Written by Anya Dooley, 22.
The Korean entertainment industry is becoming more and more recognised for the calibre of talent it can produce and the cult-like following its artists can muster, the vast majority of which are truly international in scope.
You may have heard of ‘BTS’, a Korean pop (K-pop) act which has sold out stadiums in record time. Had it not been for the pandemic, the music festival ‘Coachella’ would have featured major K-pop bands for two years in a row. However, unless you’re familiar with how the industry works, you’re likely to never grasp what time and training went into the appearances and the complex history of the entire K-pop world.
What makes K-pop different to the Western music industry is that almost all of the artists and groups, and their histories, are vastly and uncomparably different to that of the traditional western popular culture scene.
The K-pop fanbase around the world are unlike any other fanbase and have once again risen to public attention
The Korean music industry encompasses auditory, visual and social performances. These performances are from artists who are well-rehearsed and trained for perfection on every platform. In order to produce this level of skill (be it incredible vocal performances, highly synchronised or technical choreography, delivering a perfect answer in an interview, or knowing exactly how to stage a scandal free social media live broadcast), almost all successful K-pop artists have a company behind them hand picking them and coaching them intensely over, often, several years in order to perform the way they do. It’s possible for idols to have lived in dormitories with potential future bandmates and receive intense vocal and dance training, as well as attend regular schooling for 13-18 year olds, for years, and many never end up being picked to debut in a band or as a soloist. Which means the ones who do, are those the companies deem to be the most profitable for them.
The K-pop fanbase around the world are unlike any other fanbase and have once again risen to public attention. The influencing of the turnout of a Donald Trump rally by registering for tickets with no intention of showing up, thus creating a largely empty arena, made news around the globe.
Perhaps it’s because I, myself, am a fan of several K-pop groups - or perhaps it’s just down to generationally common social media habits - but I did not think this plan nor its success, and the groups behind it, were any secret. Yet the reaction of some news outlets suggests that for those who solely rely on traditional news outlets and their contributors, there was no inkling that this was coming, never mind knowledge of who would be behind it.
The fan groups have the numbers, will, and organisational power and to exert real, tangible influence
The manipulation of the Trump rally turn-out was not simply down to K-pop fans (TikTok users spread this campaign also), however, other events such as the take down of police evidence collection apps for the protests across states in the US by flooding them with K-pop idol dance practices and “fancams”, show the unexpected yet mighty power that the fans of K-pop hold. Other people have made guesses as to why this demographic has developed the skill set and organisational power to massively influence our digital world (for example the breaking of records for most video views, or names of a K-pop icon trending on Twitter) - but regardless of the reasons behind it, it’s undeniable now that the fanbase has the power to influence not just digital events, but physical ones too. The fan groups have the numbers, will, and organisational power and to exert real, tangible influence.
However, when mentioning K-pop fans to people who aren’t themselves fans of K-pop, there is a stereotype that does seem to prove itself more and more to be a misrepresentation of the diverse and actually long-developed following of the Korean entertainment industry.
Even those who may even be somewhat familiar with the recent attention K-pop has garnered, may not be aware of the true depth and history that lies within this section of pop-culture. The “BTS ARMY”, and possibly even girl group Blackpink’s “Blinks” may be known to those who haven’t missed the boy-band’s exponential growth and touring success in the West, or the Coachella appearance and recent collaboration with Lady Gaga by the girl group. And certainly, these groups (the fans) do often make good impressions, like matching donations to causes supported by their idols.
Those who are claiming to be part of these more hostile groups end up representing the wider group of K-pop fans to the mainstream
However, they just as often leave a negative impression, by sending hate to those who (the fans deem) may have criticised the artists, and often these groups behave in an obsessive and invasive way publicly. And while the less-problematic members of those fandoms will denounce them as not “real” fans, and try to emphasise the more positive aspects of the fandom, it still stands that those who are claiming to be part of these more hostile groups end up representing the wider group of K-pop fans to the mainstream.
