I Flew Out To See Stray Kids

  On January 29th, 2020, Stray Kids began their District 9: UNLOCK world tour in the Hulu Theatre of Madison Square Garden, New York City. Although my bank account was very much upset with me, I managed to snag some high quality seats and fly myself out there. Before diving into the concert experience, here’s a little back story to Stray Kids for all of you who don’t of them.

  Stray Kids (SKZ) is a self-producing, South Korean boy group under major label JYP Entertainment. SKZ initially went through a survival program in 2017 prior to officially debuting in 2018. The group currently consists of 8 members: Bang Chan (Leader, 22), Lee Know (21), Changbin (20), Hyunjin (19), Seungmin (19), Felix (19), Han (19), I.N (19). 

  Stray Kids also divides up into sub-units focusing on their individual areas of strength. Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han used to be in an underground rap group called 3racha, each with their own underground rap alias (CB97, SpearB, J.One respectively). Thus together they are known by that name. 3racha produces the majority of SKZ’s songs and is therefore known to be the production line of Stray Kids. Fun fact: If the total number of SKZ songs were combined with 3racha’s songs, the number would skyrocket to over 75 songs produced and released throughout just 3 years.

  Lee Know, Hyunjin, and Felix are in the dance line of the group. As you can expect from any K-Pop group, all the members have years of practice to hoan their dancing skills. However, these 3 members in particular were noted for their strong attention to detail, expert execution and creative choreography. 

  The remaining two members Seungmin and I.N are part of the vocal line of the group. They are known for their balladic tones and youthful energy. I.N’s genre of expertise is in the traditional Korean genre of Trot music. [see: 15:22]

  Seungmin’s voice suits many different genres, but the first he went viral with was during their survival program in 2017. He beautifully covered Shawn Mendes’s Stitches during his vocal lesson and the fans went wild. 

  Now that all the basics are out of the way, time to get into the actual concert. I was seated pretty close to the stage. The air felt electric as everyone was just so excited knowing what was to come. You could hear the curiosity from side conversations as to how they would change up the songs, the choreography, and even the speeches. The overall energy was enthusiastic and laced with jitters from the fans, known as ‘STAYs’. All of the sudden, the background music playing went louder, the lights went dimmer, and STAYs screamed so loud I felt a pop in my ear (I am going to the doctors for it, don't worry!). A familiar tune started playing and all the fans began to hum along. An introduction video showing all the members was shown before the members appeared live in the end.

  The set list started with a remix version of their official debut song “District 9”. Changbin started the song off with a rougher rap than initially appeared in the original song. The rhythm was aided by the lighting as well to increase the drama. In my opinion, this was done to signify a change in direction of Stray Kids. When they initially debuted, most of the members were not even at a legal age. Now, all the members have reached ‘adulthood’ and are more willing to let go of rebellious child-like phases. The remix indicated they are ready to move forward ferociously into this new period of their career. 

  To bring that point home, they followed with “Victory Song”, a high energy song I can only describe as the song you need on your workout playlist, and “Question”, which has a catchy chorus that is sure to have you repeating it through the day. When we thought they’d calm down for a song, they started playing “ROCK” off their debut album. The song starts off with a 90s boombox vibe with Felix’s deep voice radiating through the venue. The intro English lines are so iconic that all the fans around me, including yours truly, began screaming it out along with him. During this stage, they all went to different parts of the stage to interact with the fans. I’m not saying that Felix waved at me, but there was a wave in my direction by Felix. Thank you. Additionally, during the song the youngest member had a freestyle dance break [see: 2:04]. We now know that each member will get a chance to do this at each leg of the tour. 

  After that, they had a dance break segment before performing their fast paced EDM inspired song “Side Effects”. This combo was also performed during KCon LA 2019.

  They finally took a breather and began their first commenting segment where they introduced themselves both as a group and individually. Han mentions that it is their first concert in New York and welcomed us to the tour, while Hyunjin wished a very happy new year. Changbin stated that they worked really hard to put forth this stage for the fans and references the title tracks released in 2019 as metaphors for the road they used to get here (Miroh, meaning The Maze they had to go through) and the headaches and struggles they had to overcome (Side Effects’ chorus repeats the words ‘My head hurts’). 

  They group didn’t linger too long with the speeches as they jumped right back into the setlist with some of their more laidback songs. “M.I.A” was up first which is a chill song that could be interpreted many ways; one of which is one’s struggle with mental illness and how that changes everything. The stage was dimly lit and used spotlights to define each member during their part. A special surprise from Felix was given to the audience as he did the popular dance on Tik Tok called Renegade, which was created by 14 year old Jalaiah Harmon. It was an unexpected twist to a pretty deep song but we were all very surprised and promptly went crazy over it. 


  They had other surprises lined up for their fans (although we had a sneak peak since they started the tour in South Korea so we kind of knew this was going to happen). Unit stages were prepared and the first up was the dance line. They sung an unreleased song that was, to put it simply, sexy. The vocals, the choreography, the melody, even the lighting all oozed a sense of seductive sensuality. The song gave way for the members to show off their charmining points, be it their specific dance style, the vocal range, or even their bodies which they worked hard to maintain. 

  The stage was followed with Stray Kids’ song “Mixtape #4”, aforementioned above for a particular line. Many videos from the event caused fans to debate on whether the line was changed or not, but the fact remains that the fans still support all the members as they screamed out “Stray Kids, 9 or none”. The essence of the song simply puts forth a message to keep striving towards your goals even when you face adversity. I like to think that the fans saying this line loudly is more of a way to support all 9 members, past and present, to achieve their goals. They go on to play more light hearted songs such as “Get Cool” and “Awkward Silence”. The crowd kept singing along to these songs especially during the catchy choruses. “Get Cool” has an English rap part by both Felix and Bang Chan which the crowd had sung along to as well. Bang Chan pointed his mic towards the audience for this part and exclaimed when we successfully finished it. 

