A guide to K-pop and its fandom
Story and photos: Penny Rae Hawkins
Behind every great musical act is an even greater fandom and in the world of fandom hierarchy, K-pop reigns supreme.
K-pop, short for Korean pop, is a genre of music originating in South Korea that has quickly taken over the world. The United States got their first mainstream taste of K-pop with groups such as Girl’s Generation and Psy but it wasn’t until 2017 when BTS was the first Korean group to win the Top Social Artist award that K-pop saw meteoric rise.
There are several reasons Korean pop music has become so popular with Western audiences. K-pop albums themselves are marketed not only by the music, but the extra content that comes with them. While the goodies a K-pop album comes with can differ based on the group, fans are all but guaranteed to receive photo books and random photo cards with every album purchased. More importantly, the genre is defined by bold style, high-quality music videos, energetic music and highly-trained idols performing intricate choreography. This is echoed by long-time fans like Ayshea Ma’at, 25, who got into K-pop around 2008 because of groups like Girl’s Generation and Big Bang.
“The first music video I ever saw was Girl’s Generation ‘Gee,’” Ma’at said. “‘Last Farewell’ [by Big Bang] was the song that did it, and the outfits were insane…that’s when I was like, ‘K-hip hop is it. Thanks, guys.’ And then my style started going off from there.”
She described her commitment to K-pop as “a full-time job,” filled with hours of diligently keeping up with new releases, debuts, and lyric translations. This kind of behavior often gives K-pop fans a reputation of being delusional or obsessive, according to some Reddit threads. But, when K-pop wasn’t at the level of visibility in the West it is today, this level of hard work and dedication was what it took to keep up. This, combined with the way K-pop companies promote their artists, are what makes K-pop fans so particularly passionate, according to Ma’at.
”Companies, for example, advertise the pre-debut process and I think that’s what really gets people in,” she said. “I think that’s the main difference. You’re seeing this artist when they are just struggling trying to make it…”
This commitment to K-pop is how she became a fan of BTS right when they debuted in 2013, when Big Hit Entertainment had just returned from the brink of bankruptcy, with “No More Dream.” While the strong hip hop concept of the song was not uncommon, Ma’at became a fan of the group because they “went out of their way to do the research” on the history and context of the genre.
According to the Youtuber “Internet’s Nathan”, BTS fans also connect with their message of self-love and eschewing societal norms and expectations to be yourself. Watching them rise to such a high level of fame, especially from such humble origins, was more than she could have ever dreamed.
“Honestly, I’m so happy because, before BTS, there were a couple of other groups that I loved that almost were able to do the same thing or came pretty close…but this is a whole new level,” Ma’at said. “I never thought it would be able to be this huge.”
Andrea Rocca, 23, became a member of BTS’s fandom, ARMY, in 2016 after watching their “Blood, Sweat and Tears” music video. Their unique approach to hip hop and the members’ individual personalities were what made her love the group and join ARMY. Unfortunately, no fandom is immune to gatekeeping or bad actors. Harassment from such characters for such egregious crimes as publicly supporting other groups was the beginning of her eventually leaving the fandom.
“There were literal death threats,” Rocca said. “I was getting literal death threats from people…‘Well, you’re not a real ARMY because you like these other groups so you should go die.’ It was very toxic. If I would tweet about another group, they would attack.”
Between toxic fans and a shift in BTS’s towards a more radio-friendly pop sound, she stopped associating herself with ARMY in 2017. That doesn’t mean, however, she has completely abandoned BTS as a group.
“It’s heartwarming for me seeing that they went from being nothing to something,” Rocca said. “They’ve been using their platform and their fame for good, and they haven’t really changed as people.”