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Kpop and the Clash of Eastern and Western Fan Cultures
Introduction
On May 5, 2012, South Korean boy band Big Bang won the “Best Fan” award in the
2012 MTV TRL Awards in Italy. They beat out One Direction, Avril Lavigne, Emma, and
Alessanra Amoroso for the honor. This wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated online
voting done by their global internet fans, known as VIPs. Within moments of winning, member
Taeyang tweeted out a thank you to their fans, and minutes later #BigbangfantasticVIPs was
trending worldwide on Twitter (Maggo).
Although the spread of Asian music, in general, has slowly started to spread globally, no
Asian music scene currently has as much momentum in the West as South Korean popular
music, also known as Kpop. This is in large part due to South Korea’s hyper connected internet
culture, spikes in Western Kpop social media usage, and industry involvement. It’s important to
see the history of the genre’s expansion and to question if and how future mainstream acceptance
in the West will influence Kpop fandom’s current culture.
Korean Wave
The spread of South Korean culture around the world is what has been termed “hallyu” or
the “Korean wave”. The Korean wave covers the spread of Korean dramas, music, food,
clothing, language, and video games.
In the late 90’s, there was an Asian financial crisis which caused the South Korean
industries to diversify and embrace capitalism in full force. The first ‘wave’ of hallyu was in
2001, when the various Asian countries that had been ‘hit’ by the wave began discussing it in
newspapers and academia (Cho). The year 2003 marked a 2nd surge to the Korean wave. This
was due in most part to a slew of very popular television dramas and films. The Korean wave
entered its current global surge after 2008 with the creation of sites that easily allowed for the
subtitling of dramas, movies, music videos, and celebrity television appearances.
Kpop
Hartong best described Korean popular music in Musical Terms Worldwide.
“K-pop is an abbreviation of Korean pop, Korea here
referring solely to South Korea since there is practically no
Western-influenced popular music industry in North Korea. In the
latter state, musical activity is strictly controlled by the
government, which encourages music with patriotic overtones,
often played by large workers’ orchestras.
Toward the end of the 1960s in South Korea, a blending
started between Western-style popular music and the already
existing enka-like songs that were enjoyed by the masses. In the
1980s, student protest movements gave rise to new styles of
popular music with strongly nationalist sentiments and progressive
ideologies. Since the 1990s, popular genres like rap, rock and
techno house have been incorporated into Korean popular music,
setting the trend for the present generation of K-pop, which often
emulates American models.” (Hartong 15)
It’s fair to say that Seo Tai-ji & Boys started the shift of K-pop in the early 90’s by
incorporating rap, techno, and rock elements in their music. The musical aspect of Hallyu didn’t
take off until the three largest talent agencies came into being. These agencies are S.M.
Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment.
For the purposes of this paper, Kpop artists are those that debut in Korea and then move
out to tackle other markets; this excludes Korean-Americans like Aziatix, who started in the
American market, but doesn’t exclude Jay Park who, while Korean American, made his debut as
an artist in Korea with group 2PM.
These three talent agencies manufactured musical solo acts, musical groups, and actors.
Through an audition and training process, these companies fostered talented singers, dancers,
and actors and presented them to the Korean and Asian markets for consumption. The companies
also created official fan clubs for each group with a specific name and fan color to reinforce the
fan mentality. As an example, take the group TVXQ. This group has the largest fan club in the
world, with 800,000 official fan club members in South Korea, over 200,000 official members in
Japan, and more than 200,000 international fans (DBSKer). The fan club name is Cassiopeia, and
the official fan color is Pearl Red.
http://www.cyworld.vn/v2/myhome/blog/detail/homeid/12000933994/entry/45/folder/0
In the late 90’s, Korea also incorporated weekly music shows, where artists perform their
title track every week for their entire album promotional period. Along with this programming,
many Kpop idols would appear on newly created variety shows, where they would do funny
interviews and entertaining activities. Both the music shows and variety shows helped to
familiarize the public with the music and to humanize the idol by seeing them interact in relaxed
though a scripted environment.
The mid-2000’s saw a boom in new entertainment companies, new musical artists, and
the addition of a few more weekly music shows. Digital distribution of music also took off at this
time. It isn’t until 2009 that Kpop really escalated in non-Asian parts of the world. The factors
for this will be discussed later on.
State of South Korea
It would be remiss to continue the discussion of Kpop and its spread without mentioning
some facts about Korea that factor into the rate of dissemination of the media in non-Asian
markets.
South Korea is approximately 98 times smaller than the United States in terms of land
area. It is home to a little less than 50 million people.
It has the world’s highest internet penetration at 80.9% and has the fastest internet speeds,
four times faster than the world average. One out of every five Korean citizens owns a
smartphone. Half of the country’s internet users spend more than 14 hours a week online.
