KCON LA 2022 review: K-pop’s powerful fourth generation carries the torch forward

Crypto.com Arena, August 20-21: The festival and convention celebrate 10 years of history by looking ahead to the future of K-pop with Stray Kids, Ateez, NCT Dream, STAYC and more

It’s sensory overload inside Los Angeles’s Crypto.com Arena. Thousands of fans clutch a mix of lightsticks ranging from regal scepters to heart-shaped megaphones, roaring in excitement. This is the scene at KCON LA 2022, where over the course of two days 16 acts take the stage for seven hours of performances. Such fan euphoria is the inevitable result of bringing so much K-pop talent together under a single roof.

KCON made its debut in 2012, and has since been making K-pop performances accessible to international fans in the US and abroad, even when it shifted online in 2020 and 2021. Back in full swing this year, the KCON LA slate is full of fresh faces. For some of the groups, this is a watershed moment: a first time overseas, a maiden performance on a stage this size. Others have just completed a world tour or are about to embark on one.

ATEEZ at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
ATEEZ at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

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ATEEZ, who fall into the latter category, kick it all off on Saturday with ‘Poppia’, a KCON ‘signature’ song. Their set comprises an impressive seven songs, the group commanding the 360-degree stage. Jongho’s belted high notes were a ‘mics on’ moment, while dancer San’s moves were so intense he nearly lost his headset microphone.

NMIXX at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
NMIXX at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

Night two, by comparison, has a slower start – some fatigue from the weekend-long festivities, jam-packed convention programming included, may be the cause. But before the energy can fall too far, NMIXX inject a much-needed shot of adrenaline by covering SEVENTEEN’s ‘Aju Nice’, suspenders and all. “Are you feeling nice?” shouts Lily, and it was simply impossible to say no. This is just one of the night’s homages to stages of KCON past – later, NMIXX’s Sullyoon and Kyujin return with LOONA’s Heejin and Hyunjin, channeling MAMAMOO’s sophistication and power in their joint cover of the quartet’s freewheeling anthem ‘Decalcomanie’.

STAYC at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
STAYC at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

Apart from a handful of these rookie stages, there is a surprising lack of nostalgia for KCON’s 10-year anniversary. No legacy acts are present, and setlists gravitate towards newer releases, even when that means beloved classics are cut for time. (The cheers when NCT Dream’s Jisung sings a single line from ‘Chewing Gum’ say it all.)

STAYC never once utter their signature catchphrase, though their dance break to introduce ‘Beautiful Monster’ and stage costumes fit for royalty make up for it. Likewise focusing on their 2022 – and now TikTok-viral – hits, ENHYPEN perform ‘Future Perfect (Pass the Mic)’ and ‘Polaroid Love’, though the most welcome inclusion of all is ‘Fever,’ one of the best K-pop songs of 2021.

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ENHYPEN at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
ENHYPEN at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

Bucking the trend, as they tend to do, are ITZY. After they ‘pull’ their ‘SNEAKERS’ on, they take us all the way back to debut days with their carefree manifesto ‘DALLA DALLA’ and the empowered shoulder shimmies of ‘WANNABE.’ Still, with no act on the KCON line-up predating 2016, the scent of a generational shift remains in the air.

ITZY at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
ITZY at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

K-pop idols go through rigorous training to become all-around performers, specialising in vocals, dance, or rap (though they are often well-versed in more than one) and chasing their dreams of stardom. Take The Boyz, who stepped off a flight from Seoul late in the afternoon on Sunday and hours later, flip and stunt their way through sleek heist thriller ‘The Stealer’.

KCON LA seeks to give fans a small taste of the idol grind with ‘dream stages.’ After exhaustive rounds of competition, a few lucky (and well-practised) fans take the arena’s stage with their idols, performing ‘WA DA DA’ with Kep1er on Saturday and ‘PTT (Paint the Town)’ with LOONA on Sunday in a display of the convention’s dream-making power.

Throughout the weekend, auditions are held for upcoming competition show Boys Planet; during a floor appearance, CRAVITY member and Los Angeles native Allen emphasises that just four years ago, he too was an adoring fan in the KCON audience. Even as it celebrates its history, KCON seems to be firmly orienting itself toward the future of K-pop.

Stray Kids at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
Stray Kids at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

No one better exemplifies this than the closers chosen for each night. First come the unabashedly loud, Fourth-Gen mouthpiece Stray Kids. At the top of Saturday’s bill, the members surface several times over the course of the night. Bang Chan throws roses into the audience in his stint as MC, and 3RACHA (the group’s in-house production trio Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han) emerge mid-show for a special stage of unreleased track ‘Yeah’. And when Stray Kids assemble on stage as a full group for a medley of their most head-banging title tracks (including the standout ‘God’s Menu’), one thing quickly becomes clear: the “thunderous ones” have arrived.

NCT Dream at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM
NCT Dream at KCON LA 2022. Courtesy of CJ ENM

Capping off the entire weekend is NCT Dream with breathless enthusiasm and an all-too-brief set: beginning with ‘Beatbox’ and ‘Hot Sauce’, then transitioning into ‘Hello Future’ and the experimental ‘Glitch Mode’. The song ‘Hello Future’ in particular feels like the most fitting way to end 10 years of KCON and celebrate a decade of gatherings across the world, online and in-person, in the name of K-pop: “Wherever it may be, we’re coming together.

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