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'The last thing you probably would think of is K-pop coming out of Oklahoma'
Korean pop music has been the love of AleXa's life since 2008. "My best friend introduced me to K-pop one day and I fell down the metaphorical rabbit hole," she said. It began with the boy band Super Junior, before AleXa discovered the multi-hyphenate performers of SHINee. Fourteen years later, the 25-year-old who hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma is a professional K-pop artist herself. And in her latest song, which AleXa performs on NBC's American Song Contest, the star sings of a different kind of rabbit hole. It's one that captures the start of her wondrous journey from the U.S. to South Korea, where AleXa launched her musical career.
"We all know the story of Alice in Wonderland and how the White Rabbit has led [Alice] through her journeys," AleXa, the semi-finalist representing Oklahoma in American Song Contest, told TV Guide. On the reality competition series modeled after Eurovision, the K-pop artist is competing for the title of Best Original Song with "Wonderland." In the classic tale, Alice faces obstacles and finds her way through them. "The people in Oklahoma that raised me and shaped me to be who I am, they were my White Rabbit leading me," AleXa explained. It's why the song feels "Oklahoma" to her. Before moving to South Korea in 2018, the singer had spent 21 years of her life in the state. In many ways, the song is a tribute to those who have been next to her as doors that led to becoming a K-pop star opened in her personal wonderland.
American Song Contest, which premiered March 21, is hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg. Contestants representing the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories performed original songs in the qualifying rounds, and a combination of jury ranking and audience voting determined the artists that would advance to the semi-finals and the finals.
The grand finale took place on May 10, and AleXa became the first winner of American Song Contest. She earned 656 points in the televote and secured the top spot with 710 points in total. Colorado's Riker Lynch placed second overall, followed by Kentucky's Jordan Smith.
TV Guide spoke to AleXa after the first part of the semi-finals. She discussed her performance of "Wonderland," how she became a contestant on American Song Contest, and what it's like to represent both Oklahoma and the K-pop community.
For the semi-final rounds, the contestants were asked to perform "slightly elevated" versions of their tracks. How did you decide how much to change up your set?
AleXa: From the qualifier round, right off the bat we were thinking okay, if we make it to semi-finals, how can we up the ante, how can we elevate it? And so we decided to literally "elevate" the performance, if you will, as we started with an aerial silks scene in the beginning. And then I'm not sure how it read on camera, but the harness that I wore in the original stage, now we added red LED lights so it was lighting up at the beginning and we had it on during the dance break towards the end.
Have you had experience with aerial silks?
AleXa: When I was in Korea, I think it was last summer perhaps, I did aerial yoga like once or twice. Granted, it's different than aerial silks because it's not that highly elevated, but still, I worked with silks a little bit.
What was your reaction to placing fifth in the jury ranking?
AleXa: At the end of the day, this is the American Song Contest. It's not necessarily a talent show. So even though we had a really cool stage planned, that's not always a guarantee of being passed in the jury's eyes. But I still am really grateful for being ranked fifth at least. The jury said what the jury said and now it is up to the audience to vote. (Voting for this round closed on April 26 at 5 a.m. PT.)
Since K-pop fans are known for mobilizing online, do you feel a kind of pressure to advance?
AleXa: Oh, most definitely. Because while I am coming forth as the Oklahoma representative, at the end of the day, I am a K-pop artist and I'm also representing the K-pop community in this competition. The fact that there are so many, not just my fans in general, but I've seen so many different fandoms combining in support of me on the show. It just makes me so grateful because it's like, look at this wonderful thing that K-pop is. It just brings people together with the love of music, the love of art.
So much of this show is about breaking stereotypes about music from different states. What do you think are stereotypes around Oklahoma music?
AleXa: Without a doubt, I definitely would think that when people think of Oklahoma, they probably most likely think of country. I mean born and raised, I was surrounded by country music my whole life and I am a fan of several artists. When you think of Oklahoma, the last thing you probably would think of is K-pop coming out of Oklahoma. So I kind of take pride in being like, hey, guess what? It does come from Oklahoma, it's possible. So it's kind of nice to showcase the different facets of musical and cultural diversity that the state and America as a whole has to offer.
What do you think are stereotypes around K-pop?
AleXa: If there's any stereotypes around K-pop music in general, I feel like a lot of people tend to put every single K-pop act into one category. When there's so many different — again, to say the word facets — so many different facets and different genres within the K-pop umbrella itself. We've got K-hip hop, we've got ballad singers, we've got all these dance tracks, we've got R&B, we've got EDM, there's so many different things within the umbrella of K-pop itself. One song is not like the other.
Do you think those stereotypes are starting to change?
AleXa: I would like to hope that there will be a change in the future. As it is, K-pop is becoming such a worldwide-known genre at such a rapid pace. So I'm really hoping that the more and more that people become aware of K-pop and Korean culture, and consuming K-dramas—that's been a really big thing lately—that they can open their eyes a little bit more to see how diverse Korean culture, Korean pop culture truly is.
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Behind the scenes, with the other contestants on the show, have you been sharing about things from Korean culture?
AleXa: In some of the downtime that we have, during the middle of waiting during shows, the contestants will all talk together because we're really close. Everyone on the show is a gem — wonderful personalities and incredible talents to match. So occasionally some of them have asked me, oh, how do you say this in Korean? Or, what's it like in Korea? They'll ask so many questions and I've taught them how to do the little finger heart thing, because why not?
Going back to the beginning, how did the opportunity to join American Song Contest come about?
AleXa: When we first heard word that American Song Contest is going to [be a] thing, my team and I were super stoked about it because there are a few of us on my team that had been longtime Eurovision fans. Our creative director, she hails from the mighty land of Sweden, so if you need to know about Eurovision she's basically your encyclopedia. I myself have been following the competition for many years and I've got so many favorite stages of performers that I could pick out. But I was like, okay, so America is going to do their take on Eurovision, this should be interesting. And granted, I was born and raised in Oklahoma for 21 years so it's like okay, there's a chance that I could compete, let's give it a go. There were various audition rounds to pass even just to represent your state. And then we found out that we made it in to be representing Oklahoma and the rest is history.
Do you still have family in Oklahoma right now?
AleXa: I have family and a lot of friends in Oklahoma. And it was really interesting because I have lost touch with so many of my former classmates because I've been living abroad for the past four years. But now I've been seeing on social media that so many of them have been coming forward saying oh my gosh, "We're watching Alex on the show, this is awesome." It's just so heartwarming to see this Oklahoma pride being carried on really strong right now.
These friends in Oklahoma, did they see the artistic and creative sides of you when you were growing up?
AleXa: The fun little fact about how my really close friends we all met each other, we originally all really liked anime and cosplay. So we used to meet about the conventions every year and then eventually we all found a love of K-pop. And so some of us have covered dances together, we've gone to concerts together. So everybody knew I had a love for K-pop and performing in general, but they've been supporting me for countless years, some of them for more than a decade.
What's your mindset right now as you wait for the voting results?
AleXa: Oh, man, I am very nervous to see what it is because this time, compared to qualifiers, it was a much shorter voting timeframe. We only had 12 hours. But thankfully, my team and I prepared a lot of little, hey, voting is only open for X amount of hours now, little media shots. And I had completely forgotten which ones we filmed so every time I got back on Instagram, when I looked at my story, I was like, oh, yeah, I forgot we filmed that the other day. But the fans seem to like it so hopefully the votes got in but we will see next Monday.
American Song Contest airs Mondays at 8/7c on NBC and is available to stream.