As a new semester has begun, using public transportation has become one of our daily rituals again. On the subway stations and buses we ride are large advertisements with close-up pictures of K-Pop stars. The advertisements, requested by the stars’ fans, often celebrate the stars’ birthdays or the release of their new albums. According to statistics released by the Seoul Metro, there were 1,038 advertisements requested and paid for by the fan clubs in 2018, an increase of 14 times from 2014. As the numbers suggest, it is safe to say that K-Pop fandom has become more passionate and expressive over time. In the midst of its growing enthusiasm, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) aims to investigate deeper into K-Pop fandom culture, analyze its negative sides, and share possible efforts that can be made to actualize a more mature and ideal fandom culture.
K-Pop Fandom Culture
The Changes in K-Pop Fandom over Time
The idea of Korean musical fandom dates back to the 1980s when fans who adored the singer-songwriter Cho Yong-pil formed what was called an Oppa Boodae, or Oppa Troop. The naming comes from young, female fans screaming Oppa, which means Big brother in Korean, at Cho Yong-pil during his performances. The K-Pop fandom culture that is familiar to today’s fans began to form with the debut of Seo Taeji and Boys in 1992. In addition to achieving commercial success, the group arose as the idol of teenagers at the time, and its teenage fandom grew accordingly. A while later the birth of the so-called first-generation K-Pop idols such as H.O.T., Fin K.L., and S.E.S., expanded fandom culture in Korean society. It is then that the organized and systematic cheer culture began to appear and that the idea of official fan clubs began to spread in Korea.
Entering the 2000s, fandom culture spread from teenagers and young adults to fans in their 30s and 40s who are often called the Samchon and Noona fans. The relatively older fans, with greater expendable incomes, began to make efforts to improve their favorite artists’ public image by doing things such as making donations or planting trees in their artists’ names. Likewise, the fandom culture in the 2000s began to not only adore the artists but actively support the artists’ success. Nowadays, the fans not only passively consume the contents that the artists provide, but participate in creating artists that they desire. For example, the fans root for and vote for artists competing on audition and survival programs and communicate with the artists’ agencies to offer concept ideas for their next album. In other words, the fans have become productive consumers, or so-called “prosumers”.
The Characteristics of K-Pop Fandom Culture
The Cheer Culture
K-Pop fandom nowadays uses cheer tools, which are known as the “goods”. Back in the 1990s when the systemized fan clubs were first established, colored balloons served the role of today’s goods. As many artists began to debut, however, conflicts arose as the fan clubs began sharing the same “official colors” of the artists. Then, as a way to differentiate between fandoms, the fans began using customized goods such as cheer sticks and banners. In addition, the K-Pop fans are known for their fan chants. The fan chants are phrases that the fans shout out as they sing along to artists’ performances.
The So-called “Labor” Culture
Today’s K-Pop fans participate in what is called Nodong or Labor Culture. The culture refers to the organized work that the fans engage themselves in order to help the artists achieve commercial success. A part of the “labor” involves downloading and streaming songs released by the artists to help the songs rise in chart rankings. Such work is done all day and night and the fan clubs even publish guides on how to effectively engage in this type of labor. In addition, the fans actively promote their artists on social media by sharing and retweeting the pictures and videos of their artists.
Active Communication with the Artists
K-Pop fans have placed themselves in the roles of friends or supporters instead of simple consumers. For example, the K-Pop fans and artists engage in constant and active communication. Many K-Pop idols share and broadcast their daily lives outside of concerts and performances and fans react by leaving comments. A platform called V Live produced and launched by Naver in July of 2015, or live video on by Instagram are widely used among K-Pop artists and fans as tools of communication. In addition, the fans make use of fan meetings and fan letters to show their support for artists.
The Negative Sides of K-Pop Fandom Culture
Conflicts in and out of Fandoms
The distinctive characteristics of K-Pop fandom culture come with several downsides. First, the K-Pop fans have tendencies to support only their favorite artists. In fact, the fans focus on raising their favorite artists’ song rankings while dropping the competitors’ rankings. In addition, they do not hesitate to criticize the unfavorable results of music awards or other celebrities who are known to engage in love affairs with their artists. Such tendencies may cause the consumers outside of the fandoms to dislike and even avoid being associated with the K-Pop artists and their music. Moreover, fan clubs are prone to engage in conflicts with other fan clubs. In fact, the fans of K-pop groups g.o.d. and BTOB have fought over the official symbolic colors of their artists, and Girls’ Generation fans and Super Junior fans have argued over the seat distributions at a joint concert.
The Breach of Artists’ Privacy and Rights
Within K-Pop fandom, there also exists Sasaeng fans or fans who commit severe privacy breaches by essentially stalking their artists. These fans follow the vehicles of their artists with overpriced taxis that operate for the purpose of helping the stalking. In addition, fans have shared the artists’ private information such as their social security numbers and phone numbers. Moreover, some K-Pop fans often write and share what is called fan fiction (fanfic), which mostly contains sexual content regarding the artists. The publication and sharing of these often pornographic and lewd fictions can be considered defamation and sexual harassment towards the artists and thus be penalized under Korean law.
The Jogong Culture
Jogong literally means “tribute” in Korean. In the context of K-pop fandom, Jogong refers to collecting money within the fandom and sending pricey gifts to the artists. Over time, the fans have begun to engage in competitive Jogong, sending designer goods or high-end electronics. Some management companies and artists even take the Jogong culture for granted and actually ask their fandoms for the pricey gifts. There are criticisms surrounding such phenomenon as the fans often give gifts that are outside of their financial capacity.
The Ideal Fandom Culture
Actualizing a More Mature Fandom Culture
Despite the negative sides of K-Pop fandom culture, many fandoms are actively working to improve their own culture and to bring about a positive effect on society. In fact, the fans these days operate what is called a “fan supporters” system to keep order at events and performances. The fans volunteer to watch performances in designated areas and also pick up their own trash after the shows. Likewise, the fans are showing increased maturity as consumers. In fact, many online fan clubs, including that of K-Pop group NCT, have established rules banning defamation against their favorite artist and other artists. Moreover, the fans serve the role of sincere supporters of artists. When they believe that their artists are not being treated fairly, the fans ask for meetings with management companies or organize street protests. In fact, fans of K-Pop groups like Mamamoo penalized the Sasaeng fans who stalked the artists in 2017. The same year, fans of Sechskies sued other fans who wrote and published lewd fan fiction. As a result, the sued fan was fined 2 million Korean won.
From Jogong to Giving Back to Society
Over time, K-Pop artists have begun to realize the severity of Jogong culture and publically rejecting personal gifts. Simultaneously, the fandoms began to make a change in their culture. The fans began making donations in the artists’ names and volunteering together to improve artists’ public image and to bring positive change to society. For example, EXO’s fans donated rice to an orphanage, and Twice Mina’s fans donated to the Korea Childhood Leukemia Foundation (KCLF). Some fandoms purchase products sold by MARYMOND, a company that donates 50% of their profits to organizations to Comfort Women. Consequently, there also exists a competitive donation culture between fandoms. In 2018, the fandoms of BTS, Wanna One, and other 14 different idol groups competed in a “Donation Race” conducted by an application company, and the winner was able to make donations in their artist’s name.
The K-Pop fandom culture has constantly changed over the years. Whereas in the past, the K-Pop fans remained passive consumers, they are now serving the role of creative producers of cultural content. At the same time, however, working towards resolving the downsides that follow the expansion of the fandom’s role is an assignment for Korean society. The SKT expects that the K-pop fans will move from blind idolization to maturely walking together with their artists, creating positive synergy as prosumers.
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