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K-pop activism must go further than fancams

This year is quickly teaching everyone that K-pop fans never miss a single beat. Not when promoting their favorite artists, or even when involving themselves in racial and political movements. Their weapon of choice is none other than the fancam: the 2020 stan’s most powerful — and potentially problematic — online tool for building K-pop’s visibility in a media landscape that often racializes and erases it. 

American media has a long history of denying K-pop—and people of Asian diasporas more broadly — their place in U.S. pop culture. Articles about K-pop from the early 2010s, like John Seabrook’s “Factory Girls,” demonstrated that American media acknowledged K-pop’s existence, but diminished it as a fad of Korean absurdity instead of a legitimate musical production (only a handful of writers and outlets, including Billboard and the now-defunct MTV Iggy, gave K-pop any serious attention). It was only when BTS’ albums began topping the Billboard 200 regularly that American entertainment publications, who knew differences in the facial structures of the Kardashian sisters down to DNA, suddenly scrambled to become relevant to the growing Stateside K-pop fanbase, even mixing up K-pop idols with Instagram models in the process. 

Fancams, or short clips of K-pop idols performing their songs, have appeared all over the internet in recent months, from the replies on Trump tweets to those on entertainment news publications; South Korean media conglomerates regularly release fancams now in recognition of the trend’s impact. They serve as a further embodiment of K-pop’s increasing relevance to western pop culture. To some, however, K-pop stans’ trolling is ruining the internet as we know it. The relentless posting of fancams has earned considerable backlash in the form of online rant videos entitled “F*CK K-POP STANS” and the viral #fancamsareoverparty hashtag, alongside similar tags and statements that trend every few weeks. The sudden ubiquity of fancams has even been covered and analyzed by multiple outlets, including Mashable, members of the Cardiff University community, and Distractify.

At its core, K-pop fancam spam is a political practice, a deliberate repurposing of traditional methods of spamming and trolling for the sake of questioning the boundaries of politics and racialization. By posting under Trump rants and Fox News articles, as well as Ariana Grande tweets and Pop Crave reports, K-pop fandoms mounted the argument that their favorite artists deserve visibility in pop culture. And if EW or ClevverNews won’t post enough about it, then stans will. In this way, posting a fancam is a subversive callout of the racialized marginalization of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai artists in American and western media, even if fans themselves often engage in the practice only for promotional — and not overtly political — purposes. With the fancam, ARMYs, Orbits, BLINKs, and other K-pop fans assert that the cultural products of Asian artists cannot be reduced to a fad or moment. They instead create a constant virality that, for the American onlooker, is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the fan communities that post these clips mobilize and weaponize fancams for a related but different political purpose—the obstruction of anti-Black racism and policing. When Dallas police asked citizens to upload videos and images of protestors to their iWatch Dallas app, K-pop fans deliberately flooded the app with K-pop fancams, forcing the app to go down temporarily. K-pop fans similarly flooded the #CalminKirkland hashtag, which was used by the Kirkland Police Department to identify people involved in “rioting or looting,” with fancams of artists like BTS and ITZY. Most notably, K-pop fans and TikTok users banded together to sell out tickets to Trump’s 2020 campaign rally in Tulsa, only to leave those seats embarrassingly empty. Commentary in the MIT Technology Review as well as a tweet from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have now acknowledged the political power of “K-pop allies.”


Also on KultScene: The erasure of Black K-pop fans in the wake of BLM & activism

But the fancam may not be the perfect weapon of choice in the fight for racial equity, as there are critical flaws in this narrative of justice-seeking and AfroAsian solidarity among members of the K-pop fan community. While fancam spam might have been a form of subversive justice for underrated K-pop artists, it does not resolve anti-Blackness within K-pop audiovisual cultures and fan circles, let alone anti-Blackness in America and around the world.

Black fans on Twitter and in a number of publications and forums have commented on anti-Blackness in K-pop fan communities. K-pop groups have also carried out anti-Black racist behavior, from Blackface and singing the n-word, to rampant cultural appropriation of hairstyles and dress. Fans and commentators regularly point out that much of K-pop’s musical roots can be found in past and present Black American cultural productions. The global emergence of K-pop has made clear that, while there is justice attained in achieving greater visibility for Korean and other Asian artists, anti-Blackness might actually be amplified by K-pop fandoms in some ways, in spite of the recent rally around the Black Lives Matter movement among its global fan communities. 

Overwhelming hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter with fancams has been recognized and praised in some media circles, but the practice has actually been criticized by Black K-pop fans and followers. KultScene’s very own Nnehkai Agbor comments that while “co-option has been a beneficial tool for fans to gain control of or change narratives… fans who hijacked the tag did not consider the ramifications of trending the name of a dangerous group” whose name and goals are rooted in hate and anti-Blackness. Kpopcast co-host Stephanie Parker also found the practice of hijacking racist hashtags a disturbing and anti-Black rather than anti-racist. “Did you ask a single Black person if this was a good idea? No, I can answer that for you… no,” she said on an episode of the podcast titled “Listen to Black K-pop fans.” Clearly, what may feel like online activism and anti-racist collective action to non-Black K-pop fans might actually be nothing more than using moments of racial tension to promote your faves at the expense of Black fans and Black people. 

