Why I Think Kpop Has All The Answers
My journey into Kpop went exactly as any fan would warn you, it started out slowly and then happened all at once. There was no stopping it, I was doomed the second I pressed play on that first video. It probably helped that I have a deep rooted love for East Asian culture. However, even fans that don’t fall under that category will tell you that the level at which Korean pop culture operates is above any other form of entertainment in the world.
But what else would you expect from a nation that was trying desperately to re-build itself from the ground up? Long story short, modern Korean pop culture was born out of the ashes of post war Korea seeking a way to boost their devastated economy. In just thirty years South Korea found themselves in the midst of the top fifteen economies in the world with entertainment as their main export. It began with K-dramas marketed mainly to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Classic tropes met complex original characters and thrilling plot twists to produce a form of television that was down right addictive, and as the economy and culture grew, so did the content. Then in 1989 Lee Soo Man founded what became the largest and most successful entertainment company to date, SM entertainment. SM has been the home to some of the world’s most successful K-pop groups, including TVXQ whom was in the Guinness Book of World Records for largest recorded fan base in the world.
It fascinates me that even with the title of ‘largest recorded fan base in the world’ it took me until my sophomore year of college to discover TVXQ and consequently all of the other K-pop groups I am now a fan of. But I believe that this is changing. Where groups like TVXQ and Girls Generation became massively successful in Asia and paved the way for modern K-Pop, it’s groups like BTS that are beginning to cross cultural boundaries in ways we could have never imagined.
I bet you’ve heard of BTS, even if it was only as ‘that Korean boy group that performed on the AMAs’, or seen other celebrities you know and love referencing them on twitter. The year 2017 may not have been a good one for many of us but it was a groundbreaking year for the seven members of BTS.
In 2013 Kim Seokjin (Jin), Kim Namjoon (RM), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook, debuted as the seven member group BTS. Having come from all over country, and many of them from less than well off families and backgrounds, they vowed to be the first k-pop group not from the Big Three to make it big. The Big Three consists of the three largest entertainment companies in South Korea, including SM entertainment, JYP entertainment, and YG entertainment. BTS is in fact the only Kpop group signed under Big Hit Entertainment and it’s mostly unheard of for smaller companies to debut groups that are as successful as TVXQ.
Success however, is measured in many ways. BTS has made their company proud by becoming one of the, if not the most, popular boy group in the world right now. The world has changed in many ways since TVXQ debuted in 2008. Youtube has been a major factor in the spread of international pop culture and it has helped launched BTS overseas and created pockets of fans everywhere from France to Mexico. Furthermore social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has allowed Kpop idols to interact directly with their international fans and allowed fans from all over the globe to find one another and create fandom specific websites and chat groups.
Something unique to Kpop but not to BTS is the concept of fan clubs. Although you probably know someone who was a huge Star Trek nerd back in the day or is a fan of the cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nothing can really compare to the scale at which K-pop fan clubs have been cultivated. Shortly after a K-pop group debuts they are given an official fan club name. This name and its accompanying merchandise such as light sticks used at concerts, banners, and apparel, gives their fans an unified identity, as well as a way for the group to identify their fans. Furthermore there are online groups that these fans can subscribe to for exclusive content and offers related directly to the members of the group they are a fan of.
The creation of these fan clubs brings an entire new dimension to K-pop that I have yet to see anywhere else. But where there is good there is always bad and as wonderfully passionate as fans can be for their groups they can also be hateful towards fans of other groups. Out of the creation of fan clubs also came the concept of fan-wars, where members of different fandoms will actively slander and threaten one another just because they are not fans of the same group.
I believe the ways in which K-pop fandoms operate is a beautiful example of the human psyche. We become so enthralled by something we love (or hate) that we tend to thrive within or forget our humanity from moment to moment. The beauty of Kpop is the way it brings us together, but that also means it often pushes us apart.
