After Blackpink, a new crop of Korean artists take on Coachella

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This time last year, the five members of the K-pop group Le Sserafim were glued to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival livestream on YouTube, watching Blackpink make history as the first Korean headliner. On Saturday afternoon, they were getting glammed up in an artist trailer all their own, hours out from making their own Coachella debut.

“Coachella was something I could hardly dream of coming to, even as a spectator,” said Huh Yunjin, of the groundbreaking HYBE girl group. “We’ve watched performances like Blackpink and Billie Eilish online and were like, ‘It’d be so amazing to stand on a stage like this one day.’ ”

“It’s a very famous festival in Korea as well,” added Kim Chaewon, through a translator. “For a lot of artists there, it’s a dream opportunity.”

This year, that opportunity arrived for a whole new generation of Korean acts. After Blackpink’s fast ascent from newcomer to top-billed act, Coachella is already cultivating its next generation of K-pop and South Korean music more broadly. Genres always wax and wane at the fest, with classic rock and EDM giving way to rap and pop. But it looks like South Korean music is a new core element for the fest.

On Friday night the K-pop group Ateez — already an arena act in the U.S. — put on an explosive set to an audience where many were likely seeing them live for the first time. The eight-piece group’s core fandom could barely believe their luck to be able to see them so close.

“When I was training, I really looked forward to this kind of big festival,” said Ateez’s captain Kim Hongjoong, in full goth-glam regalia backstage just a couple hours before his band’s Sahara Tent set. “Coachella has a lot of iconic stages, and Korean fans really love to see Beyoncé, the Weeknd, and Blackpink perform here. I think our performance style really fits at this huge festival. I’ve waited a long time for this.”

The group left it all on the stage on Friday — singing, rapping and dancing with a ferocity and skill that showed the work they put in to get here. Who knows if they’ll get to headline one day, but now there’s proof it’s possible, and Ateez is leading a new class of Korean acts working toward it.

“We really love to perform for our fans, of course, but we’re also curious about how other audiences hear our music,” Hongjoong said. “Today’s a new experience that’s so important to us.”

For Kim Woosung, the singer of the Korean rock band the Rose, Coachella is close enough to a hometown show — he spent much of his childhood in the Valley here.

“I personally always loved Coachella,” Woosung said. “Performing here was always a goal for us, after our first international festival run we left so inspired by the vibe. It’s a dream to be here on stage just one year later.”

The Rose’s sound leans more toward the richly detailed, expansive rock of groups like U2 and the 1975 — singles like “Back to Me” and “You’re Beautiful” howl and soar on their own terms, and brought the group to the Forum in Inglewood last year. Woosung recently teamed up with BTS’ Suga and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto on the song “Snooze.” A magic-hour Sunday set on the Outdoor stage will be a showpiece for non-K-pop Korean music to resonate with new rocker crowds from Woosung’s old hometown.

“We are proud to represent Korea in listeners’ personal journeys in music,” said the band’s bassist Lee Jaehyeong. “We have so many artists from different lands and styles that we want to watch this year as fans again.”

The range of Korean music at Coachella spans even wider — the longtime Goldenvoice affiliates in 88 Rising have a Mojave Tent set, “Futures,” devoted to emerging pan-Asian talent that has often included Korean acts. South Korean DJ and producer Peggy Gou found her own success in underground club music, fully outside any Korean pop apparatus (she’s more of a late-night Berlin type). Her own set Friday in the Sahara was packed out after her single “(It Goes Like) Nanana” became a smash on TikTok. Gou’s become an in-demand fashion model, and with her debut LP, “I Hear You,” is en route to becoming one of house music’s big crossover success stories.

On Saturday night, Le Sserafim made a strong claim to its own long future at Coachella. Dressed in custom Nicolas Ghesquière leather, the group played heated Afro-Latin tracks like “Antifragile” and brought out Chic legend Nile Rodgers for their collaboration “Unforgiven” — a strong endorsement from a guy that previous Sahara Tent legends Daft Punk and Avicii have looked up to.

“We only met him in person for the first time yesterday,” Yunjin said (she grew up partly in New York and long admired his productions). “It was absolutely crazy to work with him. He taught us that when you collaborate, you never want to take away from that person. You always want to add. There are so many acts that came before us that we have so much gratitude for.”

The group’s music is unusually candid and bristling about the pressures for perfection young women face in K-pop — a sentiment many young fans relate to. The group formed in 2022, but to judge by the slammed Sahara Tent for the set, SoCal will be seeing much more of Le Sserafim soon.

“After this, we really want to go the beach in Santa Monica,” Yunjin said. “And we hear L.A. has a pretty great K-town.”

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