It hasn’t come up in all the political talk about imports and exports, but America is suffering a serious trade imbalance in one area in particular: boy bands and girl groups. It appears as if we’ve ceded the manufacturing in that area to East Asia, and it’s… well, to our benefit, really, since the genre has seemed of so little interest lately to qualified American workers. We’d hate to put any ideas in any domestic’s leaders head, but you could probably have slapped a decent-sized tariffs on tickets for Blackpink’s official U.S. tour kickoff Wednesday night and the Forum would have still been sold out. So, shhhh.
If you are a fan of the more locally grown girl-group tradition that extends from the Crystals and the Shirelles in the early ‘60s forward to Fifth Harmony in the early 2000s — and then seems to have taken a pause there — your rightful inclination should be to look at Blackpink and think: “What’s not to love?” The answer for many American music fans will still be “plenty”; noses are easily turned up at the massive military-industrial complex that is K-pop, while there’s no such sniffing looking back at an independent U.S factory like the Brill Building. But however the sausage is made, what’s on stage and the reaction it induces is what matters most. And the reaction at a Blackpink show is cynicism-crushing glee… plus, for the half or so of the audience that shares the group’s Asian heritage, the palpable rush of representation.
Their well-publicized show last Friday at Coachella was their first full-ish North American gig, with maybe half the audience made up of the curious and half of “Blinks,” as their fan base is known. This official tour bow was fuller — running about twice as long, at an hour and 50 minutes and extending to 20 songs. (Not all of that extra hour was strictly musical: to cover one of the costume changes, there was a lengthy filmed car-wash and parking-lot car-chase sequence that was basically an epic-length commercial for tour sponsor Kia, though that brand name never appeared on screen; then, almost 10 minutes were taken by a curiously long encore delay that made you wonder if Elvis might actually have left the building.) That’s a longer show than expected for a group that only has two EPs out in America, and had nothing out from a major U.S. label before Interscope’s April 5 release of the five-song “Kill Your Love.” Needless to say, with this short trek across the U.S. — just six cities, all in arenas, all sold out — they are skipping the “paying dues” part of a climb to the top here and starting out as an insta-phenom, in most measurable ways. But the Forum audience responded instantly to the opening couple of notes of songs that pre-date their seeming two-month ascent in America. For the serious fans that have tracked them working their way up through the K-pop system since 2016, Blackpink might as well have been returning conquering heroines, so an almost two-hour “introduction” seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Rosé flattered the crowd: “I’m really impressed at your Korean!” she said, following a performance of the new EP’s irresistible “Don’t Know What to Do About You,” which, like most of their songs, is bilingual. In this case, the entire tune is in Korean, except for the title and some stray “uhs,” which maybe are much the same in any language. For the non-Korean-speaking (or –learning) parts of the crowd, the equal enthusiasm for the parts of the songs not in English may be some kind of proof that the old “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” maxim about listeners not caring about verses is true. Or, alternately, and maybe even an even better theorem, is that the exoticism of foreign-language pop is part of the appeal: It’s the 2010s version of ‘60s kids being in thrall to the accents of the British Invasion, taken to the next level —and any hesitations about lyrical vapidity vanish: Surely the words are as crafty as the music… if we only knew! But assuming that may not be enough for hardcore fans: Expect a big bump in Rosetta Stone Korean downloads this year.
Watching a nearly all-dancing performance less than 24 hours after Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” film premiered on Netflix, you couldn’t help but make some comparisons. Unlike Bey’s unattainable goddess-ness, the members of Blackpink represent something that actually seems within the realm of earthly aspirational possibility. The quartet’s choreography is tight … but not so tight you couldn’t imagine accomplishing it yourself, maybe, if you were a teen or twentysomething gal with natural physical talent and a few years to be put through your paces. Their singing — and yes, they do sing live (with some of the usual augmentation in spots) — ranges from “gets the job done” to very good, without requiring any trigger warnings for Ariana-level dog-whistle trills. Their show is an exercise in the pleasures of semi-rigid, semi-relaxed synchronization … and just a major charm offensive from four quintessential Girls Next Door, even though this wouldn’t be close to literally true unless you lived next door to a modeling agency in Seoul.
Lisa is the one of the four who comes closest to breaking that next-door mold. With her cut-flat bangs and ponytail, she looks like a cross between Grande and Taylor Swift with an extra heavier dollop of swagger — a little less kawaii and a little more come-on than the other women. She’s especially impressive in her role as one of the group’s two rappers; it doesn’t seem impossible that she could make a full-time solo career out of doing K-hip-hop, someday. Her singing voice is more of a question mark, since when the show devoted itself to four solo segments midway through the concert, Lisa was the only one who didn’t vocalize in her segment, at all. She did a dance routine, instead — borrowing some of their backup dancers for accompaniment — to MISO’s “Take Me.” You might have wondered if that was because they didn’t want to expose her solo singing voice too much, like they did with the others… or because she just really does have her runway strut that down.
It may be early to be thinking about who in Blackpink could go solo: the show actually encourages it, with those four individual setpieces in the middle. (This was something Forum attendees saw that Coachella-goers didn’t, or at least three-quarters of it was fresh; Jennie was the only one who got her moment alone out in Indio.) The first of these, just five songs and one costume change into the set, was Rosé, who’d changed from their initial matching white jumpers into her own long white gown to sit atop a piano singing the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Just when you were thinking that maybe she really should have let that one be, it turned into a medley, moving on to a more apropos cover of fellow South Korean singer Park Bom’s “You & I.” (So much fog was blown onto the stage that she and her pianist disappeared from view for a bit, as if some magic trick were being executed; just an opening night snafu.) Lisa’s dance routine came the closest of anything during the evening to change the rating from G to PG-13, though its sensuality was tame by almost any other modern choreographic standard. Jisoo, for her number, did a cover of Zedd’s “Clarity,” sitting atop a pile of mirror balls — the most ingenious set-design idea in a show otherwise reliant on LED screens for visual dazzle. Jennie’s appropriately titled “Solo,” as previously seen at K-chella, closed out that segment by going heavier into the trap beat.
Then they returned as a group for “Kiss and Make Up,” maybe their previously best-known song domestically, via their collaboration on it with Dua Lipa — and you relished the return of the group in sync. It was if we’d all just lived through their respective solo careers and were already moving ahead to the reunion tour we’d been awaiting for so long. It’s funny how time gets compressed that way at a Blackpink concert.
Further good hooks and great hooks and fair-to-middling hooks ensued — it all evens out to about the same level of pop buzz as the sweeteners roll off the assembly line — with the new “Kick It” especially standing out for being heavy with a slightly more aggro level of rapping. On the opposite end of that scale was their encore closer, “As If It’s Your Last,” which had the four women taking a load off and taking a seat on the second stage at the center of the arena floor. It was a sweet acoustic outro that implicitly imagined the attendees to imagine this was their final Blackpink show as well as their first. Is this enjoyable insanity a ride that’ll last 20 months, or 20 years? Either way, carpe diem, kids. Take it from a Shirelles fan, or a Fifth Harmony one: Blinks and you’ll miss it.