Crowds thrummed with excitement as the clock approached 8PM on July 6th, 2019, for the first evening of performances at KCON 2019 NY Presented by Toyota. This year’s line-up celebrated the latest acts to make waves in the K-pop sphere with first-time appearances at the festival by Tomorrow X Together, The Boyz, ATEEZ, VERIVERY, IZ*ONE, AB6IX, (G)I-DLE, and day 1 headliners NU’EST, as well as returning stages from fromis_9, SF9, and day 2 headliners SEVENTEEN. Both nights featured pre-show appearances by soloist Kevin Woo, and special presentations by Asiana and the winners of the KSTAR Cover Dance Competition, HARU Dance.

Since KCON’s establishment in Los Angeles 5 years ago, it has become one of the most coveted K-culture experiences in North America. The venture has brought many first-time performers, presenters, and influencers to the Western Hemisphere, highlighting the widespread reach of Korean popular media into the most recent decade. With KCON 2019 NY, it has achieved yet another first by bringing the large-scale Korean cultural event into New York City itself and at the prestigious Madison Square Garden, no less.

Rookie groups The Boyz (left) and IZ*ONE (right) shined on the MSG stage — Courtesy of KCON USA

While past KCON concerts have highlighted a specific theme that echoes throughout the show, with last year’s being “Passion,” this year’s event kept it low-key, appealing instead as a quiet tribute to New York City as the musical epicenter of the world. Day 1 kicked off with dance covers of popular Top 40 hits “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott and “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish from male rookie groups ATEEZ and The Boyz in a nod towards the biggest names in Western popular music, both of whom performed at the same exact venue earlier in the year. Newcomers AB6IX and VERIVERY followed suit on Day 2, with performances of Charlie Puth’s “Attention” and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” Being in NYC, it would be amiss to forget Broadway: NU’EST’s Minhyun and Baekho graced the arena with a sweet cover of “Lost Stars” from the musical Begin Again, and (G)I-DLE treated the crowd with a lush performance of “All That Jazz” from Chicago the night after.

The weekend’s celebration of “New York City” permeated coolly through all the artists’ sets, adding extra leverage to the rookie acts who may not have extensive discographies through special stages that showcase their talent and flexibility. These new acts also gained an avenue through which they can reach their fans in spaces all over the world. In KCON 2019 NY’s case, they’re meeting fans halfway across the world, validating the interest of their pre-existing fanbases, and gauging interest from those willing to listen. On the other side, it’s guaranteed that the evening after a KCON show, fans will return home with the notes to a song they had never heard before lingering at the backs of their mind.

Baekho and Minhyun of NU’EST perform “Lost Stars” — Courtesy of KCON USA

Contrasting against former years, KCON 2019 NY pivoted its evening repertoire to showcase more fresh faces in K-pop. The first night of performances was the perfect example of this change. After 2012 debut NU’EST, the most senior group to make an appearance that night was The Boyz, who had come onto the scene in December 2017. While they might not be the acts that K-pop fans, old and new, think they want to see, bringing rookie artists to the show has allowed KCON to expand on other aspects of the experience, elevating the opportunities that fans have to interact with K-pop stars, and by extension Korean culture, at the convention portion of the event.

This year saw KCON develop an event with more intention, showcasing more interactive booths from sponsors, brands, and smaller businesses than ever before. Through competitions and lottery events at sponsor booths, as well as features like the KCON Star Square and Studio, KCON encouraged fans to engage with Korean culture, though such avenues as food and dance, by providing interactions with K-pop idols as their rewards. At the end of the day, fans walked away from the KCON experience having tasted, heard, and felt South Korea in ways that aren’t as easily accessible anywhere but the convention.

Alongside the excitement of seeing their favorite stars up-close-and-personal, an overarching sense of pride resonated throughout the convention & concert halls over the weekend. Though K-pop has been loved by fans in North America for years, it is thrilling to see that the genre has found a place in MSG, amongst the greatest and most celebrated artists in the world. Kevin Woo reminded fans of the special moment, before the evening had begun.

“I can’t believe that I’ve had the chance to perform at Madison Square Garden! This is a dream of mine, and I can’t believe tonight is the night that dream came true,” he said. “This moment is so special– I’ll never forget it.”

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