While it may seem that the current norm in K-pop is single-fandom (the tendency to support just one artist), data suggests that older K-pop fans started and continue to be multi-fandom. This may be another way the overall K-pop fandom has shifted in the past few years.
With the rise of K-pop groups, their individual fandoms have also garnered more attention, leading some to focus on using a single fandom to define K-pop fandom in general. However, 316 responses collected between April 29, 2011 and March 4, 2015 suggest that K-pop fans of that era exhibited very different behaviors and attitudes. Respondents were asked the open-ended question, “How did you become interested in K-pop?”
Many respondents related their entrance into K-pop with specific groups, and overwhelmingly with one group in particular: SHINee. Other high recurring groups include BigBang, Super Junior and TVXQ. Rain was the most-cited solo artist. What is interesting is that these groups all debuted between 2003 and 2009. The first responses collected in 2011, so none of these groups were brand new to the K-pop scene at the time that respondents encountered them. For this generation of K-pop fan, the appeal of K-pop was asynchronous, meaning that individuals became fans, not as a result of debut promotion or marketing, but by other means.
More importantly, respondents routinely noted that once they discovered one K-pop group, they were motivated to look for additional groups. One noted, “My friend showed me SHINee’s Lucifer video, and I was immediately addicted to them. So then I started looking up other groups too.” Another responded wrote: “I started listening to more BigBang, and then other groups such as 2NE1 and SHINee, and then read a ton of Wikipedia pages about different groups and record labels and learned about the training system that K-pop stars go through before debuting. I also started watching variety shows that K-pop idols appear on, and find that whole concept really interesting too.” I call this phenomenon branching.
Some respondents go through a great deal of effort to expand to additional K-pop groups. One respondent explained how a search to find one K-pop song led to more: “However, the obsession didn’t just stop with that song. During the many hours that I spent trying to find the name of that song, I discovered many other catchy tunes and fell in love with a new genre of music that I had never heard of before.” Several respondents use the term “research” to describe the activity of looking for more K-pop groups: “I became interested in K-pop when I accidentally happened upon a Super Junior song on YouTube about 3-4 years ago. I don’t remember what song it was. But after I heard it I was thinking… Wow. This is good stuff. I want more. I wanna hear more. I researched, found more groups I absolutely fell in love with. Then 2-3 years ago, I found Big Bang, followed by 2NE1. And now all of the other amazing groups I love.”
For some, the quest for more K-pop groups takes them to other forms of Korean entertainment. K-drama and K-pop are linked, as members of K-pop groups often star in Korean television dramas and perform on soundtracks for the shows. One respondent noted: “I happened across Kdramas and liked an actor in it. I found out he was a singer and then discovered other singers, groups, bands, etc.” Another explained: “Hulu.com recommended a Kdrama to me called “Boys over Flowers” and as I became more interested in the characters and the OST for the show, I started to look up various actors/singers on YouTube.”
And while “idols” may be the way many are introduced to K-pop, the phenomenon of branching may take fans far afield. One respondent wrote: “I think, what’s 2pm? I think my friend had mentioned groups named 2pm and 2am to me before, and I thought they were silly names. But I really liked Jason in Dream High, so I decided to look up this Wooyoung on YouTube. That day I discovered my love for K-pop. I became a hardcore Hottest, and expanded the groups and genres I listened to little by little until I was listening to anything from rap to pop to ballads to indie. All in a language I can’t completely understand.”
One respondent summed up the branching phenomenon with this formula:
JPop = discovered Tohoshinki = wiki = O.O = OMG! = google other kpop artists
Such findings suggest earlier generations of K-pop fans tend to develop more broad interests in K-pop that go beyond one group, while more contemporary fans seem to be more devoted to single groups. By only focusing exclusively on one group, they may be less knowledgeable about the larger K-pop and as a result may have distorted perceptions of it. These findings also support earlier findings that point to a more diverse general K-pop fandom, one that at the very least, is made up of those who support individual K-pop groups and those who support K-pop in general. Both may be needed for the continued viability of K-pop. Such findings reveal fan behavior that suggests that the appeal of K-pop is more complicated. The K-pop landscape continues to change.
iFans: Mapping K-pop’s International Fandomis a digital project that examines the attitudes, practices and creative output of global K-pop fans. VIPs (as fans of BigBang are called) were given the opportunity to participate in an online interview with questions geared toward their experience as BigBang fans. Whale, a VIP, wrote about the criticisms about BigBang as well as the group’s status as an idol group. Read more here….
One of the most common projects for K-pop fans is the anniversary fan project. It is usually the result of a call for fans to participate in a project by sending a photo or making a video, then some enterprising K-pop fans combine them together for an anniversary video Because the iFans project seeks to document and curate K-pop fan culture, it has opened a new collection: Anniversary Fan Projects. This week’s videos range from a debut anniversary project by fans of UKISS to a 12th anniversary project by international fans of BoA. Click here to see more!
K-pop is well-known for the introduction of new groups, even while established groups continue to thrive. But are fans fickle in their K-pop choices? Do they abandon older groups for newer groups? Research suggests that while K-pop fans readily accept new groups, they have a deeper connection with veteran groups. These conclusions are based on data collected online through the Hallyu Korean Music Survey, part of a five-year study on international K-pop fans by Crystal S. Anderson.