Due in large part to the internet penetration and fast internet speeds, music piracy was,
and continues to be, a hot button issue in South Korea. This has spurred the early adoption of
digital distribution and alternative revenue streams for the entertainment companies.
The current social networking sites of choice in order of scale are cyworld, me2day,
kakaotalk, Twitter, and Facebook. The top video distribution channels are Daum tv, Pandora.tv,
cyworld, Naver, and lastly YouTube with only 8% penetration ("Digital Media in South Korea").
Spread of Kpop in the West prior to viral media boom
The timeline discussed here is from the beginning of the Hallyu wave in about 1999 all
the way to the end of 2008. This is the period of time before Kpop gained momentum in the
West.
From 1999 to the mid-2000s much of the West, and the world, was slowly making a
transition from dial-up to broadband internet connections. The bulk of Kpop fans in the West
were either first generation Koreans, were introduced to it by a Korean friend, or found it by way
of Japanese Popular Music.
The places for Kpop news were Soompi.com, LiveJournal, and a variety of now-extinct
internet forums; Soompi was one of if not the most visited English language forums to Korean
pop culture in this period. All news was fan translated. Video and Audio content was either
downloaded on clubbox.co.kr, with obscure translated instructions on Soompi on how to operate
the service, or one of the Peer-to-Peer programs like Napster, Kazaa, or Limewire. During this
time legally obtaining a physical CD was expensive and no digital distribution of Korean music
in the American market was available.
Spread of Kpop in the West and the viral media boom
Kpop doesn’t start to gain momentum until the start of 2009. It’s at this moment in Kpop
fan history that social media use booms and the international and Western fan communities
become more
organized.
http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=Kpop&geo=US&cmpt=geo
Music Industry Involvement
It’s at this moment in Kpop history that the Korean entertainment industry becomes
aware of an untapped market. The entertainment industry responds by investing resources into
YouTube and global digital download availability.
The three biggest entertainment companies—SME, YGE, and JYPE—all opened
YouTube channels between 2008 and 2010. YouTube was already a favorite location of
international fans. Fans uploaded the music videos of their favorite artists, fan vids, subtitled tv
appearances, remixes, and covers. Once the entertainment companies came in and began posting
music videos and performances by the artists, fans were able to concentrate their viewing of
content on a single video source instead of twenty versions of the same video uploaded by
different fans. This proved as an extra effective method when the companies learned to release
the video content on YouTube and their Korean video sites simultaneously. The concentration of
viewership led and continues to lead to many instances of Kpop videos showing up in the most
popular videos section of YouTube. This creates a situation where people who weren’t already
fans of Kpop or that particular artist can be exposed to the content.
http://doublebubblecombo.tumblr.com/post/3575112636/tonight-mv-is-on-the-front-page-of-YouTube
The Korean entertainment industry’s other tactic for American/Global penetration has
been to start offering Kpop digital downloads on iTunes. This may at first not seem like an
important milestone, but prior to this, buying a legitimate copy of a Kpop artists’ music required
exorbitant shipping prices and long waits. In a climate where immediacy is prized, a legitimate
and relatively inexpensive way to support a Kpop artist is welcome. A quote that is not
uncommon to see on social networking sites is “[insert artist here] owns my heart and my
wallet”.
Social Media Boom
Also starting in 2009, a flood of Kpop stars began joining Twitter. This joining spree was
spearheaded by artists like BoA, Se7en, and the Wonder Girls, who were all promoting for their
U.S. debuts. This spurred a massive growth of Kpop fans on Twitter. Twitter became the first
location where international fans had the opportunity to communicate with their favorite artists.
The number of Kpop fans on Twitter has reached the point where it’s not uncommon to
see a Kpop related trending topic happening at any time. In 2011, Mashable, in conjunction with
What the Trend, analyzed hashtags and discovered that Super Junior, a Korean boy band, was the
7th most used trending topic in the world, even beating out Britney Spears (Silverman).
http://www.dKpopnews.net/2010/10/twitter-Kpop-overtakes-list-of-trends.html
The years 2009 to 2012 also saw the emergence of a few other factors that contributed to
the growth of Kpop in the West. The launch of three drama and movie fan-subtitling websites in
late 2008, Viki, DramaFever, and MySoju, helped to foster interest in Korean music through the
use of Original Drama Soundtracks. Also beginning in late 2008, highly trafficked celebrity
gossip blogger Perez Hilton began featuring Kpop videos and Kpop news in some of his posts. In
2011, the Kpop fandom saw a surge in Tumblr usage and in Facebook fan page participation.
The transitions of the Kpop fan portals from Livejournal to blogs and forums in 2009 also
led to a more organized translation and news sharing cycle. This, along with the growing
popularity of Korean culture gossip sites like AllKpop.com, has aided in overcoming the biggest
barrier that Kpop faces—language.
