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.

Can’t Stop Loving You: Fans Find Happiness, Solace in K-pop

eurokpopfans
European Kpop Fans

By Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University (U.S.)

Whether it’s excited yelling by fans or crying by K-pop artists, emotions run deep in K-pop.  While some focus on obsessive emotional attachments and behaviors by fans, research shows that fans themselves describe a range of emotional responses to K-pop.  100 responses by 18- to 30-year-olds show that fans find K-pop to be a source of happiness, hope and motivation.  These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at KPK: Kpop Kollective.

Some writers tend to characterize fan activities and emotional expressions in negative terms. Patricia of Seoulbeats describes emotional expressions of appreciation for K-pop as bordering on obsessive: “I think there’s something to be said about my stance on the emotional toll that idol fandom takes on its devotees. That’s why I become so alarmed when I see these SHINee fans writing these intense emotional outpourings about how SHINee has changed their lives, or how much SHINee means to them. It breaks my heart to hear fans say that they turn to K-pop as a distraction for real life because their friends and family can’t offer them the same comfort that K-pop idols do.”

Adeline Chia writes that such emotions translate into obsessive behaviors:  “Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry. . . . K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate.  Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals.”

Can't Stop Loving You Infographic (Detail)
Can’t Stop Loving You Infographic (Detail)

To view entire “Can’t Stop Loving You” infographic, click here.

However, fans talk about the emotional appeal of K-pop in more positive terms.  Some talk about overall emotions that go beyond the lyrics.   One notes, “Kpop has the power to touch people even for those like me who don’t understand the lyrics. I think [it] is the r[h]ythm, the emotion in the voices, the dances. Kpop is like a best friend, it is here for you whenever you are happy or sad. Powerful stuff.”   Another said:  “The music is more touching and you can feel the emotions of the singers when they sing regardless of what genre.”  Others link emotions to performances:  “They sing and perform with passion and emotions, so even if you can’t really understand the lyrics you will get to know what it’s about by just listening. Kpop is not just another type of music it’s much more, that I can’t describe it with words” (Anderson).

These responses echo what scholars have discovered about emotional responses to music that transcend cultural differences.  In a study with Western listeners listening to Hindustani ragas, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson find that it is possible for music to travel cross-culturally:  “According to our model, this indicates that the psychophysical cues for joy, sadness, and anger were salient enough to enable listeners to overcome their unfamiliarity with culture-specific cues and to make an accurate assessment of the intended emotion. . . . That naive listeners demonstrated such a high level of agreement with expert listeners, who were deeply familiar with the culture-specific cues embedded in the music samples, is remarkable” (58).  In other words, listeners from other cultures can identify emotionally with music of a different culture, and this may shed light on why global fans identify with K-pop emotionally.

This emotional response runs the gamut. Many respondents describe how they find K-pop to be fun and happy.  One notes, “Cause the music is always so free and fun to dance to. It simply makes me happy.”  Another adds, “The songs are really refreshing, and listening to it puts me in a happy mood because of their lyrics and beats.”  Other respondents link the happiness they feel from K-pop to their lives in general:  “It always puts me in a good mood and makes me feel energized. Kpop sometimes can make you feel like your part of something bigger. It’s hard to explain but the feeling it gives you is great” (Anderson).

Others related K-pop to more somber emotions.  One respondent says, “Because it’s very different and the music touches something in me, I mean this is not superficial, there are feelings in every song, this could be happiness or some sad feelings.”  Another notes, “When I listen to sad songs I find that it have feelings in it and it will touched me too.”  One says, “There’s an upbeat to the music that sometimes make you want to dance other times depending on where you heard it from makes you sad” (Anderson).

Some fans talk about how K-pop helps them through hard times.  One respondent notes, “It was introduced to me at a hard time in my life and it has been the only music I listened to help me get through it.”  Another says, “Kpop appeared in my life all of a sudden. I was really depressed back then and it helped me get out of my miserable state, pulled me out of the worst” (Anderson). Music can have the therapeutic effect these respondents describe. Annemiek Vink explains therapy methods, such as Guided Imagery in Music, which is “based on the assumption that the most appropriate music can be selected for healing purposes.”  She further finds that the choice of music impacts the therapeutic results of GIM:   “In all aspects, carefully selected music based on the person’s preference and personal background was far more effective than standard relaxation music” (153, 154).

