Sam Lansky, a writer for the ESPN-affiliated Grantland, recently dipped his feet into the K-pop waters on the back of his previous experience with the genre. Predictably, he found his feet bitten off by the fandom.
It’s hilarious how frightened he sounds by the insane fans, but also sort of sad.
I tweeted, joking: “Who is this guy from TVXQ and why does he keep undressing me with his eyes?” A few moments later, my timeline was flooded with responses from the few dozen K-pop fans who followed me, as one of the handful of American music journalists who had jumped on the K-pop bandwagon; they identified him as Yunho. I quickly followed up: “Turns out his name is Yunho and we’re eloping after the concert tonight, bye.” Those tweets were retweeted in rapid-fire succession, and soon my phone was vibrating with so many new followers that I had to turn off my notifications.
Several of my new followers pointed me to the handle of another K-pop star, Kim Jaejoong, from the boy band JYJ; it wasn’t hard to figure out that the fans believed that Yunho and Jaejoong were gay lovers. I was on a trolling high. Foolishly, I tweeted at him. “@mjjeje Hey, guess what? I’m coming for your man. Hope you’ve got him on a tight leash.” Overnight, my followers skyrocketed; I received friend requests from dozens of Asian K-pop fans; GIFs and memes were made using my Twitter photo; someone on Tumblr took a screenshot of that string of tweets, which has 1,178 notes to date. A month later, I was sent the scan of a Japanese tabloid called Yoochun News, which had an article about the mysterious American journalist (I was identified in silhouette only as Mr. S) whose love for Yunho had captivated fans.
Most chillingly, though, there was a deluge of death threats from crazed fans who, whether they perceived me as an actual threat to the imagined romance between Yunho and Jaejoong or merely an annoyance who should to be silenced, gave me pause in an online game that had become addictively pleasurable. “Let me show you how you shall die,” one began. “@mjjeje has only a 100+ stalkers. One order from his lush lips … and your throat shall be slit!” There were many others, but that one stuck with me — mostly because it was retweeted so many times.
Annnnnnnddddddd … welcome to K-pop, Sam Lansky.
I’ve believed for a while now that the insane K-pop fandom would be an obstacle rather than a boon for K-pop’s quest to become mainstream in America for exactly these types of situations.
If K-pop continues to grow, then more and more people will get curious and show an interest in K-pop, but they won’t yet totally grasp what comes along with the reactionary and emotionally unstable fandom, and as soon as they try to dip their feet in the K-pop waters, sharks like the people depicted above will start nipping at the toes of prospective fans and it will scare people away.
It’s as much a visual style as a sonic one, though, and the videos are where the magic happens. Like American pop stars, K-pop “idols” — as they’re known — are uniformly willowy, beautiful, and charismatic, with jaw-dropping choreography and dizzyingly high production values. Unlike American pop stars, K-pop idols command a level of obsession among their fans that easily outshines the Beliebers and Directioners, and their choirs of screaming adulation have become as much a part of an album campaign as the music itself. No, K-pop fans can be scary.
“K-pop is like a drug,” an executive at a top Korean label told me. (He asked to remain anonymous.) “The fans — they’re hooked. It’s like a cult, or a drug that they want more and more of.”
With K-pop, stan behavior carries over into the real world with frequent, alarming consequences. In my estimation, the most majestically insane instance of this surrounded the object of my affection, Yunho, who was backstage during the taping of a variety show several years ago when the fan of a rival group sneaked backstage and poisoned him. (Yunho was hospitalized and the perpetrator was arrested.)
Remember, these are people that care obsessively about K-pop and go around on sites like these whining about how racist America is and how much better their oppars and unnirs are than those dumb dirty American artists, but those same fans are a big reason that people get turned off by the fandom, slowly lose interest, or quit altogether.
These people are part of K-pop’s problem in America, not the solution, and it’s all amusing to watch them continue to screw shit up for the thing that they love. It’s like self-immolation, but with epic comical irony.
The article wasn’t just about his experiences with the fans though, as he does end up getting a revealing quote from an “executive at a top Korean label”*.
*How much do you wanna bet this was JYP?
That type of devotion is an A&R dream, and manufacturing fan support of that ilk should be a good thing, so it’s easy to see K-Pop fandom as a runaway train; the label executive I spoke with insisted that the fan engagement was organic but difficult to rein in. “There are no masterminds at our companies,” he said. “It happens itself. These fans create groups themselves, and find members. You can do it so easily now, with the technology of the Internet. It’s a lot more accessible. It’s just a cult … It’s really hard to control.”
I’ve never actually heard that admission from a person directly responsible for creating the good and bad of the idol culture in Korea.
What Sam Lansky revealed was probably more insightful and revealing than anything I’ve read from Korean entertainment journalists over the years, which is sort of sad, considering this piece wasn’t an investigative journalism deal or anything, just a blog post for Hollywood Prospectus.
Overall, I found it to be an illuminating story in regards to both how K-pop works and how the fandom acts. Though I think in the end it revealed more negative than positive.