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When One Direction takes its “hiatus” next spring, the biggest boy band in the world will for the first time hail not from Europe or the Americas, but from Asia. In fact, anyone attending the South Korean quintet Big Bang’s current world tour might be convinced that its moment is already here.
The seven-date North American leg of the MADE Tour (named after the group’s latest album) drew a total of 87,000 people last month and was the continent’s biggest and most successful outing by a Korean artist to date. Although it hasn’t reached the household-name status of labelmate Psy, Big Bang already can make several impressive claims: crossing over as a non-English language act, lasting nearly a decade intact (by comparison, 1D was formed five years ago, and Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC after seven years) and transcending its boy band roots to become a veteran artist still dominating the industry (this summer it tied Psy’s Billboard World Digital Songs record with three No. 1s on the chart).
A trip to Big Bang’s Staples Center show on Oct. 3 – which earned $1.7 million, good enough to crack the world’s top 10 highest grossing tours that week – revealed the secret to the group’s odds-defying longevity: creative freedom. It’s not a phrase commonly associated with pop acts, especially those churned out by K-pop’s notoriously calculating hit factory. The members of Big Bang were themselves subject to years of training as teens before label impresario Yang Hyun-suk greenlit their debut in 2006.
Nine years later, the members only slightly pandered to their young female fans via the occasional sheepish “heart” hand gesture. Rather, the image literally projected throughout the concert’s video interludes was perhaps more relatable to their fellow 20-something males in the audience: the band in an extended homage to Reservoir Dogs, racing through the desert in 1970s muscle cars, cavorting with a slew of intimidating-looking supermodels. Western pop acts have long chafed under attempts to police or repress their burgeoning maturity; Korean acts more so. Thus it felt all the more revolutionary when, during Big Bang’s shaky but charming English onstage banter, one member ribbed another for getting tanked after its Mandalay Bay show the night before.
Big Bang’s early work was hip hop-inflected with the requisite choreography. Now, the quintet still worked up a sweat alongside the backup dancers, but the moves were loose and felt spontaneous. And the set list, dominated by the eight (!) new singles released this summer, ping-ponged in style from the innuendo-laced trap ditty “Bae Bae” to MGMT-esque “Sober” to the melancholy, acoustic guitar-driven breakup ballad “If You” to “Bang Bang Bang,” which in itself sounds like a mashup of three completely different electro-party bangers.
The group has always been unique for having a relatively high level of creative control over its output. Nowadays every track is co-written by frontman and rapper G-Dragon, whose eclectic tastes have made him a rising star in international music and fashion circles in recent years. The fact that he hasn’t pulled a Timberlake despite three highly successful solo releases is perhaps as much a testament to an ironclad K-pop contract as to loyalty, but Big Bang’s continued willingness to stick together can also be credited to the fact that each member has been allowed to flaunt his musical idiosyncrasies with solo material that was showcased at the concert: The youngest member, Seungri, winkingly seduced the ladies with an energetic pop number, while Daesung unleashed his rock voice with a soaring power ballad. Taeyang’s smooth R&B allowed fans to imagine a world in which Usher also belonged to a boy band, and G-Dragon picked his Brit-rock crowd-pleaser “Crooked” for his solo turn. And then there was his fellow rapper T.O.P, whose innovative personal style can perhaps best be described as art-rap, decked out in a suit inspired by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and spitting supersonic rhymes referencing himself as a “rap Basquiat with a mic.”
The band’s American adventures have been documented in BIGBANG: MADE 2015 Concert, which will premiere Nov. 11 on DramaFever. Directed by Mark Haney and recorded during Big Bang’s two-night engagement at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the documentary is the first full original production from the streaming video service, which launched in 2009 as a legal destination for licensed international television series and movies, subtitled in English. The company has since co-produced two hit South Korean dramas and was acquired by SoftBank last year.
“The ability for music to cross barriers and transcend culture is undeniable. It’s clear from our internal metrics that our core audience of multicultural millennials are rabid fans of K-pop,” says Suk Park, president of DramaFever, which has launched a dedicated portal featuring the group’s previous four concert documentaries. “As one of the biggest and most unique acts, Big Bang has set itself apart as the vanguard of the genre.”
The MADE Tour marks Big Bang’s first major outing since the release of its last album, 2012’s Alive. The three-year hiatus – especially interminable by the standards of K-pop, where artists come back with new material annually if not sooner – had fans worrying that the group was quitting by attrition, creatively burnt out by the industry’s rigorous demands. But on stage, Big Bang looked more than ever like they were having the time of their lives. Ironically, it may be impending military enlistment — thanks to Korea’s mandatory service laws — that ends the group. But in the meantime, fans can content themselves with the parting scene from the concert’s cinematic video epilogue: The five guys, leaving a house party in the Hollywood Hills to gaze over the vast city below, intact and triumphant.
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