This range of fairly positive emotions challenges negative characterizations of their emotional expression.  These responses come from adults rather than young teenagers, so it is less convincing to describe them as obsessive along the lines of Chia.  She refers to incidents involving K-pop celebrities, but respondents speak about their emotions mostly in relation to the music. When they do comment on the artists, it is often in terms of the positive relationship they have with fans.  One notes, “The singers are so dedicated to their music and their fans. They put their real emotion into every word” (Anderson).

This emotional connection that some K-pop fans feel also translates into a discourse of protection, the desire to protect their group or artist from mischaracterizations.  The Triple S Pledge encourages fans of SS501 “To support and shield them through hard times…To ignore rumors.” The same sentiments can be seen in the “Prom15e to Bel13ve and 10ve” philosophy held by some fans of Super Junior, which acknowledges every member regardless of current status or sub-group membership.

These findings suggest that emotion plays a role in the attitudes and opinions of adult global K-pop fans, often in a positive way.

Images

Anderson, Crystal.  Infographic. “Can’t Stop Loving You.” 14 Dec 2012. Web.

European Kpop Fans. Digital Image. WeHeartIt. Originally posted on european-kpop-fans.blogspot.com.  14 Dec 2012.  http://weheartit.com/entry/29104058

Sources
Anderson, Crystal S.  “Data Set: Hallyu Kpop Survey 2 and Kpop Kollective KiFs Survey 2, 18- to 30 Year Olds.”  Korean Popular Music International Fanbases Project. 29 Apr 2011 – 15 Apr 2012.

Balkwill, Laura-Lee and William Forde Thompson. “A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music: Psychophysical and Cultural Cues.” Music Perception 17. 1 (1999): 43-64.

Chia, Adeline.  “Sick Cult of K-pop.” Originally published on Straits Times. 8 Dec 2011. SGSJELFs & SupershowSG. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://sgsjelfs.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/sick-of-k-pop-cult-by-adeline-chia-of-straits-times/

Patricia. “Fans Love Oppa, But Oppa Is Uncomfortable With Such Feelings.” 24 May 2011. Seoulbeats. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/05/fans-love-oppa-but-oppa-is-uncomfortable-with-such-feelings/

TS Pledge. Triple S: The States. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://triplesstates.blogspot.com/p/about-triples.html

Vink, Annemiek. “Music and Emotion.” Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 10.2 (2001): 144-158.

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The ‘K’ in K-pop: Research Finds Korean Language, Culture Appeals to Global Fans

SHINee in Hanbok
SHINee in Hanbok

By Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University (U.S.)

Most people identify K-pop by its use of Korean language and culture. Some see these as obstacles to the spread of K-pop worldwide.  However, 142 responses by 18-to 30-year-olds show that Korean culture, and especially Korean language, appeals to global fans.  These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at  KPK: Kpop Kollective.

The 'K' in K-pop Infographic (detail)
The ‘K’ in K-pop Infographic (detail)

To view entire “The ‘K’ in K-pop Infographic, click here.

Writers often point to the use of English as crucial to the success of K-pop in non-Korean speaking countries.  Miketastic argues:  “Many would say that the single biggest obstacle is the language barrier. . . . For K-pop artists, it’s going to be much tougher as very few of them can really speak English well enough to win the hearts and minds of America.”

Academics like Jaime Shinhee Lee also write about how important English is for K-pop:  “K-pop provides discursive space for South Korean youth, either artists or audiences, to assert their self-identity, to create new meanings, to challenge dominant representations of authority, to resist mainstream norms and values, and to reject older generations’ conservatism” (446).   In other words, Korean artists tend to use English for specific purposes. Lee also says that the use of English decreases the importance of Korean to a certain degree: “English makes K-pop less nationally marked and more regionally accepted” (447).

Some K-pop fans echo this idea.  They say that they do not need to understand the Korean language in order to like K-pop.  One notes:  “Because of the songs that can touch you, even though you don’t understand what they are singing.”  Another responds:  “I like to sing along in Korean even though I don’t always understand what the lyrics means” (Anderson).

However, research suggests that global fans find the Korean language and culture important.  A majority of respondents say that they listen to K-pop, in part, because of the Korean language.  Several like the qualities of the Korean language itself.  One respondent says, “I
 love being able to learn songs that aren[‘]t in English and I find Korean to be such 
a beautiful language,”  while another “like[s] the sound of Korean language.”  Others indicate that the Korean used in K-pop songs encourages them to learn the language better:  “I also like being able to learn small words and phrases in Korean. It is a lot more 
fun than trying to learn a foreign language in the usual way” (Anderson).