A recent Reuters article brought these tensions to a front with the headline “Global K-pop fans emerge as a political force, but some in South Korea worry.” The article cites wariness from South Korean fans of popular K-pop groups, who are worried “that their favourite artists will be pulled into foreign partisan fights.” While the voices of South Korean fans should definitely be centered in narratives about K-pop and the Hallyu wave, we also need to question whether the fight against anti-Blackness is “foreign” to K-pop artists. Despite the fact that many K-pop stars come from South Korea (and often Japan, China, and Thailand among other countries as well), we must remember that K-pop artists often perform musical styles and genres that were first pioneered by Black Americans navigating the repercussions and realities of centuries of subjugation and oppression. Some K-pop stars like GOT7’s Mark Tuan and ITZY’s Lia have lived in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, which demonstrates that K-pop artists and K-pop music, at some level, may not be so “foreign” after all.

This is not to say that K-pop has no Korean roots — that would be an absurd and ignorant claim. Songs like “I Love You” by 2NE1 pull influence from trot, a genre of popular Korean music that was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has connections to Korea’s own history with Japanese imperialism and colonialism. K-pop stars also regularly advertise Korean culture — products, food, tourism, sites, and history — in music videos, vlogs, and dramas. But to act as if many K-pop artists are simply unrelated to or “foreign” to the fight for Black liberation is equally ignorant of the genre’s musical roots. This is why a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter from BTS — a group whose music largely draws from and is inspired by Black productions of hip-hop and rap — is not only a reflection of BTS’ choice to engage in American movements, but also a demonstration of the considerable stakes that K-pop and its fans have in justice for Black people and communities in the U.S. and around the world. 


Also on KultScene: WHY K-POP IDOLS SHOULD SUPPORT & ENGAGE WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER

These complicated racial realities and tensions inherent in K-pop’s global emergence beg the question to fellow fans: Why are you posting fancams right now? 

The mobilizing capacity of global K-pop fans has the political power to center more narratives than just those of our favorite idols. Wouldn’t it be better to trend hashtags about Oluwatoyin Salau, a young Black woman and activist who was sexually assaulted and murdered in the midst of fighting for Black lives and Black trans lives? Shouldn’t K-pop stans be using our collective power to center thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who have imagined a world without police and prisons for decades and continue to inspire activism and organizing around the issues of police and prison abolition? 

As BLINKs, ONCEs, ARMYs, Orbits, and fans of other K-pop acts, we have stakes in movements for Black liberation, too. We also know how to challenge online boundaries and find new avenues of representation and visibility through tweeting, spamming, and simply existing where we sometimes feel we aren’t supposed to. Let’s use this ground-shaking energy for efforts that go beyond symbols and tags—instead, let’s emphasize trending donation links, petitions, and Black-led protests and organizations that center Black people, their experiences, and their voices. Or else, we risk drowning out other voices in favor of our own, which seems a lot like what we were fighting against in the first place. 

Want to support Black people and Black-led movements for justice? Donate to the TGI Justice Project, sign this petition demanding justice for Toyin Salau, and follow/donate to the African American Policy Forum (donation link here).

KultScene is a writer-driven website dedicated to creating a platform where diverse voices’ takes on K-pop can be heard. If you like this post and would like to see more by helping support KultScene’s writers fund, please email us for more details.

The erasure of Black K-pop fans in the wake of BLM & activism

kpop blm black lives matter Black fans erasure

The past few weeks have seen an increased interest in K-pop and the politics that surround it as U.S. fans implemented tactics used to promote their favorite acts to fight police brutality and racism. The emergence of K-pop fans as “unlikely allies” and “unsung heroes” for the Black Lives Matter movement received praise from celebrities, politicians, and the media for their allyship and activism. Their notoriety on social media was reimagined as they became viewed as vigilantes fighting the good fight. That notion was furthered when fans and TikTokers used their savviness to sabotage a Trump rally in Tulsa, OK, by reserving seats and not attending the event. 

The mainstream coverage surrounding K-pop’s political activism centered around stereotypes and one-dimensional takes on the identity of K-pop’s fandoms. The surprise activism of assumed young, white women became the story but ignored the activism history of K-pop fans and the diversity of fans. While media outlets began to explore K-pop’s fandom in-depth, the erasure of Black fans from most conversations was a deafening reminder of history repeating itself. Black people – especially Black women – are left out of conversations that impact them. In fandom, the erasure of Black voices results from anti-Blackness and co-option. 

Black fans served as the backbone of K-pop fans joining the Black Lives Matter movement.  They rallied together laying the groundwork to bring attention to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and police brutality within their fandoms and the K-pop industry. They used #BlackLivesMatter hashtags within their fandom spaces and tagged their favorite acts. 

Initially, their efforts were met with pushback aimed to keep K-pop and politics separate from each other. 


