Fan Hierarchy and K-pop

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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.

Sources

“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).

https://www.soompi.com/2016/08/11/6-things-no-one-tells-multifandom/

https://www.soompi.com/2015/12/02/why-there-can-only-be-one-multifandom-in-korea/

http://seoulrhythm.com/2014/06/editorial-thoughts-on-being-multifandom-in-korea/

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Fan Hierarchy and K-pop by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Why I Do Kpop Even Though Chuckleheads Keep Giving Me The Side-Eye

Originally published on July 30, 2011 on KPK: Kpop Kollective by CeeFu

 

Hey shorty…It’s me (Kpop)

I gotta tell you something

It’s about us

I’ve been seeing other people

Millions of other people, around the world

I really think this is gonna work out baby

I’m not sorry

–KPK’s Reimagining of Eric’s intro to Shinhwa’s Crazy


“You cannot understand Kpop unless you are Korean.”

Recently, I heard this statement, in more than one place, uttered by more than one person.  Not only is this perception narrow-minded and old-fashioned, it does not reflect the international reality of Kpop.

Let me start by saying one thing: this is not personal. This is not about Koreans. This is about this STATEMENT and IDEA about Korean popular culture. The love is overflowing here at KPK for Koreans, all things Korean and fans of all things Korean. So it’s only out of love that I say this: when people say that you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, my darlings, you are wrong. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I am not Korean (I know, shocking!).

I have heard that you have to be Korean in order to understand Kpop from people who should know better: Korean academics.  So part of this post has some big words and stuff,  but don’t worry: I’m going to break it down!

When Korean academics says you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, it does not mean that you need to know the Korean language to understand Korean lyrics in Korean popular music. It means that there is something basically Korean about Kpop that you cannot understand because you are not Korean. They are saying that it (Kpop) is a Korean thing, and you wouldn’t understand. This is troubling coming from academics because it is essentialist. What is essentialism?  According to the Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies, essentialism:

Refers to the argument that there are fixed truths to be found about identity categories so that there exists an essence of, for example, women, Australians, the working class and Asians. Here words refer to fixed essences and thus identities are regarded as being stable entities. (61)

What this basically means is that when people say that all Asians are this way, or all women are that way, they are thinking that there is something basic about women or Asians that every woman or Asian has that makes them a woman or Asian.  You can only be Asian or a woman if you have these traits, and only these traits. But what if the traits are something that all members of the group do not have? Are they still part of the group? If you don’t have dark hair, does not exclude you from being Asian? (we know Asians have many different hair colors).  If you don’t have children, does this exclude you from being a woman? (we know lots of women who don’t have children). You see how this could become problematic, because essentialism basically lumps everyone together in ways that do not match the reality we see.

Ok, so why is essentialism bad? Christopher Warley answers this question this way:

Essentialism is bad because it is socially oppressive. It blindly stresses one side of a binary opposition (high not low; inside not outside; left not right); it naturalizes and universalizes the interests of a particular group (capitalists, men, The West, whatever) in order to dominate another group (workers, women, The East, whatever).

Ok, so let’s apply this to Kpop.  When people say that you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, they are an example of “inside not outside.” Koreans, because of their “Koreanness”, understand Kpop. If you are not Korean, you do not have this “Koreanness”, so sucks to be you. But remember that people are different, cultures are diverse, so how can there be this universal “Koreanness”? So what about Koreans who don’t know Kpop, or don’t like Kpop, or (gasp) don’t understand Kpop? That undermines the whole “all Koreans have this “Koreanness”/you have to be Korean to understand Kpop” argument.  Do you have to be Chinese to understand kung fu? Black to understand hip hop? Irish to understand Riverdance? You see how silly this gets, right?

So we know that there are millions of fans of Kpop around the world, who don’t speak Korean, who are not Korean, who understand Kpop. Because I think EVERYONE understands THIS:

You do not have to be Korean or know Korean to understand what Junsu is putting down in this video. Everyone understands the body roll.

Even more ironic is that so much of what makes up Hallyu Kpop comes from other cultures, especially American culture, ESPECIALLY African American culture.  For example, let’s look at TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down (yeah, that’s right, ANOTHER TVXQ video, just sit down and watch):

And this, a marching band sequence from the 2002 movie Drumline (sorry about the sound, but this was the best video I could find):

See anything similar? Hear anything similar? I’m not one of those people who are saying that Kpop is imitating African American culture. What I am saying is that a good deal of Hallyu Kpop is a mixture of Korean and African American popular culture.  I NOT mad at that.  So it would follow that in order to understand Kpop, you really need to understand Korean and African American culture.  From what I’ve read from some of my Korean academic counterparts, this is not always the case. I’m not saying that they couldn’t form arguments based on some knowledge of African American culture. I’m saying that they tend not to. :\

Need more evidence?  Who is Yunho’s favorite singer?  Michael Jackson. Who does Onew count as one of his favorite singers? Stevie Wonder.  Who does Eunhyuk, Shindong and Donghae imitate in the Super Show? Beyonce.

And what about Big Mama?

Yes people, that’s some straight up GOSPEL they are putting down for you. My point is, that really to understand Kpop, it seems to me that you need to understand the things that go into Kpop.

I really thought that in this day and age, we all understood that no one owns cultures, that cultures travel, intermingle, make friends. Once your culture decides to go global, you can’t control that. It’s going to do what it do. And,  people who are not OF that culture can STUDY that culture. I really thought that what matters is what you KNOW when it comes to talking about a subject, not who you are. But in the two times I’ve heard the statement, there was no mention made of what others may know, just the assumption that if you are not Korean, you can’t know anything worth knowing. At least call non-Koreans out on whether or not they know all the members of Super Junior, know that Jay Park used to be in 2PM, know that Cheongdung of MBLAQ and Dara of 2NE1 are related, know the debut date of SS501. I don’t care about who you are, I care about what. you. know. And if you can take the time to learn about Kpop, then why can’t you speak about Kpop?

I am not Korean. I know as long as I live I will not know everything there is to know about Kpop.   I will never be able to tell you what Koreans think about Kpop like someone who has spent a large chunk of time in the culture or studying the culture (my research tends to focus on what international audiences think about Kpop). But what should matter is that whatever I say about Kpop has an argument that makes sense and that is well-supported by evidence. I know I know a little something something, and when I speak about my little something something, I’m fairly confident that I know what I’m talking about.  We can discuss it until the cows come home; reasonable people can reasonably disagree. But you just cannot dismiss out of hand people who aren’t Korean, who know their Kpop and like it. Last time I checked, Kpop was equal opportunity.

And this is not to say that ALL Koreans hold this opinion. I know there are lots of Koreans who throw their arms wide open for anyone who is down for Kpop.

So, if you think that only Koreans can “understand” Kpop, then YOU don’t understand Kpop.

Sources:

Chris Barker, The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies.Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004.

Christopher Warley, Patience: Still A Virtue, Arcade