This past New Year’s Eve, my wife and I turned on both of our options for a musical countdown on TV and thought, This is the best they can do for the biggest, ball-dropping party of the year? What happened to the star power? The energy? The celebratory feel?

Thankfully I remembered that I had the “I AM.: SM Town Live World Tour in Madison Square Garden” to review, and we popped in the concert disc. And you know what? It turns out that this K-Pop (short for Korean pop music) concert was more fun to watch than anything pretending to be “rockin’” that night.

Some 50 million people live in South Korea, but because the country is only slightly larger than Indiana everything is concentrated. So when young people become stars, their stars really take off.

That’s what’s happened with K-Pop and the groups that have risen to the top the past decade. Americans who watch this concert will see it for what it is:  a collection of girl groups and boy bands that have much in common with their American predecessors. The music is heavily processed, with some of the voices run through a synthesizer at times, driven by a strong Techno-style backbeat and choreography that spotlights the athleticism of the young singers. While some of the groups settle on the magic number five, others, like Girls Generation, goes bigger, trotting out a bevy of long-legged women who move like synchronized swimmers without the water. And their outfits? Pure Asian style.

The music itself is kind of catchy, but girl groups f(x) and Girls Generation were the most entertaining, simply because they were also the most refreshing. Their faces showed that they a) flat-out enjoyed performing more than anything else, and b) knew how lucky they were to be elevated to star status and were still both surprised and grateful. They came across like real people. Flip back to the performances on the New Year’s Eve shows and compare that to Brandy, whose back-up singers are dressed like streetwalkers and who all writhe and try to project an image and a style. Or even to the K-Pop boy bands that are featured. The guys come across as being just a little more full of themselves or trying just a little too hard to give audiences the image that everyone has in their heads of “pop idol.” Their moves and their facial expressions “out” them, and, frankly, they can seem as comical as the guys from the ‘70s with their unbuttoned shirts and gold chains, or the boy bands in the States who always seem just a little cheesy as they play to audiences.

If you ignore that part of the package, the music is still catchy. Each song sounds a bit like the next, but the full-capacity crowd at this October 2011 event seemed to know all the words—which, by the way, were in mostly Korean with some English words scattered here and there.

I think the promoters who packaged the groups and the tour know that the girls are stronger, because girl group f(x) kicks off the concert with two high-energy numbers.
SM Entertainment formed f(x) in 2009, and its members—Victoria, Amber, Luna, Sulli, and Krystal—all have stage names and personas. Originally marketed on YouTube as “Asia’s Pop Dance Group,” their first album featured just three songs—which, actually, is common for musicians from smaller countries. And at some point in every song Amber, who wears pants and dresses more boyish than the rest, will break into a brief rap.

Aside from the introductions each member makes to the audience, waving, there’s no chatter to interrupt the concert, and no breaks for set changes or performers. The plus side of touring with a number of groups is that it’s one act right after the other. It’s a show, every bit as much as it is a concert. And for home viewers, it’s a great introduction to K-Pop and a way to identify groups or songs that you want to download.

Kangta, a male soloist, takes the stage next with a ballad, then talks about “juniors” and “seniors,” and how he’s going to do a duet with a cute junior—and you realize that SM Entertainment apparently structured their pop farm like a dance company, with junior members first learning the ropes and moving up to senior, hoping, always, to be paired off or put into a group.

Sulli from f(x) does a cutesy number with him as they sit on park benches at opposite sides of the stage, with Kangta taking a microphone from the mailbox next to his bench and singing a song of unrequited love. It becomes a running gag, with Sulli finding a microphone in a purse left on the ground in front of her and later taking one from a pizza man’s delivery box, and Kangta finding another one in the pocket of a coat he puts on.

The five-member boy band SHINee then take the stage, with Onew, Jonghyun, Key, Minho, and Taemin doing their version of New Kids and Back Street Boys as they sing “Stand by Me,” “Replay,” “Get Down,” and a song that ‘s decidedly influenced by Michael Jackson—both in sound and in moves.  And here’s where the gimmicks start, with the guys going in for harness lifts and cheesy poses as they’re suspended like meat for concertgoers to gawk over and worship.

Then it’s Super Junior, with three guys dressed to look totally different from each other singing a slow song. That sets up Girls Generation—Taeyeon, Hyoyeon, Seohyun, Sooyoung, Yoona, Jessica, Tiffany, Sunny, and Yuri—who explode onstage as the nine of them sing three high-energy songs. It’s funny, but compared to western female pop singers the K-Pop girl groups dress demurely. If legs are shown, then there’s no midriff exposed, and when there IS, it’s just the slightest patch of skin. And cleavage? What’s that? All of the outfits are high-necked. But the girls still project plenty of femininity and sex appeal. After a brief stint by Super Junior and Super Junior-M, the Girls Generation comes back with two more songs.

It wasn’t until BoA—the only group to feature a female singer with male back-up—took the stage when you realized she’s lip-synching, and probably so were many of them, even though they all had wireless headset microphones. BoA’s voice is a little rougher than the other girl groups, and the group is packaged to look just a little “badder.” She’s dressed in black for one number, while the five guys are wearing white tops. Ironically, though my wife and I didn’t care for her that much, BoA is the only foreign artist with two million-copy albums in Japan.

The acts continue to alternate, with the only new group being more guys, TVXQ! Aside from the finale, “Hope,” which saw all of the performers coming onstage to sing a medium-tempo song amidst a continuous rain of confetti, the concert was entertaining. But this finale was like watching the Olympians at the closing ceremony, many with cameras pointed at the audience, looking just a bit awkward—like, do we hug, do we wave, do we . . . what? It was the only loosely unscripted portion of the show, and proof that these kids, for all their talent, still need and depend on that guidance.

The concert is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and it looks absolutely terrific—no banding, no unwanted auras or haloing. It’s a solid concert presentation, with bright colors and no bleed, and detail in not just close-ups but the middle distance and background as well. Often concert videos blur when up-angle shots hit stage lighting or when pullback shots show the whole stage from a distance, but that’s never the case here.

The audio is a Korean Dolby Digital 5.1, and while there are subtitles on the documentary, there are no subtitles for the concert. One song flashes the lyrics in English on a giant screen, but that’s the lone exception.

Disc 1 of this two-disc set features the 161-minute concert plus three teasers/trailers, a music video, a making-the-music-video featurette, and four other short features: “New York Diary,” “What’s Your Color?” “TVXQ! Their Story,” and “Showcase Highlights,” which collectively run just under half an hour. They’re all fluffy fan pieces.

In fact, Disc 2, “I AM.,” is a 125-minute documentary that’s also more of a fan feature than a film about the SM Tour (with a kick-off in Seoul Olympic Stadium and stops in L.A., Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, and back to Tokyo before the New York finale). And if you hoped that this “documentary” would give you some background on K-Pop, forget it. The focus is on the 32 individual performers, and I can’t imagine anyone other than starry-eyed fans caring to watch this—even after the long segment that just goes from person to person asking them how different or similar are they from their stage persona? Mostly, this is an amalgam of backstage and rehearsal footage intercut with concert footage from the other venues from this 2010-11 world tour.

Bottom line:
New Year’s is past, but “I AM.: SM Live World Tour in Madison Square Garden” might be a fun pop-it-in nonstop musical disc when you have a large group of people watching. It’s a nice sampler of K-Pop music performed by some of the biggest groups in South Korea.