Also on KultScene: WHY K-POP IDOLS SHOULD SUPPORT & ENGAGE WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER

Throughout K-pop’s legacy, it has not been able to remain completely apolitical. Artists have shown support for comfort women and been caught in the crossfires of foreign politics in Asia. When the #MeToo movement reached South Korean, girl group Girls’ Generation’s debut track “Into A New World” became a protest anthem for women fighting against sexual harassment and abuse. The attempts to not pressure K-pop idols into speaking about police brutality is a by-product of the anti-Blackness within the diverse communities that make up the fandom.

Anti-Blackness perpetuates a single-story about Black people and culture derived from European colonization and globalization. These stereotypes are passed within non-Black communities and find placement within K-pop fandom. While some non-Black fans may find themselves accepting of Black fans, the hostility that manifests suggests otherwise. The policing of hashtags that focus on representing Black fans and gaslighting conversations that address their mistreatment are examples of anti-Blackness at work. The most visible way anti-Blackness rears its head among K-pop fans is during conversations about appropriation. 

Within K-pop’s fandom, the appropriation of Black culture and hip-hop is a constant conversation among its Black fans but often overlooked by their counterparts. They excuse appropriation as ignorance while dismissing or talking over the voices of their Black peers. For non-Black fans, the need to preserve the integrity of a K-pop idol often overshadows the need to provide Black fans the space to educate on why cultural appropriation is harmful. K-pop’s incorporation of hip-hop made the latter palatable for consumers who wanted to enjoy hip-hop without having to address its politics and legacies. 

However, the politics of hip-hop is fighting for human rights for Black people. Some K-pop acts have taken initiative in acknowledging the impact of Black culture and music on the industry. Some donated to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter, while others advocated by posting petitions and sharing the stories of Floyd and Taylor.  Rapper CL of former girl group 2NE1 and R&B singer Crush took to their Instagrams to show solidarity and share how Black culture influences the K-pop industry and their careers.   

As seen with the hijacking of #whitelivesmatter, co-option has been a beneficial tool for fans to gain control of or change narratives. While they were able to drown out racist rhetoric and troll the hashtags enough to trend within Twitter’s K-pop category, the intent of showing solidarity with BLM became distorted. 


Also on KultScene: JAMES LEE TALKS WORKING WITH FRIENDS, ‘FALLING’ MEMES, & LATEST RELEASES [INTERVIEW]

White Lives Matter originated in the wake of Ferguson Protests as a means to preserve whiteness, according to The New York Times. Evolved from a meme, the hate group has become a fixture in opposing Black Lives Matter. Fans who hijacked the tag did not consider the ramifications of trending the name of a dangerous group. The ignorance in their actions furthered Black fans being second to fandom clout, as performing good deeds outweighed addressing microaggressions in and out of fandom and sharing resources to support their peers. 

The Black experience is constantly having to choose an additional title –– doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc.–– to prove you are more than what society equates your Blackness to. One can be Black, but to truly survive in this world there must be an additional value. This idea translates into fandom spaces with the underlying expectation of Black fans setting aside their Blackness for the greater good of fandom. 

Despite the negative aspects of stan culture, fans who experienced racism within BTS fandom created #BlackARMYsequality and #BlackARMYsMatter to call out racism within the fandom in 2018, according to Teen Vogue. Elismarie Ortiz started the #BlackArmyBeauty project to recognize and celebrate the beauty of Black fans within the fandom after seeing her peers getting harassed, as reported by Buzzfeed. From there, fans created #Blackout days for within their respective fandoms in which fans post selfies alongside the members of their favorite groups. #BlackoutBTS and the hashtags that accompany it display how fans could mobilize to bring awareness to anything. Black fans also fellowshipped with each through cookout and block party hashtags and #blackstantakeover to show community within their fandoms. Much like #Blackout days, fans shared selfies of themselves alongside members of their favorite groups. It may seem frivolous to some, but its ability to uplift and reestablish confidence within K-pop’s Black community is a reminder that Black people deserve to enjoy entertainment as much as their peers.

Sharing experiences and providing each other space to discuss fandom experience brought to light how K-pop is covered in western media. Presenting K-pop’s fandom as monolithic discounts its diversity. The push for wider representation when it comes to reflecting the demographics within K-pop’s many fandoms challenges media outlets to abandon their biases when reporting on K-pop and its fandom. The movers and shakers of modern political movements are left out of narratives until outlets are called out. That should not be the case. Media and fandoms have to actively work to include the Black voices they leave out, starting with listening.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

KultScene is a writer-driven website dedicated to creating a platform where diverse voices’ takes on K-pop can be heard. If you like this post and would like to see more by helping support KultScene’s writers fund, please email us for more details.

Why K-pop idols should support & engage with Black Lives Matter

Photos of protesters at Black Lives Matters protest in Seoul, South Korea. They hold signs bearing "Koreans for Black Lives Matter," "We Against Racism" and "We are the voice to those no longer here" in English.
Courtesy of Raphael Rashid

By Danielle Young

On Jun. 6, 2020, the story broke that BTS, the world renown K-pop sensation, had donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement. The response from this news was positive, well-received, and celebrated widely throughout Black Twitter and fans of the group, myself included. There was a massive movement within the Black BTS fan community for BTS to be involved, to use their substantial platform to uplift Black voices as they had with other issues. 

