fandom idolatry and other places of worship
When you google the word “idol”, the first definition returned is: noun, an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.
An image or representation of a god used as an object of worship. Read that again. An image or representation of a god used as an object of worship. That’s a strong definition, and not one you would apply to just anyone, if you applied it to anyone at all. And yet. And yet.
Let me start at the beginning. I’m a Black American that’s a big fan of K-pop. Since 2017, I have closely followed BTS and to a lesser extent, artists like NCT (and it’s many off-shoots), TWICE, Taemin, Red Velvet, and more. I like the production of K-pop. I like the colorful, elaborate music videos and outfits. I like the community feel of shouting fanchants along with the songs. I like the steady current of content: V LIVEs, tweets, Instagram posts, summer packages, mini album after mini album after mini album.
I like the access, or maybe I like the illusion of access, to these — idols. I like the parasocial relationship between artists and their fans. But what is a parasocial relationship, and how is it relevant to K-pop, and to a broader extent, stan culture?
“Parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term coined by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Viewers or listeners come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having limited interactions with them. PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, fictional characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them.”
Let’s break that down to fandom, and specifically for this, K-pop. Both the artists and the fans (fans who have been given names: ARMY, EXO-L, ONCE, NCTzen, ReVeluv) engage in this parasocial behavior. Artists log onto sites like V LIVE and film themselves doing mundane tasks like eating a meal, listening to music, texting, drinking wine, just relaxing without their makeup and outfits and glitz and glam. They answer questions the fans ask in the chatbox. They talk about skincare, about hair care, about their worries and fears and insecurities. And suddenly, in your head, in our heads, we are not looking at an idol. We are not looking at an artist. We are not looking at someone who does not know our names or where we exist in the world.
We are looking at a friend. And we depend on our friends. We derive happiness from our friends. We care about our friends’ well-being. We want them healthy. We want them happy. We want — above all else, really, their attention. We want them to pay attention to us, like we pay attention to them. We want them to engage with us, like we engage with them. We want them to love us, like we love them. Because that is what friends do, right? We want them to think like us, and to believe the things we believe. Because they are our friends, and we know them. We trust them.
But remember that “para” part of parasocial? Para (prefix): A prefix with many meanings, including: alongside of, beside, near, resembling, beyond, apart from, and abnormal.
Resembling friendship. Near friendship. Apart from friendship. Abnormal.
Abnormal stands out for me. Fandom has existed in some form before the word “fandom” even existed and gained traction. There has always been, and there will always be, fandom. But what has evolved into normal? The term idol perhaps. A representation of a god used as an object of worship. This artist, this person we consider our friend, though we may not even realize the depth of that one-sided relationship yet, is casually referred to as an idol. Something that represents a god. A religion. A holy figure. Someone maybe even infallible, as some consider holy figures to be.
What has evolved into normal? The term stan, perhaps. It is derived from the longer, and frankly more disturbing, phrase “stalker-fan”. Popularized in the song Stan by Eminem, Stan was a fan that wrote letters to the artist, who gave his worries to the artist, who entrusted his well-being to the artist. Stan, for all intents and purposes, considered Eminem a friend, when Eminem was nothing more than a stranger. In the end, Stan burdened the artist with thoughts and actions so dark, and got angrier and angrier when he didn’t get the attention back. He didn’t get the engagement back. He didn’t get the emotional response back. Because Eminem was not a friend, and Stan was a person using a celebrity as a coping mechanism.
And yet. And yet. We stan. We have no choice but to stan. We stan people we know nothing about, people we have never seen in real life. People who have entire teams crafting their perfect images and profiting off fans, off stans, off friends who somehow need exactly what this person, this artist, this celebrity, this idol, has to offer. Honesty. Authenticity. Kindness. Care. Social justice. We forget that it is a business. We forget that it is a transaction. We forget that the prefix “para” means resembling, near, apart. It does not mean equal. We forget that we are not friends. We are listeners, consumers, fans.
And yet, we continue to stan. We have no choice but to stan.
So what happens when our friends, our idols, our holy figures, turn out to be fallible? What happens when the shininess of the crafted image becomes exposed and dull? What happens when our friend is not who we thought they were, and we are forced to confront that what we thought was never fact. That celebrities are people capable of good and great and bad and terrible things. That friendship is more than a live stream of a meal or held hands at a fan sign or a person, a stranger, remembering you from more than one event.
