Turf wars and billboards — life inside a K-pop fandom
On July 27, boy band BTS announced that its upcoming single will drop on Aug. 21, a gift to fans around the world coping with the coronavirus pandemic. BTS said that the single will be performed in English because after listening to the initial recording, the group felt that "English would go better with the song."
To the layman, the group's justification for recording in English is easy to ignore. But to BTS fans, it's the most important piece of information — if that information hadn't been made public, the group and its agency Big Hit Entertainment would have been bombarded with messages demanding an explanation for the decision.
As K-pop expands its influence globally, more and more people from different parts of the world come together in huge fandoms supporting their favorite artists. They show support and share their love for the same group, but what they don’t share is the same cultural background, often leading to wildly different reactions to a group’s decisions or actions — especially between Korean and international fans.
One subject that has fiercely divided fans is the idea of K-pop stars dating.
In August last year, singer Kang Daniel released a formal apology to fans after local news outlet Dispatch revealed that he was dating Jihyo of girl group Twice.
Fans of both groups took to social media to express their anger, especially focused at Kang, who had just recently made his solo debut. Kang dropped his first EP “Color On Me” on July 25, and sold 460,000 copies of the album within the first week — a record for a solo debut, but the very source of many fans' anger.
An internet search of Kang’s name in Korean reveals a myriad of angry posts toward Kang, most of which are on Twitter. Many angry former fans, or "antis" as they're known in the K-pop community, say they would never have bought his album if they had known he was in a relationship.
Some fans feel that Kang — and other artists that have publicly admitted to having a personal life — have betrayed their trust. Angry tweets about Kang called him "insincere" and accused him of "betraying fans' love" and "not fulfilling his duties as an artist." Fans go so far as to post pictures of expensive merchandise torn to pieces, a gesture they say symbolizes their anger. Even the fans who promise to stay on the artists' side often say they will do so "despite" the news.
Do the exact same search in English and the results tell a very different story. International fans are not only overwhelmingly supportive of Kang's relationship, but also welcome the fact that he is dating another celebrity. Relationships between celebrities are common, and celebrated, in many cultures, and the fans bring those views to the K-pop world. Kang Daniel and Jihyo were Romeo and Juliet sneaking around in a forbidden relationship to Korean fans, but internationally fans were happy for the new couple.
Of course there were Korean fans that supported the couple and there were international fans that didn't, but on the whole the detractors appear to be overwhelmingly Korean and the supporters overwhelmingly international.
According to Professor Shin Hyun-joon at the faculty of social science at SungKongHoe University, these differences among fans from different places are natural and not unique to K-pop. Cultural content is consumed differently in different cultures, according to their own historical and social circumstances.
“You shouldn’t assume that local fans and overseas fans will be similar,” said Shin. “When it comes to cultural studies of popular music, including K-pop, it’s not the text itself that matters — it’s the context and the audiences who are consuming it. For instance, the format of rock music is pretty similar all over the world, but it was the music of the working class in Britain and enjoyed by the middle class in Korea. Hip-hop spread from the streets of America, but the style and the content of the lyrics are all different from one place to another. It’s not about what’s being consumed — it’s how and by whom.”
Yet, even though such cultural differences have always existed, the fact that more people from around the world are starting to enjoy K-pop and share their feelings online has resulted in a more apparent conflict.
As fandoms become more divided, some groups have even resorted to spending money to promote their side of the dispute, as was the case with the bitter division over Chen of boy band Exo, whose marriage and birth announcement in January resulted in an immediate dispute between members of EXO-L, the official fan club, which still continues to this day.
On the one side was a group, comprising mostly of Korean fans, who argued that Chen should be kicked out of Exo because he has neglected his role as a member of the group and set a bad example as his wife became pregnant outside of marriage. This splinter group of fans were so angry and passionate about their cause that they raised funds to pay for newspaper advertisements and rented trucks with LED billboards on the back, calling for Chen to be kicked out of the group.
The international fans that support Chen's relationship responded in kind. They also began raising funds to rent out their own billboards demanding SM Entertainment properly protect its artist and asserted that a celebrity should be allowed to have a personal life, just like everybody else.
Serious conflict between fans first started to hit the mainstream in 2017, when BTS started to establish a serious international fandom. More people began to take an interest in K-pop in general, and international fans went from an outnumbered minority group with views that could easily be dismissed to a huge community of keyboard warriors spending time and money supporting their favorite groups.
Those international fans have a loud voice and strong opinions about issues like stars dating and the language songs are released in. Fans from different cultures also have different reactions even if they agree on an issue, according to Kim Jung-won, a music anthropology researcher who wrote “K- Popping: Korean Women, K-Pop, and Fandom” (2017).
Kim cited the recent feud among boy band AB6IX fans, whose member Lim Young-min quit the band after getting caught drunk driving in May. Korean fans demanded Lim quit the band, while some international fans demanded he get another chance after his “mistake.”
“It’s often the case that in Korea, K-pop celebrities are deprived of the chance to learn the rules of conduct or the consequences of their actions because they’re isolated from society from a young age and must train as ‘K-pop idols.’ But they’re the idols that young people look up to in Korea, and overseas fans are usually unaware of these cultural contexts because they look at our culture from the outside through dramas or other content. They don’t realize that K-pop artists mean more than just performers in Korea,” Kim said.
The increased number of confrontations doesn’t mean that K-pop is in trouble, according to Professor Lee Gyu-tag at the cultural studies department at Mason Korea. These arguments are the natural outcomes of K-pop’s newfound popularity, caused by people who have just come in contact with K-pop and its culture. The disputes are likely to subside as it finds a set audience in the global music market, Lee says.
“There have always been international fans, but they were mostly Southeast Asian people who share a lot of cultural context with the Korean fans,” he said. “But within the last three years, K-pop has seen a substantial influx of Western fans who do not share the same cultural context with us.
"The fact that we are seeing more of such disparities is because K-pop is in the process of expanding and getting bigger, and everyone joins in with different expectations. These splinters are arising with the growth of K-pop, and it’s likely that when K-pop settles down in the international music market, it will become more universal and fans will change their expectations accordingly.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]