K-Pop Cult Fandoms
Words: Navira Trimansyah | Art: John Scarpias, @bjorksdaddy
My mother has always been an avid fan of Westlife. It was therefore inevitable that I, too, would have an extreme obsession with boy bands. I can match certain periods of my life to an array of boy bands; from the Jonas Brothers to Big Time Rush, and even Blue. Eventually I joined a K-Pop fandom.
Being a part of this fandom has been an expensive journey, in terms of both money and time. The dedication it takes to be fully committed to my favourite idols is intense. As a naive 12-year-old, I was ready and willing to embrace everything the online K-Pop fandom had to offer; and in a way, being a part of the K-Pop fandom is like submitting to a system synonymous to a cult.
The term ‘idol’
K-Pop groups and members are commonly referred to as ‘idols’. This term already connotes ideas of worship and dedication, evident through the fans’ behaviour. K-Pop fans tend to invest heavily in their idols in order to feel like they have an exclusive relationship with them. This exclusivity is a notion created by the entertainment agencies from the very beginning. When a group is newly debuted, there are certain aspects of the fandom that need to be addressed; for the group and their fanbase to be established. This include the official fan colours, the fandom’s name, and fanchants. The colours are used to represent the group through official merchandise such as light-sticks and balloons. For example, Infinite’s official colour is ‘metal gold pearl’ and Seventeen’s is ‘serenity and rose quartz’. The fandom name is also crucial, as it allows the idols to address their fans with a sense of personal connection. Finally, the fanchant — something unique to K-Pop — is when the idols sing their song on stage, and the fans yell either certain sections of the song, or list the idols’ names to the beat. It’s difficult to explain, but if you search “K-Pop fanchants” you’ll find an array of fascinating examples.
The need to obsess over one group and one group only is another requirement of idol-worshipping. If a fan admits to being a fan of another group, it’s seen as a betrayal to their own fanbase and idols. There have been instances of severe cyberbullying because of this, with many ‘loyal’ fans feeling a sense of duty and responsibility towards their idols and taking the matter personally. There have also been numerous scenarios in which fandoms fight with one another, and choose to take out their anger on the opposing idols themselves. One interesting way of doing this is by taking part in ‘the black ocean’ — when fans boycott a particular group at multi-artist concerts by turning their light-sticks off and sitting silently, making the artist perform to what seems like an empty audience. The most famous incident was when Girls’ Generation were performing at Dream Concert, and member of every other fandom boycotted their performance. Why? Because Girls’ Generation fans had been fighting with other fandoms prior to the concert. Being ignored like this is humiliating for idols, as they experience the hate physically, and on a larger scale, rather than the virtual hate they are used to.
There is a clear hierarchy in the entertainment industry. Like that of a cult, the primary goal for an entertainment company is to make as much money as possible. CEOs are charismatic leaders with complete control over who gets to debut and the image needed to market these groups to obsessive fans. The company board members and investors create strategies to make idols more appealing, while idols are the faces of the company, existing to bring in money. This is not to say that idols are completely restricted creatively, but any endeavours generally require the approval of board members and CEOs — whose primary goal is to earn as much revenue as possible. Idols are made responsible for ensuring their fans have been influenced and charmed enough to invest their trust, loyalty, and money.
Being a K-Pop fan is expensive. Being obsessed and dedicated means going broke for the rest of your life. Entertainment companies are ruthlessly willing and able to find so many ways to exploit fans and dig money out them, especially the younger ones. There are the usual official merchandise — t-shirts and caps, but more ridiculous items like umbrellas, card holders, thermos cups, face masks, and even those flimsy plastic shopping bags you get at the supermarket. The only difference: the official colour and name of the K-pop group is marked and printed on. And, just like that, they can easily sell for over 10 times the usual price. There are also ‘official fanclubs’, where fans pay around $100 a year to be certified as an ‘official member’ of the fandom. They can gain exclusive gifts, merchandise, and even access to their idols. These memberships tend to also be limited every year, creating a competitive urge to join them. While I’ve never really taken part in buying these things, I am guilty of buying one thing: albums. K-Pop albums are ridiculously expensive because their packaging is always top quality. They come in all shapes and sizes with an extensive, high-quality photobook that contains both photos of the group and ‘photocards’. These ‘photocards’ are like baseball cards, where cards can be traded between fans or sold for a large sum of money, depending on the rarity. The most annoying thing about K-Pop albums is that they also sell more than one version of the same album. I try to avoid buying all the different versions, but often I do anyway because they all have different ‘concepts’. These constitute only one-tenth of everything else fans buy to show their love for their idols. I’ve read stories in which younger fans have threatened to run away from home, or not attend school simply because their parents wouldn’t let them buy merchandise or attend a concert. It’s an obsession that threatens both their well-being and wallets.
Image and illusion
Entertainment companies always work hard to create and maintain the illusion that idols are the ‘perfect’ boyfriend/girlfriend to their fans, and thus perfection must be upheld. Idols almost always attribute their fans as the only reason they continue to put in the hard work and pursue their love of music; completely hyperbolising their dependability on their fans. Different members often have ‘roles’ to fill, so their group as a whole will appeal to the largest possible demographic. These roles include: the charismatic leader, the naive one, the smart one, the pretty one, the cute one, the mysterious one, etc. Again, this is a successful marketing strategy that furthers their success and makes fans feel as though they have a special relationship with their idols. However, this need to keep up an illusion is damaging for the idols themselves, and entertainment agencies often ban them from dating, or force them to keep relationships secret, in case it shatters the fans’ boyfriend/girlfriend illusion. If idols are discovered to be dating, it is highly likely their fans would disapprove, and even leave the fandom — making entertainment companies lose a lot of potential investors.
What one says is always right
As the K-Pop fandom is largely based online, whatever their idols say or do is closely monitored by internet citizens — ‘netizens’. Online hate comments are so common and severe, to the extent that entertainment companies sometimes locate these trolls and sue them for online harassment and abuse. The internet also allows fans to follow everything their idols do, both online and in real life; the regular places they visit, their daily routines, and their social activities. Their stalker-like behaviour is frowned upon, but it also does not come as a surprise. Fans tend to closely monitor their idol’s activity on social media, to the detriment of idols and fans alike, as whatever is posted online is misconstrued as truth. One example is an Instagram post by GOT7’s Jackson, who uploaded an image of himself donning dreadlocks for a Pepsi ad. International fans were quick to criticise his offensive cultural appropriation and tried to educate him. In response, he uploaded another post unapologetically defending his actions, and called those who accused him of cultural appropriation “haters”. This brought more backlash and further outrage from international fans, to which he then uploaded a final post to apologise, saying that he was simply “too in love with the culture”. From this, Korean fans started turning against international fans, defending what Jackson did and saying people were just “overreacting haters doing everything they could to bring GOT7 down”. As someone who grew up in the US and can thus better identify with international fans, Jackson should have known more about cultural appropriation outside of monocultural South Korea. His actions are only one of many that contribute to the normalisation of racist content such as blackface in mainstream South Korean media and, more recently, the appropriation of Islamic culture in the K-Drama, Man Who Dies to Live.