What happens when you are forced to confront that you have become embroiled in a parasocial relationship, that your idol was someone you worshiped and considered infallible, that the holy figure representing a perfect god was just a person? Like you. Like me. Like anybody.
As I stated before, I’ve been a fan of BTS since 2017. I’ve bought albums. I’ve purchased V LIVE concert streams. I’ve purchased summer packages, and Season’s Greetings, and fanclub merch. I’ve traveled out of state to see them in concert 5 times. I’ve woken up at 2am, 3am, to watch them in KST on award shows. I had an entire Twitter account dedicated to them. They were woke. They were kind. They were honest. They cared about social issues. They experienced growth. At least, on my computer screen they did. In my head, they did. In my head, they were all these things because they were my idols, my artists, my holy figures. Most importantly, they were my friends. They made me happy, and I wished for their happiness in return. I engaged with their content, and it sparked joy when they engaged back with fans. I gave them attention, and I wanted theirs. I believed in certain things, certain values, certain immovable truths, so of course, they did, too, right?
In September of 2019, my bias, my absolute favorite boy, my friend j-hope, released a song in collaboration with Becky G called Chicken Noodle Soup. At best, it was an ode to a childhood classic, made and popularized by a black girl. At worst, it was a mockery, an ill-advised business venture, a betrayal to me, personally. There were a lot of things about this release that were considered harmful to me, a black fan. The track artwork that depicted a cartoon j-hope with a Rasta-inspired headband and a loose interpretation of dreadlocks. The music video in which j-hope, my dear Jung Hoseok, wore his hair in what was quickly defended as “gel twists”. His hair was gelled and twisted into what were very much supposed to evoke dreadlocks, a black hairstyle. A black hairstyle that many black people are penalized for to this day. The song, sampling the original Chicken Noodle Soup, took something that was black, and made it something for everyone. Because isn’t that what black culture has become? Something for everyone? Something to borrow from and put back? Something to sample. A costume. A mask. A profit. A way to be cool and hip and black, without being black.
What’s that saying? How does it go? I remember Paul Mooney saying years ago, “Everybody wanna be a n*gga, but nobody wants to be a n*gga.”
I’m not here to say whether or not it was cultural appropriation, whether or not it was disrespectful, whether or not j-hope, my dear friend Jung Hoseok, can still meet me in the Denny’s parking lot to catch these hands.
(It was, it was, he can, at any time. Please debate your reflection, because you surely won’t debate me.)
So here I was, a j-hope bias, faced with this truth in front of me: I was worshiping my idols. I let a person become an idol. Infallible. A holy figure. And the worst of all, in my head, my friend. I fell into the honey-trap of a parasocial relationship. A stranger had become a huge source of happiness, a confidante, a peer, and someone who shared my beliefs on what is right and what is wrong and what we need to do to grow as global allies. And then I watched my pedestal, built high and grand and to the sky, come crumbling down. The person that I believed was above it all, that understood me, that valued me, that shared with me, was not a god at all. He was just a man. A scared man looking for validation. Taking creative risks. Making mistakes. And then, after all that, not apologizing for them. He was a human, doing very human things. And it felt, and still feels, like the utmost betrayal.
What followed was a reckoning of all that I liked, loved, worshipped, about BTS. I found myself questioning every belief I held about them, and every belief I thought, without a doubt, they held as well. They have grown from the problematic people they started as, was my rallying cry for so long. They apologized for the things they’ve done in the past, I tweeted with the utmost confidence. They are learning, and will continue to learn, and continue to grow, and continue to get better.
In a post-Chicken Noodle Soup world, I found myself questioning if any of that was true. In reality, there was a vague apology from leader RM for “hurting people” in the past. In my time in the church of ARMY, a proud member who always contributed to tithes and offerings as we worshipped at the feet of these seven men, I assumed a lot from that apology. I assumed exactly what it was for. I assumed it stood for the whole group. I assumed it was meant for me, a Black American, and a fan that was part of a community constantly belittled and disrespected and overlooked and taken from. A community hyper-visible and also invisible. This apology was for me, I thought. From my idols that will continue to learn and grow.