The survey asks respondents to check all of the K-pop groups they like from a pre-determined list. This list emerged from earlier research that revealed a group of K-pop artists that global fans consistently identified as their favorites. Out of 5099 responses from 282 respondents, the following groups represent the top 10:
Respondents were then asked to name any group they liked not found in the predetermined list. Out of 1229 responses from 237 respondents, the top 10 responses were:
Respondents were then asked to list their three favorite K-pop groups. Out of 788 responses from 268 respondents, the top 10 responses were:
This data suggests that K-pop fans are receptive to newer K-pop male groups. Nearly all of the groups not included in the predetermined list are groups that debuted after 2010. Female groups continue to lag behind, probably due to the fact that most K-pop groups that debut are male. However, established K-pop groups dominate when fans are asked to identify their favorite K-pop groups. This list mirrors the predetermined list, which suggests that the longer the group has been active, more connected fans feel to the group. Infinite has become a group that fans consistently say they like, replacing a group like BEAST/B2ST, which may have been out of the spotlight for a period of time. The notable exception is EXO, who fans identify as a group that they live and a favorite group. EXO debuted in 2011, and has managed to create a level of fan loyalty equal to more established K-pop groups.
So, what does this mean? It seems to suggest that fans of K-pop make choices about the degree of their fan loyalty based on the longevity of the group. K-pop group longevity (or how long a group has been active) makes a difference to fans. This has long-term implications for how K-pop continues to be promoted. Agencies who focus on churning out new groups without cultivating the fandom may see less of an impact than agencies who take time to establish a long-term fan relationship between artists and fans. Such activities may include creating the fan name so that fans can identify with a particular group, creating behind-the-scene shows where fans can see artists when they are not performing, and creating other opportunities for artists to remain in the public eye, such as endorsements and television appearances.
Some people think that male K-pop groups are all the same. However, research suggests that fans differ in their attitudes towards individual male K-pop groups. Responses collected from fans of Super Junior and BigBang reveal that they also hold different opinions on their music and group dynamic. Such responses suggest that while some do not distinguish between male K-pop groups, fans do.
Media Representations of Male K-pop Groups
Because many male K-pop groups are idol groups, they tend to be painted with the same broad, generalized brush. Sometimes, they are described as being too similar to each other. An editorial in The Korea Times, suggests that people “seem fed up with similar ‘idol’ dance groups cropping up like mushroom[s].”
Other times, they are seen as promoting the same musical style or image. Part of this is attributed to the training program Korean agencies use for idols. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “constant monitoring of the tastes and preferences of the consumers and factoring the successful elements back into the products. . . [make] successful products increasingly predictable and. . . homogenizes the entire domestic music scene.” Nabeela at seoulbeats echoes the concern about groups being the same by speculating about “how much of the content in K-entertainment is standardized and recycled.”
However, a comparison of the responses from fans of Super Junior and BigBang reveals that fans like the groups for different reasons. This data represents a convenience sample collected via an online survey between December 8, 2012 and May 1, 2013. Respondents were asked to explain why they considered themselves a fan of the respective groups. 80 respondents identified themselves as fans of Super Junior, and 119 respondents identified themselves as fans of BigBang. Of these 199 respondents, 95.7% were women and 4.3% were men. Participants were: Asian (42.3%), White (41.2%), Latino (8.4%) and Black (7.9%). They largely hail from the United States, Hungary, United Kingdom, Philippines and Australia. Respondents range in age: 32.6% were 16-18, 31.6% were 18-21, 12.8% were 22-25, 14.4% were 25-30 and 8.6% were 30 and over. This data was analyzed using phenomenological methods.
Both fandoms cite music as a major factor in the appeal of the groups, but Super Junior fans liked the upbeat nature of the music, while BigBang fans valued the edgy and unique nature of the group’s music.
Super Junior fans like the cheerful nature of the music. One respondent noted: “I can listen to their songs any time even if I sad or depressed” (Anderson). Another stated: “Their music always makes me smile no matter how depressed I am” (Anderson). Super Junior fans also cited the pop-oriented style that the group reflects, as well as a range of styles. One respondent wrote: “Their music has gone from happy, bubbly pop to funky dance tracks” (Anderson).
Reviews of Super Junior albums reveal that the group is generally known for pop-oriented fare that also ranges across genres. Jung Bae describes their 2012 release, Mr. Simple, as “cleanly divided into club/dance and pop ballad(s),” where singles like “Opera” are “a standout, paced by an intoxicating stutter beat and a sublime sense of kinetic energy throughout.” Emily Wu references the “Super Junior Funky Style” in her review of the album: “It contains a catchy and addicting tune and melody that is sure to grab your attention from the get-go.”
