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Cal band at their K-pop show on Oct 30, 2021.

How Cal Band pulled off a viral K-pop tribute, with BTS, Twice songs, after years in the making

UC Berkeley's Cal Band performance began with the militant horn blares of “How You Like That,” arguably the most popular song by the behemoth K-pop girl group Blackpink.


And over the next seven minutes during the university’s football game against Oregon State on Oct. 30, Cal Band's showcase of five separate K-pop acts and songs dazzled the crowd. The joyous display bridged the gap between musical aesthetics and cultures, presenting a vision of K-pop that was immediately recognizable to the legions of fans but still a spectacle for college football fans to savor. 

Complete with a fight scene, a dance number and a seamless medley, it’s little wonder that the performance went viral, amassing more than 230,000 views on TikTok and thousands more on YouTube.

Elise Park, a 22-year-old UC Berkeley double major in Japanese and data science, said the showcase was the culmination of years of work and incredibly fortuitous timing.


She’s been in Cal Band since freshman year and, every year, has pitched an iteration of a K-pop show, a process that she and Cal Band director Matthew Sadowski say is rigorous but incredibly democratic. And now that she’s a higher-up in the band and has perfected her concept, it was voted on successfully by the members.


Sabrina Wang, the 21-year-old Spanish and economics major who helms Cal Band’s PR and social media presence, told SFGATE that virality is key to Cal Band’s future. Other performances, such as a tribute to Shakira, have been shared by the artists themselves. 

“Fans can be very powerful. So having that kind of publicity is important to us, because it helps us with recruiting and brings in donations. And just internally I think it was really fun for band members to get recognition on such a large scale."

The fact that it went viral on video-heavy platforms like TikTok and YouTube where K-pop's most devout fans, or stans, tend to congregate was not inevitable.

But Park set a bigger challenge for herself, not only paying homage to the two biggest groups in K-pop out right now, but drawing attention to lesser-known but still incredibly popular acts with devout fandoms, such as Twice, Red Velvet and K/DA, the "digital" K-pop girl group tied to the "League of Legends" game franchise.


“I think when it comes to fandom specifically, it's a bit counterintuitive, but I think trying to appeal to the smaller fan bases really helps you gain more traction,” she said, noting that other college marching bands have done shows dedicated to just BTS or Blackpink.

“Being able to hone in on that, like we did a song from 'League of Legends,' a song from Red Velvet,” she said. “And I know those fandoms are a little less spoken of at least in the American mainstream.”

The biggest challenge of all: Making the tribute feel authentic. As K-pop has grown beyond South Korea in global popularity — between the immense crossover success of an act like BTS and their branding savvy with partnerships with McDonald’s and Samsung — there’s a legitimate concern among fans of intruders and clout-chasers who don’t care about the music or the culture and are solely riding an incredibly big wave for the sake of notoriety. 

Sure, the performance could have just been a straightforward run-through of songs — but with a multitude of Easter eggs, it felt richer, playing to the “if you know, you know” mentality so common in fanbases. And they were rewarded for it online by the same fans who look for hidden intertextual clues in music videos, live appearances and cryptic social media dispatches from their favorite groups. 


Among the most apparent of the tribute's Easter eggs: The complicated stage formations, which are coordinated using a software designed by Cal alumni. For their tribute to Twice, for instance, the band is formed in the shape of a lotus, an allusion to a music video, and changes formation to fully spell out to a beloved member’s name, Momo (모모) in the Korean alphabet, or Hangul. For the BTS grand finale, the band not only forms into the band’s “doors” logo but also makes a reference to the “Boy with Luv” music video.

The centerpiece of the performance, a dance rendition of “I Can’t Stop Me” by the girl group Twice, was perhaps the most daunting. Its intricate, tightly coordinated routine, one that has inspired legions of “dance covers” and tutorials on how to perfect the exacting choreography, make it a challenge for experienced dancers — let alone musicians who aren’t dancers by trade.


Couple that with the sheer heft of the marching band uniforms — and the dance number being midway through an already exhausting show — and Park said she was relieved they were able to pull off the routine.

“Not only is there the physical limitation [of the uniforms,] but also the other physical limitation, which is that we're all tired after having played for about three minutes,” Park said.


Despite some criticisms on TikTok that the modified performance was not sufficient and therefore should not have been performed in the first place, the response was resoundingly positive. (And Park, Wang and Sadowski said they have all seen the negative comments and are grateful for those who defended them.)

“I would collapse if I had to perform this AND also be in marching band,” said a TikToker who reposted the video.

“Performing I Can’t Stop Me inside a lotus was beautifully done,” added a YouTube commenter.

For Sadowski, the Cal Band director who admitted that he was less of a K-pop fan than many members of the band he helms, his goal was translating this very insular, sometimes intimidating genre to a broader audience.


And even for the fans who were there to watch Cal fend off Oregon State — which they did successfully, 39-25 — the complexity of their performance was not lost, Sadowski added.

“It’s sort of a testament to the fact that we like to be a little different every now and then and introduce our fans to something new, and yeah, you saw the reaction,” he said. “I can almost guarantee that a lot of the people that were reacting, especially in the student section, probably didn't know those songs or artists before,” he added.

And, for Park, a Korean American, the opportunity felt like the musical melding of herself, a 7-minute moment in which her passion for marching band could be mixed with her culture and her own adoration for Korean pop music. 

“What made me really happy about doing the K-pop show was that marching band itself is a very American tradition,” she said. “It has its roots from military bands and … to see something that's very foreign all the way from South Korea in such a big setting, it really meant a lot to me as a Korean American, as an Asian American.”

Image credit:
Cal Band