To the uninitiated, K-pop fans may seem like any others in history — loyal, uninhibited and as passionate as former generations who adored, say, The Beatles, One Direction or the Backstreet Boys.
Except they’re not.
Those who’ve been familiar with how K-pop fandom works know that they are an unprecedented force to reckon with, especially in this digital age. This year alone, they’ve made their presence felt regarding such social issues as Black Lives Matter and the US elections. In the past, they’ve exerted pressure on the Korean music industry to treat talent better.
In short, they are a diverse and enormous group, made up largely of young people, and they get things done because they are quick to organise and mobilise. And they take no prisoners.
One might even call them an emerging global political force.
It’s not just fandom, there’s actually an A.R.M.Y.
One thing to note is that each pop group’s fans have a name. With BTS being the most famous K-pop group, its fans or “stans”, called the A.R.M.Y., may be the biggest, loudest, baddest of all.
“The band’s fiercely loyal fans are probably as famous as BTS themselves. Coined by BTS themselves, the acronym stands for ‘Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth’. The meaning of a military army is also implied here, tying in with the concept of BTS as a bulletproof armour. Put together, the boys hope for their fans to be able fight and stand up for themselves together, with BTS always protecting them in their pursuit,” said one BTS explainer.
In June this year, shortly after the death of African-American George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, BTS donated a cool US$1 million to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Within a day, the BTS A.R.M.Y., galvanised by the Twitter hashtag #MatchAMillion, matched and even surpassed this amount, raising US$1.3 million (S$1.77 million) that ended up divided among a dozen groups.
And it’s not only BTS fans that have been fired up to support BLM. Fans of what may arguably be the biggest girl K-pop band today, Blackpink, banded together on social media to intentionally not post too much about the group’s collaboration with pop icon Lady Gaga so as not to eclipse the necessary online conversations after Mr Floyd’s death.
K-Pop fans, 2; Donald Trump, 0, Dallas Police Department, 0
Later in June, K-pop fans made even bigger headlines when they organised a campaign to register for thousands of tickets to a rally for US President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for which they simply did not show up.
The number of tickets reserved in advance had organisers rejoicing days before the event that Mr Trump would speak to a crowded audience, only to find two-thirds of the venue’s 19,000 seats unoccupied due to the behind-the-scenes activities of K-pop fans.
Also in June, K-pop fans flooded an app from the Dallas Police Department designed to be a platform where people could upload videos of “illegal” activities from the widespread protests stemming from Mr Floyd’s death. The fans uploaded instead videos of their favourite artistes, which made the app impossible to use.
i got a video for you pic.twitter.com/VVDkRRmsfO
— in my gay little flop era (@belispeek) May 31, 2020
At around the same time, when white supremacists tried to fight the growing BLM Movement on Twitter using hashtags such as #WhiteoutWednesday and #whitelivesmatter, K-pop fans inundated the Twitterverse to bring BLM back to the fore.
Who are these K-pop fans anyway?
Long gone are the days when K-pop fans were only citizens of South Korea, as the fandom truly went global sometime ago.
Some US media outlets were apparently unaware of this, unwittingly attributing fans in South Korea for reserving the tickets for the Trump rally. They were wrong, it was K-pop fans in America who were largely behind that incident, as well as support for BLM, joined by fans from all over the world.
A look at the roots of K-pop’s fanbase gives a clue to who they are.
“Since the early 2000s when K-pop arrived in the US largely through young Korean-American immigrants, the music spread to other immigrant and POC (people of colour) communities who were marginalised from mainstream entertainment and sought refuge in Korean pop culture. Today, the K-pop fandom in the US is not very Korean, and not that young either. By most accounts, these K-pop fans are commonly in their 20s and 30s or older, and exist across a broad racial spectrum that includes a big following of black fans,” a piece in Vulture explains.
Moreover, “many first time K-pop fans … developed a personal connection to BTS through their ‘love yourself’ message and series of albums, an element to their universal-yet-individual appeal that’s resonated particularly strongly within America’s marginalised communities. We’re seeing in real time that this kind of renewed sense of empowerment through K-pop pushes fans to be more expressive in every aspect of their lives — politics included.”
Ms Hye Jin Lee, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg, is quoted as saying: “There’s a great overlap between the demographic of the BLM Movement and American K-pop fandom. Both are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, even though mostly young. They are more open to cultural differences and have progressive values.”
“The current political mobilisation of K-pop fans can be seen as an extension of their fight against orientalism, racism, sexism and homophobia to make K-pop acceptable and popular in the US,” she added. /TISG