“Call Me” is from UP10TION’s 2016 EP Burst!
I have often viewed increased visibility of K-pop in mainstream American media with ambivalence. On one hand, increased visibility may mean more opportunities for concerts and access to K-pop-related media. On the other hand, it may mean significant changes to K-pop and its fandom that take away the things that drew fans in the first place.
One phenomenon that falls into the latter category is the centrality that awards and breaking records have taken in fandom activity. There is no doubt that winning an award, especially one that doesn’t cater to Korean or Asian music, can be seen as an achievement. But at what cost? I don’t know if this is happening in your fandoms, but I’m seeing a significant increase in requests that border on harassment to vote for this award or that poll or watch a video to increase views. To be sure, some people politely ask. But more often, other fans are implying or directly coming out and saying that you aren’t a ‘real fan’ unless you watch this video on repeat all day or create an account to vote on that website. I know this means a lot to some fans, but it doesn’t mean as much to others….myself included. There are too many ways to be a fan and this shouldn’t be the measure of your identity as a fan.
These awards represent popularity. And yes, it says something if you can mobilize your fandom to achieve that for your group. But it says absolutely nothing about the quality of the music or group talent or whatever got you into the group in the first place. At the end of the day, what does all this activity even mean? Because when you view a video just to increase the views on it, it ceases to be a measure of how much a video is “liked.” It only says X number of people saw it.
This laser focus on popularity also has some negative effects. There is still a large number of non-fans who believe that K-pop artists have no talent at all, so awards for popularity only serves to reinforce that idea. I feel like the time fans now spend on voting used to be spent on reaction videos and blog posts where they talk about how they got into a group, or their favorite song, or even the logic behind their bias choice. These activities show what K-pop means to fans in ways that voting do not.
Both Strong Woman Do Bong Soon and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo place unconventional women in the center of K-drama in ways that do not diminish them for being strong.
Interestingly, both dramas have origins in the childhoods of the main characters, where the female leads disrupt the conventional narrative by being the saviors of the young versions of the male characters. In Weightlifting Fairy, Joon Hyun (Nam Joo Hyuk) falls out of a window at school, only to be caught (or land on?) Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung). Instead of being appalled by her chubbiness, he ends up laughing with Bok Joo. The incident stays with him, right up to the moment when he re-encounters Bok Joo, now a weightlifter, in college. And he has the same response: he is delighted. It’s a memory that he cherishes. Similarly, Min Hyuk (Park Hyung Sik) is saved by a mysterious stranger when the bus he is riding is prevented from swerving off the road. Min Hyuk also encounters his savior, Bong Soon (Park Bo Young), later in life, and also has fond memories of the encounter. It is also interesting to note that both male leads lack a mother figure. Min Hyuk’s mother died and Joon Hyun’s mother abandoned him to his aunt and uncle. The lack of a mother figure may factor into their tendency to accept the female leads in their unconventionality.
Throughout both dramas, the male leads appreciate the women because they are strong. Both develop into the lead couple. Joon Hyun likes the fact that Bok Joo is a weightlifter and that she’s good. He cheers her on at her competitions and takes an interest in her life, meeting her family and friends and understanding her struggles. While Min Hyuk likes to tease Bong Soon, he does not run away once he finds out about her powers. Instead, he is endlessly delighted at the things she can do, and also does all he can to try to teach her to control them (often to his own injury).
These responses differ from the way other men react to the strength of Bok Joo and Bong Soon. Joon Hyun’s impossibly talented cousin, Jae Yi (Lee Jae Yoon), may be a good doctor, but he’s clueless about relationships, ignoring the girl who likes him and not realizing the crush that Bok Joo has on him. More importantly, as a weight loss doctor, he embodies all of Bok Joo’s insecurities and is of absolutely no help when it comes to understanding her plight. He does not understand why she is so upset when he comes to her competition, and has no clue about how she feels about her appearance and the way society views her. He’s no help at all! Gook Doo (Ji Soo) is worse in Strong Woman. While he is equally clueless about her powers as well as her crush on him (even though they grew up together) he only sees her as helpless, and yells at her! Once he finds out about her powers, he does not respond as positively as Min Hyuk.
