A wink, a smile, a dance break. A jacket on, a jacket off. There was nothing the Korean boy band NCT 127 did onstage that didn’t elicit a frenzy of screaming, jumping, hand-clasping and stomping. On Wednesday night, the group of nine kicked off their first North American arena tour. Though the band doesn’t have any singles on the U.S. charts and they sing as many lyrics in Korean as they do in English, NCT 127 were given the Beatles’ welcome in New Jersey. The fans seemed genuine, to say the least. When one of the members sat at a keyboard to open a song with a solo, one girl wearing a crop-top and jorts over fishnets shouted to her identically-dressed friend: “Don’t cry. You have glitter on.” If you’ve never been to a K-pop show before, that sentiment says it all.
Based in Seoul, NCT 127 is a sub-unit of another group called NCT, whose name stands for Neo Culture Technology. “127” refers to the longitudinal coordinate of this sub-unit’s home city. NCT 127 are promoting their new EP, We Are Superhuman, which comes out in May and features a blend of pop, hip-hop and Latin trap. Onstage, the members tear through plenty of hard-hitting group choreography, balanced by sensitive ballads sung sitting down. It’s a formula reminiscent of Nineties American boy bands. The group will visit 11 more cities, including stops in Atlanta, Chicago, San Jose and Toronto.
The two-hour show included pyrotechnics, costume changes and moving set pieces like a Broadway production. Each of the performers spent several minutes addressing the audience — most spoke in English, but a few used a voiceover translator — seeing who could get the loudest cheers. If you’re doing the math, that’s a lot of shrieking.
K-pop is having a big moment in the U.S.: Girl group Blackpink just played headlining slots at Coachella; BTS’ new album debuted at the top of the charts, notching their third Number One album in less than a year. NCT 127 is the latest competitor. For the uninitiated, these groups seem to come out of nowhere, but NCT isn’t filling arenas with casual listeners or the blithely curious. Fans — largely high school girls — have been following them for years.
Three high-schoolers from Newark tried to explain how a K-pop obsession starts. They’d already been to KCON, a two-day K-Pop festival, in 2018. “At first I liked BTS and then I heard [NCT 127] and I like their beats — they’re like EDM,” said Lizbeth Delgado, 17. She was there to see them play their hit “Regular,” a choreo-heavy single, which did not disappoint. In addition to playing all their hits, the group debuted three new songs, including showing a music video for “Highway to Heaven,” sure to be an instant favorite among Nick Jonas fans. They closed the main set with their debut single, “Fire Truck,” which has a heavy descending hook reminiscent of Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter.”
Before the show, groups of girls were gathered outside the venue taking pictures. “I’m Korean, so I grew up around K-Pop,” said Kathryn Kwon, an 18-year-old from Queens. “It’s kind of mind-blowing because I don’t think there’s much Asian representation in America, so the fact that K-Pop and Korean culture is blowing up in America … that’s really cool.” Her friend was excited to see her favorite NCT 127 member, JaeHyun. She likes his “innocent smile,” said Jaymi Choi, 16. “It’s bright and bubbly. It attracts the heart.”
“It feels like [NCT 127] have a connection to their fans unlike a lot of other artists that I listen to,” says 22-year-old Jersey native Kiana Cox after the performance. “They’re a beacon of light … Sounds kind of weird, but even though I don’t know what they’re saying, their music still resonates and makes me feel at home and safe and like there’s always going to be brighter days.”