GRANT PARK — Gabrielle Dance braved the rain to line up outside of Lollapalooza’s north gate at 9:30 a.m. — even though the festival didn’t open until 11 a.m.
She and about 200 others were hoping for a chance to grab a spot at the barricade for Saturday’s highly anticipated show by Tomorrow X Together, which made history as the first K-pop group to headline Lollapalooza in the U.S.
Dance, 15, was excited. She, like many others, traveled from out of state to see the K-pop boy group. With Tomorrow X Together headlining and NewJeans being the first girl group to perform at Lolla, K-pop fans are getting more chances to see their favorite performers closer to home.
“With K-pop groups being based in Korea, we don’t get a lot of shows here except for like world tours … so I think for them to be doing festivals like this just brings more showcases for international fans,” Dance said.
Saturday night, a big clock counted down until Tomorrow X Together hit the stage. Fans, also known as MOAs, screamed and cheered in anticipation.
Once the clock hit zero the group came out strong with “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You),” fans waved their light sticks enthusiastically.
The group addressed the crowd after their first two songs, proclaiming Chicago as a very special place for them. It is their second Lollapalooza appearance.
Tomorrow X Together group member Yeonjun called their performance last year at Lollapalooza “one of the most memorable concerts” he’s been a part of.
“[Lollapalooza] first festival in the U.S. and being on the stage for the first time was incredible,” said Soobin, the group’s leader. “Now we are headlining the Bud Light Stage, it’s incredible.”
For the next 90 minutes, fans were treated to a full-on production. One thing that tends to set K-pop aside from western music is the performance aspect. Acts perform full choreographed dances while singing, and Tomorrow X Together was no different.
Fans lost their minds when the group performed “Good Boy Gone Bad,” which included a 40-second dance break complete with Beomgyu in a ponytail lighting up rose on fire.
The Bud Light stage was packed, but where MOAs could find room, they were dancing along — even if it was just moving their arms.
Other songs performed by the group included “Lonely Boy,” “Anti-romantic,” “Farewell,” “Cat & Dog” and “Happy Fools” featuring special guest Coi Leray.
Chicago As A K-Pop Destination
Lollapalooza leapt into world of K-pop fandom in 2022 by adding J-Hope, rapper and main dancer of BTS, as a headliner for a solo performance. J-Hope made history as the first Korean artist to headline a major U.S. music festival.
His performance drew fans from all across the world who also lined up hours before the gates opened to save their spots near the stage. Fans even renamed the festival #HOBIPALOOZA on Twitter, which went viral highlighting various videos and photos from his 70-minute performance.
Tomorrow X Together also performed last year with a 45-minute set list, complete with eight songs. The group performed on one of the festival’s smaller stages, but fans packed the area to the brim.
Beyond Tomorrow X Together and NewJeans, Korean indie-rock band The Rose, Co-founders of Korean label Dream Perfect Regime DPR IAN and DPR LIVE, and Asian American EDM duo ARMNHMR also took to the stages at Lolla.
The impact of J-Hope’s and Tomorrow X Together’s performances undoubtedly influenced Lollapalooza’s inclusion of more Korean and K-pop artists, Dance said.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what Lollapalooza was until I saw that J-Hope performed here. … Them going from J-Hope being the first headliner to there being like three groups performing here. I think that’s really cool,” Dance said.
NewJeans has exploded in popularity since debuting last year. They performed Thursday afternoon before a packed crowd at the T-Mobile stage, one of two main stages at Lollapalooza.
Fans, also known as Bunnies, flew in from all over the country to witness the group’s first U.S. performance. There was also a one-day exclusive pop-up within festival grounds where Bunnies could make bracelets and take photos.
The line for the NewJeans pop-up wrapped around Buckingham Fountain, with some fans waiting more than three hours in line to experience the special pop-up.
The energy during NewJeans’ performance was undeniable. As the group broke out their coordinated dance moves, Bunnies in the audience followed along. When the group performed their hit “OMG,” the sea of people broke out in song.
Videos from NewJeans’ performance went viral on Twitter after other festival-goers were shocked to see how big the crowd was for the girl’s group.
“I think Lollapalooza and music festivals in general really do underestimate how much their fans will come and wait in line for hours just to see or like be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” said NewJeans fan Luke Velsao.