What I really like about the relationships in both dramas is that the women are strong, but not invincible and the men are also keenly aware of their emotions. Both Bok Joo and Bong Soon need connection to other people, despite their strength. Bok Joo undergoes the trials of being a young woman in a difficult sport for women. She also has zero experience with dating, so she struggles with her relationship with Joon Hyun. At the same time, Joon Hyun has anxiety that holds him back from succeeding in his swimming career. In Strong Woman, Bong Soon has anxiety about using her powers, thinking they will forever separate her from other people. And Min Hyuk is never more vulnerable when he pleads with Bong Soon: “Please love me.” (I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING!).
K-drama is almost always about emotional men, but these dramas show that K-dramas can also complicate the narrative of the strong woman as well.
girlfriday. “Bright and cheery posters for youth sports drama Weightlifting Fairy.” Dramabeans. 3 Nov 2016. http://www.dramabeans.com/2016/11/bright-and-cheery-posters-for-youth-sports-drama-weightlifting-fairy/ (6 Aug 2017).
“Strong Woman Do Bong Soon EP 2 Recap.” Abby in Hallyu-Land.” 27 Feb 2017. https://jediprincess.wordpress.com/tag/strong-woman-do-bong-soon-episode-2-review/ (6 Aug 2017).
Strong Women and the Men Who Love Them: Strong Woman Do Bong Soon and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
“Hey Boy” is from Wonder Girls’ 2012 mini-album Wonder Party.
Image: MsAudreyC. “I is for Idols.” MsAudreyC. 13 Apr 2016. https://msaudreyc.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/i-is-for-idols/ (28 Jul 2017)
“Love Style” is from Boyfriend’s 2012 EP Love Style.
“Tripping” is Hyun Seong’s solo from the Boyfriend’s 2012 album Janus.
Image: Jeff Benjamin. “Boyfriend to Bring K-pop to Middle America for Chicago & Dallas Shows.” billboard. 3 Jan 2014. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/5820050/boyfriend-to-bring-k-pop-to-middle-america-for-chicago-dallas-shows (9 Jun 2017).
Video: KookieCane13. “Shim Hyunseong – 이랬다 저랬다 (Trippin’) [Han & Eng].” YouTube. https://youtu.be/fsESKprKK1I (9 Jun 2017).
“Carnival” is from B.A.P’s 2016 EP Carnival.
Tamar Herman. “B.A.P Brings Party Baby Tour Stateside, Talks ‘Wake Me Up”: ‘We Are Part of the Current Generation.” billboard. 10 May 2017. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/7752638/bap-interview-party-baby-tour-wake-me-up (9 Jun 2017).
MBCkpop. “박정아의 달빛낙원] B.A.P – Carnival, 비에이피 – 카니발 [박정아의 달빛낙원] 20160320.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/CIA2h-dAEO8 (9 Jun 2017).
Unless you have been under a rock, you are surely aware of the win by BTS for Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards. While the win shows the way K-pop fans can mobilize in the moment, the celebration of group anniversaries demonstrates the longevity of K-pop fandom.
Many have pondered what the win means. The BTS win comes in the wake of other instances where K-pop fans mobilize. In 2011, 2NE1 won the Best New Band award at the MTV Iggy Awards as a result of fan votes. In 2013, SNSD garnered the Video of the Year Award for “I Got A Boy.” These wins for BTS, 2NE1 and SNSD reflect the work that fans put in for the groups. It shows what K-pop fans already knew: K-pop fans are a force. Mainstream media outlets marvel at the win. However, some have also questioned the BTS win. Theo Howe argues that the win really reveals a “fetishisation” for Korean artists: “K-pop is a deeply visual genre, and the artists are made to look pretty, but there’s a danger among international K-pop fans that this can create an echo chamber for saying how BTS or Twice are that much more attractive than people of any other ethnicity.” Helen chalks up the win to marketing: “K-pop being recognised by big mainstream Western media sites doesn’t mean it’s somehow ‘made it’, and BTS winning an award at a music awards show that has nothing to do with music isn’t K-pop making it either. It means that mainstream Western sites have figure out that K-Pop is marketable, which of course it is.”
