuperM, because their SMTown Live stages felt surprisingly flat. Other disappointing performances included a trio of DJ collaborations between Raiden and Aespa’s Winter, Imlay and WayV’s YangYang, and Ginjo and WayV’s Ten and Xiaojun. While all the performers involved did their best, there is something tragic about seeing DJs try to pump up the volume to an empty stadium. These performances inadvertently brought to mind the challenges of the pandemic. That being said, the DJs’ post-concert sets were a nice idea that allowed SMTown Live to drift to a close, rather than abruptly stopping. 

Some stages that did resonate were solo performances from Kai and Taemin. These dancing kings delivered predictably stellar renditions of their 2020 hits. Both were part of a specified “Performance” section that also included Super Junior D&E

Super Junior and their sub-units were some of the stand out performers of the concert. Their group stages of “Super Clap” and “2YA2YAO” were tons of fun, and their performance of recent pre-release “Burn the Floor” was enjoyably conceptual. Their vocal unit Super Junior K.R.Y also provided the most memorable stage from SMTown Live’s predictably packed “Vocal” section, which also included solo performances from Baekhyun, Taeyeon, and Kangta. Whether cracking jokes during their greeting, or turning it out on the stage, Super Junior brought the easy self-assuredness of veteran performers to SMTown Live.

TVXQ displayed similar professionalism during their appearances. Their stage of the incredibly simple hype song “Dream” may have been the best performance of SMTown Live. As Yunho and Changmin bounded around the empty theater, they somehow managed to convey the unmistakable whisper of a live concert-like feeling. As good as nearly all of SMTown Live’s stages were, they often felt like a particularly accomplished collection of music show performances. TVXQ were the exception. They pushed past the limitations of the virtual medium to deliver something truly unique. 

One non-veteran group that shined during SMTown Live was the company’s newest act, Aespa. The members were confident and energetic in their performance of “Black Mamba”, and charming during their brief greeting. It was impressive to see how much they have improved in the just over a month it has been since their debut. If Aespa can keep this up, they will truly become a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. 

While SMTown Live remained enjoyable to the very end, it probably wouldn’t have hurt if the concert had been a bit shorter. Particularly once groups started coming out for late encore-like stages, SMTown Live started to drag. While these repeat performances are customary, and several of them were excellent, what works in-person doesn’t always work virtually. Attention spans for online content are simply shorter. A less bloated setlist would have allowed SMTown Live to maintain momentum throughout. 

One welcome carryover from SMTown’s in-person iterations was the company-wide ending song. In keeping with pandemic regulations, SM couldn’t have all its artists in one space to sing jointly. However, the company edited together an enjoyable medley of every performer participating in a finale ballad. It was a sweet and fitting way to close out the show.

SMTown Live was a smash success, both in terms of quality and viewership. The biggest news of the evening didn’t come from either of those things though. Instead, it was the official confirmation of Shinee’s 2021 comeback that grabbed attention following the concert. A teaser montage of Shinee’s biggest hits played twice during SMTown Live, each time ending with the iconic “Shinee’s back” whisper and a screen reading “2021 Shinee is back”. Speaking on behalf of my Shawol self, I am excited (insert happy screaming here).

SMTown Live was an impressive feat of technology and performance that allowed SM to blast into the new year. Judging by the stages and teasers featured in SMTown Live, 2021 is going to be just as packed with SM content as 2020 was. Fingers crossed, some of it may be able to be in-person. But if our pandemic woes continue to plague us, SM has proven itself more than capable of engaging fans virtually. As K-pop continues its global expansion, that’s a trick that will be invaluable to SM long after the pandemic has abated. 

(Billboard, Naver, Twitter, YouTube.  Images via SM Entertainment)