The Return of K-Con: The Fourth Generation of K-Pop Blazes On

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(ATEEZ, KCON LA 2022. Source: KCONUSA)

By Pen Fang

After two years of virtual concerts mid-pandemic, KCON has returned to the big stage, starting with LA. The largest K-Pop convention celebrated its 10 year anniversary this year, with stunning performances to highlight the big night. For the first time in two years, fans were able to cheer on their idols in person and fill the convention hall with the glowing lightsticks of their groups.

Take ITZY, for example. In between amazing performances of new and older songs alike, including a surprise collaboration with Bebe Rexha of “Break My Heart Myself,” they played an emoji game with the audience. Or make a wish with Stray Kids and NCT DREAM. Amidst loud fan cheers and energetic songs, they partook in KCON’s Make a Wish segment, drawing cards with fan wishes to fulfill on them. Even try a hand at KCON’s new Dream Stages, designed to allow fans to perform with the idols of the groups they  support. Fans of Kep1er and LOONA were given the chance to audition and perform on stage with their idols during the convention.

(LOONA’s Dream Stage with fans, KCON LA 2022. Source: KCONUSA)

Like the past, this KCON featured many groups covering other songs. But for the first time, they launched the “Relay Performance” to let chosen performers cover famous past KCON stages. Day 1 saw ENHYPEN covering senior BTS’s “Permission to Dance,” while Day 2 saw NMIXX cover SEVENTEEN’s “VERY NICE.” Other covers also nodded back to iconic groups and moments, such as the collaboration cover of MAMAMOO’s “Decalcomanie” by two members from NMIXX and LOONA each, TO1’s cover of “That That” by PSY, and LIGHTSUM’s cover of “TOMBOY” by (G)I-DLE. Furthermore, Kep1er covered IZ*ONE’s La Vie En Rose, perhaps a slight nod to IZ*ONE’s similar origins — both are temporary groups formed through survival shows, hosted by entertainment company MNET. The connecting thread through all these covers, however, was the energy and passion each group had for their performances. Many of the groups featured at this KCON are “rookie groups,” the K-Pop term for groups who are not yet two years old (give or take). Rookie groups are often associated with a certain type of mindset — one filled with passion, energy, dedication, and perseverance — that shines brightly in KCON LA 2022’s stages. 

In fact, this KCON was held in the hands of K-Pop’s fourth generation, with only two groups being from the third generation. The full KCON LA 2022 lineup (not in order) consisted of ATEEZ, CRAVITY, ENHYPEN, INI, ITZY, Kep1er, LIGHTSUM, LOONA, NCT DREAM, NMIXX, P1HARMONY, STAYC, THE BOYZ, TO1, and WJSN. All of the groups in attendance debuted after 2016, and a fair amount of them did not exist prior to 2020. Furthermore, the event had no legacy performers despite the somewhat imbued nostalgia of its 10th anniversary, reflecting the shift of K-Pop itself as the third generation slides into the fourth. 

Marking this change was KCON’s opening act: ATEEZ’s cover of the theme song, “Poppia,” followed by seven of the group’s own songs, including their most recent comeback “Guerilla.” The stage was extremely energetic and demonstrated ATEEZ’s versatility and prowess as performers, drawing on their unique concept as a group as well as each member’s individual performance talents. It is worth mentioning that the part in “Wonderland” in which member Seonghwa uses a sword is featured.

Fourth generation pioneers Stray Kids, known for the high-energy and “noisy” songs, as well as for creating the “mala taste genre,” were interspersed throughout the first night. Bang Chan had a segment as a special MC, there was a special stage with 3RACHA (the producers of Stray Kids, members Bang Chan, Changbin, and HAN), and members Felix and Hyunjin appeared as MCs— truly exemplifying their motto of “stray kids everywhere all around the world” and the continued domination of the fourth generation of K-Pop. They closed night one with the hit song “God’s Menu” that saw both fans and their fellow idol groups at KCON jamming along.

(Stray Kids, KCON LA 2022. Source: KCONUSA)

Closing the overall event with iconic songs establishing their unique identity as a group was NCT DREAM. Where can you find another group that has a stadium of fans cheering for hot sauce? But perhaps their best performance of the night was “Hello Future,” with absolutely stunning vocals. And maybe it reflects a bit of the shift in K-Pop as well: welcoming a new generation of talented artists, performers, and what is still to come.