Korean popular music, otherwise known as “K-pop,” has been making waves since the early 2010s and is on the verge of breaching American popular culture. But with great popularity, comes a fair share of criticism, especially toward the general fandom of K-pop. Jungwon Kim, an ethnomusicology Ph.D. candidate, has identified herself as a key individual to write about the stigmatization of fans of K-pop. With her intricate knowledge of the inner-workings of fan culture for K-pop, Kim seeks to challenge the general public to learn more about the music genre before they attack the respective fans. In order to showcase her research, Kim developed a slideshow of videos and information to ease the audience into the contents of her dissertation.
Kim began her presentation with a PowerPoint that served as an overview of her dissertation on K-pop. The key argument, as carved out by Kim, states that K-pop is a “culturally, socially and politically inclusive phenomenon (that is) developing sociocultural power in Korean society.” This topic was purely motivated from a perspective of defense after witnessing some of the biased mechanisms utilized by mass media to portray the K-pop fandom from targeting younger demographics and preying on their fanaticism, to belittling the sonic aspects of K-pop. But before established acts like rising boyband BTS were being invited to the AMA stage to break into Western popular culture, K-pop had more humble beginnings.
Modern K-pop dates back to the early 1990s. During this period “Idol bands,” which consisted of girl and boy bands, permeated Korean popular culture and borrowed from elements of American popular music like “New Jack Swing” and house music. These boy and girl groups were crucial in pulling a teenage demographic and breaking the cultural barrier that long separated Asian music from existing genres.
Kim got inspiration for much of her research in an era of K-pop where reality television shows became a powerful mechanism in garnering attention for the genre. Shows like “Produce 101,” nationally syndicated in Korea on Mnet, were singing competitions that allowed viewers to serve as judges and vote for whichever act continued on. This helped propelled K-pop into the mainstream culture of Korea, and established certain fandoms that would later become fans of the larger culture. This new digital era of television tried to capture the attention of teens and families in order to build a solid consumer base for these K-pop stars to thrive.
Fans become more invested in their favorite artist’s journeys because they were able to see them claw their way through competition, week after week. It’s reminiscent to the impact “The X Factor” had on One Direction. When you allow your fans to develop in tandem with your artistry and experience, a special bond between performers and their fans take form. This explains the vast dedication many K-pop fans have with their favorite bands. This serves as a reminder that both America and Korea ushered in new ways of culture by tapping into the reality television market in the 2000s and 2010s.
Even though the popularity of K-pop was surging, Kim still found it difficult to fully embrace her inner fan. “I had to hide my love of K-pop,” remarked Kim as she began to talk about the ensuing media fallout. According to her, it was impossible to unabashedly enjoy the genre in public because people were quick to dub K-pop as a fad for teens.
Popular media has been shown to focus on the younger generation of K-pop fans in order to paint a picture of the entire fandom. By showing images where little girls are bombarding malls and shouting for their favorite singers, the general consensus among non-fans skewed negatively. And as someone that was on the older side of the spectrum, Kim thought this targeting was unfair. In an attempt to illuminate some of the K-pop fandoms mature moments, she wrote extensively about a protest movement that saw K-pop fans leading the charge. This particular protest took place on January 9, 2017 and saw fans of all ages circling a park and chanting lyrics from Girl Generation in efforts to bring about the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye. This particular event shows that K-pop has the ability to bring together individuals of all age and class together to protest their rights.
Kim also enlightened the room on many female fans of K-pop banding together to form their own sect of feminism. According to Kim, this allows disenfranchised female fans to “apply intersectionality to their interests in music.” Although K-pop is a genre that sees men and women flourish, there’s still male voyeurism that takes place in male videos. BTS has been accused of using women as objects of sexual desire in their videos and have been met with criticism by K-pop feminists. Ultimately, their role as feminists is to critique suggestive imagery that dismantles all of the political and cultural strides Korean women have made. By spreading awareness on the content that gets serviced to mainstream culture, they’re able to gain a tighter grip on how the media portrays their section of the fandom.
K-pop’s biggest hurdle is the culturally barriers that need to be torn down in order for it to be fully embraced in American culture. The genre’s only fault is sporting such unique sounds and styles that may seem polarizing to people that aren’t indigenous to Korea. But, K-pop’s popularity exponentially increases every year and steadily inches towards a breakthrough in the American consciousness. But until some of these misconceptions are dispelled, people like Kim exist to remind people that it’s okay to embrace genres that are vastly different than the ones people are accustomed to. There’s a place in the music-sphere for every genre to flourish. And that’s precisely what K-pop is in the process of doing.