K-pop expert Stephanie Choi explains genre’s global growth

‘K-pop is really about the bond between the idols and the fans,’ Choi says

By Mary Durlak

Release Date: June 9, 2023

Stephanie Choi.

Stephanie Choi

“K-pop fandom is just another source of relationship, a different relationship that is not a surrogate for anything else. ”
Stephanie Choi, postdoctoral associate
University at Buffalo Asia Research Institute

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Stephanie Choi, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the Asia Research Institute at the University at Buffalo, is an expert on K-pop music.

A ethnomusicologist and native of Korea, she can discuss with the news media many aspects of the music, including its unique form affective economy that helps create a deeper, more emotional connection between the consumer (fan) and the product (idol or group).

“K-pop is really about the bond between the idols and the fans,” says Choi, who is writing a book, tentatively titled, “Intimate Capital: Gendered Fandom and Commodified Citizenship in Globalizing K-pop,” and has discussed K-pop with The New Yorker, The Daily Show and other media outlets.

Below, she offers some thoughts on K-pop, and her personal journey to becoming a fan.

The origins of K-pop

Outsiders coined the term K-pop for music that, in South Korea, is called idol music. In 1996, SM Entertainment Group of South Korea created a pop group H.O.T., widely considered to be the first Korean idol group. “An idol group is trained, produced, and managed under a corporate system,” Choi said.

Explosive growth comes from intimacy

Choi believes K-pop’s explosion globally is due to its intimacy and community.

Parasocial relationships – one-sided relationships where one party doesn’t know the other in person – are frequently seen by psychologists as surrogate relationships: a substitute for the lack of a person’s healthy relationship with family or friends. Choi disagrees, saying, “K-pop fandom is just another source of relationship, a different relationship that is not a surrogate for anything else.”

Misperceptions about female fans

The most powerful consumer group in K-pop comprises Korean heterosexual female fans in their 20s and 30s. They manifest their power not only through money, but also in organized and sophisticated protests. “What fascinated me was how the company and idols were willing to accept the fans’ demands,” said Choi.

“Female fans are often considered crazy, hysterical, and irrational,” she said. But in fact, in addition to access, the money spent empowers the fans because a band’s popularity depends on how well the idols can satisfy fans’ demand for a kind of intimacy. That intimacy, Choi argues, is complex: simultaneously personal, commercial, and real.

Yes, the music and lyrics matter

Choi herself is a musician who plays the kayagum, a traditional Korean string instrument. And, yes, she said, despite the importance of the idols, the music itself matters very much. When fans support a group, it’s because they love the music that group creates.

Most K-pop tends to have an upbeat sound, but the lyrics may tackle topics including youth resistance and social awareness, Choi said. Girl groups sing about love, but popular themes also include feminism and misogyny, often presented with a happy melody.

What led to Choi to become a K-pop fan

Like all relationships – and Choi argues that what exists between K-pop fans and performers is a relationship – it took a moment of special connection. That moment happened when Choi was watching a group called EXO on social media, and one dancer, Kai, caught her eye. Excellent choreography is crucial in K-pop, but even so, said Choi, “Kai stood out.”

Through Kai, Choi entered the world of K-pop fandom. “In ethnomusicology—any kind of anthropology, really – you have to go to that culture and experience it,” she said.

Balance between fandom and scholarship

Choi grappled to find the balance between fandom and scholarship, and she concluded that it’s false to believe that a fan can’t be objective. “It’s the opposite,” she said. An idol’s job is to maintain the fantasy of being available as a romantic partner – and it’s the fans who decide how well the idol is doing his job.

The irony here, Choi suggests, is that the true fan understands that this intimate relationship is commercial. If the idol’s job is to maintain a fantasy, it’s the fan’s responsibility to avoid delusion. “If you think an idol who says ‘I love you’ to the camera is talking to you as an individual rather than as a fan, you’re not a true fan,” she said. 

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