Special to The Hawai’i Herald
Each year on New Year’s Eve, my family hosts a small party. We eat an amalgamation of our favorite foods, ranging from fried saimin to steak to Dutch apple pie, while we watch U.S. New Year’s Eve specials that air all night on cable TV. A truly American spectacle, it’s almost ironic that I first became interested in Korean pop music in this way.
Performing on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” in 2018, BTS — an acronym for their Korean name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, as well as their English name, “Beyond the Scene” — was my first true introduction to K-pop. Enthralled by the seven members’ flashy costumes, multicolored heads of hair and clean dance moves, I found myself surprised by how drawn I was to a band I had never heard of, and a performance unlike any I had ever seen before.
BTS, now a household name, exploded in popularity after my initial introduction to them three years ago. They were first introduced to the U.S. public at the Billboard Music Awards in May 2018, where they won the Social Artist award, becoming the first Korean act to win the title. In November, they returned to the United States and became the first Korean act to perform at the American Music Awards. Since then, BTS has gone on to earn numerous No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, sell out Wembley Stadium, place three No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and be nominated for multiple Grammy awards.
With BTS at the forefront, K-pop as a genre has also grown in recognition around the globe. By combining catchy music, synchronized choreography and elaborate artistry, K-pop performances are extremely eye-catching and flashy. While members dress attractively and their music goes down easy, idol groups are manufactured and branded under large entertainment companies. Prospective idols, known as trainees, endure rigorous practice sessions and strict diets before they are approved to debut, or release their first album to the general public.
In addition to the unique performance aspect, K-pop fan culture is cultivated by these entertainment companies as instrumental to the idols’ allure. With a never-ending abundance of content designed to humanize the idols, such as behind-the-scenes documentaries, spontaneous livestreams, video messages on holidays and even apps that allow fans to “text” their favorite artists, idols are marketed as more than their dancing and singing skills. As fans begin to learn more about their idols’ personalities, they begin to develop a stronger relationship with them, which is reflected in their willingness to continue buying the artists’ products.
These products range from the artists’ albums — which often resemble books, and include photo books filled with exclusive photos, as well as photo cards — to lightsticks, glow sticks used at concerts with a design tailored to each artist, to products specific to certain times of year, like December “Season’s Greetings” packages containing themed photos and calendars. Apparel, stationery and accessories branded with the names and faces of K-pop artists are also common.
However, the experiences that K-pop artists provide their fans are, although pricier, even more fulfilling for fans. Idols don’t only perform concerts, but also offer events beyond that, such as “hi-touch” events, where fans can give high fives to members of their favorite idol group, and more traditional meet-and-greet events, known colloquially as fansigns.
After moving to Los Angeles for college, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in many K-pop experiences, both with BTS and with other groups I discovered later in my time as a K-pop fan. As of 2020, I’ve been to nine K-pop concerts in person, one of which was hosted by KCON, an annual convention celebrating Korean pop culture held in a number of locations around the world, and even more that were held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, I’ve attended two hi-touch events, one online fansign and several special events, including a YouTube video filming with group ATEEZ and a pop-up shop for group SuperM.
Since my discovery of BTS three years ago, I was surprised to see that my interest in K-pop didn’t end there.
At the end of each year, the Korean music industry holds several end-of-year music festivals and award shows, where groups perform “special stages,” consisting of renditions of their most popular songs of that year, often remixed or with additional choreography and stunts. I remember turning on the first show of the season; with the sole intention of just watching BTS’s special stage show, I was captivated by another group in a way that came almost full circle to BTS capturing my attention almost a year before.
That group, known as THE BOYZ, would go on to become and remain one of my favorite groups. It’s because of this group that I found the most valuable aspect of becoming a K-pop fan: the community that comes with it.
I became a TheB, or a fan of THE BOYZ — unique fandom names are popular among K-pop groups, with names ranging from “TheB” to “Stay” to “Treasure Maker.” Then I created a Twitter account specifically for following K-pop, a practice that isn’t uncommon, with fans’ K-pop accounts dominating Twitter trends to spread daily awareness about their favorite artists’ birthdays, accomplishments or activities. Suddenly, I was, albeit virtually, surrounded by other fans from around the world who had the same interest as I did. Some fans I would grow to become close friends with after meeting them in person at concerts, or after watching weekly music shows together with them through video calls.
Often referred to as a global phenomenon, I sometimes think that people are confused by how K-pop grew so quickly in popularity and influence. However, I think that the community it provides for listeners, both the artists and each other, is one that is unparalleled. In a time and place where we are constantly isolated, I find it almost comforting that I’ve been able to stay connected with others through the music I listen to, even if it’s in a language none of us understands.
Kacie Yamamoto is a K-pop fangirl and a gosei attending the University of Southern California. She is a sophomore majoring in journalism and a former intern at The Hawai‘i Herald.