By: Hannah Waitt
Growing up, I was an avid soccer player. I practiced with my team four times a week, played in matches and tournaments on the weekends, and in my spare time, played with the kids on my block. One of the things I loved most about soccer was not just the game, but gearing up for it. There’s something about putting on a uniform that inspires a sense of pride in being a part of a group. Getting to wear a jersey meant that I was not just “me,” but that I was a part of “us.” Walking up to the field each weekend, I had this elated sense of belonging, a sort of patriotism, when I spotted my team getting ready to warm up in our colors. Walking through Seoul Olympic Park on Saturday, the air was electric with those same feelings of belonging and patriotism.
As I walked around the stadium, it was hard to spot fans who weren’t sporting EXO’s newly minted “Exoplanet” baseball jerseys. Everywhere I looked there were thousands of uniforms with the names Suho, Kai, Chanyeol, Lay, Xiumin, Chen, Baekhyun, D.O, and Sehun emblazoned across the back. Equipped with little more than their light sticks, banners, and raw passion, fans giddily filed into the venue.
Having recently attended EXO’s debut U.S. tour in Dallas, I already had a set standard in my mind for what the performance would be like. “EXO’rDIUM” would go on to exceed those expectations for many reasons, but especially for one major one that I had not counted on: the fans. EXO obviously has significantly higher selling power on their home turf in Seoul than away in Dallas, where Kpop fans are much fewer and further between, and there is an indescribable difference between an audience of roughly 6,000 and one of 15,000. And the pièce de résistance? The group’s new official light sticks, which were wirelessly coordinated to light up in different colors and rhythms according to both your seat number and the music. Light sticks have always been one of my favorite parts about Kpop concerts — when fans pump them in unison with the music, the lights form a mesmerizing enigma that somehow enhances the performance you’re watching. But this weekend EXO took light sticks to the next level.
As the introductory video played, the light sticks remained white as fans squealed over the close-ups of their favorite members. When the video ended, the light sticks went out and the entire stadium went pitch black as fans waited, still with baited breath. All at once, every light stick in the stadium turned deep red as that apocalyptic “Careless, careless, shoot anonymous, anonymous” introduction to EXO’s debut single “MAMA” began. The stadium erupted as each member appeared hooded to show off their individual EXO super powers, with the help of some seriously cool lighting and pyrotechnic effects.
After “MAMA,” the group went straight into their newest single, “Monster,” with fans contributing to the hype with raucous ear-splitting fan chants and their color-changing light sticks. During “Monster” Baekhyun served up an impressive dance solo, aided by improvised shouts of “Byun-Baek-Hyun! Byun-Baek-Hyun!” from the audience, before the group moved on to “Wolf,” building on the thrill of the first two songs with a remix that allowed for a generous dance break involving all of the members.
The boys took a breather to welcome the audience with their signature “we are one” greeting after their first three songs, visibly drenched in sweat having performed what are arguably their most choreographically intense numbers from the get-go. Conveniently, EXO was able to cool off as the group transitioned into their sexier laid back tracks, beginning with “White Noise” and moving through “Thunder,” “Playboy,” and “Artificial Love.” Water fell from the rafters as the group body-rolled their way through the set with effortless swagger, sending audience members into full on meltdown mode with hip thrusts and sultry stares into the big screen cameras.
For their next set, EXO shifted into a more relaxed mode, moving about the stage and greeting fans with ease as they performed “Unfair,” the crowd’s lights flickering yellow and sky blue between each stadium section. Lay and Chanyeol picked up acoustic guitars as group took a seat on the stage, performing a medley of acoustic renditions to “My Lady,” “My Turn to Cry,” “Moonlight,” and “Love Love Love.” Lay was also given a moment to perform a short Chinese solo, visibly more comfortable and expressive in his native language.
EXO then picked up the pace with an acoustic version of “Call Me Baby,” and with the audience lending their own voices to the mix, the concert began to feel less like a grand-scale performance and more like just a bunch of friends riffing on guitars and messing around with each other. It was at this point that it became clear that EXO has a unique ability to make their performances seem simultaneously spectacular and yet remarkably intimate. The group’s easy transition between powerful choreography routines to stripped down acoustics made them seem somehow more real, more approachable, and more inclusive to the fans in attendance. As EXO and the crowd sang a raw version of “Call Me Baby” together, I looked around at the audience in their “Exoplanet” jerseys and thought to myself, “Oh I get it, EXO, the audience, we’re all on the same team here.” This team theme would prove to be a major motif for the remainder of the night.
At this point the concert was about halfway through, and the arena was filled with musty humidity and body heat of 15,000 people. Nobody seemed to mind though, as EXO brought everyone to their feet to dance along to “Tender Love,” swinging their light sticks around their heads in unison, just as Baekhyun and Chanyeol instructed in a video uploaded to YouTube days earlier. Nearly two hours in, the audience should have been exhausted, but EXO managed to keep everybody on their feet for “Love Me Right” as the light sticks twinkled in time with the beat. The group closed out the segment of the concert with a water dance break from Kai, Lay and Sehun to “One and Only”, followed by D.O, Baekhyun, Chen, and Suho flexing their vocals on “Stronger.”
