As the pandemic continues to swirl around us, it can be nice to take a nearly three-hour fanciful K-pop break. That’s exactly what the 2021 edition of SBS Gayo Daejeon, SBS’s annual Christmas K-pop spectacular, provided. SBS Gayo Daejeon 2021 boasted a huge lineup of top K-pop acts that the show managed admirably, breaking up the endless line of performances with cute Christmas-themed sequences and unique cover stages. SBS Gayo Daejeon didn’t exactly breeze by, but it also didn’t drag, and that’s something worth celebrating. 

SBS Gayo Daejeon’s structure gets a gold star, but the actual content of the show is harder to judge. On the one hand, there were no performances that imploded into a Christmas disaster. However, with the exception of a handful of spectacular stages, most of SBS Gayo Daejeon was pleasantly mediocre. One by one, groups such as Aespa, Astro, Enhypen, Nu’est, Oh My Girl, Red Velvet, TXT, and The Boyz played it safe with performances that were essentially slightly enhanced music show stages. Like the average music show stage, each song was perfectly entertaining. But while a rookie group like Ive can be forgiven for falling back on their formula, an event like SBS Gayo Daejeon calls for more from senior groups, especially ones with big fandoms and bigger reputations. 

The cover stages sprinkled throughout SBS Gayo Daejeon felt similarly nice but not great, though the show did a good job creating many unique combinations of idols to showcase the special nature of the event. Some exceptions to the mediocrity were a lovely solo stage by Red Velvet’s Wendy and a solid cover of TVXQ’s “Mirotic”. Of the five participants in the “Mirotic” cover, SF9’s Taeyang deserves a special shout out: as the K-pop meme community might put it, he understood the assignment. 

Another person who capably filled their role was co-host Itzy’s Yuna, who showcased a relaxed ease alongside veteran hosts Shinee’s Key and comedian Boom. Many more hosting gigs should be in Yuna’s immediate future after her excellent job here. Itzy as a whole continued their impressive end-of-year run with a strong performance of “Mafia in the Morning” and b-side “Sorry Not Sorry”. The only mark against Itzy’s SBS Gayo Daejeon stage is that it couldn’t match their fantastic MAMA 2021 performance a few weeks earlier, but that’s less a gripe against their SBS Gayo Daejeon showing and more an acknowledgement of how truly excellent that MAMA stage was. 

Another girl group that stepped up was Brave Girls. Though their performance didn’t showcase innovative staging or daring choreography, Brave Girls excelled because they brought the kind of performance energy a big event like SBS Gayo Daejeon calls for. Their joy was infectious throughout their rendition of “We Ride”, “Rollin’” and “Chi Mat Ba Ram”, making for one of the most feel-good moments of this holiday special.

Sometimes, the best laid plans don’t work out. But amidst the mountain of averageness at SBS Gayo Daejeon, some stages stood out for at least giving greater things a shot. StayC performed remixed versions of “Asap” and “Stereotype” that didn’t quite do the original songs justice, but at least they were unique. StayC also stood out for their noticeably live vocals, especially in comparison to most other groups in the show. StayC were occasionally a bit pitchy, but that they committed to and mostly delivered solid live vocals is incredibly admirable. 

Stray Kids were another group that missed their swing a bit, but that they swung at all is worth recognizing. They presented a charming Christmas-themed rendition of “Thunderous” that they performed with gusto. The only issue is that “Thunderous” and Christmas aren’t a match made in heaven, no matter how adorable the candy-cane twist on the “Thunderous” chorus choreography was. Also, was that Squid Game there for a second? Confusing. Compare this SBS Gayo Daejeon stage to their spectacular traditional-influenced rendition of “Thunderous” at the 2021 KBS Song Festival, and you can see what a difference a good match between concept and track can make. Still, Stray Kids delivered a memorable, if slightly off-kilter, stage. 

Among the mediocre stages and the close but not quite stages, a few performances stood out as truly stellar. All came from idols already renowned for their strong performing skills, and all represent peak outings for them even when held up to their high standards. As middling as SBS Gayo Daejeon could be at times, these stages essentially made the whole show worth it, at least in this viewer’s humble opinion. 

First up, Ateez delivered electric versions of “Deja Vu” and “The Real-Heung Version”. The group grabbed viewers attention from the first minute with some of the top styling of the night, wearing navy, black, and gold modern hanboks. The traditional influences continued throughout their performance, most prominently in a wonderfully choreographed dance break that helped transition between the two tracks. 

Ateez also made the best use of the impressive projecting wall and floor screens at SBS Gayo Daejeon, shifting between painterly images, neon ribbons in the vein of traditional Korean dance, and bold calligraphy. These effects matched and enhanced their performance without overpowering it, a nice feat of staging. Ateez brought exciting theatricality and energy to their SBS Gayo Daejeon stage, once again showcasing their prowess as top fourth generation performers. 

Another standout stage came from co-host Key, performing “Bad Love” and b-side “Helium”. Key shined as the night’s sole full-length solo performer, commanding the stage with the effortless ease that only comes with literal decades of experience. It certainly didn’t hurt that both tracks he performed are excellent songs with all the drama and fun K-pop can offer. Key’s performance also used backup dancers to great effect, filling the stage with them to create a sense of momentum without cramping Key’s individual style in the least. 

Finally, Key’s lablemates NCT closed SBS Gayo Daejeon with a bang. NCT U kicked the set off with a solid rendition of “Universe (Let’s Play Ball)”, but the performance really went into high gear when NCT Dream took the stage for an explosive rendition of “Hot Sauce”. The SBS Gayo Daejeon camera crew worked overtime during the stage, swooping in and out of the NCT Dream formation with breathtaking speed. While fancy camerawork can sometimes distract from a stage, this time it worked with the members to create a performance full of momentum. 

NCT Dream then passed the torch to NCT 127 in a smooth dance break transition that flowed into a delightedly absurd solo dance from Taeyong. NCT 127 then wrapped it all up with “Sticker”. NCT really stepped up to the plate as the closers of the evening, bringing sheer energy and commitment to all three songs. Based on Jaehyun‘s ending fairy pose, they knew it too! Thanks to NCT, SBS Gayo Daejeon ended on the highest of highs, and a good finale can do wonders to make a whole show seem excellent.

SBS Gayo Daejeon 2021 was built around the theme of “Welcome”, and the evening’s hosts made a thinly veiled reference to the wave of Hallyu-motivated tourism South Korea hopes to welcome when the pandemic fades. These expectations are far from unreasonable. Hallyu continues to impress, and its global popularity has only grown during the pandemic years. When safety conditions allow for it, South Korea likely will be opening its doors to an eager flood of seasoned fans and new Hallyu converts. 

This impending return of something like normality was represented at SBS Gayo Daejeon by a small live audience, still unable to cheer aloud, but enthusiastically waving their light sticks to fill the performing space with much-missed audience energy. Despite its many mediocre elements, SBS Gayo Daejeon ultimately did contain performances that showed exactly why Hallyu has become a global cultural juggernaut. When a mediocre night of stages is this good, that’s when you know you have a proper phenomenon on your hands. 

(YouTube: [1][2][3][4]. Images via SBS.)