Western and Eastern View of Fan Culture
The Western and Eastern views of fan participatory culture tend to take two separate
routes. While Western scholarly works on fans tend to suggest a tension between the fans and the
official culture, the Eastern perspective differs.
“East Asian scholars propose the concept of ‘intimacy,’ which ‘impels individuals to act
in ways that go beyond the bounds of self to seek greater communion with the object of their
adoration’” (Kelly 44)
In this view the fan seeks intimacy or relationship building between them and the star and
other fans. The “intimacy is centered on the fan relationship to the star rather than a specific
cultural text or event…” (Harrington Kindle Location: 3976). There’s also the view that fans are
trained to be on their best behavior, since their actions reflect on the reputation of their star.
I’ll argue that the differences in national and cultural structure of the industries, changes
the way fans participate or view themselves in the context of fandom (Harrington Kindle
Location: 4043). In the West artists tend to be idolized as untouchable figures that appear, to give
a performance, interview, or speech and then go off to lead a Hollywood lifestyle. In the East
there’s a trend to humanize the artist. By having the artists appear on shows where they
participate in funny games and by having weekly promotional performances, Eastern culture
aims to present the artist as someone you’re friends with. The singer or group becomes someone
who is not only idolized by the fan, but loved as family for their presented personality, talent,
hard work, and seeming approachability.
When Kpop Gets Popular in the West
At this point in Western Kpop history most of the current fanbases hold this very Eastern
approach to fandom. The personal connection that the fan makes with the artist drives their
participation in fan activities. Whether it’s raising funds for charity in the name of their artist,
buying albums and fan goods, producing subtitles in other languages, or trending their artist on
Twitter, for the most part the Global Kpop Fandom has embraced this Eastern approach to
fandom.
However, what happens when Kpop hits the mainstream? At this time various Korean
American artists have started to gain a wider circulation in the Western music scene. These
artists include acts like Far East Movement and Aziatix. In Korea, Girl’s Generation and 2ne1
are working on their American music scene debuts. Their sound is catchy and easily compatible
and comparable to pop hits by Lady Gaga while maintaining a certain Korean flavor. If Kpop
takes off in the Western mainstream, will the Eastern fan culture that currently exist become
eclipsed by the Western fan perspective? Will the Eastern fan culture rise up and encompass the
new up-swell of interest? Or will the fandom split into those who view their artists from an
Eastern approach and those who consume their fan culture from a more Western perspective?
Conclusion
With the current interest in Kpop by American musical artists like Ludacris and will.i.am,
along with the strong push by the entertainment industries in South Korea, and the spread of the
music by fans through social media usage, it’s almost inevitable that Kpop will break into the
American and Western music market in the near future.
Taking a look at the current global Kpop fandom both through articles and through
participation, it is clear to me that tensions are going to arise when Kpop becomes popular in the
West. Kpop fans are very protective and dedicated of their artists and each other through the fan
to artist to fan bonds they’ve formed. It is this view of artists as family or friends that I predict
will cause tensions within the future fan expansion. Both East and West approaches to fan
activity in the music scene will differ enough that both sides will have areas where they can’t see
eye to eye. However, I believe that given enough time, both types of activity could reach some
form of middle ground. Only time will tell.
Works Cited
Cho, Hae-Joang. "Reading the "Korean Wave" as a Sign of Global Shift." Ekoreajournal.net
Winter 45.4 (2005): 147-82. Print.
DBSKer. "A New Fever - DBSKer: BIGGEST FANCLUB - Guiness World Record." A New
Fever - DBSKer. 04 Feb. 2008. Web. 10 May 2012.
<http://dbsker.blogspot.com/2008/02/biggest-fanclub-guiness-world-record.html>.
"Digital Media in South Korea." - Digital Media Asia. Singapore Management University Wiki.
Web. 7 May 2012.
<https://wiki.smu.edu.sg/digitalmediaasia/Digital_Media_in_South_Korea>.
Hartong, Jan Laurens, Joep Bor, Simon Mills, Peter Van Amstel, and Aleksandra Marković.
Musical Terms Worldwide: A Companion for the Musical Explorer. Rome: Semar, 2006.
Print.
Harrington, C. Lee (2007-06-01). Fandom (Kindle Locations 3665-3669). NYU Press short.
Kindle Edition.
Kelly, William W. Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan.
Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2004. Print.
Maggo, Eduan. "Korea's Boy Band BigBang Rule MTV TRL Awards." Gulfnews. 07 May 2012.
Web. 07 May 2012. <http://gulfnews.com/arts-entertainment/music/korea-s-boy-bandbigbang-rule-mtv-trl-awards-1.1019007>.
Silverman, Matt. "Featured in Social Media." Mashable. Mashable, 06 Dec. 2011. Web. 09 May
2012. <http://mashable.com/2011/12/06/top-twitter-trends-2011/>.
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