Others link K-pop to Korean culture in general, despite its incorporation of American culture:  One respondent explains:  “Moreover, I love the US influence but its remains the “Korean detail” that makes this kind of music different.”  Another notes, “I got dragged into KPop. . .  because of Korean culture. Their culture is very addictive” (Anderson).

Global fans also learn about Korean social relationships through the way members of K-pop groups interact:  “I am also fascinated by the whole Kpop culture which would refer to many things such as “stars relation” – the senior-junior (sunbae-hoobae) relationship; the start training system; some unwritten rules in the business; the variety shows just to name a few.”  Another respondent says: “Not only the music, dancing and other talent, but with this K-Pop culture it teaches audiences to respect elders and their peers – also to respect themselves because of the Asian culture.”

Others note the impact of Korean cultural products, such as variety shows, which feature a combination of language and culture:   “I also like the language more, but the 
reason I fell in love with K-Pop is the personalities of the Idols. If they weren’t all 
those variety shows, I wouldn’t have been that interested in K-Pop” (Anderson).  For example, Shinhwa provides entertainment to audiences by playing a game where knowing the words to a Korean song is key on Happy Together:

Asian American respondents also find the use of Korean language and culture appealing. One noted:  “I think that it is really relatable. I’m Asian-American, so I don’t see Asians much in entertainment. I like seeing people like me doing something cool like rapping, singing, and dancing.”  Another explained the appeal of Korean culture in K-pop as a source of pride:  “Being a[n] adopted Korean American (adopted in the 80’s) it was a way for me to discover my cultural roots when Korean people did not accept me because of my 
lack for Koreaness.’ Also in the 90’s and early 2000’s it was a way to show ‘Azn
Pride’ as we called it” (Anderson).

This research may reveal the impact of conscious efforts by the Korean government to use K-pop as a vehicle for spreading Korean culture.   Korea.net, the official website of the South Korean government, maintains a section devoted to Korean Wave in the K-Culture section of its website. In 2012, the Korean Cultural Center in Washington DC hosted a Hallyu Camp “designed to give fans of Korean pop culture in the Washington DC region a deeper understanding of the country, people, and society from which Korean pop culture originates.” Activities included “a variety of interactive workshops, lessons, discussions, and creative projects related to Korean traditional and pop culture, led by professional instructors and cultural experts” (Han Cinema).

Such use of Korean culture represents an example of soft power, defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political beliefs, and policies” (x). The Korean government uses K-pop to spread Korean culture in an effort to get other populations to engage with it.  Doobo Shim also writes:  “Motivated by the phenomenal success of Korean popular cultural products abroad, the government designated ‘cultural technology’ (meaning the technologies that produce television drama, film, pop music, computer games, animation, etc.) as one of the six key technologies along with IT and BT (Bio –technology) that should drive the Korean economy into the 21st century” (28).

Global locations like the United States do not have a tendency to embrace foreign-language musical culture. This has led some to speculate that K-pop must use English to be successful. However, these findings show that K-pop has already gained success with global fans as a result of K-pop’s use of Korean language and culture.

Images

SHINee. Digital Image. “16 KPOP Idols and Groups Dressed for Chuseok.”  30 Sept 2012. Ningin. 11 Dec 2012.

Anderson, Crystal.  Infographic. “The ‘K’ in K-pop.” 11 Dec 2012. Web.

Sources

Anderson, Crystal S.  “Data Set: Hallyu Kpop Survey 2 and Kpop Kollective KiFs Survey 2, 18- to 30 Year Olds.”  Korean Popular Music International Fanbases Project. 29 Apr 2011 – 15 Apr 2012.

Crystalis0324. “(Eng Sub) 040930 [H@p py][T0g 3th er]- Shinhwa (4/5).” 26 Sept 2010. YouTube. 11 Dec 2012.

“Hallyu Camp 2012: Exploring Korean Pop & Traditional Culture.” 22 July 2012.  Han Cinema. 7 Dec 2012.

Lee, Jamie Shinhee.  “Linguistic Hybridization in K-pop: Discourse of Self-Assertion and Resistance.” World Englishes 23.3 (2004): 429-450.

Miketastic.  “[OP-ED] Will K-pop Make It in America?” 23 Jul 2012. allkpop.  11 Dec 2012.

Nye, Jr., Joseph.  Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  Cambridge: Perseus Books, 2004.

Shim, Doobo.  “The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave.” In East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave.  Ed. Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.  15-31.

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