Three Days at A-Kon 23: J-Pop, Boy Bands, Grown Men with Pacifiers
The ladies of A-Kon
See also: The fans of A-Kon.
I don't really know why I asked to cover A-Kon, the annual anime convention in Dallas, other than I support like-minded people coming together to share a common passion, the exception being those who burn crosses and wear red arm bands. I had no idea what to expect from a convention centered around a medium that's literally foreign to me.
The little I do know about anime was gleaned from one fall in the early Aughts when Dragon Ball Z crossed over into the mainstream, and various things I've picked up from being a fan of the rather brilliant SNL J-Pop skits. But last week, an email popped up about the fest. After perusing the site, I noticed the programming had a pretty strong musical bent, so I sent an email to Audra and after a quick back and forth my weekend was planned. I was left to wonder what the hell J-/K-Pop really was, and if Peelander-Z was close enough.
As I made my way to the Sheraton in downtown Dallas, I had little idea what to expect. I assumed there would be hordes of costumed individuals and even larger hordes of general fans converging on a few conference rooms to swap memorabilia and talk about their favorite shows or movies.
I was so unbelievably wrong.
South Pearl Street was awash with costumed convention-goers, a sea of colors grabbing my attention as I tried to cross the street. One girl dressed in little more than day-glo netting, a bikini top and barely-there shorts almost caused my death as she sauntered across the street. By the time I make it to the press check-in, I've already seen several dozen people in cat ears, at least four middle-aged men in baby doll dresses and more school girl outfits than I saw throughout my entire Catholic upbringing.
My press contact is a friendly guy named Lee, who can't be older than 23 and is wearing a set of blue fairy wings, or maybe they're Brony wings, I can't tell. After a quick greeting, I'm banded, given a map and a schedule and told they're expecting more than 22,000 people through the weekend. The entire 39 floors of the Sheraton are occupied, and there is spillage over to the Marriott across the street.
It's decided by what I assume is a festival higher-up that Lee will give me a quick tour around the main rooms and get me to my destination: the Music for Nerds panel. Lee quickly leads me to an elevator, making sure to point out where the festival worker elevators and staircases were, and making it a point to let me know that with some coaxing, I should be able to use them.
We arrive on the second floor, where there are massive rooms for video screenings, a first aid center, multiple bathrooms and a room where con-goers can enjoy delicacies like Domino's Pizza. As we trek across a skywalk, Lee points out that the escalators are all turned off. There was an issue with them breaking down in previous years, so the hassle of a repair job has just been eliminated. We arrive in the main hall and are greeted by what must be hundreds if not thousands of con-goers of all shapes, sizes, genders, non-genders and dress. Lee points out that the music panel is on the third floor and I'm off to join the discussion.
I arrive midway through to find about thirty or so people listening to the panelist, a woman named Beth, talk about Auto-tune. Beth is in a Nashville-based band that goes by the name Absinthe Junk, and their website features the sort of swooshing font choices bands made around the time nu-metal became popular.
Beth does not like Auto-tune, but is resigned to the fact that it is a necessary evil of modern music. She also seems to take issue with pop stars lip syncing, though she understands the choice. These points are well worn and we're not breaking any new ground by rehashing them. It was, however, enlightening to hear Beth heap praise on Pink for daring to sing during her shows.
The discussion bounces from the lack of philosophy in today's music to how disposable lyrics are. A few people take time to attack current chart-topper Gotye, noting that they liked the song when they first heard it, but now considered it watered down from overplay. The Internet from four months ago wholeheartedly agrees.
After Gotye is sacrificed at the alter of mainstream success, a young lady dressed in a frilled dress goes for the throat and says Radiohead is a band that everyone claims "to love but never listens to." She goes on to say this will never allow them to be mainstream, and adds that we need to champion bands that have made their own way in the music business, like Matt & Kim.
I'm rather shocked when UGK comes up in conversation, but that's not enough to keep me in the room. I raise my hand and point out that Radiohead selling out arenas is awfully mainstream, and that Matt & Kim have been under sponsorship since their Colt 45 tour. I exit the room determined to apologize to every poor soul who's had to listen to me bitch about music in the past ten years.
As I make my way to my car, I share a quick conversation with a Dallas police officer who seems even further out of his element. I snag a picture of a guy dressed as a mix between Sisqó and Blade. Unleash the Dragon kids.
Seeing as I barely found a parking spot on Friday and knowing the crowds for Saturday would be much larger, I opt for the Green Line as my mode of transportation. About a quarter of the way to downtown, a group of cosplayers gets on the train and immediately unnerves a family trying to make their way to the zoo.
One of my goals for the day is to find the dedicated music video room and attempt to indoctrinate myself. I notice a young lady with blue dreadlocks outputting the videos and decide this is the person to talk to. I introduce myself and learn her name is "Leia," and she's just another in what seems like an endless stream of volunteers.