There’s a kind of double-edged sword with Western mainstream success. On one hand, it does do a lot for the earnings and promotion of not just the individual artists, but K-pop as a whole.
On the other hand, there’s a level of cultural awareness and understanding that was ‘skipped’ for many Western fans. This leads to a kind of disconnect between newer Western fan groups, and Korean or older international K-pop fans; as the newer and more international fans have not needed to develop the same grasp of how the K-pop industry works and how current and historical Korean culture may influence the music and performance, or be referenced in social interactions and public appearances, due to the availability of English (or local) language content.
As a result of this disconnect, some fandoms that grow large mainstream Western followings often begin campaigns for things which would never be seen in the days of K-pop before the globalisation and Western successes.
This disconnect is actually quite fraught - and there can often be real frustration and jealousy from one fan group to another
For example, a huge campaign and petition culture has emerged in the West with the aim of lobbying to ensure K-pop boy bands are made exempt from military service. For most Koreans, including the bands themselves, military service is seen as an inevitable coming-of-age event for men. This can be seen in a more accessible way by the recent stint of military service by Korean Tottenham FC football player, Son Heung Min. Despite the artists themselves expressing their enthusiasm to enlist when the time comes, there’s still outrage amongst many Western fanbases at this.
When you compare this to older fans, or fans of older groups, or even groups which are just slightly less accessible for non-Korean speakers, this kind of behaviour is stark in its difference. These fan groups now have to learn to accept ‘new normals’ and patterns which are unfamiliar to them, as the K-pop bands exploit the huge Western success, and tend to distance themselves from such polarising Western fan groups.
This disconnect is actually quite fraught - and there can often be real frustration and jealousy from one fan group to another. So much so, that some more popular and larger fan-groups feel as though they’re being attacked by the older or smaller, more traditional fan groups (who are then dubbed ‘Antis’). This in turn leads to ‘fanwars’, which can be incredibly viscous in-fighting between groups of fandom - usually online.
While it must be emphasised that there is a tiny minority of K-pop fans engaging in ‘fanwars’, this kind of hostile behaviour occurs at a much higher frequency in the groups which have a more international audience and mainstream attention. As a result, this is skewing the impression of K-pop from the rest of the world and influencing opinion of the entire K-pop universe.
Western mainstream media and culture shows a complete ignorance for the context and history behind K-pop
An odd situation has arisen, where the demographic of fans who have become representatives of the genre to the mainstream are the ones which most often demonstrate a lack of understanding in the way the genre functions and its history, and are in fact the minority of fans of the genre.
This is why Western mainstream media and culture shows a complete ignorance for the context and history behind a Korean artist that may be garnering huge Western attention and influence. Often the tales of unbelievable commitment to the cause, the training, the hard work and the talent, are overlooked in favour of a more simple and less representative rhetoric.
This ignorance may become more and more of an issue, if the K-pop community continues its foray into the political and activist realms. It also calls to question what other untapped power lies in other ignored, non-English language based, sub-cultures of pop culture. As we live in a more and more globalised world, perhaps it’s time to recognise the importance of globalising more than trade and politics, and give the respect to the power pop culture holds, and globalise our understanding of “the mainstream”.
It’s not necessary to start trying to memorise the names of all 21 members of NCT, or spending hours trying to perfect the precision of Twice’s choreographies. But perhaps there should be more effort to understand the much more complex and active industry and network that lies beneath the impressive dancing and highly rehearsed and fine-tuned vocal performances than is perhaps portrayed in the Western narrative.
Want to know more about K-pop and watch some videos? Here's Anya's selection for you:
Twice - Fancy (Dance Practice) (Video)
NCT Explanation and music examples for the sub-units (Written Article)
NCT Dream - Ridin’ (Video)
NCT 127 - Punch (Video)
NCT U - 7th Sense (Video)
I.U - Eight (Video)
K-pop bands explained playlist (Youtube Playlist)