Many credit PSY’s 2012 global smash “Gangnam Style” for helping K-pop explode into the U.S. market. PSY became the first artist to reach 1 billion views, then 2 billion, on YouTube after releasing the music video for “Gangnam Style.”
2NE1 then came into the mix becoming the first girl-group to tour the U.S. followed by boy group Big Bang, who included some stops in the U.S. during their world tour in 2013.
BTS, arguably the most popular K-pop group in the world, exploded into the U.S. market in 2016. The group and its members, currently pursuing solo projects, dominates the market and has helped open the door for its successors like Blackpink, which recently became the first Korean act to headline Coachella, Tomorrow X Together, Le SSerafim, NewJeans and more.
The West Coast continues to dominate the country’s K-pop scene, but Chicago has become a top competitor for tour stops, according to Vivid Seats.
In 2019, the city was ranked second in the top 10 markets for K-pop. A measure of Chicago’s progress can be measured through BTS’s concert history.
In 2015 the group performed at the Rosemont Theatre in front of a few thousand fans. Fast forward to 2018, they played sold-out shows at the United Center and then back-to-back sold out nights at Soldier Field for their Love Yourself tour in 2019, according to Vivid Seats. The Soldier Field shows were one of three of the band’s U.S. stops during that tour.
BTS rapper and producer Suga, performing under the moniker Agust D, made Allstate Arena in Rosemont one of only five U.S. stops as part of his solo tour in May, playing three sold-out shows.
Merch And Camaraderie
Up until recently, there was only one K-pop store in the city. Now, there’s at least two.
There has also been an increase of special events and pop-ups hosted across the city, These pop-ups typically happen for an artist’s birthday, to celebrate awards, new releases or various concerts.
These events have different types of vendors who create their own K-pop merchandise like photo cards, posters, t-shirts and more.
Errum Osmani, 22, launched her own K-pop online shop last year. Since she’s launched, Osmani has hosted about six events and has been a vendor at about 50 others.
Osmani, from Chicago’s West Side, credits Chicago’s status in K-pop to the hard work of fans and creators who go out of their way to create and market events for the community.
“That is one of the big reasons we promote and do so many projects as possible…to let them know that we’re here… you need to come here. We promise we’ll give you a good time,” Osmani said.
Osmani hosted a Tomorrow X Together event Friday and Saturday with three other creators. Hundreds of fans lined down the block at Vivi Bubble Tea for the event Friday, which featured merchandise for sale and various freebies.
Osmani’s specialty is handmade photo cards. Photo cards are selfies or photoshoots of K-pop idols that are typically as thick as a debit card. Fans collect these and often trade at concerts or other K-pop events.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve loved so far is the people I’ve met. I’ve never met so many down-to-earth people and that just doesn’t happen easily,” Osmani said.
Hyde Park resident Kate Evans and Ana Contreras from Bridgeport attended Osmani’s event Friday. They met in line at an official Tomorrow X Together merchandise pop-up up the road and decided to go to the Vivi Bubble Tea together.
Both agree Chicago has staked a claim on the K-pop music scene, saying it’s been nice to see more K-pop groups making their stop in the city and their inclusion in music festivals like Lollapalooza.
“I feel like whenever there’s a world tour announced, I don’t really have to like worry if they’re gonna stop in Chicago and that’s nice,” said Evans, 15.
“I’ve been a fan of K-pop in general since 2012,” said Contreras, 22. “So like growing up, not a lot of people were into it. It’s kinda fascinating now ever since 2017 or 2018 when BTS blew up. … It’s kind of like ‘whoa, these are cool people that actually make good music.'”
And as the K-pop fandom continues to grow, existing fans say newbies are in for a treat. Many call the community caring, nice and open.
“I’ve definitely noticed very big differences in how K-pop fans are just more caring towards each other. Like, do you need water? Do you want this little freebie? Like, are you okay? They always check up on you,” Contreras said.
Evans chimed in sharing that although she doesn’t have any friends that like K-pop, she doesn’t shy away from going to events alone, always meeting new people.
“Yesterday, I made friends with some people outside of NewJeans. Yeah, it was super sweet. Yeah, she was cool. We walked through the Red Line together afterward,” Evans said.
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