Maryland's small but growing connection to 'K-pop'

Last winter, Leann Kwak put her senior year at Arundel High School on hold to pursue her dreams as a chart-topping pop singer. For nearly three months, thousands of TV viewers determined whether or not she'd move on to the next round of the competition.

But this wasn't "American Idol."Kwak, a Korean-American born and raised in Odenton, was a Top 24 finalist on "K-Pop Star," the South Korean equivalent to "Idol." And while she didn't win, Kwak says that concentrating on her goal kept her motivated while living in a foreign country.

"Practicing for something and then actually performing it in front of a whole bunch of people is just gratifying," Kwak, 18, said. "That satisfied feeling ... that's what I get from performing."

Kwak, who returned to Odenton to finish school after "K-Pop Star," is not Maryland's only connection to "K-pop" (the catchall term for Korean pop music, which can include elements of R&B;, rap and many other genres).

On Friday, VIXX — a Korean all-male six-piece band recently assembled on another Asian reality TV competition, "Mydol," — will become the first K-pop act to perform at Otakon, the annual East Asian fan convention held at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Victor Albisharat, a member of Otakon's board of directors, says the convention is embracing K-pop more this year because organizers noticed the music's rising popularity among fans of Asian culture. Once Otakon announced VIXX would play this year's event, the feedback on social media websites was very positive, Albisharat said.

To American K-pop fans, the appeal — specifically its all-boy and all-girl groups — can be understood by comparing the successes of American groups such as One Direction and Mindless Behavior, Albisharat says.

"You have admittedly quite attractive men and women singing in groups," he said. "It's just like in North America, where we had and have boy bands and girl bands."

While some Otakon attendees associate the convention with celebrating Japanese culture, it has always strived to appreciate Asian art as a whole, Albisharat said. To the organizers, highlighting K-pop was a natural expansion.

"It's more popular on the West Coat and in the Northeast," Albisharat said. "We see lots of discussion on Facebook and Twitter about it. Friends show me YouTube videos of different K-pop groups."

Albisharat remains cautious when discussing K-pop's rising popularity in America, even in niche circles such as Otakon.

"K-pop is aspiring to reach that point of really popular subculture" likeJapan'sanime, he said. "I think it'll take 10 to 15 years to see if this thing will catch on."

Erico Eaddy, a 21-year-old Community College of Baltimore County student, has taken to YouTube to expedite the process. His homemade one-man videos — which range from reviews of new K-pop songs to Eaddy singing his own covers a capella — have surpassed 500,000 total views. He also discusses K-pop beyond the music, including the groups' outlandish fashions and the genre's obsession with plastic surgery.

Eaddy says his love for K-pop came at a time when he was growing tired of "straightforward," oversexualized American pop.

"The lyrics were so much cleaner than a lot of American music, and a lot of [K-pop] songs talk about love," Eaddy said. "In Korean music, it's about gushy, affectionate love."

Eaddy, whose favorite K-pop group is the all-male quintet Big Bang, says he has noticed more Marylanders discovering and listening to the genre.

"It's shocking to me," he said. "I'll be at college and hear someone listening to Girls' Generation randomly, and I've never experienced that before. It shows K-pop is branching out."

Baltimore Sun reporter Hojung Lee contributed to this article.

If you go

VIXX performs Friday as a part of Otakon at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W.Pratt St.Otakon runs Friday through Sunday. Registration for the event is $80 at the door. Doors open at 8:30 a.m.; the concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Call 610-577-6136 or to go

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