How K-popped my cherry

The unthinkable has happened. Korea has turned me into…a fangirl. Yes, a fangirl.

Not even in my prepubescent prime did I succumb to such levels of fandom. Sure, I grew up loving N’SYNC and Backstreet Boys, but I didn’t know their birthdays, wait in anticipation for their next song to be released, or scream at their concerts. And while I’m a sucker for dancy pop songs, I never really sustained interest with the world of celebrity. I had never come close to fandom- until K-pop came along. 

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The group:

It started almost as investigative reporting. I’d heard tales of K-pop- the obsession, the wild fan world, the rivalries- so I figured I’d go into the belly of the beast and see what I could uncover. Fortunately my program placement led me to Pohang where my new family consisted of a Kiwi and a Brit equipped with their own heavy arsenal of K-pop intel. The induction was quick. First I needed to choose a group. I’d heard legend of Big Bang from friends who had formerly worked in South Korea, but they were apparently old news. I knew nothing. I then recalled names I’d learned through my students, EXO, Infinite, Got7, B.A.P. and BTS. Redeeming myself with my new family, we started with the best of the best. As I watched music video after video, I got lost in a sea of pyrotechnics, beautiful production quality, neons, complimentary patterns, ever-changing hair colors, and so, much, energetic dancing over wildly catchy beats. Overwhelmed I looked to the Brit for backup and she happily introduced me to BTS.

The concert:

Overly eager, I dove into the underbelly too early. I was still new to this world and when the Brit and Kiwi proposed a concert, I jumped at the opportunity for an introduction to this realm. My eyes widened as we approached the stadium exterior amidst throngs of fans decked out in their appropriate fan colors and band merchandise. I passed stands filled with stacks of pillowcases, t-shirts, bags, and other purchasables all plastered with idol’s faces. The Brit and I adorned ourselves with pink neon BTS crowns and took our seats, to our dismay, amidst throngs of other fans. Fortunately they were older fans there for a reunion tour and didn’t seem to mind our pink in their sea of yellow. We would not have been so lucky had we been amidst rivals.

Feeling like a spectator at a colorful aquarium, I watched the crowds swell with energy as the first act took the stage. When the sea of yellow around us came alive, I couldn’t help but laugh as they pumped their glowing wands in unison. What freaky cult was I witnessing? The screams were deafening and I wondered if I’d ever shown that much enthusiasm for something. Then PSY came out. Suddenly I too joined the ranks of screaming fans, dancing to Gangnam style like a giddy convert. By the time BTS illuminated the stage with fire (both their song and actual flames), I was beside myself. I was no longer a mere spectator. I was excited. Captivated. Possessed by the flashing lights, the neon patterns, their voices, and those perfectly timed dance moves. As we left the stadium I found myself asking my mentors, “What is life after K-pop?”

The bias:

The next step was choosing a bias, or rather letting him choose me. The bias is your favorite member of the group. Once you have chosen, or rather once they have chosen you, there is no turning back. You are theirs and they are yours. You will fight your friends if they try to encroach on your territory, and you will feel guilty if other members of the band make you doubt your choice. But you will never stray. Pictures, memes, and silly videos of your bias will always make your day in a weird teenage-heart-melting kind of way. There are those who take their bias passion too far, entering obsessive stalker territory, referred to as sasaeng fans (but that’s another post).

The concert had hooked me and now it was my turn to make the choice. I did not understand the full power of the bias as I looked between fast cuts of wild dancers. In every video their hair turned a new color and their style changed. The camera lingered mere seconds on their faces as one member after another wowed the audience with their moves or sultry stares. How could I possibly choose? The Brit eyed me with silent expectation, her eyes almost whispering, “Don’t you fuck this up.” I had two allies and a 5 in 7 chance to properly make my selection. “That one?” I said pointing at a lanky rapper who captivated me with his goofy smile and general badassery. The Brit sighed in relief and immediately texted the all clear to the Kiwi, “She’s chosen J-Hope”. Celebrations could commence.

The comeback:

I was fortunate enough to have my introduction coincide with the release of a new song and later a new album, which they refer to as a comeback. Unlike in the U.S., a comeback does not mean they were on hiatus. Rather, it is a process for announcing a new song/album, involving another hair change, teaser pictures and short trailers, and finally the release of the video. Promotions usually last for a month as the artists perform on various shows- that is if they pass the channel screenings. Rival fandoms will go so far as to hack accounts so that a comeback won’t top the charts or break record views with their initial release. There was so much to learn. 

When BTS released their comeback of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, I was once again captivated by the amazing production quality, the rich colors, and powerful dance moves. I even had a bias to focus on and root for. True, I was not aware of the midnight release, nor did I know every member’s name or understand the imagery and theories linked to past videos. I was still fairly fresh on the scene. The Kiwi berated me for being so ill-informed this late in the game, while the Brit took on the challenge in stubborn determination. They saw to it that I was updated, filling my mind with facts, sending me an array of images, and drilling me on each band member’s name and role as I chronologically watched music videos.

By the time of BTS’ next comeback, Not Today, I was pumped. I found myself blasting their song as if it were my anthem, smiling as I visualized the music video shot for shot. I threatened to cut the Brit if she encroached on my J-Hope territory again, and took online quizzes to see who my personality matched.

I was in too deep.

I had activated an inner fangirl I never knew could exist. And while I will always hold a place in my heart for K-pop, ultimately this wasn’t me. True, it is a world filled with immense talent, creative skill, and incredibly catchy music. J-Hope will always be my first and only bias. And I will forever be grateful for the Brit and Kiwi’s guidance on this journey. But the more I learned about K-pop, the more I realized that there is a price that comes with this cheery musical realm. There is a dark side to K-pop and I had to get out while I still could.

More to come…

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But for now I’ll leave you with some of my fangirl favorites: Fire and Not Today

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