The Once and Future Fandom: How Media Shapes Perceptions of K-pop Fans

Image of varying tones of gold in a kaleidoscope
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Whether K-pop fans are praised political activists or denigrated as delusional enthusiasts, both characterizations reduce K-pop fans, especially Black fans, and fail to recognize their value beyond politics.

Up until recently, K-pop fans had a questionable reputation. On March 19, 2020, I did a search for K-pop fans, and these are the search terms Google offered:

Screen capture of Google search for k-pop fan
Screen capture, Google search for K-pop fan

This is what today’s search (June 24) for K-pop fan brings:

Screen shot of Google search for K-pop fan
Google search for K-pop fan

In the span of a few months, the perception of K-pop fans has changed, largely due to several events with political ramifications, including overwhelming the Dallas police iWatch Dallas app, taking over the #whitelivesmatter hashtag, and most recently, disrupting President Trump’s Oklahoma rally. Coverage by mainstream media outlets have praised these actions, suggesting that K-pop fans now have value because they are politically active.

However, others are pointing out that calling K-pop the newest wave of political activists is not as positive as it seems. Abby Ohlheiser does a really great job of explaining the complexity surrounding K-pop fandom and why the sudden characterization of K-pop fans as activists is problematic:

Some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.

The K-pop fan-as-activist is the other side of the K-pop-fan-as-crazy coin. Both are imposed by the media and narrowly construe K-pop fandom. K-pop fan activity did not suddenly become important or significant just because it intersects with the political arena or because major outlets say so. Fans were always important and significant, in and of themselves. K-pop fans’ ability to organize and mobilize for a cause can be seen as early as 2012, when fans of Seo Taiji, often credited with being the first major figure in K-pop, fundraised to create the “SeoTaiji Forest” in Brazil to support conservation. It’s the same organizing used to support groups when they promote. But it’s also scores of smaller, collaborative projects that collect information in informal archive projects. K-pop fans have always been proactive in producing culture around K-pop.

This has a particular impact for Black K-pop fans. While Black K-pop fans have been part of K-pop fandom since its early days, they are increasingly being brought to the fore solely within the context of K-pop activism around Black Lives Matter, or increasingly, to articulate their negative experiences within the fandom. While both are important in understanding the experiences of Black fans, they are not the only way to understand those experiences. Raising Black K-pop fan voices only to tell stories of racism and discrimination suggests that Black fans cannot talk about just being a fan, who they like and why. It excludes Black fans from having a voice on any other aspect of K-pop and silences them under the auspices of giving them a voice.

Black fans, and Black people in general, have a complex experience one that includes joy.  Imani Perry recently wrote for The Atlantic: “My elders taught me that I belonged to a tradition of resilience, of music that resonates across the globe, of spoken and written language that sings. . . . The injustice is inescapable. So yes, I want the world to recognize our suffering. But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.” Calling on Black voices only confirm their negative experience with ignoring their opinion on everything else in the fandom excludes them from being fans in the truest sense of the word. If the only way the public sees Black fan is as a tragic victim, we reduce the Black fan.

K-pop fans in general, and Black K-pop fans in particular, are having characterizations imposed on them by entities that do not have the best track record on K-pop coverage.  This narrative of activism is being generated by mainstream media outlets rather than the fans themselves. As a result, it continues the age-old tendency of the media reducing K-pop fans to the simplest of terms.

Sources

Abby Ohlheiser. “How K-pop Fas Became Celebrated Online Vigilantes.” MIT Technology Review. 5 Jun 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/06/05/1002781/kpop-fans-and-black-lives-matter/ (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).

Imani Perry. “Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not.” The Atlantic. 15 June 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/ (Accessed 24 June 2020).

Kim Rahn. “Fans Name ‘Seoetaiji Forest’ in Brazil.” The Korea Times. March 2012. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/03/113_107088.html (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).

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The Once and Future Fandom: How Media Shapes Perceptions of K-pop Fans by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Who Does Speak on K-pop?: A Survey for U.S. Fans of K-pop

Audience at KPK's presentation at KPOPCON 2013; Photo credit: Kaetrena Davis Kendrick
Audience at KPK’s presentation at KPOPCON 2013; Photo credit: Kaetrena Davis Kendrick

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

Last week, I wrote a piece, Who Can Speak For K-pop, for my public blog, High Yellow and received a huge response.  As I suspected, there are a variety of fans in the United States whose voices are not being heard in the larger discussions of K-pop. In order to capture those opinions, my iFans project has added a new survey!  U.S. K-pop Fan Study seeks to understand the attitudes and opinions of all K-pop fans in the United States, but especially African American, Asian American and U.S. Latino fans. In other words, it is the first academic survey that wants to understand the K-pop experience of U.S. fans of color.  To take the survey, click here. Tell your friends!