k-pop

U.S. Politics Should’ve Seen K-Pop Stans Coming

Even at a time when its idols are dominating the charts, K-pop still may be the biggest U.S. pop-culture trend that is least understood. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

K-pop is finally colliding with U.S. politics. In recent weeks, as tensions have risen dramatically in the States, K-pop fandoms are making headlines with their activism, disabling attempted government surveillance on Black Lives Matter protests by flooding them with fancams, jamming white supremacists’ communication by hijacking their hashtags, and even derailing a Donald Trump rally by intentionally misleading Trump’s campaign staff into thinking a throng of supporters waited for them in Tulsa, Oklahoma, only to be greeted by a small crowd that barely filled one-third of an arena.

Politicians and media on both sides of the aisle are bewildered and confused by the K-pop revolution. Conservatives are clueless: A Fox News segment referred to “fans of the group ‘K-pop’” who ruined Trump’s rally. (It does not appear that Fox News was referring to the short-lived boy band “K-POP,” which managed to release three studio albums in the early 2000s.) DeAnna Lorraine, a former Republican candidate for Congress in California, accused Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of “foreign collusion” for thanking K-pop fans, claiming Ocasio-Cortez was “openly admitting that she solicited help from North Korean & South Korean internet trolls to sabotage President Trump’s rally.” Liberal media doesn’t fare much better — a Washington Post article explaining K-pop fandom’s political activism led with a picture of K-pop fans in Seoul, belying their unawareness of the fact that K-pop fans in the U.S. are the ones driving this moment.

Even at a time when BTS can crank out three albums that topped the Billboard chart in a calendar year — the first act since the Beatles to do so —K-pop still may be the biggest U.S. pop-culture trend that is least understood. So let’s start with the basics: “K-pop” refers to Korean pop music. Although Korean pop music encompasses many genres and styles, one particular segment of K-pop — “idol” music — is the most publicized presence internationally and in the United States. K-pop idols are recruited at a relatively young age by production companies like SM Entertainment, who put the would-be artists through rigorous training and groom them for stardom. Seo Taiji and Boys, a hip-hop trio who debuted in 1992, is generally considered the fountainhead of contemporary K-pop, although it wasn’t until the early 2000s that K-pop began making waves outside of Korea. K-pop’s first international foray was into nearby Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Taiwan; BoA was one K-pop idol who topped the charts in both Japan and South Korea. Middle Easterners, who were also fans of other Korean pop-culture products like TV dramas, soon followed suit. The immigrant communities from Asia and the Middle East in North America and Europe then served as the beachhead for K-pop’s spread to the Western mainstream.

But why is it specifically K-pop fandom that’s having an impact on politics now, and not, say, fans of Justin Bieber or Star Trek? The path of K-pop’s international development offers a clue. A common misconception about K-pop fandom in the U.S. is that it is largely made up of teenage Korean-Americans — an image that is outdated by about two decades. Since the early 2000s when K-pop arrived in the U.S. largely through young Korean-American immigrants, the music spread to other immigrant and POC communities who were marginalized from mainstream entertainment and sought refuge in Korean pop culture. Today, the K-pop fandom in the U.S. 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.

K-pop’s message is another factor. To be sure, the current political moment is not driven by K-pop artists themselves, but the K-pop fandom — BTS’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter is an exception rather than a rule, as K-pop stars almost never comment on an active political controversy. In fact, they try to avoid even an appearance of political commitment for fear of a backlash. Look at the uproar over Tzuyu, a Taiwanese member of the group Twice: In 2015, for the supposed crime of holding a small Taiwanese flag on TV, Twice and its production company JYP Entertainment faced a massive wave of negative publicity in China, to the point that JYPE and Tzuyu issued multiple apologies. But that does not mean K-pop idols are entirely disconnected from their fans’ activism. Since inception, contemporary K-pop has emphasized empowerment, self-confidence, and social consciousness. Seo Taiji’s group became a sensation in the early 1990s as it became the standard-bearer of the “New Generation” [신세대], South Korea’s analogue to Generation X. To the generation seeking its own identity, Seo Taiji and Boys promoted individuality and conscientiousness for social issues like Korea’s reunification and school violence. Since then, self-confidence and social consciousness have been a running theme in K-pop’s artistry. Many first time K-pop fans, for example, 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 marginalized 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.