Their Love Myself campaign with UNICEF was a digestible and, generally, non-controversial stance to take — no one could argue against stopping violence against children and teens. But in a world saturated with white supremacy and anti-blackness, stating that Black Lives Matter is controversial and argued against. 

BTS not only stated that Black Lives Matter, but they also backed it with monetary support. They should not be alone in this, but all of K-pop should be mobilizing to support the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the larger companies like YG and JYP Entertainment. However, this should happen not out of obligation — like many large companies in the west have been doing solely performatively to save face and money — but because the backbone of K-pop is Black culture. 

On Jun. 18, SM made a statement about Black Lives Matter — a rare  time they’ve taken a political stance as a company. Most people would argue that this was a good thing, and it is because it now puts them in a place where they can be held accountable. But we are at the point in this movement where statements are not enough. SM has had a long history of appropriating Black culture and ignoring criticisms by continuing to be repeat offenders, and was recently called out by a Black songwriter who alleged the company hadn’t paid her appropriately for her work, though another songwriter later alleged that from his perspective SM paid “well.” Hopefully SM realizes that Black Lives Matter is more than just police brutality in this single moment and reflects their commitment to this issue in the future.  


Also on KultScene: TWICE’S ‘MORE & MORE’ ALBUM REVIEW


The magic behind so many of K-pop fan favorites songs are Black people. K-pop exists only because of Black people, and we are owed that much from an industry that continues to appropriate Black culture and ignore the very people who demand that the culture be respected. To say that Black Lives Matter and make donations to the movement is truly the very least that the K-pop industry can do.

So many people’s interest in South Korea and the culture is because of K-pop, and Korean entertainment in general. Fans want to learn Korean, and some may even have a romanticized vision of the country and its people. For Black people and biracial Black people in South Korea, the country is not the land of K-pop and K-dramas. They experience prejudice and distcrimination solely because they are Black. Anti-Blackness thrives in South Korea just as it does in the U.S. and other places in the world. And while it is unfortunate that we rely so heavily on celebrity culture to influence what we believe in, the impact of K-pop idols supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement can have a massive impact, giving those who have already been doing work in South Korea the platform to have their voices amplified. With BTS donating $1 million, it directly caused a spontaneous project for the entire fanbase to mobilize and match the donation under the hashtag #MatchAMillion. 

People in South Korea joined in on the global marches for equality for Black lives on Jun. 6 in Seoul. The protests serve as a starting point for South Korea to reexamine the societal issues that are ignored and then left to fester and be normalised. There were about 100 people at the protests and those who had some things to say shed light on the issues in Korean society towards Black people. A Black teacher even had the chance to voice their experience stating, “Racism here is when I find a seat in the subway and people avoid sitting next to me, or when my friends and I are turned away from clubs for no reason, or when jobs only want to hire white candidates.” 

This experience mirrors what Sam Okyere, a Ghanian TV personality, said in a viral interview, where he was on a subway and a Korean woman asked, “What a Black bastard like [him] [was] doing in Korea,” telling him to go back to his country. Shim Jihoon, a 34-year-old social worker who organized the Black lives march said that, “People have asked why I organised such a protest in our country, but I know that there are migrant workers, multicultural families, and international students who face discrimination even here at home.“[If attitudes don’t change] what happened to George Floyd might happen here too.” 

South Korean activists are hoping that the younger generation will take on the torch that the previous one fumbled. As a Black fan of BTS and a general enjoyer of the K-pop genre, I’m not sure what the future of the movement will look like in South Korea, or really in the world for that matter. It was surreal to see the fans of BTS raise an additional $1 million to match BTS’s for Black Lives Matter. The praise for the feat was bountiful, but I saw what happened before there was a decision to match the donation: fans who were posting on Weverse about Black Lives Matter, a platform where artists and fans can talk directly, were blocked from trending. Of course, there were supporters, but the sheer amount of dissenters was deeply discouraging and hurtful. 

This is unsurprising and not unique to fans of BTS. Across K-pop, idols have done things like blackface, appropriated Black hairstyles, or have used racial slurs or imagery deeply rooted in racism. When Black fans of these groups voice their opinions on why this is harmful and not okay, they are met with the same pushback and excuses out the wazoo. More often than not, racism against Black people is viewed as an American problem and not something that can permeate through the lives of those who are not white and in America. It is everyone’s responsibility to dismantle the anti-Blackness within their society because anti-Blackness is global. With the latest mobilization of activism, it is important that South Korea and the K-pop industry really take a look at how they view Blackness and Black people, not only within the U.S., but also within their own country. 

The intersection between K-pop and Black Twitter could be part of this turning point. Fans of K-pop have a lot of influence, and the relationship between fans and artists can be one that is symbiotic. Information on how to mobilize and educate people on racism, white supremacy, and non-Black people of color’s responsibility in dismantling anti-Blackness can be disseminated, just like projects to match BTS for their $1 million donation. Like everything in this moment for the movement, it is about what we do after the dust has settled and the hard work begins.