In the silence that followed the backlash from some fans after the release of CNS, the once-gods in front of me were just people who disappointed me. They were just people who were not risk-takers, if it meant admitting wrongdoings. If it meant wanting perfection and not clinging to only those that chanted you had achieved such an impossible task. If it meant that sometimes learning meant getting things wrong, and then apologizing for that, even if you are a global phenomenon that has branded yourself as anti-violence, anti-prejudice, anti-silence. Over the past month and change, I have bounced from rage and anger, to disappointment, to resignation, to wistfulness. I have learned a lesson.
I have learned that idols are images or representations of gods used as an object of worship. I have learned that humans cannot be idols. Humans can just be humans. I have learned that strangers: artists and celebrities from around the world, cannot be friends. I have learned that the prefix “para” means resembling. It means apart. It means near. It means abnormal. And perhaps normalizing that the assumptions and beliefs and views I hold as a not rich, not famous, black person were also held by very rich, very famous, men in Korea was abnormal after all. Maybe expecting reciprocity (integral, mandatory, required in any friendship) from people I did not, do not, will never know, was abnormal. Maybe investing my happiness in people that like the Wizard of Oz, were just men behind smoke and mirrors and screens and money, was abnormal. Or maybe nothing that harsh. Maybe it was just a lesson I had to learn about them, about fandom, about stanning, about myself.
Maybe it was just me, a human, examining the behavior of other humans, and realizing their pedestal is very, very high, and as a result, the fall is a long way down.
The idols, the holy figures, the artists, the friends do not spark the same joy in me they once did. I am not a stan. I am not a friend. I can be a fan of people, who are not holy, who are not infallible, who will make mistakes. This does not always mean they are bad. This does not always mean they have stopped growing. This does not always mean they have stopped changing. Perhaps it means for them, with their money and fame and the heavy weight of expectations, change and growth and learning looks a lot different. Perhaps it means I am already on the ground, and when I stumble, or even fall, the whole world is not watching. The fall itself is short. It is relatively easy to get back up. I have no career dependent upon not falling at all. Dependent upon being perfect. Dependent upon being a holy figure. Infallible. An idol representing a god and used as an object of worship.
In the end, the lesson for any fandom is boundaries. Is knowledge. Is other interests. It is not investing all of your happiness and well-being in people you do not know. It is understanding that the core of every artist/fan relationship, regardless of their intentions, regardless of however good they may truly be as a person, as people, is a transaction. Is consumption. Is money and profits and what image connects to the most people, and therefore, sells to the most people. Maybe this isn’t the best way to look at the world. But the world is run on capitalism and labor and profit. The world is run on money. Who has it, who gives it, who makes it. Honesty and kindness and vulnerability become tools to connect, to sell, to buy. This does not make the artists bad. It makes them human. It makes them a part of our capitalist society. It makes them workers, the same way I am a worker, selling certain skills to retain my job for a paycheck.
So as our world evolves and changes, fandom will evolve and change, too. It will change to fit the needs of both creators and consumers. It will change to engage with fans on a parasocial level, because that is marketable. And perhaps there is some authenticity behind it. I would hope so. But that does not negate the end goal. And the end goals, too, will change. The lesson here is to mark your boundaries. The lesson here is to lower the pedestals you have placed people on. It will hurt you and them when they fall. The lesson here is that humans cannot be idols. They can just be humans. And sometimes humans make mistakes. They don’t always apologize, and you don’t always forgive them.
That’s okay. Because they are not idols. They are not gods. They are not friends. They are people, like you. Like me. But they’re rich, and they’re famous, and expectations can be heavy and terrifying. Sometimes they will reach for the words that lift the burden. Sometimes they will reach for the work that does not require depth, and learning, and growing, and changing. Because they are up very high, and the fall is very long. Sometimes, they will not do the hard work, no matter how much you want them to.
Sometimes, they will not do what you want them to. That is an immovable truth, because humans do not always do what you want them to, no matter how big your fandom, how loud your tweets, or how devoted you are to them. They are just human after all, or did you forget?
Your idols are not idols. Are not holy figures. Are not friends. They are people. Like you, like me. Just rich.