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UB expert explains K-pop phenomenon

Fans make heart signs with their hands at a music concert.


Published June 9, 2023

Stephanie Choi.
“K-pop is really about the bond between the idols and the fans. ”
Stephanie Choi, postdoctoral associate
Asia Research Institute

It wasn’t until she discovered K-pop idol Kai that Stephanie Choi, a postdoctoral associate in UB’s Asia Research Institute, became a “true fan” of K-pop music.

“Isn’t K-pop for teenagers?” she wondered about 10 years ago when her fellow graduate students at Wesleyan University raved about their favorite K-pop bands. Choi had enjoyed K-pop as an undergrad in South Korea, but her master’s program was focused on traditional Korean music. Her friends’ enthusiasm made her revisit K-pop, this time as an ethnomusicologist.

Outsiders coined the term K-pop for music that, in South Korea, is called idol music.

“It is performer-centered, not music-centered,” says Choi, who will teach a class (AS 395) this fall at UB called “K-pop and its global reach.” “K-pop is really about the bond between the idols and the fans.”

Choi had tried to become a fan, but finally, she says, “It doesn’t happen that way.” 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 caught her eye. Excellent choreography is crucial in K-pop, but even so, says 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 explains.

As she explored K-pop through photos, posts, and fancams — high-quality videos produced by fans — across social media, Choi delved into the dynamics of fandom. Through fan club membership, album purchases and concert tickets, fans pay for access to the idols. “Female fans are often considered crazy, hysterical and irrational,” she says. But in fact, in addition to access, the money spent empowers 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.

Packaging the personal

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 says. The corporation develops the band’s concept, including the music genre it will perform — rock, hip-hop, electropop, rap. The more members, the greater the possibility for popularity and publicity. A group can have more than one idol who may be a singer, a rapper, or a dancer like Kai. Because K-pop is visual as much as musical — watching Kai perform the song “Peaches” is a very different experience from merely listening to it — a dancer can rise to idol status. Given enough success, and the savvy to navigate the corporate system, idols can gain greater agency over their careers.

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 says. 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 says. Fans who cross this line are considered “sasaeng,” a label with near-criminal overtones of grabbing, stalking and intrusion.

Fans flex power via money, protests

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. Fans may rent a truck and circle a corporate headquarters to protest an idol’s perceived misbehavior. Fans are also adept at influencing corporations through social media. “What fascinated me was how the company and idols were willing to accept the fans’ demands,” Choi says.

Choi herself is a musician who plays the kayagum, a traditional Korean string instrument. And, despite the importance of the idols, the music itself matters very much, she says. 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 says. Girl groups sing about love, but popular themes also include feminism and misogyny, often presented with a happy melody. Fans of girl groups are demographically similar to fans of boy bands, but the relationship between performers and fans differs.

None of this explains the international popularity of K-pop, which Choi has discussed in media outlets including The New Yorker and The Daily Show. Music, idols and choreography are obvious components of the product, but Choi believes K-pop’s explosion globally is due to its intimacy and community.

Can you really consider it intimacy if a relationship is, at its core, a commercial transaction? What relationship, Choi counters, is not influenced by commercialism, especially under capitalism? She suggests that one function of what she calls the “commodification of intimacy” may, in fact, help to sustain the fan/idol relationship because it balances the relationship by empowering the fans.

Parasocial bonds can lead to community

Is it really a relationship if the parties never meet? As human interactions increasingly occur through digital screens, the question becomes complicated. “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.” Further, the intimacy is just one part of what really makes K-pop so popular around the world.

Community develops among the fans; they may work together to protest or to promote a chosen group’s popularity, Choi explains. Community between the idols and the fans strengthens when idols respond with gratitude for fans’ support. Community is also strengthened beyond the performance/audience pattern as both parties connect through social media. Idols sometimes present themselves as role models, offering advice about behavior, goals, and work. “The message is always ‘Let’s work hard, let’s love each other, let’s make a better society,’” Choi says. For example, in early May, Kai began the mandatory military service required in South Korea. “He talked to his fans about how he’s worked hard so far,” Choi says, “and he said he will work hard in his new position, too. He told fans, ‘Let’s meet in a better place in two years.’”

No relationship is perfect, and Choi recognizes disillusion and dissatisfaction among fans and idols alike. Perhaps that imperfection, and the resilience that helps to reestablish the bonds of intimacy and community, contribute to what may indeed be a powerful effort to maintain humanity in an increasingly digitized and commercial world.