What are your thoughts on K-pop companies and stars’ place in speaking out against Anti-Blackness? Let us know in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

KultScene is a writer-driven website dedicated to creating a platform where diverse voices’ takes on K-pop can be heard. If you like this post and would like to see more by helping support KultScene’s writers fund, please email us for more details.

K-Pop Unmuted: 2018 Awards – Part 2

On Episode 39 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, guests Gabriel Wilder and Stephanie Parker join hosts Joe Palmer and Stephen Knight to discuss impactful events of 2018 in Kpop, and to present the second round of the 2018 K-Pop Unmuted Awards.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2018’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: 2018 Awards – Part 1

On Episode 38 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, guests Gabriel Wilder and Stephanie Parker join hosts Joe Palmer and Stephen Knight to discuss impactful events of 2018 in Kpop, and to present the first round of the 2018 K-Pop Unmuted Awards.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2018’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: GOT7’s ‘Present: YOU’

On Episode 35 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, guest Carolina Donastorg joins Tamar Herman and Alexis Hodoyán to discuss GOT7‘s new album “Present: YOU.” Of course, we talk about lead single “Lullaby” (all four versions!), other standout tracks, GOT7’s international appeal, and all things GOT7.

Please note, we said that it was the first song from a K-pop group in Spanish, but it is more accurate to say from a “Big 3” group.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of GOT7’s Present: YOU and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: Stan LOONA

On Episode 33 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Joe Palmer takes Tamar Herman and Stephen Knight on a walking tour of the Loonaverse. In anticipation of LOOΠΔ (LOONA)’s official debut, we discuss the individual members, the roles of each major sub-unit in the Loonaverse, some of the group’s more interesting releases, and other LOOΠΔ lore. We also talk about Lovelyz’s “Wag-zak,” Minseo’s “Zero,” and Triple H’s “Retro Future.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of LOOΠΔ’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Being a fan of BTS & their youth-oriented music as an adult

by Yasamine Entesari

Becoming a BTS fan is not exactly the smartest decision to make when you don’t have much free time. Between albums, music videos, live performances, Bangtan Bombs and Run BTS episodes, just to name a few– BTS puts out such an overwhelming amount of content that it might literally keep you as busy as a second job. If you join the fandom (called “Army”) a bit “late,” like I did, it becomes near to humanly impossible to catch up with years of content.

But falling in love with BTS is not exactly something you decide – it’s just something that happens; you can never predict when or how. With me, as much as I’ve been listening to their music for years, the obsession started when I went to research what was the deal with this BTS guy being promoted as a full member of the KOMCA.

Regardless of your motives, getting to know BTS is indeed worth it for anyone in any age group. However, there is something so peculiar about being a BTS fan when you’re in your late 20’s or older. You find yourself taking a break from a business essay to watch an old performance of babyface Bangtan singing about being in “2nd Grade.” You accommodate coloured merch, albums, and photo cards between power and rent bills in your budget.

I’m not alone in this – I dare say a big part of BTS’ fanbase is made of adults (mostly females) in their late ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s; regardless of people who say that pop sensations’ fan bases are made up of dumb 12-year-old girls, a belief often used to delegitimize an artist’s talent or success.

The music of BTS, and the personalities and stories of its members can inspire love and admiration for people of any age. The same probably could be said about any K-pop group or pop star of any culture. However, in the case of BTS, something adds a particular meaning to the “older fanbase” passion for the group: the interesting (and maybe contradicting) fact that BTS’s entire purpose is focused on youth. I can’t speak for all the adult fanbase, but as for me, this particular aspect of BTS’ artistry is one of the things that made me love them – even if I am, supposedly, no longer young enough to relate to their narrative.


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Actually, I’m not that old  – I’m only two years older than Jin, BTS’s oldest member. However, a few years can make a lot of difference when you are in your teenage or young adult years. For example: the disproportion between the fact that the youngest member, Jungkook, won an “Artist of the Year” award at 19-years-old when I was 26 and still trying to figure out what to do with my life, could be enough to make me feel like a loser. But, actually, the more I dug into BTS’s story, I ended up feeling the opposite.

Maybe some of us older fans think that it’s too late for us to pursue our dreams and do meaningful things like BTS. But through their music we find out that they, too, feel insecure and scared, even after achieving so much.

How ironic is it that BTS has chosen to speak about the beauties and sorrows of youth, yet they are so overloaded with work that they barely have the chance to enjoy their own? We’re talking about a group that is releasing their fourth album in less than 12 months, while they get ready for a world tour with more than 20 sold out stops. These guys don’t rest. Yet, they seem so passionate about what they’re doing, it doesn’t seem like they think they’re “wasting” their “best years.”

As young people, we have so many things in our favour and so many against us at the same time, and we end up not knowing what to do with the gift of youth – like the famous quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde: “youth is wasted on the young.” Youth might be, borrowing the words from the title of a BTS’s album series, “the most beautiful moment in life”; yet it’s also so full of contradictions. Society expects an adult to know everything about life; yet, everyone agrees that before you turn an adult you have to enjoy being “young, wild and free.” How are we supposed to learn and build everything we need to be a successful adult, and have the most amount of fun possible at the same time? Which one should we choose?

