MTV Sessions with B.A.P. and some thoughts on K-Pop's live performance culture

I recently got the chance to preview photo highlights and a clip of B.A.P.'s "Hurricane" performance for their upcoming appearance on MTV Sessions and it brought up some observations and thoughts I've always had on K-Pop performances. I brought up a lot of issues and applications back when I used to write music show recaps, but now I think my thoughts are more developed and I can articulate myself better. So here are some things to think about when you catch their set on MTV Asia next week, or even now while you look through these photo highlights!

Photo and video previews are courtesy of MTV Asia and Viacom International Media Networks Asia. All photos by Aloysius Lim.

There is prestige to performing for huge stadiums filled with tens of thousands, and not just in terms of revenue or selling power -- bigger venues demand more exaggerated and imposing performances that require performers to project lot of energy to keep up with the audience. But at the same time, there is also just as much prestige to performing in front of smaller venues -- the closer you are to your audience, the more vulnerable you become. Making a mistake, slacking off for even one second, or even minor changes in deportment are even more visible because of the proximity between audience and performer. So the amount of discipline and technical accuracy required in addition to energy and personality is just as physically and mentally draining as that of a stadium performance.

K-Pop's performance culture is more focused on broadcast -- weekly music shows are one of the most important institutions in the industry, if not the most important. And while there are audiences during tapings, live and pre-recorded (which is another matter altogether), performers focus more on projecting themselves to the camera than they do towards the audience. There is a very different set of mannerisms and performance techniques utilized when you're moving for a camera -- movements are calibrated differently, eye contact, constant consciousness of the camera, etc. I remember Shinhwa's Junjin's anecdote about how Minwoo was supposed to point towards the audience during a performance but ended up sticking his finger into the camera that just happened to move right in front of him at that moment.

If you've watched a substantial amount of Music Bank, Music Core, Inkigayo, or behind-the-scenes cuts of idol groups, you'll know that the space between the stage and the audience is huge -- they accommodate not only cameras but production staff of all kinds, a queue of performers, network reps, entourages. Weekly music show audiences don't necessarily watch performances, they watch tapings of performances. MTV Sessions, on the other hand, creates an environment where there's more of a balance between performing for the camera and for the audience. The broadcast/filming methods are less intrusive -- no on-stage cameras, partially also because it's a much, much simpler production logistics-wise. In a performance like B.A.P.'s, the audience watching the performance is what is recorded.

B.A.P.'s audience for their set was substantial, with almost 300 fans in the audience (substantial enough for screaming), but still on the small side due to the venue. Watching the performance and looking at the stills you'll see that B.A.P. is close enough to make physical contact with the audience, which means that they are at their most vulnerable -- you can hide from the view of the camera lens, multiple cameras at that, but you can't hide from an audience of three hundred. One of them is bound to see you at any given moment.

We, as viewers of the broadcast, are essentially viewers of the relationship between performer and audience.

On the other hand, B.A.P. were also in familiar territory during their MTV Sessions set with regards to the absence of a live band. This is the other side of that balance between audience and broadcast -- as you put more people on stage, it gets harder to pull off the show. And further, the more variables on stage susceptible to human error, the less control you have over the production. Remember that small audiences in close proximity makes the performance vulnerable so the more you can do off-camera, the better.

It's good to know though that the set was sung live. Aside front the obvious musical arguments (that I've made over and over again in the past) from a performance standpoint, especially one as intimate as this in terms of size and configuration, there are very clear reasonings for the necessity to sing live. Smaller audiences require more interaction through vocals and choreography -- physical interaction is just a supplement to the performance itself. So by interaction I mean emotions conveyed by technical and musical elements, stage mannerisms, and the performers' adapting the performance to suit the energy levels of the audience.

This is where the systematic nature of an ideal broadcast falls short -- the vulnerability of smaller audiences also brings out the need for the human qualities of performance. Not all performances are the same, and as I've said earlier, audience-performer interaction is the core of the event. This interaction is mainly a process of sizing up capabilities, emotions, moods, and accommodating actions to suit and respond to each other, all of which happen in real-time and can't occur until both performer and audience are set up.

During their performance of "Hurricane," in addition to choreography and movements the members engage the audience in the performance itself by encouraging fan chants and pointing the microphone towards them -- the group allows the audience to take over at "the roof is on fire" -- an action which would not have been possible if they used pre-recorded vocals.

MTV Sessions: B.A.P premieres on MTV Asia next Thursday, 25 September at 7pm (WIB), 8pm (SG), 9pm (MAL) and 11pm (PH) with additional content available online at MTV Sessions: B.A.P is ignited by Xpax, and in partnership with Resorts World Sentosa Singapore.


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