Live things: Season of GFriend is a pilgrimage for a Buddy’s undying love

I am a control freak, and concerts bring out the worst in me because a part of me is convinced that the rules set out during ticket selling out to be followed, while a part of me – and other people as well – constantly reminds me that, in times like these, chaos is bound to happen.

There were sequence numbers. For some reason it wasn’t announced as loudly, but there were sequence numbers. You buy a ticket, you get your sequence number, and you pretty much get to hold your place in the line – and if you’re in the standing sections of a concert, as Shalla and I were, this would be a big help. I’m surprised we got 17 and 18; I expected GFriend fans – hereafter referred to as Buddies – to be all over it. We got ours relatively late, after all; I only found out the day the concert was postponed, when the Korean girl group’s flight got held up by that plane stuck on the runway of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

With this seemingly flimsy assurance we took our time, only getting to the Kia Theatre an hour before the doors were supposed to open. Yep, the lines were long. We found ourselves at the back. At least some of the organizers came looking for sequence numbers. We got our wristbands and found ourselves in front of the line.

I have not been to a K-pop concert before. Shalla hasn’t, too, but she has seen SHINee at a mall show, and she has seen Super Junior‘s Siwon at a promo show, also at a mall. At least she knows what she’ll be up to. We know how fans are at major concerts, but there’s something extra about K-pop fans. But again, we had an inkling of this. Just watch videos on YouTube. It doesn’t even have to be of a concert. Choose a group, then choose a music show. At certain points of a performance you’ll hear the audience chant some words in rapid, almost gutteral fashion.

Kim So-jung! Jung Ye-rin! Jung Eun-bi! Choi Yu-na! Hwang Eun-bi! Kim Ye-won! Yeo-ja-chin-gu!

The local Buddy community were giving away banners – the concert’s original date coincided with both Yerin and Umji’s birthday, so it had both of their faces on – so that covers people like us, who followed GFriend from the beginning, perhaps, but aren’t quite into throwing heart, soul and then some for the love of the group. There were fans (or their mothers?) walking around the holding area peddling cheap lightsticks. But we were surrounded by people with flashing headbands, fans, custom-made banners, and the original GFriend lightsticks you buy online. I saw at least a couple still in their boxes, perhaps specially bought for the concert. And then there was me, a guy who knows what GFriend’s name in Korean is – 여자친구 stands for “girlfriend” – but my MooMoo head can’t help but say “yeo-ma-chin-moo” instead.

 

 

“Who is the original Buddy among you two?” I asked two guys behind us – I assume they are brothers – in the line.

“He is,” the guy on my left said, pointing to his companion. “It’s his birthday today.”

“Happy birthday to you,” I answered. “Must be really good timing.”

“Yeah,” guy to the left continued. “When we saw the announcement I told him, ‘birthday gift!'”

Two more people went to the line, their sequence numbers much closer to ours. I asked them the same question.

“She is,” the guy answered.

“Are you siblings?”

“…no!” They’re a dating couple. Like Shalla and I, then.

“And you’re a Buddy, too?” I ask the guy.

“I’m… accompanying her,” he answered, slightly shy.

“What’s your favorite GFriend song?”

“…I’ll have to say ‘Navillera’.”

An hour later, I see them both with those original lightsticks. They came prepared.

 

I have been around fan groups for different musicians many times before – never a part of them, but always somewhat adjacent to them, so I get to see the things they do when, say, David Cook comes to the country, or when they’re attempting to make a Twitter hashtag trending for Reese Lansangan. The local Buddy community also had some things prepared. I checked their Twitter account and there were detailed instructions for fan chants. Flash the banners we’ll provide. Do it at a particular time. Flip them over, and sing happy birthday for Yerin and Umji. I’m not sure if those instructions were updated to account for the concert being moved, or if the plan remained in place.

While in line, and even when we were already inside the theater, some leaders of the community were giving away blue Japanese paper. They know we will never be able to achieve the effect of having every audience member holding the same lightstick and waving them in unison, so they asked us instead to put those slips of paper on our cheap lightsticks, or on our mobile phones’ camera flashes, and wave them about. A sea of blue for the girls to see.

“What’s in it for them?” I asked Shalla, somewhat loudly. “For the love?”

“For the love,” she answered. “Also, remember Reply 1997.”

How could I forget Reply 1997? It’s the one Korean drama I watched, and at Shalla’s recommendation too, when I began further exploring the world of K-pop. While it is a romantic comedy of the “will they, won’t they?” vein, it is set against the backdrop of the emergence of K-pop’s first generation of idols. Jung Eun-ji’s character is a fan of H.O.T; her best friend, played by Shin So-yul, revealed that she’s switched allegiances to “rival” group Sechskies in the second episode. Throughout the series we’d see a bit of the struggle amongst fans to be named club president, usually decided along the lines of “who is the bigger fan?”. Later in the series there’d be a comical confrontation between the two groups’ fans.