Sometimes it’s inevitable to think if anything could be different today if I had been more of less “myself” in the past; if I had worked/studied more, or if I had worked less and “enjoyed” more of my youth. Nevertheless, I somehow feel at ease when I see Jin, Suga, RM, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. Just like everyone else, they’re doing the best that they can with their “best years.” They’ve decided to follow their biggest dream, because they have one – but they say it’s okay if you don’t have one too. They’re giving their all and trying to be okay with the fact that even that all might not be enough to make them feel proud and content. And if like is like this with these seven amazingly talented beings, why wouldn’t it be with me? When I think of it, I too can find comfort and stop blaming my younger self. Because I too did my best. I did what I could being the person I was at that time.

Seeing the member’s personal colours also help fans to relate to BTS in so many ways. In “Reflection,” for example, a boy confident enough to name himself “Rap Monster” confessed that, even after achieving so much, he still wishes that he could love himself. In “Awake,” the member with the most unwavering self-esteem in the group (Jin) sings that he’s aware that he may never fly as high as he’d like to. It’s sad, but it’s also empowering because it sounds human; it sounds genuine


Also on KultScene:  FROM UNDERDOGS TO INTERNATIONAL STARDOM BTS’S RISE TO SUCCESS

The fact that insecurity and fear coexist with confidence and determination, for the group, is what makes their music and their individual personalities relatable to 12 to 60-year-old people. And the fact that they share it with us gives us a feeling of “we’re all in this together,” regardless of age, gender, race, or culture. It makes me think we’re not that different after all – and if people who feel “lost” can relate to seven guys that inspire such amazing feelings, then, well, maybe we are not so lost. Maybe we are doing something right.

When you’re 28, like me, you think you should already have life all figured out. Younger friends, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, but I have to spoil something: it is possible that five, 10 or 20 years from now, you still won’t have figured everything out. And it’s okay. We all have doubts, insecurities, and challenges in life, regardless of having found ourselves or not. With due proportion, life is the same for everyone: nothing is guaranteed, the fight gets harder after each battle you win. And it’s okay.

I remember watching one of the many interviews BTS gave while they were in the United States for their first US performance at the American Music Awards in 2017 and I felt really touched by one of the comments in the video. It was from a 60-year-old woman who said: “I just found out about these boys and I am feeling so much joy from watching them, they make me feel young again.” I thought that was the same reason why I grew to love and respect BTS so much. They make me feel okay about not being what I thought I should be right now – and this is feeling young too.

After all, regardless of age, we can all be young as long as we’re okay with the fact that we don’t know everything and that we can always learn and improve – like Suga says in “Nevermind:” “We are still young and immature, don’t worry about it.”

What do you like the most about BTS’s concept? Let us know in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Debunking the “Factory” Narrative: K-Pop’s Authenticity and Shifting Gender Politics

Girl in Fine Bros video sighing while watching "I Am the Best" by 2NE1

In January 2012, the Fine Bros released “Kids React to K-Pop,” the latest weekly installment of their growing “React” series, which featured elementary school children watching and answering questions about videos—in this case, Korean pop music videos. For the Fine Bros, a pair of YouTube moguls whose 16 million subscriber base is built on videos of kids, teenagers, and fellow YouTubers reacting to viral content, K-Pop videos were merely an addition to their collection of outlandish content used to sustain weekly production quotas.

But for many of K-Pop’s English-speaking fans, the Fine Bros’ video was a modern miracle. K-Pop groups, with as few as four or as many as fifteen members, release multiple albums and high-budget music videos per year, performing with elaborate choreography and colorful fashion. In 2012, after several years of potential blow-ups and no immense international breakthroughs, few of them had much recognition in the West. Influenced by a variety of global music genres, K-Pop was, as fans believed, ready to explode in English-speaking markets once Westerners were finally exposed to it. The Fine Bros, with a significant North American viewership, were giving K-Pop a new platform for global advancement.

In “Kids React to K-Pop,” they showed the children some of the genre’s most over-the-top songs (“Bonamana” by 13-member Super Junior) and highlighted those videos’ most outlandish moments (2NE1 members struggling in straitjackets in “I Am the Best”).

“How do you think they found each other and decided to start a band?” they asked the children, knowing that their innocence (“They were probably long-time friends!” a kid guessed) would be shattered by the reality that members of K-Pop groups are chosen by companies that put them through a rigorous training regime before debut, atypical in the garage-band-rock scene of the U.S. The questions became increasingly slanted as the video progressed: “Do you still like the music, even though it was essentially created by a company and not the artist?”


Also on KultScene: SHINee’s ‘Good Evening’ Music Video & ‘The Story of Light EP.1’ Album Review

By the end of the video, the kids had decidedly negative impressions. “Lots of weird people probably like it,” one said. “If I even liked one of them, I would be liking the person that trained them,” another concluded. When made aware of the genre’s growing worldwide presence, a third cried, “I hate my generation so much! Why couldn’t I be born in the Eighties?”

