If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that living through the pandemic made a lot of previously unimaginable things a part of normal life. Office culture became a relic of the past, sea shanties emerged as an unlikely musical trend, and a band could gain millions of fans worldwide, and put out multiple albums, without ever really getting the chance to perform in front of an audience. That’s the reality at least for ENHYPEN, the K-Pop aces who debuted in 2020 and who, up until this past weekend, had never heard their fans sing along to their songs.
The group, made up of members Jungwon, Heeseung, Jay, Jake, Sunghoon, Sunoo, and Ni-ki, travelled to Germany to perform as part of Europe’s first major K-pop festival, K.Pop Flex. The weekend-long affair, which took place in Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Park stadium, was a watershed moment for a number of reasons. Firstly, as a signal that, though the pandemic is not over, normality when it comes to concerts is closer than it’s felt in years. Secondly, as a door re-opening for European K-Pop fans who’ve seen a slower uptick in their favourite artists performing in their cities post-pandemic. And thirdly, as a chance for artists who had the unenviable task of starting their careers in a time when performing became a pipe-dream rather than a promise to have their moment to shine.
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“It's going to be our first time as a group going overseas and see our fans in person, so we're very excited and we just can't wait to finally see and hear fans for the first time”, Jake says over Zoom from Seoul in the days leading up to the event, the point about seeing and hearing their fans hitting extra hard. Globally, concerts have returned at a staggered rate, and in the group’s home base of Korea, although shows with limited capacity have been back since the start of the year, COVID restrictions prevented fans from clapping, screaming or singing along.
“I’m kind of nervous, and I haven't been on a plane ride for a long time”, Sunoo says about the group’s impending flight. “This is actually our first time travelling as a group”, leader Jungwon adds.
“Because of the pandemic, even though we met our fans offline and in person, they were not allowed to make any sounds, they were not allowed to scream”, Heeseung says. “So now that we know that we can finally do an offline concert in front of 40,000 people, where they can actually cheer, I can't really imagine how that will be”.
“Maybe we won’t hear them really well, because we are wearing our in-ears”, youngest member Ni-ki responds jokingly to the rest of the group, who are huddled closely around the camera.
If there was any risk of that being the case, that somehow the cheers wouldn’t make it from the audience to the stage, it was quickly dispelled even before the concert started. Ahead of the show, music videos from all the artists performing, including NCT DREAM, Mamamoo, EXO’s Kai and, of course, ENHYPEN, blazed across screens dotted around and above the waiting crowd. Fans screamed for their faves, waving their lightsticks in appreciation. Lightsticks are group-specific light up torches that have individual designs and colours. In concerts, they can be synched up to create their own light show across the audience, but in a festival atmosphere, where fans of all different groups gather, they can act as a beacon, a unifier linking you to the rest of your people in the room.
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ENHYPEN’s lightstick is a sleek black and white orb, glowing white at rest. Fans, who travelled from all over the world to for the chance to see their favourite group make their overseas debut, dotted the stadium from the floor to the upper echelons of the venue like a starry night, rhythmically waved theirs around to the tune of the group’s latest single 'Blessed-Cursed', buzzing with anticipation to finally hear it live in person.
“Because of COVID, even though we did get to perform, it was kind of limited. For music shows, we could not see the fans on site, so those things were kind of hard” Heeseung says about the reality of a career that, thus far, has mostly involved performing to just a camera.
The group were formed in 2020 as part of survival reality show I-Land that saw 23 boys compete for a spot in what would later become ENHYPEN. Though they admit they’ve received energy and love on social media, the desire to see their fans, known as Engenes, in person is palpable. “We always used to hear the screams that were pre-recorded”, Jungwon says, referencing music shows and award shows where crowd noise was added to make up for a lack of audience, “but now we get to experience the real ones”.
As 40,000 fans watched from the stadium on Saturday, ENHYPEN finally got their wish. The set involved a powerful group version of Mix & Max’s ‘Bleeding Darkness’, highlighting the synchonisity they’ve been hailed for since debut. They then followed it with a scan-through of some of their biggest hits to date, ‘Drunk-Dazed’, ‘Fever’, ‘Tamed-Dashed and ‘Blessed-Cursed’. In all, the performance lasted only around 20 minutes before the next act was swiftly introduced on stage, but it was enough to energise Engenes and beyond in the crowd. Make no mistake, there were no pre-recorded screams at this event. Decibels were shattered as fans pounded their lightsticks along to the music, screaming and singing along to lyrics which, for many, were in a language they’re not fluently proficient in.
It’s a testament to how artists like ENHYPEN have broken down barriers to prove that good music simply speaks for itself. “When I listen to pop songs that aren’t in Korean, I can't really understand the lyrics but I listen to them anyway and I’m moved by the melody”, Jungwon says about seeing so many international fans engage with their music, “so I guess music truly transcends language”.
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It’s not a typical sequence of events, having your first proper almost-like-regular-times concert happen two years into your career and not on your own soil, but abnormality is something ENHYPEN have taken in their stride. “I think [getting used to] different timelines than we usually did before ENHYPEN is really confusing. I think it was a bit of a hard time for us,” Jay says about the group embracing all the ways their lives have changed in such a relatively short space of time. “But it’s okay because we always think about Engenes and try to overcome everything”.
Focus now lies on the road ahead, and what the future holds for a group itching to keep the adrenaline of the weekend’s performance pumping. “COVID has been coming down and getting better overseas, but for Korea it has been really recent, so I'm expecting there will be a lot of more in-person concerts and shows in the future. And because of that I'm sure K-Pop will become more popular too”, Jungwon says about future goals for the group and their industry as a whole.
With their last comeback happening back in January, thoughts are already on what they want their future releases to involve. The group has etched out a unique niche with the haunting iconography of previous albums, but they do want to branch out further. “I personally think we can pull off dark concepts really well, so maybe we're gonna try more of that, and probably hip-hop too,” Sunghoon says.
And as for where they want to go next? The answer is simple.
“I don't really know, but we'll go anywhere where ENGENEs are,” Sunghoon says, the rest of the group nodding in enthusiastic agreement.
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Words: Lucy Ford
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