Music, dancing, fans going wild. I never thought I’d be spending New Year’s Eve 2021 with 35 million people from all over the world at a live concert, but for four magical hours I got to experience that very excitement and toast to a new year in style. It was the best party in town, and I didn’t even have to dress up. SMTOWN LIVE “Culture Humanity” was a spectacular, free online concert performed by an arsenal of SM Entertainment artists and broadcasted on multiple streaming platforms for every fan to enjoy from the comfort of their home. Its message was simple: to promote hope and provide comfort to those across the globe at a time when they might need it the most. A chance to lift spirits up through the never-to-be-underestimated power of music and dance, gifting millions of smiles to everyone who tuned in. And as the show wined down a little after midnight here on the west coast, I felt lifted up after a long time, rejuvenated, and inspired. Ready for a new year brimming with endless possibilities and renewed dreams.
SMTOWN LIVE is a joint concert tour started in 2008 where fans could come and see their favorite SM artists all in one place. From its initial show in Seoul, SMTOWN LIVE soon expanded worldwide due to its renowned success and popularity, and across six tours it’s had stops in China, Thailand, Japan, the United States, France, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and Chile. Immersing countries far and wide in the culture of K-pop and performing to international fans for the first time was a dream made into reality. Oh how I wished I could have attended the leg in Los Angeles back in 2010. For many like myself, traveling to South Korea is a goal I haven’t yet been able to achieve, so when SM announced they would be broadcasting SMTOWN LIVE on New Year’s Day globally, and free of cost no less, I was ecstatic. What would it be like? Who would perform? How long was the show? Even when the performers shortlist went up, I was still curious what the format would look like in the minutes before the show.
To my delight it was a bombast of artists switching off like a relay. That kept the synergy crackling as I never know who would be taking the stage next. The concert opened up strong with NCT units NCT Dream, WayV and NCT 127 performing one song each in a cavalcade succession. Some of my top favorites too, “Ridin’,” “Take Off” and “Punch.” Each team’s synchronization was on point as they served up high-energy choreography and strong vocals. We were then treated to Red Velvet’s much-lauded return to the stage as they performed their hit songs “Bad Boy” and “Peek-a-Boo.” The fans watching sending a flurry of cheers and ‘welcome back’ messages via live chat, buzzing over seeing the quintet back in action after member WENDY’s injury last year. This was a moment we were all excited for, and the group assuredly delivered with their pristine harmonies and effortless dance skills. Red Velvet is back!
Just when I was forming an idea about the show order, things switched gears and to my surprise we got a performance of “The Riot” by DJ GINJO featuring TEN and XIAOJUN. I loved seeing the electronic dance track performed live for the first time, as well as having a solo moment for the two WayV members on stage. Afterwards, KAI came out and performed his solo debut song “Mmmh” along with B-side “Reason.” “Mmmh” is a song I can’t get enough of with its chilled, infectious hook, and the smooth choreography only further enhances its charms. Speaking of phenomenal dancers, TAEMIN was up next where he staged the two title tracks from his third full-length album, “Criminal” and “IDEA.” I still can’t decide which song I like more. The latter has an amazingly rich instrumentation while the former pulses along on the dancefloor, where TAEMIN just excels. And SHINee fans rejoice: a video montage of all their hits was shown around an hour into the show, teasing their upcoming comeback with the iconic words ‘SHINee’s Back.’
SUPER JUNIOR-D&E were up next where they sang their 2015 hit “Growing Pains.” This was an unexpected choice as they’ve had more recent singles to choose from, but as a fan-favorite, I think it worked well. I appreciated how SMTOWN LIVE input titles of each artist and song just in case someone watching might be hearing it for the first time. It made it easy to add any new discoveries to my playlist. This came in handy when DJ IMLAY an YANYANG performed “Asteroid.” I must have been hiding under a rock for not have hearing it prior, because that song blasted off! And speaking of warp speed, it was soon SuperM’s turn to come out as they danced furiously to “100” with no signs of slowing down. Their uplifting ballad “Better Days” hit all the right notes as well as the lyrics perfectly echoed the message of the show. “So let me be your guiding light/ In a new world with new problems, hold on tight.”
