NJ Performing Arts Center, Newark, February 17, 2019
The world of K-pop has a problem. The scene’s rapid growth in the west has seen a flood of tours for male groups, particularly in the US, but, in the last few years, its women have been left behind. Only three female K-pop acts had toured America before 2019 – 2NE1, Apink, and former 2NE1 singer CL.
In March, male rookie band ATEEZ, who were only unveiled last year, will arrive Stateside. Red Velvet, the SM Entertainment five-piece who debuted in 2014 and have two albums and seven Korean mini-albums (and one in Japanese) to their name, have only just been given the chance to do their first US tour.
It’s not that there’s no demand for the girl groups of Korea away from home turf. The screams inside the NJ Performing Arts Center in Newark on the last night of Red Velvet’s tour tell you that. They are deafening, often louder than the PA itself. Before the band even take to the stage there are teen girls calling tonight the best night of their lives and rows of boys making their neighbours laugh with overexcited chants more readily associated with football stadiums. This moment has been a long time coming and everyone present is primed to make it worth the wait.
They’re rewarded with a K-pop spectacular that doesn’t skimp on production values, despite the small venue. There’s a bright screen of visuals popping away for every song and VTs in the intermission breaks that are often bizarre, showing the five-piece in various stages of a trip to a theme park in which they get turned into prey by three hunters, grow and shrink Alice In Wonderland-style after accidentally drinking a potion, and battle their way through a haunted house. There are blankets of dry ice, flumes of foil streamers, and blizzards of confetti, the latter two of which would usually bring about a spike in euphoria. But Red Velvet’s show is so relentlessly joyous, it’s hard for gimmicks to compete.
As you’d expect from a K-pop show, the whole thing is highly choreographed. But there’s one moment during ‘Rookie’ that endearingly dismantles the concert’s slickness. Seulgi’s hair extensions come out of place and she rips them out and chucks them aside, giggling her way through the next verse until she gains her composure. But she’s not the only one distracted by the errant locks – Irene suffers the same fate, eventually having to pick the hair-piece up and move it further from view.
There’s a duality to the band that’s often talked about – the cutesy “red” side and the edgier “velvet” one. They lean heavily on the former tonight, including during the perky ‘Russian Roulette’ (which deploys arcade game sound effects for added cheer) and the jungle-themed ‘Mr. E’, for which they dress in outfits corresponding to different animals – Wendy as a Dalmatian, Seulgi as a bear, Irene as a rabbit, Yeri as a unicorn, and Joy as a duck. ‘Blue Lemonade’ is a Carly Rae Jepsen song that never was, while in the designated breaks to talk to the audience, the group put in some serious fan service as they invite the room to join them on their next theme park trip.
Though the showings of their “velvet” side are not as plentiful tonight, the big chunk we get towards the end of the show is arguably the best run of the night. Ushered in by the haunted house video – all rotten zombie corpses and clattering metal doors – it boasts not one but two songs that could feasibly be huge hits anywhere in the world given the chance. ‘Bad Boy’ is sleek and assertive, while its sister song ‘RBB (Really Bad Boy)’ possesses some Ariana-level diva vocals and blows most of 2018’s pop efforts out of the water.
By the end of the night, the screams from the crowd have far from diminished and it feels certain that Red Velvet’s first US tour is just the beginning, both for them and their peers.