K-Pop fans were furious — a genre whose musical output they took seriously had been reduced to an exotic spectacle of Asian quirkiness that Americans could dismiss as too foreign and corrupt for their collective taste. With such a dialogue surrounding the genre, it is no surprise that journalist John Seabrook’s October 2012 New Yorker article on 9-member Korean ensemble Girls’ Generation was called “Factory Girls.”

Despite some K-Pop acts gaining momentum in Western markets over time—BTS became the first Korean act to top the U.S. Billboard 200 with their studio album Love Yourself: Tear earlier this year—discourse on the genre is barely advancing. In a recent article about Korean music acts performing at the PyeongChang Olympics, TIME defined K-Pop as “music churned out by South Korea’s music-making factories.” A quick Google News search of the genre yields a variety of articles, like the recent entry from CBC News entitled “The Punishing Pressures Behind K-Pop Perfection,” that portray the genre as the Fine Bros do in their video.

Most fans will not deny the indisputable truth — there is merit to the claim that K-Pop stars are rigidly controlled by companies and contracts. During interviews, four-member girl group BLACKPINK discusses rarely being allowed to leave dormitories outside of official schedules. Passing their third anniversary as a group, seven-member Oh My Girl revealed that their management only recently allowed them to use cell phones following the success of a recent single. Sadly, the term “slave contract” is well-known to many fans, whose favorite idols have suffered at the hands of companies that hoard profits and abuse workers. Laws have been passed in attempts to rectify the situation, but work conditions for most K-pop idols are less than ideal.

This “factory” narrative, however, is more reductive than it is factual—it dismisses thousands of singers, dancers, artists, producers, managers, stylists, technicians, A&R teams, and designers as industrial robots with no independent agency. While the portrayal in TIME’s headline attracts the attention of American onlookers fascinated by outlandish foreign creations, it fails to capture the essence of K-Pop as imperfect, but not worthy of dismissal by Western audiences.

“Authentic music” fans and critics often deem K-Pop meaningless and shallow. The initial impression is understandable—it is sometimes the case that none of the members of a group play a minimal, if any, part in the process of crafting music or choreography, aside from actually performing it (which in itself somehow gets overlooked, as if many Western pop stars don’t do the very same thing). But beneath the narrative that Western media curates for its viewers, one can quickly find evidence of K-Pop stars heavily involved in their artistry. G-Dragon, leader of popular boy group BIGBANG and successful soloist, is credited as the main (and sometimes only) producer of both his solo releases and those of his group; BTS is also often known to self-produce their hits. The same dynamic is true of a variety of male and female K-Pop acts—in recent years, producer royalties reaped by idols like G-Dragon, Jinyoung of male outfit B1A4, the late Jonghyun of SHINee, and L.E. of girl group EXID have rivaled those of K-Pop’s biggest behind-the-scenes producers hired by companies to make music for groups.

Speaking of hired producers, Western music writers struggle to grasp is the idea that K-Pop’s artistry isn’t exclusively about creative musical production—to some Korean artists, onstage performance is far more valuable than lyrics or melody. Unlike the American music industry, K-Pop places heavy value on dancing ability and performative skill. In a way, this system actually makes musical performance inclusive of a different kind of talent, creating an industry in which dancers, rappers and vocalists can enjoy the fame, audience, and respect often claimed by singer-songwriter solo pop stars in the U.S. Those with legitimate musical passion, maybe for singing the lyrics instead of penning them, can occupy the spotlight. Is that inauthentic or illegitimate? To rockists or classicalists, maybe so. But to those who aren’t theory geniuses or lack a natural talent for musical composition, it may just be “authentic” as ever, and no less worthy of the praise that critics and writers give to Western pop stars who work with production teams.

The debate extends to gender politics as well. In his “Factory Girls” article, John Seabrook portrays Girls’ Generation as a group of one-dimensional personalities constructed by their companies, calling member Tiffany’s characteristic eye-smile a “jolt of cultural technology.” But it would be Seohyun, another member of the same group, who would depart from her image as the group’s chaste maknae (youngest member) and pursue a sultry vibe for her solo debut mini-album Don’t Say No in 2017. The album concept and image change were entirely her own choices, some of which she made against her company’s advice. She also recently participated in the North-South Korean dialogue on multiple occasions, becoming a symbol of peaceful intentions of the South through performances in Seoul and Pyongyang.

Just like Taylor Swift’s pivot from country to pop with her album Red or Lady Gaga’s image shift in Joanne, female K-Pop stars can be fluid performers, capable in their own right of forging unique artistic destinies. When the Fine Bros reduce them to props of an industrial complex, they are robbed of the creative legitimacy and individualism they seem to rightfully deserve.