You get a glimpse of this political underbelly to being a K-pop fan when you watch videos on YouTube. Most often it comes in the form of marking your territory in an attempt to make peace. “Army here.” “Once here.” “Carat here.” Sometimes it descends into nasty comment threads about how one group is better than another. I remember now. Who’s the best fan? Who can best defend his favorite group’s honor? Who has memorized all the fan chants and can do them on instinct?

That’d be the guy behind me, practicing fan chants with his friends, as more lead Buddies distribute Japanese paper to the bleachers, and the din of GFriend album tracks play out in the slowly packed theater. It was all album tracks until four minutes before seven, when “Time for the Moon Night” came on, and everybody in the venue attempted a sing-along.

At the very last moments of the song, the lights went out. Everyone screamed. The first of the concert films began to be projected on the curtains. The whole thing was about to begin.

 

 

I’m an overthinker, and I worried a bit about the concert. I don’t know the fan chants. I don’t know the lyrics to the song, even. I don’t have anything on me to prove I at least know the group well enough to pay this much money. (But not that much – the VVIP seats, with soundcheck and hi-touch passes, cost roughly PHP 11,000, almost thrice our tickets, which was the second tier. They sold more VVIP seats than I expected.) But then, what if I cry when they inevitably perform “Time for the Moon Night”? I’ve acknowledged that that song brings me closer to tears than I expected – it’s full of wistfully-constructed melancholy.

I didn’t need to worry. As with every concert, the euphoria carries you through – and if you feel compelled to do the fan chants, our friend Clarissa reminded me that I can just go along with the others. It just feels more heightened in a K-pop concert, because there are all these other elements at play, elements that you don’t often see in concerts by western or Filipino acts. Our section – save for two fans behind Shalla who were whining about everything, particularly that other fans were singing along, meaning they can’t hear anything else – came together in a snap, a hive mind almost taking over. I’m sure the vibe is the same at the other sections. Nobody cares if you don’t know the fan chants. And besides, during the three hours you will pick at least some of it up.

Yeo-ja-chin-gu!

Yes, the concert is three hours long, and if you feel really tired after all of that, just imagine what it must feel for the girls. GFriend landed in Manila, I heard, at eleven in the morning that day, and were whisked off to a press conference (attended by some VVIP ticket holders, including Shalla’s colleague), and then to the soundcheck at the nearby venue, and then the three-hour concert, and then the hi-touch after. You’d feel bad, especially after I learned, the next morning, that SinB’s injury flared up and had to skip the K-pop version of a meet-and-greet. You wouldn’t notice.

GFriend are good live. Like, really good live. Yes, there is the reputation forged across years – sharp choreography, powerful vocals, well-crafted songs that keep the group’s stamp regardless of mood. Yes, there’s the fact that, despite being a VIP ticket holder, I can barely see the group. Yes, I also know it might be the euphoria talking, but there’s something fascinating and awe-inspiring about seeing a group bring years of practice to the stage and perform in front of you. (I’ll have to admit, seeing them with other dancers takes some getting used to.) I wonder what I would have felt if I paid for the privilege of sitting closer.

The three hours were filled with a mix of all their singles – yes, including “Time for the Moon Night” and “Sunny Summer”; we think it’s the first time they’re performing both in a solo concert – and some album tracks. (Sowon was particularly struck at how the audience knew the words to the latter, considering it was just released last month.) The group acting as a unit becomes more evident, with each playing to their strengths: you have SinB filling the stage with her dancing, you have Sowon and Yerin doing their own little bits of fan service, and in particular, you have Yuju’s trademark vocal runs, very much like what you’d hear on a recording. She’ll do that, and most of the frenzied fans keep quiet – and then coo in awe. Every single time.

There was a segment of solo stages, too, a prerequisite allowing each of the members to show their individual charms (K-pop parlance, that) off. It’s weird that the crowd only mostly recognized Sowon performing Sunmi’s soon-to-be-iconic “Gashina”, but then again, it’s a newer song. Umji doing IU’s “Twenty-three” (never mind that she’s 21) was a treat. I also ought to mention Eunha – she who insists on being sexy, so much so that it’s become a light-hearted punchline – actually killing Gain’s “Bloom”.

Shalla designated Yuju as her bias for the night, and when she performed Ailee’s debut “Heaven”, she was enjoying it so thoroughly that she was singing along to it – and, as it turns out, no one else. Her colleague at the VVIP section knew it was her.

