Whenever new people find out that I’m into K-Pop, the conversation goes two ways depending on what kind of person I’m talking to. There’s the fellow K-Pop stan, who immediately asks about my ult group and bias, and the well-meaning friend who asks for recos.
And then there’s the third kind of person who just has to know why I like it. The kind who bombards me with questions about the ethics of the whole industry. It’s never “Who’s the most gwapo member?” or “What’s your fave song?” Oh, no. They get right into it with “What about those slave contracts, eh?” or “Don’t the groups function as puppets for their respective agencies?” and “Aren’t agencies basically capitalist machines that overwork their artists and promote unrealistic ideals of beauty and perfection?”
The short answer is: yes (or yes, *chuckles*), I know. Most K-Pop stans are well aware of the sketchy practices that go down behind the scenes of the Korean entertainment industry.
When I fell down the rabbit hole two years ago, all I was looking for was something to help me destress from school. I found respite in a video of seven Korean guys singing about self-confidence while dancing in cereal (sounds NSFW but trust me, it’s totally PG). You know, the same way you’d start stanning any other run-of-the-mill Western pop act. It’s not like getting into a group means that we signed an imaginary contract to auction off our souls to capitalism.
It’s not like getting into a group means that we signed an imaginary contract to auction off our souls to capitalism.
Fast forward to five boy groups, four girl groups, and two solo artists later, and I guess you can say that I’m in deep. Like any other interest, my love started small — I found their songs catchy, the music videos well-made. [READ: A public apology from a BTS stan to her family and friends]
Being a K-Pop fan means that you’ll be constantly well-fed — each quarter brings with it mini albums, concerts, repackages, reality show appearances, summer packages, brand collaborations, and the list goes on. Getting deeper into the fandom means that you learn more about what it takes to create all this content. There’s the issue of unreasonable agency contracts, of how idols are expected to be perfect at all times, how being in a relationship can be grounds for your agency dropping you, of how it’s the local fans who enable the agencies to get away with all these high standards. Stan twitter in itself is a whole other story, with the added spice of toxic fandoms and fan wars.
There’s the issue of unreasonable agency contracts, of how idols are expected to be perfect at all times, how being in a relationship can be grounds for your agency dropping you, of how it’s the local fans who enable the agencies to get away with all these high standards.
At the 2018 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) early this month, members of BTS broke the perfection bubble with their acceptance speeches for the Artist of the Year daesang (major award). As Jin tearfully admitted that they thought of disbanding earlier this year due to the mental pressure, ARMYs all over the world took to Twitter to express their disbelief and to #protectBTS. Talk of disbandment brought to mind the move that Seo Taiji and Boys pulled over two decades ago, when they disbanded at the height of their careers.
BTS is a group that’s known for breaking the typical mold, having come from a small agency that trusts its artists to be a part of the creative process. Two members, RM and Suga, act as producers and have a major role in music production, while the others actively participate with their own individual songs. They’re also the first K-pop group to enter (and conquer) the American market, which historically isn’t as accepting of non-English language music.
To hear words like that coming from a group as big (and as progressive) as them was a punch in the gut. Some people might say that they did this to themselves, but in reality there are so many layers to consider. Factor in the immense pressure of representing your country on the international stage, and of not wanting to disappoint the legions of fans who helped you get to where you are.
Fans are always stressing over how idols deserve better, and it’s maybe through their complaints and other factors that the industry’s improved over the years.
There’s only so much that we can understand as fans who aren’t familiar with Korean culture. We don’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening, either. Of course I want what’s best for my faves, but as an international fan there isn’t much I can do apart from buy albums and merch and send out words of support through social media. Jin’s speech was a reminder that we as fans need to cut idols some slack on our part. Stop demanding for content, or enabling the agencies to hold their unrealistic expectations.
Additionally, fans are always stressing over how idols deserve better, and it’s maybe through their complaints and other factors that the industry’s improved over the years, with the Korean Fair Trade Commission cracking down on slave contracts, and in the way more artists are gaining creative control over their work (see: Seventeen, Stray Kids, etc.). Other artists, like Holland, are out there breaking the stereotypes and making way for LGBT acceptance.
There’s a lot of dissonance that comes with the fandom, and I guess a huge part of it involves being critical and hoping for the best.
It’s a LOT, guys. K-Pop fans really go through it. There’s a lot of dissonance that comes with the fandom, and I guess a huge part of it involves being critical and hoping for the best. Is it enough that we’re aware of all this toxicity? And for me, to think all of this stemmed from a video of guys in cereal. Most of the time, I’m just like, I just want to enjoy the things that make me happy. Why does it have to be so hard?
So please think twice before attacking us with questions or throwing shade. We’re also in the process of learning, asking more questions, and making sense of things. Let us enjoy our comebacks in peace, non-ironic finger hearts included. Gamsahamnida!