Over the past couple years, KBS has moved their song festival forward to mid-December. I’ve got a bone to pick with them when it comes to this change. I mean, don’t they know I’ve got a Top 50 Countdown to wrap up?? A pre-Winter Break nap to take??? Spare a thought for us bloggers, KBS!
Despite health restrictions, this year’s festival was held with a live (masked) audience. This gets a big thumbs up from me. The audience’s energy is so important, even if they’re just sitting there silently waving their lights. I’ve missed them during K-pop’s weekly music shows. In fact, my favorite drinking game tonight was watching each audience member’s utter shock, horror and shame whenever they were shown on the screen. It’s hard not to relate!
This year’s KBS festival theme is “With,” which is… vague enough, I suppose. We can already expect all these year-end festivities to have similar earnest, uplifting themes. I’d rather see producers bring back the music-focused “Color of K-pop” theme from SBS’s 2012 show. That’s still one of my favorite year-end festivals.
Tonight’s show opened with a super awkward singalong when the trio of hosts suddenly burst into K-classic “With You” before revealing the full line-up of tonight’s artists. It was so random and uncomfortable when Eunwoo, Seolhyun and Rowoon stood in front of the curtain in their host outfits singing. But then again, the banter throughout the entire show was pretty stilted.
On the whole, KBS’s 2021 festival felt very lowkey. This is to be expected given the many restrictions they’re working under, but a little more creativity and spontaneity would have gone a long way. Too many of the stages were typical weekly performances given slightly more production value. Along with this year’s MAMA Awards (which felt too uneventful to write about), K-pop’s first end-of-year festival of 2021 was a shrug and a yawn. I miss the days when these shows felt like monumental events. I hope we’re in a better place next year so that energy can be rekindled.
As usual, my criteria for these rankings boils down to how “special” a performance feels. Remixes and rearrangements get major preference. Straightforward performances are unlikely to be mentioned since they can be seen on any number of music shows.
10. Brave Girls – Rollin’ + Chi Mat Ba Ram
Brave Girls earn their spot not on the novelty of their performance (beyond a transitional dance break it was pretty standard) but on the strength of their songs. Even without the bells and whistles of a remix, it’s always nice to hear these two shots of upbeat energy. But, I’m beginning to think we’re never going to see them perform After We Ride. That’s a shame on the whole industry!
9. Nu’est – Inside Out + Black
Nu’est lands on this list because I think Black is a great b-side and I really enjoyed seeing it performed. I wish their entire 2021 album received more attention. There are a lot of solid songs I prefer to the title. Either way, this stage was quite slick.
8. Oh My Girl – Secret Garden + Dum Dum Dance
Breaking free from the KBS Hall was one of the smartest moves the producers of tonight’s show made. The scenery on display here was beautiful, and I love the subtle traditional elements that powered the arrangement of Secret Garden. In comparison, Dun Dun Dance felt a little uneventful. But, I thought the styling was kind of interesting in how it contrasted with the energy of the song.
7. Stray Kids – Thunderous
While I’m not a big fan of Thunderous, it’s certainly well-suited to this fortress location shoot. Stray Kids took more advantage of their setting than Oh My Girl, and I think that’s mostly due to their 2021 song fitting the theme more closely. The dance break is pretty cool and the video ended with a grand spectacle. But, my overall disinterest in this track made the performance less impactful than it might be for others. I would have preferred to see their bonkers Christmas song.
6. F9 – Way To Go
I’ve become a little evangelical about how K-pop needs more cheering songs. Way To Go will always work, no matter the era or line-up. It simply makes you feel energized and uplifted. I’d love to see K-pop acts take this approach more often. We could certainly all benefit from the sentiment! This all-star performance didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it didn’t really need to. It’s a great song, well-performed (Wendy stole the show).
5. Sunmi – Tail + You Can’t Sit With Us
Leave it to Sunmi. Always leave it to Sunmi. As the second of tonight’s artists to heavily use XR technology, her performance felt larger than life. The staging for Tail was quite striking – almost music video-esque. You Can’t Sit With Us reverted to standard staging, which was a missed opportunity. But, Sunmi is always engaging.
4. Lee Mujin – Traffic Light
This was a pretty standard performance of Mujin’s well-loved hit, but the XR effects were very cool. We’ve seen a lot of these augmented reality stages over the past year or so (Music Bank even dedicated an episode to them), but this was one of the more engaging set-ups (even if it had little to do with the song itself).
3. Astro – One + After Midnight
I really enjoy this amped-up remix of After Midnight. It’s not markedly different from the original, but the beat has more bite and funk. Astro are always great performers, but they’re even better when given a strong groove to play with. For a relatively unassuming song, this stage cast quite a few sparks.
2. TXT x ENHYPEN – Legend of K-Pop
Gosh, I’m so predictable. Trot out one of these “modern group covers 1st/2nd gen classics” stages and I’m sold. Every. Single. Time. I guess I just love the history and legacy of it all. Anyways, it was super fun to see these two groups collaborate, and they picked a great (if obvious) set of songs to pay tribute to. Special shout-out to Rain’s Bad Guy, which felt particularly dynamic.
With that said, the fact that this kind of canned medley is ranked so high just goes to show how boring tonight’s festival was.
1. Seventeen – Crush + Ready To Love + Rock With You
Seventeen’s performance at KBS’s 2017 Festival is the stuff of legends, and remains my favorite of their stages. It’s just pure talent on display, backed by incredible songs.
Tonight’s performance had a similar vibe. It wasn’t nearly as exciting, but I like the medley approach and added dance breaks. It’s nice to see Crush performed, though while we’re blitzing through the b-sides, I would have loved an appearance from the superior Anyone.
Rock With You didn’t end up on my end-of-year countdown, but I definitely prefer the rockier version of the song they use here. Seventeen are at their best when their performance feels perfected but raw, and the same can be said for their music. This mix is well-suited for live stages, and really stood out on an otherwise dull night.