Cutesy K-Pop girl groups are often the first to receive criticism for musical and visual concepts that strike Western viewers are misogynistic and infantilizing. And they’re not entirely wrong—the patriarchy is as strong as ever in K-Pop, and many girl groups’ biggest hits are written by men and targeted for consumption by male fans. But as these groups top the charts and become noticeable fixtures of the Korean entertainment scene, the performers themselves reach a new level of empowerment. Seabrook’s “Factory Girls” Girls’ Generation have now been a girl group for a decade, comprising multi-millionaire members who each own property and run individual ventures, and have their own public personas. On her solo reality show, member Sooyoung recently talked about popular Korean feminist book Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982, explaining her reaction: “Things that I thought were nothing, were actually being treated unfairly just because I’m a girl.” With a platform built on her multi-gender fandom and supported by millions of dollars in the bank, Sooyoung is now one of many female K-Pop idols reading the book and talking openly about feminist issues in the media, despite South Korea’s overall aversion to the term “feminist,” which she has indeed shied away from.


Also on KultScene: K-Pop Unmuted: ‘Produce 48’ & What is an Idol?

The cutesy songs may have patriarchal overtones, but the women performing the music have much more to say—the cultural structures they conquer as a group allow the members to use their newfound capital to then subvert those same structures. The Wonder Girls, formed in 2007, debuted to major commercial success singing bubbly pop songs produced by Korean singer-songwriter and businessman J.Y. Park. While the group’s popularity has fluctuated over the years due to a failed American advancement and lineup changes, the members grew to self-produce their music as their careers progressed. Member Yeeun, credited as HA:TFELT in solo releases, co-composed and wrote her entire debut solo EP Me? in 2014. By the release of their 2015 comeback album Reboot, members of the group were credited for lyrics and production on all of the album’s tracks, taking the sound of their music in a retro pop rock direction. Their subsequent 2016 reggae-rock hit “Why So Lonely” was also written and produced by the group’s members.

A similar example of growing into self-production, singer Lee Hyori debuted as a member of girl group Fin.K.L in 1998. Since the group’s disbandment in 2002, she has gone on to become one of the most recognizable women in Korean media. Moving on from the group and into a solo career, Hyori has taken greater control of her music over time, switching record labels frequently and dropping albums for which she designs concepts and writes and produces almost all tracks. Her success as a Fin.K.L member and soloist gave her the power to control her future releases—a narrative common among matured K-Pop acts, but largely overlooked in Western media coverage. From talking about feminism to performing with more empowered stylings, female members of Korea’s entertainment industry are slowly but steadily laying the internal groundwork for change to take place. The gender dynamics of innocent-seeming girl groups in K-Pop may be more complex than a face-value New Yorker article on Girls’ Generation could tell you.

Despite the advancements, restrictive body standards, contractual abuse, sexual harassment, and other horrors do run rampant in the K-Pop industry. Trainees work tirelessly against a low success rate to become stars, and many undergo abuse by companies that push them to their physical and mental limits. But in a world where Hollywood and public opinion have exiled Harvey Weinstein from public consciousness and all-but-convicted rapist producer Dr. Luke still profits off of Kesha’s albums, how can these abuses be in any way unique to K-Pop? Of course aspects of the K-Pop industry do make certain abuses widespread, but the ability to dismiss K-Pop as a whole over its ethical questions is a simultaneous failure to hold the Western entertainment industry accountable for the same problems.
So why do Western media outlets fail to report on K-Pop’s authenticity? The simple answer is convenience. Portraying K-Pop as freakishly quirky and industrially restrictive are worthwhile efforts for the Fine Bros, whose viral video series is based on reactions alone. The same is true of the articles’ authors and publishers, who profit in clicks from those curious about K-Pop’s apparent strangeness.

But the not so simple answer is racism. The Spice Girls and NSYNC may have gotten similar flack about authenticity back in the 90s, but the Korean-American dynamic of K-Pop’s newfound Western popularity makes the “factory” narrative not only musically, but also culturally objectionable. Like Americans laugh at Japanese variety shows, gawk at harajuku culture, or imitate native Chinese speakers, sensationalizing the controversial aspects of K-Pop gives the Western mind an excuse to stigmatize Korean culture as ridiculous and outlandish. Conflating K-Pop’s nonsensical moments with its ethical dilemmas for Western viewership, TIME and the Fine Bros allow the English-speaking mainstream to dismiss foreign-ness simply because it is foreign. Americans won’t have to reconcile K-Pop’s sonic, visual, and cultural values with their own if they can simply call it weird or unethical and go on with their day. Thus, “Kids React to K-Pop” was an exercise in ignorance—a lesson in xenophobia. And as more kids “react” to K-Pop as it grows in stateside relevance, we can only hope that better lessons are taught. They are only kids, after all.

K-Pop Unmuted: Produce 48 & What is an Idol?

On Episode 31 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Tamar Herman, Stephen Knight, and Joe Palmer join guest Patrick St. Michel to preview Produce48 and to discuss the concept of an “idol” and what makes a great idol. In our Unmuted K-pop Picks we talk about GIRLKIND’s ‘S.O.R.R.Y,’ Yubin’s ‘Lady,’ ONF’s ‘You Complete Me,’ and WJMK’s ‘STRONG.’

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on SoundcloudiTunesGoogle Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know your thoughts on Produce 48 and what you think makes a great idol in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.