(This article was first published on News Break. You can view it here!)
After opening presents at Christmas, my teen, a K-Pop fan, expressed how grateful she was that her aunts and I had bothered to learn what specific groups and artifacts she was interested in before gifting her. She was blissfully content with the BTS and LOONA albums she had received, along with the poseable doll of J-Hope, her “bias” (favorite performer).
In the meantime, she read funny Twitter posts from fans sharing what they had received from well-meaning but ill-informed families.
One girl received a “Just a Girl Who Loves Ramen and K-Pop” t-shirt (“I’m usually so grateful no matter what, but…”) One received a BTS album even though he’s a fan of NCT. (It’s three letters – what’s the difference?)
There was another who received BTS tennis socks (“No one is going to see these inside my shoes!”)
This led to a fun chat about the general public’s perceptions and misunderstandings about K-Pop music and its fans. Here are five points my daughter wished more people understood.
1. K-Pop does not equal BTS! Outside the fandom, BTS is usually the one K-Pop band with which the American public is familiar. We’ve seen them perform and win at the American Music Awards. We’ve heard how they beat Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” record for the most YouTube views in 24 hours. We’ve seen them perform with Jimmy Fallon.
However, there is an enormous universe of K-Pop performers, and no, they’re not interchangeable. If you’ve got a fan in your life, take time to know which groups they’re into and what they like about them.
2. K-Pop fans are not just starry-eyed teen girls. OK, there are a lot of starry-eyed teen girl fans. But there’s also Jimmy Fallon, who regularly invites BTS on his show and performs with them.
When I attended a concert with my daughter before the pandemic, there was a reasonable percentage of teen boys and young men.
And then there’s Skip Conover, a 73-year-old retired business executive and Marine who is a devoted BTS fan. Here he reveals how “Map of the Soul: Persona” piqued his interest in the group’s music.
3. K-Pop fans care about more than K-Pop. Dr. Michelle Cho, assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, says the process of becoming a K-pop fan –– researching translations, searching for news that isn’t reported on by mainstream media — often contributes to curiosity, which leads to activism.
In 2017, the Girls’ Generation’s 2007 track “Into the New World” resurfaced as a political anthem for women to share sexual harassment and assault stories. The later 2010s also saw K-pop inspire fans to speak up against injustice, thanks to socially charged lyrics by artists like BAP and BTS.
When Big Hit Entertainment, the company behind BTS, announced that it was donating $1 million to the Black Lives Matter campaign amid worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, their fans decided to match it. And did – in just over a day.
K-Pop fans frequently use the same social media tactics they employ to support music stars for their activism. Teens on TikTok, including K-pop fans, claimed to have reserved a significant number of tickets to Trump’s poorly attended Tulsa rally with no intention of going.
Of course, fans aren’t a monolith, and not all are activists, but one shouldn’t assume that fans are shallow because of K-Pop’s signature glitz.
4. K-Pop music is deeper than you think. By reading the translations, many fans love to explore the storylines and lore that groups introduce through their music, which makes up a considerable part of group identities. Some stories have been part of the group since their creation.
As a few examples, EXO has extraterrestrial story themes, LOONA celestial themes, and VIXX mythological themes. BTS has a mission, in band-member J-Hope’s words, to “…protect…the young people in their 10s, 20s, with our music from all the “bullets” of prejudice and misunderstanding.”
5. K-Pop has its own vernacular. There are many more terms than this, but here are a few to start.
- Bias: Your favorite performer
- Idol: K-Pop celebrity
- Comeback: When a group releases new music
- Fan Chant: Words shouted by fans during performances. They usually include naming all the group members during the intro to their song and then repeating specific words or lines throughout.
- Trainee: Before performers become idols, they’re trainees. Entertainment companies scout for talent and then train their recruits to be picture-perfect pop stars. The programs are rigorous! Some train for several years before the company places them in a group. Training covers everything from singing and dancing to learning new languages
- Light Stick: Each group has its light sticks, including Bluetooth capability and symbolizing the community behind them. Fans hold up lightsticks during concerts.
Photo by Karin Jensen
- Ocean: This is where the sea of concert attendees switch on their light sticks in the dark. Each stick’s app pairs with the owner’s seat. The venue’s lighting team controls which colors appear in which sections while the music plays. It’s hypnotic and magical.
- Fanbase Names: Almost every K-Pop group has a unique name for its fanbase. BTS fans, for instance, call themselves the Army, Blackpink fans are Blinks, and Monsta X fans are MonBebe. The list goes on.
- Hallyu: Meaning the “wave” or “flow” and refers to the increase in South Korean cultures’s global popularity since the 1980s.
Before my daughter was a fan, my only exposure to K-Pop was through music videos at our local boba tea shop. They felt like a foreign niche curiosity. Now, K-Pop has exploded in popularity.
For my daughter, it has been a good influence. From watching videos, she became interested in learning to dance. She has gone out of her social comfort zone to participate in events and improved her art skills by drawing idols. This may be a phase, but while it lasts, I support her. I feel privileged that my daughter wants me to learn about her passion.
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