K-pop prides itself on vertiginously high standards in all aspects of production, from its choreography to the carefully curated public images of its stars. So it’s surprising that the European leg of the biggest tour ever by an all-female K-pop act begins a tad late. A bemused American voice apologises for “technical difficulties” over the PA. (Blackpink’s world tour has transferred from a successful run in the US.) There’s little for “Blinks” – Blackpink fans – to do but watch the band’s videos and bash their heart-hammer light sticks, which produce a polite squeak, on the nearest hard surface.
When the assault on the senses finally begins, though, it is in earnest. Arena pop is known for its OTT staging and pyrotechnics. K-pop puts a rocket under all that. One of the drivers of the genre’s ubiquity in the past decade is the ability of the all-powerful South Korean production houses to cherrypick the most impactful aspects of western pop – trap beats, Swedish production signatures, anthemic pre-choruses, 1980s keyboard lines – and throw them in a blender, then sell them back to the world in enhanced forms.
Now on their second official studio album, having broken all sorts of records – the band sold 2.2m copies of the latest outing in just 48 hours in South Korea alone – Blackpink are especially skilled at this copy-paste shock and awe. For a tour promoting that long-awaited follow-up – Born Pink, released in September – minimalism was never an option. Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa and Rosé come armed with as many dancers as they do hydraulics, plus a live band, umpteen costume changes and confetti cannons.
The four entertainers do not disappoint. From 2020’s The Album, Pretty Savage boasts a nagging motif and Korean-English raps, encapsulating the appeal of this most successful of girlbands: tough-girl “attitude”, but delivered with big, soaring choruses and sharp choreography. Every accusation that critics can level at pop – that it is mass-produced, that its cookie-cutter blandness feels unchallenging and repetitive – goes double for a lot of K-pop. But the very best of the genre (and Blackpink are huge for a reason) simply does away with everything musically boring. Soppy ballads are the very worst thing about pop. There are none here.
Tally, a banger from Born Pink, moves the attitude plot along significantly. “No one’s keeping tally, I do what I want with who I like,” sing Blackpink, boasting of their sexual freedom in a lyric liberally sprinkled with F-bombs. K-pop contracts are infamous for their restrictiveness, with trainees allegedly prevented from having relationships, and reportedly banned from fraternising with the opposite sex in the talent academies, allegedly until three years after their debut. Six years in, Blackpink are well clear of that clause (on paper at least), but tonight it feels as if they may still be singing this particular song from the heart.
Alternatively, they might just be very good at cosplaying a lot of swagger derived from US hip-hop and R&B. K-pop has long had huge issues with cultural appropriation that it has yet to satisfactorily resolve. Although not on a par, the band’s playful attempts at British accents tonight are pretty cringey too. You’re just grateful they don’t twerk.
For the uninitiated, there are introductions. Rosé – part-raised in Australia, her hair a pinky-blond colour – does a lot of the talking in between songs. Lisa, from Thailand, is one of Blackpink’s two rappers and seems to embody the Blackpink USP of sleek pugnaciousness a little more naturally than the others. The demure, enigmatic Jisoo draws particular affection from both the crowd and her bandmates, while rapper Jennie, who spent some years in New Zealand, handles more fan niceties. “Show me all your energy!” she asks.
Ah, energy. There is a common complaint among Blinks that Blackpink have actually produced very little music since debuting in 2016 compared with their more prolific K-pop peers. Although three of the four have released successful solo albums, all have side gigs in TV and film, and very visible tie-ins with French fashion houses, which has seemingly slowed their workrate. The upshot of all this alleged “laziness” (the internet fandom can be cruel) is that you get to hear a great deal of Blackpink’s potent, fat-free back catalogue over the course of a nearly two-hour show, with solo tunes from each member. Jisoo, yet to produce solo material, sings a cover; Rosé and Lisa – whose Lalisa single broke records on release last year – have the upper hand here. This is a slick show, delivered with commitment and the odd glimpse of human error. While trying to cover her bandmates with confetti, Rosé drops her mic off the stage.
The internet suggests that there might be rifts between members, and some previous legs of the tour have seen Blackpink accused of lacklustre performances. Speculation is intense about whether they have signed another contract with YG Entertainment, given that the standard seven-year contract many K-pop acts sign before fracturing is theoretically up for renewal in 2023. But Blackpink are booked to play what video ads tonight are claiming to be the biggest ever K-pop gig outdoors in Hyde Park next summer. Whatever the snafus at the O2, their careers seem to be running right on schedule.