After a short video, EXO reappeared on stage wearing what were arguably the silliest costumes I’ve ever seen at any concert ever. Sporting two-foot-high cone hats, tights, elf shoes, and what can only be described as “festive” ponchos, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the garden gnomes that my next door neighbor used to have scattered around her front lawn. Their elvish appearance earned an enormous reaction from the fans, who howled with excitement as the various members made their way across the stage and onto the second floor, performing their more light-hearted songs, including “Angel,” “XOXO,” “Girl X Friend,” and “365.”
As EXO circled around the stadium on their elevated platforms, fans clamored over each other for a chance to get a closer look at and a wave from their favorite members. The venue staff desperately tried to corral fans back to their seats, but they were determined to get closer, and for good reason. EXO’s fan service is nothing short of expert. Xiumin in particular was especially enthusiastic about greeting fans, allowing them to reach out almost close enough to tickle his chin, not avoiding the contact but encouraging it, like a puppy asking for a tummy rub. Meanwhile, the other members actively sought out fans wearing their jerseys or holding signs with their names on them, generous with their winks, waves, and heart hand signs to their supporters.
By now EXO was at least 25 songs into their set, but when the group re-emerged on stage, if they were exhausted, it did not show. EXO reappeared having shed their cutesy gnome hats in exchange for slick suits — the group was done with being adorable and back to being badass. With the aid of copious laser, pyrotechnic, and lighting effects, EXO blasted through more their more hard-hitting numbers, including “Overdose,” “Transformer,” and “Light Saber,” during the last of which the guys pulled actual light sabers out of the ground as the stage went black, performing a dance break with their neon sticks twisting through space in unison.
The group then took another break, and just three members — Chanyeol, Sehun, and Xiumin — came back out. The three started chanting the words, “gatchi gatchi hae,” which roughly translates to “do it together, together.” As the audience caught on and joined in, the stadium crescendoed into a full out roar when the trap beat dropped. The trio performed the hip-hop song with a powerful swagger that I hadn’t expected from the idols, and I feel pretty positive that after hearing the new track, I was not the only one in the stadium hoping for a Chanyeol, Sehun and Xiumin unit promotion of the song in the future.
The rest of the group emerged for an old school hip-hop remix of “Two Moons,” and as the crowd slowly but surely became more and more hyped, Chanyeol moved to center stage and picked up an electric guitar. The rapper shredded out some an impressive riff that included a “Growl” sample before moving behind the turn tables to drop a mix of EDM and hip-hop beats as the rest of EXO ran around the stage chanting “Jump! Jump! Jump!” and “Put your hands up!” in Korean. The group then performed a remix of “Let Out the Beast,” and it was around this time that the audience truly went insane.
I don’t think that I have ever used the phrase “it was lit” in regards to Kpop performances — Exciting? Yes. Fun? Definitely. But lit? Not so much. So believe me when I say, at this point, the EXO concert was lit. Fans were going out of their minds. The standing section was in all-out mosh mode, and the sitting section was certainly not sitting. Everyone’s light sticks pulsed in time with the beat and fans danced wildly as EXO effectively turned the stadium into a club, closing out their set with “Lucky” and “Run.”
The group thanked the audience, took a bow, and disappeared behind the stage as the lights came up. Knowing better to believe it was their final exit for the night, shouts of “Encore! Encore!” rose through the audience as fans begged EXO to reappear. The group obliged, returning clad in — you guessed it — the same baseball jerseys that the audience was wearing. The last few songs were less about performance, and more about thanking the audience. As they sang “Cloud 9,” “Growl,” “Lucky One,” and “Angel,” each member wandered the stadium, waving, smiling, and touching hands to thank every fan for coming.
What struck me about EXO in this very last part of their performance, was the exact same thing that I felt when I saw the group perform in Dallas. As I looked upon the members and their fans all wearing the same uniform, a sense of equality and inclusion permeated throughout the stadium. EXO has an impeccable ability to foster a sense of sincere belonging; to make the fans feel like they are not a part of the “them,” but that they are a part of EXO’s “us.” In my last review, I wrote that there is still truth in EXO’s signature phrase “we are one,” and now I realize that phrase extends not just to the EXO members, but to the entire team. The 15,000 people at the Seoul Olympic Stadium that night weren’t just sporting collector’s item jerseys at the concert, they were putting on their uniforms. The pride I used to feel walking up to the soccer field in my uniform pales in comparison to the pride that EXO and EXO-L fans feel in being a part of the same team, and their ability to inspire that sort of loyalty and patriotism in their teammates, is exactly why EXO continues to reign as the current champions of Kpop.
Tags: Baekhyun Chanyeol Chen Concert D.O EXO EXO'rDIUM Kai Lay Sehun Suho Xiumin