In summer 2019, it seemed unfathomable that KCON, the world's largest Korean pop culture convention and concert, would not be back the following year.
But thanks to Covid-19 it only returned to Los Angeles this year, from Aug 19-21, celebrating its 10th anniversary since the first KCON back in 2012.
Its return brought a sense of normalcy for K-pop fans who had grown to rely on its regular appearance, and for the chance to see the growth of its performers.
A journey of music
The two nights of concerts on Aug 20 and 21 began with Ateez's theatrical set full of swords swinging and boxers punching, and culminated in NCT Dream's exuberant, nostalgia-infused tunes.
In between saw Stray Kids, Itzy, Kep1er, Enhypen, Loona, StayC, Nmixx, TO1, P1Harmony, Lightsum, INI, Cravity, The Boyz and WJSN (Cosmic Girls) all perform.
For some groups, it represented their first time performing internationally, or at least in North America, and brought them in contact with thousands of cheering fans, a far cry from the virtual KCON events of the previous two years.
Though KCON is celebrating its 10th anniversary, not a single one of the acts that performed was active before 2016.
Though past KCONs featured a wider range of talent, with both legacy acts and newer performers on stage together, KCON LA 2022 was more focused on newer generations, with those performing widely considered by fans as part of the third and fourth generations of K-pop acts.
Even though no legacy acts were in attendance, there was no doubt that the ones performing could draw a crowd, with many – Ateez and Stray Kids, for instance – even hosting their own sizeable North American tours this year.
While there were certainly nods to the past, this felt like the epitome of a Gen Z KCON event, putting the spotlight on the leaders of this rising era of K-pop stars.
Collabs of the most special kind
Along with Itzy members joining Bebe Rexha in the first-ever live performance of Break My Heart Myself, KCON also introduced a special "Dream Stage" segment that gave fans the chance to audition to join their favourite stars on stage.
The first night saw fans perform alongside Kep1er while the second night saw fans take to the stage with Loona.
On its 10th anniversary, it only made sense for KCON to pay homage to the past performers that had graced its stages.
Over the two nights, many of the acts put their own spin on songs by other K-pop acts, with some featuring older hits and others performing the biggest songs of 2022 (so far!).
Nmixx performed Seventeen's Very Nice, Enhypen took on BTS's Permission to Dance, Lightsum got their rock on with (G)I-dle's Tomboy, TO1 embodied Psy and Suga of BTS in That That, and Kep1er channelled Iz*One with La Vie en Rose.
KCON also featured an even more special collab, with members of Loona and Nmixx coming together to perform Mamamoo's Decalcomanie.
Beyond the concert
KCON LA 2022 made up for lost face-to-face time between fans and artists, with K-pop stars gracing its convention floor and various booths to interact with fans.
This was where you could buy your new favourite K-beauty goods (this writer was very taken by a printer that created nail art stickers) or K-pop albums, or audition for the dream stage.
More than once, multiple K-pop groups were out at the same time on the convention floor. At one point on day two, Enhypen, Kep1er and Ateez held simultaneous events on or around the main convention floor.
In past years, some attendees had complained of limited engagements, so it felt like a nice update after a sizeable break in events.
For those hoping to take their K-pop dream beyond KCON, there were also auditions held throughout the weekend for spots on the upcoming Mnet competition show Boys Planet, also hosted by KCON organiser CJ ENM.
KCON 2022 will continue throughout the rest of the summer, with a rookies-focused tour hitting up multiple American cities in the next few weeks.