 

Season of GFriend in Manila“What if the members go around the theater?” I asked Shalla. We were up against the barriers; seeing them up close was a distinct possibility. But then again, we did not pay for the privilege. Earlier that day I read this story about fans of Astro getting angry at their agency because the boy group showed up, as a surprise, at a photo exhibit organized by fans. The argument was, essentially, “we pay to see them, but they don’t?”

“Don’t make me expect that would happen,” Shalla told me.

I really didn’t, though, but then I was thinking that GFriend won’t be here often, even if this is technically their third time in the country – there was last year’s showcase, and even before that, they flew to Cebu to shoot one of their variety shows – so they’d have to go the extra mile. Again, fan service. But then, K-pop has its weird hierarchies and ways. And besides, that’s what we get for not having enough money at the time of ticket selling. We’re still saving up for Hong Kong.

They started the concert’s fifth segment – four seasons, supposedly highlighting different sides of the group, plus another segment for the solo performances – with “Under the Sky”, a track off the Flower Bud mini. It chugged along nicely until the girls decided to, well, get out of the stage.

There was pandemonium in my section. There was pandemonium inside me.

“Hun, they’re coming here!”

Everything else was a blur. Okay, I’ll be really honest: I expected this to happen. You think you’re ready for it. But the throng behind you goes crazy, and you are compelled to be that, too – but I had to clutch my phone; I don’t want to drop it, not now, not when bouncers and VVIPs and handlers are rushing in. But look, there’s Sowon. And there’s Umji. And there’s Yerin. I was just taking whatever photo I could take, while taking in the few bits of eye contact I never expected I would make with any Korean singer in my entire lifetime. I saw Eunha. Oh, yeah, she is pretty. I saw Yuju. She waved at us. I waved back.

“I touched Yuju’s hand!” a voice from somewhere broke through. It was Shalla.

Shalla touched Yuju’s hand.

“I TOUCHED YUJU’S HAND!”

I thought SinB didn’t pass by us, for some reason. I confirmed this after the event, at the queue at the parking cashier. A guy on the other VIP section said he saw my bias, but he didn’t see Umji. While digging up photos for this entry, though, I saw – well, I saw a photo of SinB on my side. I missed her. I missed my designated bias, damn it.

“I win,” Shalla whispered to me right after the chaos. She was on a contact high.

 

We were hoping to be able to watch the hi-touch – it’s the K-pop equivalent of the meet-and-greet, without the photographs – if only for the anthropological angle to this essay. “For those in the other sections, please empty the venue now,” the announcement went, and that reminded me, again, that we did not pay for the privilege to see that segment. YouTube, I guess, will have it covered.

Despite this, however, Season of GFriend was one heck of an experience. It helps that the performers are good and at their peak, without staying still like other K-pop groups end up doing. But being there feels like going to a pilgrimage, an almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show your undying love for the one group you have chosen. Well, in my case, GFriend isn’t my chosen one, but still, I get it. You watch the performances. You bathe in the small moments, of SinB playing with the confetti that littered the stage for half the concert (particularly during “Rough”, providing a light moment to GFriend’s hefty signature song), or of Yerin attempting, again, to sing Yuju’s notes – and yelping with glee right after. You lap it all up. You don’t need to worry about what to do next. The local Buddy community had a video played just before the final song, and on cue, all the banners went up. Google tells me the other side – the side without Yerin and Umji’s faces – says “you are our bright moon.”

While you just know what the girls are saying is scripted, you don’t care. You just know they mean it.

On our way to have our belated dinner, Shalla was watching all the videos she took. In between marveling at how her phone caught both GFriend in good quality – and her singing right beside it – she would go, “I’m never washing this hand again!”

She did end up singing with Yuju on Ailee’s “Heaven”. Alone. You can’t pay enough for that privilege, even if she was on stage and we were under the balcony. [NB]

 

 

Setlist “Fingertip” / “Navillera” / “Crush” / “Ave Maria” / “Summer Rain” / “Mermaid” / “Hear the Wind Sing” / “Gone With the Wind” / “Rain in the Spring Time” / “No. 1” (SinB solo) / “Gashina” (Sowon solo) / “Twenty-three” (Umji solo) / “Bloom” (Eunha solo) / “Heaven” (Yuju solo) / “U Go Girl” (Yerin solo) / “Glass Bead” / “Me Gustas Tu” / “Rough” / “Time for the Moon Night” / “Rainbow” / “Under the Sky” / “LOL” / “Sunny Summer” / “One-Half” / “Love Whisper” / Encore “My Buddy” / “Falling Asleep Again”

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