Leia prefers J-Rock (Japanese rock) over J-Pop (Japanese pop) and K-Pop (Korean pop). She points out a video by an outfit called Sugizo & the Spank You Juice, the side project of the guitarist in one of Japan's biggest bands, Luna Sea. She starts to describe the project as Sugizo's "druggie phase," then the music quickly changes and a boy band elects cries of joy.
It seems that Japan and Korea's pop scene is dominated by the late-'90s boy band craze. These boys aren't found in malls or on the Disney channel - instead, their families offer up the kids to be groomed for stardom. These boys are made stars and become insanely famous until they hit the mandatory military service age. It's pretty much the perfect blend between Menudo and former media impresario/current federal inmate Lou Pearlman's wet dream. After a title card appears on screen that reads, "Fangirls squeal around the room," I thank Leia and take my leave.
While making my way back towards the main hall, I encounter two women sitting at a table dressed as maids. They're part of a group called the NekoNeko Maid & Host club, which, for a nominal fee, allows con-goers a chance to sit in a conference room and play games while cosplayers serve them food and drink and perform songs on a small stage.
The whole affair has a sexual nature to it, and a fellow member of the press says one of the women has to give a different name at every event due to prior stalking issues. The fact that the maids have to perform various deeds as "punishment" for their master losing a game causes even more alarm. Admittedly, I'm uniformed on this whole thing, but I still left with a weird feeling. Hearing one of the girls speak in the stereotypical anime "voice" failed to help.
You know when you search for a song on YouTube out of misguided nostalgia, and all you can find is the song set to an anime video? Well, it turns out that there's a competition for those: The Master's Anime Music Video contest. Each of these videos is a mish-mash of clips cut together to tell a story, with the song chosen to drive home the point. The music tends to lean towards the heavier guitar pop of Japan and the melodramatic "metal" of Evanescence. I will say this: You have never truly appreciated the power of Eve 6's "Here's to the Night" until you've seen it synced up to two animated teenagers kissing while the wind gently sweeps their hair.
Later, I decide to take in the Karaoke OK! panel, which is being run by a girl in an Alice in Wonderland costume and an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt and suspenders. A young lady named Ann, who's wearing a green wig and keeps calling me "sir," explains that everyone sings their favorite anime and video game songs, and that last year she was unable to sing due to the list being too long. The girl running the music has a habit of dancing and singing along to pretty much every song. At one point, a young lady gets up and dedicates a song to her boyfriend, and what follows is the most awkward eye fucking I've ever seen.
As I attempt to find the contingent of Denton kids here, I find myself in a packed elevator with a group loudly singing "Why Can't We Be Friends," and they get progressively louder each stop. When I get to my floor, they give me a cheer and sing me down the hall.
My photographer friend and I attend Geek Speed Dating in an attempt to get to know the attendees. When we arrive, the room is absolutely packed, with the breakdown being about 80% male. I'm trying to strike up a conversation with anyone willing to talk, and one guy makes it a point to say, "This is where we're normal; we're weird everywhere else." I want to tell him how wrong he is. Everyone has hobbies that bring them together. There's no difference between people who like anime and people who attend the Red River Shootout.
There's supposed to be a rave, so I jump on an elevator. When the door closes and we find ourselves in pure darkness, someone offers me a bump. After a quick exit, I make my way to a second elevator, where someone pours Jack and Coke into a glass and hands it to me.
I find myself with the Denton group, making our way towards the main room, where we encounter a giant circle of people running around singing and dancing. Seems they're playing a camp game called "Little Sally Walker," which I can't really describe. Lots of costumes, lots of booze, lots of sweaty people. I make my way into the main hall, where a rock band is rolling through a cover of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," perfectly combining every bit of nerd culture into four spirited minutes.
I eventually find my way to the rave and manage to get backstage before it begins. The crowd piles in and a DJ launches into a Top 40-heavy rotation of songs mixed with dubstep drops. A group of dancers takes turns performing on stage with everything from glowsticks to LED-lit hula hoops. I ask a gentleman with multi-colored dreadlocks what his role is. "I own the dance crew," he says.
A few thousand people take turns grinding on each other as others battle-dance and swing glowsticks. There is an endless supply of pacifiers in the mouths of middle-aged men. I grab a spot on the wall and try to take everything in: To my side, a couple is freak dancing; a few feet away, a girl awkwardly dances while watching them. I notice the couple freak dancing is actually having sex against the wall, and realize it's time to find a cab.
I arrive to the fest late Sunday afternoon to find the crowds have been cut dramatically and the few people left are trying to find deals on various products. I ask for final attendance numbers; they don't have them, but assure me they broke the 20,000 barrier and might have gotten as high as 25,000. I realize they're being pretty conservative, as the crowds I saw the last three days took over a considerable part of downtown, with people packing every sidewalk, lobby, and room in a four-block area.
I went to A-Kon not knowing what to expect. I left three days later with the knowledge that any preconceived notions I had were both on and wildly off base.
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