I argue that the win tells us something about K-pop fandom, but only half of the story. On one hand, it demonstrates, once again, that K-pop fans will mobilize for the opportunity to promote a K-pop group to the world. Such events work because for a brief, shining, moment, fans come together to achieve a task recognized by non-K-pop fans. But there are other measures of the global impact of K-pop on fans.
While many were fixated on BTS, Shawols were celebrating the 9th anniversary of SHINee, whose popularity points to the longevity of K-pop. J.K. of soompi chronicled the way fans celebrated the anniversary, including a trending hashtag and Twitter posts. SHINee is not the only K-pop group celebrating multiple years of grouplife. 2PM also celebrates its 9-year anniversary this year, and F.T. Island celebrates its 10th. Shinhwa celebrated its 19th-year anniversary in March and Sechs Kies is currently promoting their 20th year (despite several years of inactivity). Even without the same level of fanfare and public recognition, these fans ensure that their groups can continue to have an audience and make music. This fanwork is more constant.
People have been declaring the death of K-pop for years. K-pop fans are both of the moment and here for the long haul. Even as newer fandoms groups like ARMYs break barriers, older fandoms like Shawols show the lasting power of K-pop.
Adrian. “SHINee To Tour Canada With ‘SHINee World V’ in March 2017.” hellokpop. 9 Mar 2017. http://www.hellokpop.com/event/shinee-tour-canada-march-2017/ (9 Jun 2017).
J.Lim. “BTS Discusses The Secret To Their Global Popularity And Goals for 2017.” soompi 18 Feb 2017. https://www.soompi.com/2017/02/18/bts-discusses-secret-global-popularity-goals-2017/ (9 Jun 2017).
Helen. “Why Do BTS Fans Care So Much About That Billboard Award? Of Course They Won.” Beyond Hallyu. 22 May 2017. http://beyondhallyu.com/k-pop/why-do-bts-fans-care-so-much-about-that-billboard-award-of-course-they-won/ (9 Jun 2017).
Howe, Theo. “What Does BTS;s Billboard Music Award Mean for K-pop? Not Much.” Varsity. 5 June 2017. https://www.varsity.co.uk/music/13129 (9 Jun 2017).
Why The BTS Billboard Win Is Only One Half Of The K-pop Fan Story by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
The best romances are with people who are well-matched and help each other out. In General and I, somebody’s not pulling their weight, and everybody’s losing out.
A good couple in an Asian drama is when individuals are well-matched. In General and I, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung) and Bai Ping Ting (Angelababy) are both clever and observant. Bei Jie is treasured general of the Jin state, valued by his emperor and beloved by his people. He also has a bit of an attitude due to his success on the battlefield, but in time you just let that slide. Bai Ping Ting was originally a maid in the Prince of Jing An’s household in the Yan state, but as one character observes, they never treated her that way. She’s often compared to the famed military strategist Zhuge Liang. Both Bei Jie and Ping Ting are loyal to their respective people.
So when these two get together, you expect them to take the world by storm. But wait! It wouldn’t be a Chinese drama if it were that easy. They face obstacles. Everybody in Jin is giving Ping Ting the side-eye because she’s from Yan. They don’t trust her and wonder how she’s got Bei Jie wrapped around her finger. Bei Jie can never be friends with the Prince of Jing An’s household. The young prince, He Xia (Sun Yi Zhou), is holding the mother of all grudges, which is exacerbated by the fact that he was planning on marrying Ping Ting (although she never looks all that thrilled at the prospect). Bei Jie and Ping Ting are not much different from other couples in Chinese dramas.
Except…they are not contributing equally to the romance. Early on, Bei Jie throws down the gauntlet, defying even the Emperor on numerous occasions for his wife. What I like about Bei Jie is that he’s not shy about it. He tells his army, he tells the Emperor, he tells his nemesis He Xia: Ping Ting is his girl, and it’s his duty to protect her, always. It doesn’t matter what she’s done, what it looks like she’s done, what she might think about doing. That’s his girl. However, Ping Ting apparently did not get this memo. Her actions constantly show that she questions Bei Jie’s devotion to her. She claims that she doesn’t want to cause him trouble, but it’s actually her actions that cause the majority of trouble for Bei Jie by running away, constantly. Yet through it all, Bei Jie is constant. Dude is going above and beyond his duty in his devotion to her. Ping Ting also seems to forget that Chu Bei Jie is no dumb bunny; he can get himself out of predicaments without her help, even ones she accidentally has a hand in.