  They took a break for outfits changes by playing a ‘VCR’. The video depicts a more hardcore version of Stray Kids who seem to be destroying everything in their path. STAYs take this as the next level of the Stray Kids story, as throughout their albums they’ve been inching towards dismantling the injustice and restrictive system to take back their freedom. SKZ often makes commentary on how society forces their traditions onto today’s youth but, the youth are fighting back. I must say that the outfits and the overall cinematography of the video was, *chef’s kiss*, amazing. 

  The stage following was of their latest title track “Levanter”, which speaks to finding yourself and finally being able to accept yourself. With this as the start of the segment, we knew that the following songs were going to be of the more mellow genre. The boys maneuvered the stage so well that we didn’t notice Seungmin’s early departure from the stage to prepare for the next unit stage with I.N. 

  As the group retreated to go backstage, the melody began and Seungmin came out of stage right for his verse. I.N soon followed from Stage left. They did a quick outfit change while backstage hence the departure. They sang a beautiful unreleased track called “My Universe”. I could see every single STAY melt at their voices and the sweet lyrics. Stray Kids quite rarely, if ever, makes any type of romantic songs as they focus more on motivating their fans to unlock their potential, talking about scenarios we all can relate to, and raising awareness on mental health. This song was a lovely treat that left all of us sighing in content with heart eyes. Changbin also made a guest appearance in the song for a quick soft rap to balance out the song with more varied tones. 

  After the unit stage, the members returned as I.N and Seungmin retreated to return into their original outfits, and then rejoined to sing “3rd Eye”. This song is a personal favorite. It was one of the more unique songs they’ve produced, they experimented with different background noises throughout the song, and the overall feeling is quite chilling. I understood the song to talk about mental illness and in particular anxiety. I heard this song, I read the lyrics, and I just kept going back to it. It felt like everything I was feeling, they were understanding. It helped me a lot. So, needless to say, I was tearing up just a bit when they performed this song. The stage utilized chairs in their choreography which added a layer of complexity to the whole song, in addition to the use of lighting for dramatization. They followed this song with a ballad version of “I am YOU”. This part was cute and everyone started laughing embarrassingly because we didn’t know how they rearranged the song. There is a point where there is supposed to be silence but we just started singing the next part [see: 6:00]. You can see the members holding in their laughter as well. 

  Because Stray Kids likes to toy with our emotions often, the next stage was 3racha’s unreleased song “We Go”. They were lounging on a couch on the stage, and everything turned red. “We Go” has a very catchy hook and chorus so the audience picked it up quite fast. The whole stage had easy dances to cover, but it is also a very cute and fun performance in general. It played off of the audience being the TV channel they flipped to, and they got sucked into our world. The stage was both sexy, and fun to watch. The remaining few songs included the intro track “Road Not Taken” and one of their title tracks “My Pace”. 

  This was followed by another comment segment. It had a lot of cute moments between the members and STAYs. At one point during Bang Chan’s speech, STAYs started chanting ‘WE LOVE YOU’. Let me just say, Bang Chan is a very beautiful but very shy man. His way of combating complements is saying ‘No’ and then complimenting you instead. So naturally, he and then the entirety of Stray Kids started chanting back ‘WE LOVE YOU’. After this segment, they jumped right back into their high energy songs once again. Starting with “Double Knot”, then “Boxer”, “Hellavator”, and finally “Miroh”. Fun fact #2: I have these songs in my ‘I have 10 minutes to get to class, but this is a 15 minute walk’ playlist. I always make it with at least 2 minutes to spare.

  This segment was followed by another video but this time it was set up like a video game. It was adorable. There were missions that STAYs had to complete in order to unlock more performances. Missions included singing parts of the song, dancing, and making loud noises. It was quite embarrassing to realize that they probably were watching while preparing for the last stage. It was motifying when they later confirmed it. But at least they called us cute. 

  The last stage of the concert included their ending comments. The air was suddenly thick with sadness. The members went around promising to come back and repeated the utmost gratitude towards their fans. Maybe I let a tear drop when Felix said he wants to give back more to us as if he hasn’t helped us a lot already with his music. Maybe I sobbed when they sang “Grow Up” which talks about not giving up even when you’ve made mistakes and you feel alone. But I will never tell (spoiler alert: yes, I cried a lot). The last songs, in Stray Kids fashion, were hype af.  They sang “YA YA YA”-- and if you have ever wanted to just get an adrenaline rush for no reason, this is the song to listen to! They followed that with “Miroh” once again and slowly marched off of stage after thanking the staff, crew, and backup dancers for all their work. 

  And then they were gone. And my post concert depression immediately kicked in once I returned to my hotel room. Stray Kids are truly a talented bunch of guys who truly put their all in for their craft. They always chant the phrase “Stray Kids everywhere, all around the world”. They’ve gone to explain that it doesn’t mean that SKZ will go global necessarily, but rather their music will find other people who are lost in their lives and try to help them. Being in that concert hall with a bunch of other STAYs reinforced that SKZ’s are out here helping so many people who are battling with their own demons. The level of dedication put front by Stray Kids through the song choices, the choreography, the videography, the lighting, the outfits, every single thing, goes to show how much they care about their fans. It was an amazing night that I will cherish for a long time.

No Music No Life Neon Sign Photo by Simon Noh on Unsplash