We’re down to the wire now with K-pop’s final year-end festival. MBC’s show is usually my favorite. It feels the most festive, bridging the gap between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It also tends to have the most robust artist line-up.
Like every festival of the past two years, this one revolved around a shmaltzy theme related to pandemic reality. In this case, MBC framed the night around the word “together.” Look, I’m not saying these festivals should ignore the reality we’re in, but after awhile it begins to feel a little pandering. Let’s just have a good time in K-pop fantasy land.
Now that I’ve got that grumpy diatribe out of the way, it’s time to talk about the performances themselves. True to form, MBC included a variety of genres, from trot to ballads to straight-up idol spectacle. HYBE artists were away doing their own thing and (of course) YG didn’t participate either. This left a lot of heavy hitters off the roster, which should have given MBC the opportunity to bring in more fresh, young voices. But, they opted for the same handful of acts that have already been making the festival circuit. That’s a shame.
Sadly, Covid restrictions prevented idols from being in the audience watching each other perform (one of my favorite aspects of past years). In fact, unlike KBS and SBS’s festivals, there wasn’t a live audience at all. This made things feel very canned, unfortunately.
The first half of this festival was brutally boring, though I appreciate how they split the NCT units up and had NCT U perform early in the night. (Side note: I really wish SM acts would rearrange their songs/performances for this special occasion. The agency certainly has the resources to do so. Instead, we get the same copy-and-paste versions of these NCT and aespa tracks night after night.)
Watching tonight’s show, I think I understand why this year’s song festivals have left me so bored. During MBC’s festival, only one song from my own personal top ten of 2021 was performed. Nowadays, very little of my favorite K-pop music seems to come from the “big” trendy groups, leaving me with three-and-a-half (!) hours of songs that I never really loved in the first place. Very subjective, I know, but that’s how I’ve been feeling about these festivals this year. Watching them has felt more like an obligation than a pleasure.
With that said, this particular festival was so, so underwhelming. It’s probably the most underwhelmed I’ve ever been by an MBC Gayo Daejaejeon. It just felt like the producers and agencies phoned it in.
10. “Three Decades of K-Pop History” Cover Stages
This was a sly way to have aespa perform their recent cover of Dreams Come True, wasn’t it? They took on the 90’s while Stray Kids covered the 2000’s and The Boyz had the 2010’s. I’m not sure about the song choices. It all felt a little karaoke. If they really wanted to do a multigenerational tribute, I think a cool multi-song mash-up would have been way more fun. But, I always enjoy when the industry honors its legacy.
9. “Tiger Inside” Cover (Boys of 1998)
This cover stage had more energy than most, and the combination of members was cool. But, these kind of collaborations really need to do something to distinguish themselves from the original. A live band, an added dance break, a genre mash-up. Something.
8. “Twinkle” Medley
I’m not sure what else to call this, but some idols sang some songs about stars. I’m calling it “Twinkle” because that was the best of the three. You can’t beat SNSD.
(Also, it’s always nice to hear Felix sing.)
7. Mamamoo – Medley
This wasn’t anything we haven’t seen from the ladies before, but I appreciate how they blitzed through some of their hits and it’s nice to see all four of them together in a year when they’ve been more active as soloists.
6. The Boyz – Maverick
They redeemed this song a bit with a cool rock version. The chorus is still awful, but the guitars somehow made it feel a little less awful. (Yes, this is the criteria we’re now operating under…). As usual, they performed the hell out of it.
5. “Rum Pum Pum Pum” Cover Stage
I’m SO happy to see this song performed! I feel like it (and f(x) in general) never gets attention anymore. This was a perfectly solid cover version and very true to the source. I’m just happy to hear the track and hope that newer fans might discover how great it is through this stage.
4. ITZY – Loco
Okay, if they had released this version as the single, I think I would have liked Loco much more. The whole song felt so much smoother. I love what they did with the verses, though I would have preferred a more effusive arrangement during the chorus. Still, this was the first performance of the night that felt like a genuine moment.
3. Oh My Girl – Dolphin + Dun Dun Dance
This was a series of cool reinventions. Way to go, Oh My Girl! Bringing in Sunwoo Jung-a for a slowed-down version of Dolphin worked surprisingly well and allowed for a great vocal showcase. The disco version of Dun Dun Dance was also fun, leaning into the best facets of the song.
2. Kim Yeon-ja – In the Country of Morning + Amor Fati
I mean, they used to do these full-cast sing-alongs every year and I would barely bat an eye. But during tonight’s dry, sterile festival, this sort of (limited) artist interaction felt priceless.
And OF COURSE she pulled out the immortal Amor Fati – with members of Astro and IVE on board. Again, they do this pretty much every year. It feels like a sad state of affairs that in 2021 it ends up being such a highlight of the night. It was perhaps the only time that tonight (almost) felt like an actual festival.
The lack of an audience was really felt, though.
1. YB – Blue Whale + A Flying Butterfly (with NCT)
A Flying Butterfly is one of my absolute favorite Korean songs, and it’s another standard often performed as part of these festivals. Traditions like this are important, and including YB themselves feels like a suitable way to finish the night.
Bringing NCT’s vocal line into the fray was an inspired choice. It’s the first time I’ve heard them like this since Without You, and I very much need an entire album in this vein. NCT Rock, anyone? I only wish this was longer and a bit more raucous. Still, if you watch just one performance from this festival (a smart idea, btw), let it be this one.