The symbiotic relationship between K-pop stars and their fans also makes the fandom’s transition to politics easier. Being a fan of a K-pop idol group is a more involved experience than, say, being a fan of Taylor Swift. In some ways, the experience is more like being a fan of college football. Each K-pop idol group comes with a prepackaged set of markers for its fandom: nicknames for supporters (BTS has its ARMY, Blackpink has Blink), colors (NCT’s color is “pearl neo-Champagne”), chants, and slogans. Each fandom also asks its members to take coordinated action to support its stars, like mass-calling radio stations for song requests or streaming their idol’s music at a certain time, all to help the star’s chart position. To burnish the star’s image, the fan clubs organize donation drives and volunteer services under the idol group’s name. Importantly, all of these activities are organized without meaningful leadership or hierarchy; instead, they are carried out horizontally through real-time online communication on social networks. The net result is an unusually participatory pop culture experience. A K-pop fandom does not like their stars only because of the stars’ music or looks or choreography, although they are often necessary conditions. By dedicating time and effort to support their idols, the most committed K-pop fans cultivate a sense of camaraderie with their stars and, demonstrably more powerful, with one another. As a collective, the fandom becomes an active participant in the idol’s journey to stardom, and the idol’s success becomes the fans’ own success. This experience of organization and participation neatly maps onto political activities. For a K-pop fandom that is accustomed to making its idol’s name trend globally on Twitter in a matter of hours, hijacking a white supremacist hashtag is a walk in the park.

Indeed, in U.S politics, we are only seeing the beginning of K-pop’s potential as a political force and disruptor. So far, K-pop fandom’s energy has centered around Black Lives Matter. But what if that energy was channeled not to a cause or a movement, but to a person? In South Korea, where K-pop-ization of politics has progressed farther along, this arguably happened with its current president Moon Jae-in. Moon’s constituency displays dynamics strikingly similar to a K-pop fandom. Moon fans gave themselves a nickname: alternately Moonpa (colloquially “the Moon family”) or the Honey Badgers (because they “don’t care, don’t give a shit”). Moon fans are more often women in their 20s to 40s, who scream and shout at the president’s public appearances like they would for a K-pop idol. But, crucially, like a K-pop fandom, the Honey Badgers organize in droves to protest, donate, coordinate voting drives, reward favorable media coverage, and dominate social network buzz — and, similarly, all done without discernible leadership or hierarchy. This effort was a major factor in carrying Moon Jae-in to presidency, and maintaining his approval rating higher than any of his predecessors into the fourth and penultimate year of his term.

To the uninitiated, this may seem silly, or worse, a cult of personality. South Korea’s conservatives — as clueless as U.S. conservatives — could not understand how Moon could mobilize such massive action, and suspected large-scale bribery or North Korean interference. (A popular conspiracy theory claims Moon Jae-in has a secret stash of 200 metric tons of gold, greater than the gold holdings of all but 20 countries in the world.) But like K-pop fans, Moon Jae-in’s supporters are not supporting the president because of his good looks. Much more important is the narrative of Moon’s growth as a politician: a son of North Korean refugees who grew up to be a democracy activist and human rights attorney. Moon reluctantly entered politics after his best friend, Roh Moo-hyun, became South Korea’s president in 2003, then was pushed into the leadership position when Roh committed suicide in 2009, as a result of what Roh supporters see as a vindictive prosecution by Roh’s conservative successor. Joining the ranks of Honey Badgers was to join this narrative, and play a role in writing the next chapter of this story: the 2016 impeachment of the authoritarian conservative president Park Geun-hye through a massive and peaceful Candlelight Protest, and restoring liberal democracy in Korea with Moon Jae-in’s 2017 presidential election win. Caring about the country’s direction and participating in politics in order to make an impact on that direction — you could simply call that civic engagement, only in a new format.

Those who care about the future of American politics should take note of the K-pop phenomenon in its own backyard. Eventually, pop-culture trends seep into the political culture: The reality-show boom of the 2000s produced a reality-show president, and hip-hop’s emergence into the mainstream in the late 1990s and later dominance in no small part contributed to the first Black president becoming a more realistic possibility. The K-pop fans of America are disproportionately young, female, and multicultural — the demographic of the future. As the K-pop fandom’s political organization becomes even more mainstream, we may yet see a K-pop president in the coming decades.