I am a K-pop fanboy.
It started in 2016. During a group meeting (we were rushing a group assignment for our Reading Process class), my friend (who once told me that I have a big nose) asked me to open YouTube on the browser. She said that EXO had just had a comeback. The song was “Lotto,” and all four of us in the group watched the music video. I don’t remember vividly how I began the fanboy life, but I remember watching EXO’s digital contents—music videos, fancams, variety shows, behind-the-scenes, and more—in the months thereafter. Since that day in August 2016, K-pop has occupied the greater part of my pop culture consumption. I’ve also since moved on to listening to other groups, including but not limited to: SEVENTEEN (my current ult group), Monsta X, Wanna One, Pentagon, Chungha, IZ*ONE, Mamamoo, Red Velvet, and Blackpink.
What do I like about K-pop? Visual satisfaction from music videos? Earworm-inducing songs? Tight and neat choreography for performances? Attractive idols performing on stage, or being cute, or being chic, or being cool? Funny interviews and behind the scenes videos?
Answer: I like all of the above.
In the early days of my K-fanboy life, I immersed myself in the consumption of various digital contents, the main venue through which K-pop (and Hallyu) has made itself available for fans across the world. Watching fan-made compilation videos of funny moments of a K-pop group gave me comfort at the time, when I held a responsibility that I wasn’t fully prepared to undertake. I read the English translations of Korean lyrics. I created a fan account on Twitter and immersed myself in the world of fandom and, consequently, fanwars. (Though I should note that I only liked tweets thrown during fanwars, and so my participation was sideline passive than frontline active).
Later on, I felt that being a K-fan seems like a job. To show love and support for a K-pop idol group, one must: 1) buy physical albums; 2) stream songs on the various streaming platforms; 3) vote for the group in music shows and year-end awards; 4) tag the group’s official Twitter accounts in all of your tweets, and include a hashtag to increase their popularity; 5) watch all contents (dramas, variety shows, interviews, behind-the-scenes etc.) that a member or the group produces or appears in, etc. Doing these potentially raises a group’s popularity, makes noise for a comeback, increases music sales, and gains attention from the mainstream Korean public. If one fails to do any of these, one is at risk of being called a lazy fan; because in fandom, neglecting these ‘responsibilities’ equates to a deficiency of love for the idol group one purportedly supports.
As Mack (2020) writes, “As much as it may feel like you are performing love, you are performing labor. Celebrity is an entire industry that functions to move us beyond engaging with art, to performing on behalf of it.” This requires the K-fan to invest so much energy, emotion, time, and money. It can make someone feel that they aren’t supporting their idols as much as they should.
I’ve realized that engaging with K-pop must not feel like labor. I am not a worker; I am not paid to support a group. I should listen to the songs of an idol group because their music speaks to me, and I should support them because they make me laugh, cry, and feel. I should engage with them as a special interest and not a responsibility. Therefore, writing this column is how I shall engage with K-pop and Hallyu as a K-fan.
John Fiske (2005) distinguishes between two types of discrimination of cultural texts. Critical distrimination relates to the academic who, in their “constant effort to establish its superiority over and difference from mass or popular culture” (215), mostly applies discrimination exclusively to high culture and focuses on aesthetics. On the other hand, popular discrimination is concerned with relevance or “the interconnections between a text and the immediate social situation of its readers” (216). The popular reader is concerned more with relevance, or “the interconnections between a text and the immediate social situation of its readers” (ibid.), and with “the pleasures and meanings that its [a text’s] elements provoke” (217).
Popular discrimination in K-pop is evident in how fan consumption determines what becomes popular and what does not. In ‘stan’ language, the fandom determines what is a ‘bop’ and what is a ‘flop.’ Despite being presented with dozens of idol groups and artists, the K-pop fandom is able to discriminate and choose those who “meet the criteria of popular discrimination” (ibid., 217). A fan does not consume mindlessly; they engage in meaning-making, for example, through the practice of ‘theorizing’ and interpreting meanings from music videos and songs.
As a K-fan, I exhibit my agency through my individual discriminatory choices between the songs and contents that my favorite idols produce. I also have my own reasons for becoming a fan, and standards for which songs I like best, which music video looks good to me, which groups are the most talented, and which idols I most relate to. For example, I like SEVENTEEN’s 2020 summer track “Left & Right” more than 2021’s “Ready to Love,” or that I tend to listen more to slow, comforting, ballad B-tracks in K-pop albums more than fast-paced, urgent, earnest, powerful hiphop, rock and/or dance songs. Like Fiske said, I like what I derive pleasure from.
However, there is a contradiction between fandom’s agency and the competitive business industry of Hallyu. It results in the tendency for the consumer public to favor idol groups and artists who come from the larger entertainment companies, or what’s known as the ‘Big Three’: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. These companies have arguably produced the most popular Hallyu idols and have the largest fan bases. They possess the economic capital that allows them to promote their artists to a wider audience, experiment with and improve the visual and musical elements of their products, and export them—albums, merch, concerts. Thus, they are generally considered to have been the trailblazers of K-pop, and is evidence that popular discrimination is affected by (and sometimes contigent on) the existence of capital: money equates to popularity equates to success. Now, with the growth of HYBE Corporation, formerly known as Big Hit Entertainment, home to the current largest and most popular K-pop male idol group, BTS, the Big Three has become the Big Four.
I understand that there’s no escape from the structures that determine the popular and the relevant in K-pop. They involve capital and business (‘soft power’), render in/visible certain facets of fandom and identity (e.g. queerness), and have the potential to disturb normative structures (e.g. a new form of masculinity). I believe that it’s important to understand these structures because the meanings I extract from a pop cultural text are rooted in a distinct underlying construction(s) that governs the text’s workings and futures. I love K-pop and my idols, but I’m also aware of the gaps and disconnects between Hallyu and social realities. Instead of problematizing its aesthetics, I shall problematize the relevance of K-pop in the face of such systems as capitalism and of such realities as gender and racial biases.
As a member of fandom, which Fiske positions between popular and high culture, I will work with both popular and aesthetic discrimination. However, aesthetic discrimination seeks to differentiate, akin to how ‘literary writers’ eschew ‘genre writers’ for their supposedly generic, predictable, and formulaic fiction. The contradiction between popular and aesthetic discrimination, thus, lies in how each regards the reader: while the former includes, the latter excludes. Anyone can be a popular reader, but only those educated in cultural/literary/art criticism can be an aesthetic reader. I align myself primarily with popular discrimination in my examination of K-pop’s relevance, and secondarily with aesthetic/critical discrimination to inform my analyses.
But while I’m inclined towards questioning the relevance of K-pop and Hallyu, it doesn’t mean I’m not thankful for the idols that have made me laugh and cry and feel these past years. They kept me company since 2016, after all, through incredible, tough, happy, and heartbreaking moments. And recently, it was announced that SEVENTEEN renewed their contracts with their entertainment agency. I’ve said before, somewhere else, that SEVENTEEN might be the last group that I’ll be a fan of.
So, here’s to more years as a K-fan, as a meaning-maker, as a popular reader!
Mack. 2020. “An Open Letter to Stans: We Must Divest Ourselves From Celebrity and Fight for Liberation.” Accessed 7 October 2020.
Fiske, John. 2005. “Popular Discrimination.” In Popular Culture: A Reader, edited by Raiford Guins and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz, 215-222. London: Sage Publications.