“Blackpink in your area!” is the signature slogan of Korean girl group Blackpink, currently bent on world domination. This week, the area was south-east London, where 40,000 fans assembled over two nights for the start of the European leg of their tour. Reflecting their demographic, the bars weren’t remotely busy, but the merchandise queues snaked around the venue, as (mainly) girls from teens to early twenties (accompanied by harassed parents and more enthusiastic young men) queued to buy heart-shaped pink light sticks to wave at their heroines.
The venue was aglow with these beacons as the K-pop quartet ascended on an elevator platform to an absolute din of excitement, which might have brought the heaviest heavy metal band to their knees. It was as loud as any gig I have been to at the O2. The girls – Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa – sashayed forward in pink miniskirts, crop tops, platform boots and head mics, pouting, smiling, winking, playing with their hair, throwing shoulder poses, generally essaying a form of loose choreography that maintains unity while allowing for individuality.
Blackpink were drilled to within an inch of their lives by South Korean multimedia conglomerate YG Entertainment, selected from thousands of hopefuls in a huge audition programme and enrolled in a pop star academy for years before being unveiled in 2016. Their singing is tuneful but nothing extraordinary, especially in a live space where they have to push their voices to rise above the cacophony, and there are backing track elements and some miming. But, unlike far too many contemporary pop artists, Blackpink energetically and enthusiastically participate live.
Four accomplished male backing musicians beefed up the sound with drums, keys, bass and guitars, while 14 dancers contributed to a sense of constant movement without doing anything so athletic it would show up the stars. Fireballs, glitter bombs, dry ice, confetti, giant streamers, moving stages, back projections and dazzling lasers helped maintain the feverish excitement. Costume changes involved variations on not much at all, yet the sexiness exuded the right kind of innocent energy for their audience. They may be all in their twenties now, but they retain the giddy energy of a schoolgirl gang.
The music is extraordinary, the most hyper pop currently being made on planet Earth, a mash-up of R‘n’B swagger, hip-hop chants, pop-rock punch, sugary singing, EDM peaks and booming bass drops, all topped off with nonsensical lyrics that switch between Korean, English and universal pop phonetics with rhyme but not much reason. They have a song called DDU-DU DDU-DU, while the hook of Pink Venom appears to be “Brra-ta-ta-ta, trra-ta-ta-ta”. “How you like that? Bada bing, bada boom, boom, boom!” as the girls put it on opening song How You Like That, which currently has over a billion streams on YouTube and 700 million on Spotify.
Korea has turned pop into a form of soft power by consuming every tried and trusted Western trope, then bashing it all together with maximalist zeal and exporting it back to us. Perhaps that’s what such tired tropes need to be effective in the distracting bombardment of a TikTok world, but there is something humbling about witnessing the Anglo-American pop hegemony being so thoroughly shattered. A decade ago, the idea that K-pop might reign supreme would have seemed absurd, but Blackpink are currently the most popular girl group in the world, whilst fellow Koreans BTS reign as the biggest boy band.
With all signs that Britain is a waning musical superpower, Blackpink return in the summer to headline Hyde Park, moving from SE10 to W1. Blackpink in your area! You have been warned.