One of the biggest problems is that Ping Ting tries to change Bei Jie and deny their responsibility to the people. Ping Ting seemed content to run around the country to try to protect He Xia, but once she acknowledges her feelings for Bei Jie, she’s all ready to retire to the country. YOU CAN’T LEAVE! Bei Jie was a general for a reason: he feels a duty to his people. He was a general when Ping Ting met him: that’s who he is. But Ping Ting thinks it’s ok for them to peace out once they get married (formally). She’s no stranger to the battlefield. Heck, that’s where we first see her. Rather than avoiding the obvious, namely, that people as talented as they are should use their talents to help others, Ping Ting wants to live a quiet life and leave the people hanging. And trying to be out of the affairs of state does not work: problems will just come knocking on your door (literally).
But it’s not the actors fault, and here’s where the writing comes into play. Not a stranger to Chinese drama, high episode counts do not faze me. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the coincidences and chance meetings and implausible scenarios. But the writers of General and I tested my patience with an unnecessary and unprecedented separation of the leads that lasts nearly 20 episodes. That was ridiculous! Moreover, the actions of Ping Ting after the separation made no sense. There were lapses in logic that, quite frankly, insulted the viewer. Bei Jie is doing his job as a devoted husband, and Ping Ting is acting like a fool. She’s making unilateral decisions and not even giving Bei Jie a chance to respond to their changing circumstances. For 20 episodes, it’s all about Ping Ting. So when they reunite, it’s kind of a let-down. There’s no discussion about what caused the separation in the first place. They just kinda pick up where they left off, which makes you wonder about the whole separation in the first place.
So why did I stick with General and I? Three words: Chu. Bei. Jie. You know your character is strong to overcome my initial wariness. At first, I thought Bei Jie was arrogant and a bit hands-y. But dude is devoted, not just to Ping Ting, but to his army. He appreciates loyalty and gives it in return, especially to his right-hand man, Mo Ran. He’s truly picking up the slack in this Chinese drama.
It Takes Two To Make A Thing Go Right: Unbalanced Romance in The General and I by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
“그런 날 [Disappear]” is from Niel‘s second solo album, Love Affair (2016). A member of Teen Top, Niel showcases his vocals on this track. Who knew Niel could get down like that?
Source: YJzKP. “NIEL(니엘) – 그런 날(On that day)[LOVE AFFAIR…](MP3).” YouTube. 15 Jan 2017. https://youtu.be/ccAuU783NKI, (21 Jan 2017).
Fan hierarchy, which use criteria to declare some fans “better” than other fans, is not unique to K-pop. Nevertheless, it distorts the realities of fan dynamics in K-pop.
It is no secret that Korean fans feel some type of way about global fans, and vice versa. For example, many global fans are multi-fandom, which means they are fans of multiple K-pop groups. This differs from Korean fans, who tend to support only one K-pop group. harmonicar suggests that domestic fans are justified in their approach to fan activity: “Seeing idols and supporting their group is a normal part of daily life, and as it is, it[sic] many Korean fans feel like international fans don’t “support” their groups as much as domestic fans do; and it only makes matters worse if one is seen jumping group to group during active promotions. With the competition being so cutthroat, it’s understandable that domestic fans feel salty when they see temporary visitors spreading their loyalty so thin, but reaping all the benefits” (soompi).
While it seems that the writer is merely comparing two different approaches to fan activity, the comparison actually implies a fan hierarchy that places domestic fans at the top. Kristina Busse argues that fan hierarchies are in part based on the idea “that one could fail to be a . . . a good-enough representative to the outside” (73-4). This type of hierarchy places emphasis on “their particular modes of engagement” (74). In the domestic vs. global fan comparison, the behavior of global fans is questioned because it does not conform to the behavior of domestic fans. The piece implies that the concerns of domestic fans are valid: Korean fans do more, so they are the better fans AND can dictate proper fan behavior. This suggests a degree of policing motivated by “a clear sense of protecting one’s own sense of fan community and ascribing positive values to it while trying to exclude others” (Busse, 75).