BigBang fans focused more on the unique nature of the music. Some cited the specific genre of hip-hop as a major reason for the appeal of the group. One respondent noted: “Their style of music is what I enjoy most in American music, even if I don’t listen to American music as much anymore. Hip hop and R&B were genres that I grew up on but then it started changing too much for me. But Big Bang has a style to them that makes me love the genre all over again” (Anderson). Such opinions dovetail into another theme that emerged from the responses, namely, the unique nature of the group in respect to BigBang’s music. One respondent noted: “Their music caught me when I first listened to it and it is nice to listen to whenever I want to something different then the usual Kpop” (Anderson). Another noted: “Their music is distinguishable and stands out amist all of Kpop” (Anderson). BigBang has a reputation for being more adventurous in terms of their music.
Ashleigh Gregory describes the 2011 album Alive as partaking in a range of genres: “This album combines a variety of safe, pop style songs and pairs them up with slightly more experimental electro sounding tracks that create a great mix and leaves you wanting to replay the album as soon as it’s done.” Such eclecticism makes its way into their live shows as well. Jon Caramanica writes: “The band wove an interpolation of the signature guitar crunch of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a song. Multiple members of the group beatbox, a technique that’s hardly, if ever, used in mainstream American hip-hop, its birthplace, but is a routine part of the K-pop star arsenal.”
Both fandoms cite group dynamic as another major factor in the appeal of the groups, but Super Junior fans describe that dynamic in terms of cooperation and a close-knit bond, while BigBang fans focus on the individual members’ contribution to the group.
Despite the large number of members, Super Junior fans described the group as close-knit. Some respondents focused on how they act as one or a team. One respondent noted: “They have their own personality but still can be one” (Anderson). Another wrote: “Not typical boyband material. They have a strong bond despite being a huge group” (Anderson). Other respondents focused on the close bond between members and several used the metaphor of family. One wrote: “Watching their bond as a group really influenced me. Seeing how they trust each other. I can feel and see their brotherly love, how they care about each other” (Anderson). Another wrote: “Super Junior are a big group because they have lots of members but despite that they all get along like a family” (Anderson). Another responded: “What I really like from them is their close relationship with each other. They are truly like a family, they’re like brothers” (Anderson).
This may be related to fans watching Super Junior’s participation in extra-musical activities in the form of television and radio appearances. Members of Super Junior hosted and/or starred in the Korean variety show Strong Heart from 2009-2012 and the radio show Kiss the Radio from 2006 to the present. In these spaces, fans develop opinions about the dynamic between the members. One respondent wrote: “I understand and love that they’re an entertainment group with members doing radio shows, acting, variety shows and hosting! This has given me the chance to get to know them through many mediums and it’s reassuring to know that at least a few members are still active during their non-promotional period!” (Anderson). In addition to scripted shows, Super Junior also appears on variety shows, which are often based on improvisation and require more participation. One respondent noted: “I didn’t actually like Super Junior much at first, but I kept watching them on variety shows that I liked and the SJ members were always making me laugh so much” (Anderson).
While fans of BigBang cite group dynamic as part of the appeal of the group, they focus on the individual members within the group. Most respondents focused on the unique nature of the individual members. One wrote: “I also like how distinct the members are from each other” (Anderson). Another said: “Each member has their own talents and strengths when it comes to vocally and lyric writing and Big Bang along with YG utilizes that talent extremely well” (Anderson). Still another wrote: “Each of the members have very different but equally interesting styles from their style of singing to the dancing” (Anderson). Others cited individual members as part of their reason for liking the group. Of these responses, the largest number cited G-Dragon as their reason for liking the group. One respondent noted: “G-Dragon has also been very successful on his own drawing me into the group as a whole” (Anderson). Another noted: “G-Dragon is probably one of the reasons why I like Big Bang so much. I like the music he produces and I appreciate that a lot since not all groups produce their own music. The fact that someone from the group produces their own music is pretty awesome” (Anderson).
What Does It Mean?
Fans of Super Junior like the group because they are traditional idol group. They like the pop nature of their music. They value the camaraderie they see within the group as a result of television and radio appearances. In contrast, fans of BigBang like the group because they challenge this notion of a traditional idol group. Despite being the product of the same kind of training system that produced Super Junior, they see the group as more innovative and creative in their music. They perceive the group as a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive unit. Because of the fewer number of television appearances, their fans may not develop the same kind of sense of camaraderie among the group.
Fans of Super Junior and BigBang represent just two individual K-pop fandoms, but this comparison suggests that fans do not view male K-pop groups in the same way.
If you keep with research on K-pop, you may be aware of the iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom project. The surveys that make up the qualitative studies seek to understand how the fandoms differ from one another and their relationship to the groups they support. K-pop fans know that the fandoms are unique. Because they have detailed knowledge of the groups they support, they provide a unique perspective on the appeal of their respective groups. Too often, commentators make assumptions about K-pop fans, while the iFans studies goes to the source: the fans.
As the chart above shows, fans of 2NE1 and BigBang have participated the most in the surveys, while fans of Shinhwa and Aziatix have participated the least. Other groups with high participation rates include SHINee and TVXQ, while other groups with low participation rates include Epik High and f(x).
These participation rates are interesting, because groups like Super Junior and Girls’ Generation have very active global fandoms, yet those numbers are not reflected in participation rates. Rates may not reflect all fans, just fans who are likely to take (and complete) a survey. Participation rates may be affected by the activity of the groups.