In the world we currently live in there is no shortage of issues to put your passion behind and it may seem that comparing them to Kpop or other forms of fandoms is diminishing their importance. But I like to think that by observing a fandom we can begin to unlock and observe the ways in which humans interact with one another through a lens that is much easier to be subjective about. So what you don’t like the same group? Who cares? For many people in the world the group they are a fan of becomes a part of their very soul (I know, it sounds ridiculous, but hear me out).
There are so many incredible Kpop groups out there that consist of loving, caring, hard working members, but for the sake of time and familiarity I am going to continue using BTS as an example and branch off into a couple other groups as they become pertinent. As I mentioned earlier, the seven members of BTS have always been the underdogs. Many of them came from outside of the city, from poorer farming communities and less than well off families. However, this didn’t stop the seven of them from dreaming big. Having come from humble backgrounds many members of BTS are not strangers to hardship and often open up about the difficulties they have faced both before and during their time as idols.
Another incredible thing about Kpop is it’s ability to connect fans to their groups in a very personal manner. Through variety shows, reality programs, live fan events, and exclusive fan content, groups are able to reach out and show themselves to the world both as idols and as people. This creates a very intimate connection between groups and their fans that undoubtably fuels the fire that keeps fan clubs going. This opens a door that allows for idols to become role models not just as musicians and artists but as human beings as well.
The life of a Kpop idol is brutal. Most groups start off poor, living together in dorms while they practice over eight hours a day as well as attend language courses, dance classes, vocal lessons, and acting lessons, often on top of their already existing schooling. They sleep very little, exercise non stop, and diet to keep themselves fit for the public eye. This is an unsustainable way of life that many can not keep up so it’s a miracle that any groups ever become successful. But the ones that do develop an unbreakable work ethic that fans admire. They also begin to open up about the difficulties of this lifestyle, reaching out to fans to make sure they know they are not alone in the world if they are feeling weighed down by life. Min Yoongi (Suga), one of the eldest members of BTS has openly talked about, written about, and rapped about his difficult past and present with mental illness, hoping to branch out to fans and let them know that even their idol has a hard time sometimes. Due to this intense way of life the members of the groups often become very close, caring for one another like a family and sharing that familial love with their fans who come to love them so much that they would spend their life savings in a blink to show their appreciation.
Whether or not you think the obsessiveness behind these fan groups is inspiring or disturbing you have to understand that they will stop at nothing to support their idols and in the briefest way of saying it, they get shit done. Coming together for a cause is never difficult for fan clubs when it involves the wellbeing of their idols. For example, on birthdays or anniversaries fan clubs will raise insane amounts of money to send expensive gifts, put up billboards, and slap signs on the sides of buses wishing their idols well. They will even organize food trucks to be sent to MV and Drama sets, knowing that in the crazy haze of their schedule they won’t have much time to eat well.
When all of this comes together it becomes a powerful example of how to care for one another and reminds us that even people that may never know you exist can have a powerful impact on your existence. Kpop idols are powerful role models for people of all ages due to their work ethic, their displays of kindness towards their fans and one another, and their ability to break down barriers between celebrities and fans. In this day and age they even bring together people from opposite sides of the globe due to one simple thing, that they both have a deep rooted passion for the same music group. As a fan, I can confirm that there are many things any Kpop fan would tell you that only another Kpop fan would understand. Due to this my friends who are also fans have become some of my closest friends, even when we are thousands of miles apart.
I have even had interactions with strangers that left me smiling, remembering just how much of an impact one simple thing can have on the relationship between two people. I was in the airport on my way to New Orleans this past December and I was feeling less than thrilled at the delay of my flight. Shrinking back into my BTS hoodie I had just accepted I was going to feel like trash for the rest of the night. But then the girl sitting across from me in the waiting area made eye contact and smiled as I finally got up to board my flight. My grumpy demeanor faded away as she pointed at my sweatshirt and excitedly smiled saying “I love your sweatshirt! I love BTS!” So I smiled back and said thank you, just that simple moment of connection easing my way through the world for that night.