In the case of global fans and domestic fans, the issue of “support” is used in an exclusionary way. harmonicar implies that the kind of support that domestic fans render is “better” than the support of global fans because it is directed towards only one group:
Domestic fans are expected to invest, both with time and money, heavily into their idols. A CD, concert, random festival, or musical announced? Fans buy or attend every single one. A member gets casted for a drama? Fans watch every single episode. A new album, title track, or OST is released? Fans stream nonstop. Your group is actively promoting on music shows? Fans wake up at 4 a.m. and stand in line for hours, just so someone will cheer for their group at recordings. Because of the level of active involvement required to properly [italics mine] support one group, many fans don’t have resources to support more than one; and loyalty towards a single group is valued in fan culture.
I argue that fan support is used to exclude and police in this instance. Who expects fans to “invest, both with time and money?” I offer that it is fans themselves that have this expectations. More and more artists are asking fans to cut back on their material support of groups. JYP Entertainment recently limited fan gifts to “birthday and anniversary banners/ letters/ message books/ documentation of donation/ meals and snacks.” EXO‘s Lay is quoted as saying: “We don’t care if you aren’t able to buy our albums, it’s not something you are forced to do. When you have money to spare, that’s when you can purchase them. Just because you don’t buy our albums doesn’t mean you are not our fan. If you like us, you’re our fan. Spending more money does not mean you love us more.” There are other ways to support a K-pop group.
In actually, K-pop artists actually need both domestic and global fans to be successful. K-pop artists come from Korea, where they make the music. They are expected to do promotions in their own country, which domestic fans support. Global fans love to see their appearances on the music shows too. However, groups are increasingly making fan support available for global fans. For example, Shinhwa recently promised a dance version if views on the MV “Touch” reached over 5 million views on YouTube. Many global fans have access to YouTube and could certainly view the video, as well as appreciate the dance version when made available. One only needs to look at the increased efforts by K-pop groups and solo artists to appeal to and develop fanbases in other countries. Groups are increasingly more international, featuring non-Korean members and having other members know other languages. They are making content available to more platforms accessed by global fans. They are performing in more global locations.
Realistically, K-pop, which is a form of popular music defined by its outreach to global audiences, cannot sustain itself solely by relying on the South Korean market, no matter how much fan support domestic fans give. Implying a fan hierarchy only plays into the stereotype of strife and conflict between K-pop fans and overlooks the realities of K-pop fan culture.
“EXO shared Sebooty Lord’s photo.” Facebook. 7 Jul 2016. https://www.facebook.com/EXOKandM/posts/1339783326036428, (16 Jan 2017).
“JYPE’s New Policy Regarding to Support Items.” 2PMEDIA. http://2pmedia.blogspot.com/2016/03/jypes-new-policy-regarding-to-support.html?m=1, (16 Jan 2017).
Kristina Busse. “Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 10.1 (2013): 73-91. http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/6%20Busse%2010.1.pdf, (16 Jan 2017).
Fan Hierarchy and K-pop by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
“Spider” is from VIXX’s 2015 album Chained Up.
Video: kaiuos. “VIXX (빅스) – Spider (Colour Coded) [Han|Rom|Eng Lyrics].” YouTube. 11 Nov 2015. https://youtu.be/1qBYmiaCgH4, (8 Jan 2016).
I’m not going to lie. When I started General and I, I was not all that enthusiastic about the male lead character, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung). Although I know he’s supposed to be our hero, he starts out doing some HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE things: his interaction with the Prince of Jing An’s family, the way he rolls up on Bai Ping Ting (rude!), and his overall smug attitude. And I know this is petty, but there was way to little warrior hair. He completely lacked the charm of Tuoba Jun in The Princess Weiyoung, which I just finished. However, with just one speech to his army sticking up for his girl, I like him! No matter what she does, he’s committed to her. He doesn’t care what his own king, the king of Yan or pouty Prince He Xia thinks. Plus, he’s got problems of his own in the palace in Jin. I got my eye on you, Bei Jie!