K-pop awards season is back in full-swing, as signified by the return of The Mnet Asian Music Awards, otherwise known as MAMA, last weekend. Like in 2020, but usually unprecedented for MAMA, this year’s ceremony took place in Korea, this time at the all-new CJ Studio Center in the city of Paju. 

Unlike last year, however, this year’s MAMA performers were met by an in-person crowd, finally reuniting the several groups and idols who had not performed in front of a live audience in the last two years. Colorful light sticks of all different groups signified a glimmer of hope that K-pop’s (usually) biggest night might be regaining some normalcy. 

The images of the crowd certainly made MAMA feel a little more normal. There was also the awards’ familiar cast of big winners, including a glaringly absent BTS, who took home nine awards. But all this still failed to hide that the awards ceremony for the most part felt like any other night, perhaps a slightly more star-studded episode of M Countdown at best. With idols still not able to sit in and participate as members of the audience, as they have in years prior before the pandemic, there were few of the fun idol moments that typically separate MAMA from music shows and even other awards shows.

In terms of what was new this year, aside from the return to an in-person audience, veteran idol Lee Hyori hosted the awards, becoming the first female solo host of the show. Mnet also tried their hand at incorporating cutting-edge visual effects into this year’s performances, most notably with augmented reality elements during various stages. 

Ironically enough, even with all of these elements combined, MAMA 2021 felt even more lackluster than the last. Between a less-than-stacked lineup missing many notable third-generation acts and prominent nominees, plus less-than-grand stages and camerawork to accompany the performers that remained, MAMA felt no more noteworthy than any other night in K-pop this year. 

MAMAs in years prior have notably featured covers and collaborations between groups, which are typically a highlight of the show. This year, that firstly came in the form of the opening performance to introduce this year’s theme of “Make Some Noise.” However, the performance was hardly a true collaboration, instead featuring representatives from popular fourth generation groups doing short dance performances on their own separate stages, including Stray KidsHyunjin, TXT’s Yeonjun, Itzy’s Yeji, Enhypen’s Heeseung, Ateez’s Wooyoung, and Aespa’s Karina

Another major collaboration from the night included host Lee Hyori and the dance crews from Mnet’s dance competition show, Street Woman Fighter, which aired earlier this year. Each dance crew brought their own flavor to various remixes of Lee Hyori’s “Do the Dance,” a special song released just for MAMA. Later, all of the dance crews joined the idol herself on-stage for a striking finale performance of the same track. Mnet also highlighted the 10th season celebration of their long-running show Show Me the Money during a collaboration stage featuring Dynamicduo, Paloalto, Giriboy, LilBOI, JUSTHIS, Lee Young Ji, and Gwang-il Jo. 

While covers and collaborations were less than abundant at this year’s show, one major reunion filled a major hole in their absence — that of Produce 101-formed boy group Wanna One. The eleven-member group returned to the stage for the first time in over two years since disbanding. It was an emotional and triumphant moment, with Wanna One performing three songs: debut song “Energetic“, “Burn It Up”, and “Beautiful (Part III)”, an all-new version of the group’s hit song. 

One of the major highlights of the night came from Itzy’s performance of “Loco” and “Mafia in the Morning” Joined by Squid Game actor Heo Sung Tae, the stage began with a pre-recorded skit of Heo asking Itzy’s Ryunjin to take down the members of Itzy during their performance. A fiery rendition of “Loco” ensued, which includes member Chaeyreong showing off a skillful pole dance routine. When “Loco” concluded, Ryunjin brandished a gun toward Itzy leader Yeji, then suddenly shifted back toward Heo, launching into a masterful fight sequence that ended with Ryunjin shooting Heo in the heart. The group then launched into an intense performance of “Mafia in the Morning” on the main stage. 

Stray Kids also came away from the night with memorable and energetic performances of “Cheese”, “Hey, Monster”, and “Thunderous”, the last of which featured main dancer Hyunjin whipping around a fully-lit and on-fire sword during the track’s dance break — surely one of the night’s most talked about moments. Per usual, each of the members had a boisterous and mesmerizing stage presence, further aided by eye-catching props and stage designs, and a dynamic selection of tracks to perform. 

Aespa, on the other hand, the rookie SM Entertainment girl group with some of the biggest and best releases of this year, presented a disappointing and underwhelming stage of their two 2021 chart-toppers “Savage” and “Next Level“. They performed on a practically bare stage with no backup dancers to fill the emptiness. The large augmented reality snake and the members’ AI counterparts, who made a brief appearance at the end of the performance, don’t count. Aespa’s highly-anticipated MAMA stage had nothing new or different in it to truly take it to, well, the next level. 

Other (surprisingly) underwhelming performances came from fourth-generation mainstays like TXT and Enhypen, whose stages also lacked that wow factor that MAMA performances typically promise to have. While the skit portions of both of these group’s stages were visually and narratively compelling, they didn’t entirely connect to the actual live stages, especially Enhypen’s skit featuring member Sunghoon dancing under a bloody rain shower; the group launched into a glitzy football-themed performance of “Tamed-Dashed” immediately afterward. TXT delivered during performances of “Frost” and “Loser=Lover” with their elaborate choreography and strong vocals, although failed to make a splash in part due to disappointing camera work and direction on behalf of MAMA

While this year’s MAMA didn’t look like shows from years past, including last year’s entirely pre-recorded ceremony, it presented a glimmer of hope that K-pop performances can and may return to normal soon. But MAMA 2021 didn’t necessarily reassure that the Mnet awards show will ever be the spectacle it once was again. After a year full of trials, tribulations, and experimentation within the K-pop world, MAMA was an apt reflection of that, and perhaps the burnout and fatigue that have come with it. 

(Korea Herald, YouTube. Images via Mnet.)