How we treat one another based on whether or not we are passionate about the same thing is both a blessing and a curse. It can bring positive connection, like my experience in the airport, or it can have the opposite affect, developing into fan wars that I mentioned earlier. It sounds ludicrous to say that you hate somebody just because they like a different musical group than you do, but when your really think about it, that is exactly what we say each and every day.
Now I am clearly not talking about Kpop anymore and I know that the issues we become heated about are much more important than who’s group had better fashion at the last awards show, but the psychology is the same. I am an avid supporter of LGBT rights, being a member of the LGBT community myself. My stance on the importance of this issue is set in stone, it will never change, however, that doesn’t mean that I actively hate and slander those who disagree with me. In fact, their opinions may also be set in stone, just from the other side. Now I’m not saying you have to like people that hold a different opinion from yours, but liking does not equate to listening. The least we can do for each other as human beings is listen.
We all want to be heard. This has become a huge topic recently in the wake of discussions about gun control, however, it was also recently a huge discussion for the Kpop realm as well. Something that we as human beings have yet to master is coming together in times of crisis. We put patches over things instead of weeding out the roots of the problem. Yes, sometimes we will send foreign aid to those in need or become suddenly passionate about a crisis for the few days after it occurs to show that we are not heartless, but these fixes are temporary, often leaving those directly affected behind, feeling lost.
In December 2017 the Kpop community lost one of the best idols of our time to his battle with depression. Kim Jonghyun, a member of the world famous group SHINee committed suicide after having tried to reach out for help on multiple occasions. The stigma of mental health in South Korea brings with it a huge weight for people in the spotlight, as they feel they are not allowed to look less than perfect, and people often believe that its impossible for them to be suffering because they have it all. But in reality it can be quite the opposite, with fame and success, comes a whole new level of isolation on top of the brutal lifestyle these idols must maintain.
As a huge fan of SHINee I was heartbroken. Not just by the fact that a member of the group was gone, but by the fact that he had tried with everything he had to find help and the system failed him. In the beginning there was sorrow, anger, and hatred. But that quickly fell away to something much more powerful. Fan groups came together to support the members of SHINee and their fans. It didn’t matter if you hadn’t even heard a single SHINee song, the respect and support that radiated from all corners of the Kpop community was immense and had people petitioning for idols to have better mental health care, to be more open, and to be vocal about seeking support. In times of crisis KPOP fans have found a way to put down their weapons and respect one another. This comes from the understanding that every fan feels about their group, how you feel about yours, the love, the passion, and the commitment, is the same and should be respected.
Even months later I still see open chat groups on forums of people from all walks of Kpop fandom providing a safe space for people to talk about themselves, their lives, and their love for SHINee. As the group is returning to their concert tour, now as four members, support pours out from every fan club, praising and supporting them in showing such strength through such sorrow.
So what I am trying to show you here is hating someone just because they don’t like the same thing you do is down right ridiculous, and this applies to all walks of life. Hate is a strong emotion. One that drains the energy from you and feeds it to anger where we become stagnant. If it takes the death of an idol to spark unity, then don’t let him have died for nothing. If it takes yet another school shooting to have someone finally put their foot down and do something about it, don’t let those children have died for nothing and don’t reject those that come from different walks of life, experiences, and ages. We have so much to learn from one another and we must listen or we might find ourselves going deaf forever.
So next time you are reading an article, having a conversation, or are feeling upset about something take a moment to think about how ridiculous it is to hate someone for not being a fan of the same music group as you and use that moment to realize that your energy can be directed elsewhere. In this day and age we have the blessed and cursed ability to engage in tragedy all across the globe, so instead of anger, cultivate inspiration, join a march, sign a petition, and support those around you who are standing up to make a real difference in the world. This is how we can learn to come together, show the same passion about life as Kpop fans show for their idols, and come together in times when the real issue is so much bigger than our individual self that hatred does nothing but leech energy from the quest for good.