BAEKHYUN had his solo stage next, where he sang his laid-back jams “UN Village” and “Candy.” MARK had a rap feature on the former which added something extra. I loved seeing the two interacting on stage, and his rap fit in perfectly with the song. I’m going to formally request a studio version please! “Candy” was a sweet treat as well. BAEKHYUN danced with his effortless swagger and certainly gave us ‘something original’ we were all waiting for. SUPER JUNIOR sub-unit K.R.Y then wowed with their emotive power ballad “When We Were Us.” YESUNG, RYEOWOOK and KYUHYUN have gorgeous voices and their harmonies must be some of the best I’ve ever heard. K-pop legend KANGTA followed, singing his brand-new song “Cough Syrup” for the very first time! As a senior artist at SM, having debuted in the 1990s as a part of H.O.T, this was a great way to re-introduce him to newer fans like myself. The R&B jam won me over with its slick production and funky melody and topped it all off with a surprise key change at the end.
The vocal prowess only continued as TAEYEON came out and sang a medley of her midtempo hits: “Four Seasons,” “Happy” and newest, “What Do I Call You.” Her honeyed vocals suit these types of songs perfectly as she alternates between low and high notes with finesse, filling out the pared down productions with rich, layered emotion. I highly recommend her fourth mini album; its warm feelings are cozy on a winter’s day. After a more subdued set of songs, DJ Raiden got the party going again with an EDM remix of his song “Yours,” featuring guest vocals from aespa’s WINTER. With aespa having only newly debuted, this was a great way to introduce one of their members to the masses. Her lovely soprano was pitch perfect and certainly did the original version justice.
With the concert in full swing, it was only natural for NCT U to come out next. With their double-million seller albums RESONANCE Pt.1 and RESONANCE Pt.2 burning up the charts, I’m sure a lot of fans were looking forward to their stages. They performed all their newest singles, ballad “From Home,” and up-tempo numbers “Make A Wish (Birthday Song),” “Work It,” and “90’s Love.” Their impressive tight-knit choreography set the stage for their seniors SUPER JUNIOR to have their own moment in the spotlight, dancing to “SUPER Clap” and my personal favorite, the hip-hop bop “2YA2YAO!”. I’m very much looking forward to their upcoming 15th anniversary album The Renaissance, due next month. With so many artists having performed by now, I had a feeling it was finally time for the Kings of K-pop, TVXQ! to make their grand entrance. As my favorite K-pop group, this was something I was looking forward to the most. Their legendary stage presence filled the venue with charisma as they performed the charming “The Chance of Love” and playful “Dream.”
As the show headed into its finale, each group came back for one more performance, starting with aespa. Their debut mega-hit “Black Mamba” was a standout for me last year with its growling bassline and addictive chorus, and these girls killed it on stage, delivering a high dose of attitude. I can’t wait to see more of what they have to offer in 2021! NCT Dream sang their high-energy track “Déjà Vu,” followed by WayV’s heights-reaching single “Turn Back Time,” and NCT 127’s irresistible hit “Kick It.” Red Velvet then returned to the stage to perform the popular “Psycho,” a song many fans had been longing to see live. SuperM’s “One (Monster & Infinity)” was next, another favorite with its seamless fusing of two separate songs into one gargantuan pop anthem. The stage then grew dark as SUPER JUNIOR performed their brand-new track “Burn The Floor” by candlelight. With its haunting melody and unique, almost sinister choreography, it served as a reminder to expect the unexpected. Closing the show was none other than TVXQ! performing the powerful “Why (Keep Your Head Down,” with SMTOWN LIVE’s augmented reality special effects on full display. Between the larger-than-life text graphics and fiery inferno flames blazing, it was certainly one epic finale for the ages.
A special music video served as the encore, featuring the entire SMTOWN LIVE lineup. They sang H.O.T’s uplifting 1998 single “Hope,” written and composed by KANGTA himself. I had never heard it before, but I could see why it’s held in such high regard. Looking up the lyrics the song sings of joining hands and sticking together through adversity. A translation reads, “I want to become the hope to light up your open future/ Lift your head up and face the radiant light.” With its sweet and apt message, the video highlighted the bonds between the SM artists, smiling and having fun with each other, and the strength that comes only from unity. And just when I thought the three-hour concert was over, there was a bonus ‘after-party’ with Raiden, GINJO and IMLAY all DJing their own 20-minute sets, making sure my final hour of 2020 was the liveliest it had been all year. While their dance music made me yearn to have seen this concert in person, surrounded by my fellow fans, it made me happy that so many people were able watch and enjoy the show for free. Seeing all the positive messages in the live chat and getting to witness so many powerful performances all in one place, SMTOWN LIVE “Culture Humanity” was truly a once in a lifetime experience. It ended the year on a high note and gave a glimpse towards a brighter, more hopeful future.
*All opinions stated are the author’s own.