Sultry minimalist beats and glossy bass from K-pop girl group Red Velvet’s super sexy Bad Boy blasts through the stereo as I push through the heavy revolving doors. In front of me, the group’s members – Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy and Yeri – perform boot camp-perfection choreography on high definition TV monitors.
At the side, colossal posters featuring K-pop acts such as EXO, TVXQ, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation flank the walls.
I’m at SMTOWN in Seoul, South Korea – and it feels like K-pop heaven.
SMTOWN is a free admission culture complex space that is the brainchild of SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies. The agency is home to some of K-pop’s best-selling acts.
However, this public place is not to be confused with SM Entertainment headquarters in the upscale neighbourhood of Cheongdam-dong. Large groups of fans often stake out outside the office hoping for a glimpse of their favourite idols who weave in and out between hectic schedules.
The chances of one catching EXO’s Baekhyun or SHINee’s Minho are slimmer at SMTOWN since the recording studio is situated at the agency’s main office.
Located next to Starfield COEX Mall in Yeongdong-daero, SMTOWN is a little far off from tourist-centric areas such as Myeongdong and Hongdae in Seoul. Taking the Green Line train from Hongik station, it takes about 45 minutes to reach Samseong station and another good 10 minutes of walking from Exit 6 before I reach the building.
But being a major Girls’ Generation fanboy, I thought that SMTOWN (which has no entrance fees) was certainly worth the trip. The long journey’s fatigue dissipates and excitement takes over when I browse through the iconic girl group’s album collection at the gift shop on the second floor.
In addition to physical albums, the gift shop also carries an array of merchandise. NCT key chains? Check. EXO dolls? Check. A painting featuring shirtless Yunho and Changmin of TVXQ? Mm hmm.
I would advice against purchasing your albums here though. There are dedicated stores inside the Myeongdong underground subway station (Line 4) that sell records and all sorts of K-pop paraphernalia at a much lower price. In fact, I can’t find some of the more limited edition albums and older titles at SMTOWN.
From the gift shop, I make my way up to the third floor. Now, here’s where the venue’s reputation as a “culture complex” begins to make sense.
Within three glass exhibits, costumes and props from music videos are on display. I overheard an excited EXO-L (as fans of EXO are known) nearby telling her bored travel companion, who’s probably not a K-pop fan, that the exhibits here change often to reflect the company’s latest musical offerings.
On the day of my visit, the elegant pink dress that Taeyeon – of Girls’ Generation fame – wore in her Make Me Love You music video is on display.
Next to Taeyeon’s exhibit, five cheerleader-inspired outfits from Red Velvet’s The Red Summer promotional period hangs neatly on a row of mannequins.
Also on display are awards that SM idols won from weekly music shows and regional music awards. Fans who tune in to TV programmes such as M Countdown and Show Champion will be able to view up close the trophies won by their favourite acts.
The third floor also houses the SMTOWN Museum where the stories related to the birth and growth of SM Entertainment’s artistes are displayed. Exhibitions inside include behind-the-scenes process of music albums, stage photos, outfits and accessories.
More interactive experiences await on the upper floors. There are virtual reality arcades where fans can take photos with their bias (K-pop term for one’s favourite member in a group).
In my case, I managed to check my compatability with my bias Tiffany Young from Girls’ Generation. It stands at a solid 96%, thank you very much.
Another thrilling moment is seeing the hand mould of SM Entertainment’s many idols. Yoona’s hands are incredibly slender while more pronounced palm lines can be seen from the male idols’ hands.
SMTOWN is also home to South Korea’s biggest hologram theatre on the fifth and sixth floors. The theatre showcases mostly SM artistes’ concert videos.
There’s also a cafe here that serves Girls’ Generation cupcakes, EXO ice creams, Red Velvet mini cakes and Super Junior smoothies just to name a few. Once again prices are inflated. So I decide to hunt for lunch at the Starfield Coex Mall next door and leave SMTOWN knowing that Tiffany and I actually have a chance.