Episode 3: The Making of a K‑pop Fan
We decode the marketing genius behind K-pop and the Indian roots of the K-pop musical form.
‘Hello Hallyu’ is a six-part podcast series exploring how the Korean wave captivated Indian fans, and forever changed our ideas of gender, fashion and romance.
Full episode transcript:
Sadhana: I just wanted to learn all seven of their names. I clicked play. One video turned to another. Soon, I knew their birthdays, the names of all their pets, and their songs soundtracked my life over the next couple of years. I’m talking about the K-pop group BTS and how I got into them. At the peak of my fandom, when I went for a walk, I listened to their songs. When a friend sent me a message, they received a GIF of a BTS member as a reply. When I wanted a break from caregiving for my father who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, I stood in the hallway of hospitals, barely aware of my surroundings, and watched their reality show “Run BTS.” My days were filled with notifications from Discord chats and a secret Twitter account I’d created only to speak to other fans like me. Turns out, I’m not alone. It always starts with wanting to just learn their names.
S: Hi, I’m Sadhana.
Nirupama: And I’m Nirupama. We’re journalists, but more importantly, we’re fans of Korean entertainment.
S: This is Hello Hallyu, the story of the rise of Korean entertainment in India.
N: In the last episode, we delved into K-dramas, the first Korean entertainment to make its way to India. In this episode, we’re talking about K-pop, and how it resulted in a boom in Korean entertainment.
_______ MUSIC ____________
N: So the other day, a senior from work posted a photo on our office Slack channel with the caption “BTS.” I thought “What?! A BTS fan I didn’t know of?” But the message turned out to be just a picture of a bunch of laptops, cameras and wires.
S: He meant Behind the Scenes.
N: Yes, he meant Behind the Scenes. But since the band BTS is everywhere these days, I can’t think of anything else when I hear those letters together.
S: Haha, you’re right. There’s no escaping them if you’re on any kind of social media. And these days, even local radio [carries their hits.]
N: Yeah, and guess who backs this up? Spotify. When we reached out to them, they said the same thing: that BTS is among the top streamed artists all over India. The number of streams for K-pop doubled between 2019 and 2020 in India. It’s a favourite not just in metro cities, but all over the country.
Oh, and wait, the bit I found most interesting: in February 2020, Spotify found that in Telangana, the top tracks for females over the age of 55 were K-Pop group EXO’s songs. I want to know who these people are.
S: Yeah! I’m curious too! If you’re listening…
N: Dude, it’s crazy how big K-pop is now. When I first got introduced to K-pop, they were a fringe subculture. They’re super mainstream now!
S: But people who aren’t fans are often super confused as to why this is so popular. To answer that, I think we have to first talk about what K-pop is. Let’s hear from Prof. Michelle Cho, who researches Korean popular culture at the University of Toronto, on what makes K-pop much more than just a genre of music.
Michelle Cho: So, most K-pop idol groups are understood to be working in both visual and auditory ways, right? They [K pop groups] are recording artists and they release albums and singles that stream on platforms or that sell on CDs. But, they’re also stage performers, and they also appear in video content, right? So, the visual aspects of K-pop are very, very important. I don’t think that you can think about K-pop just as a genre of pop music.
I think you have to think of it as a multimedia phenomenon, and the visual, the screen culture that it produces. Music, videos, live performance, recordings, just the visual reality of K-pop is very important. It exists to a certain extent with other musical artists also. But I think in the context of K-pop, these two pieces are inextricable. You can’t really separate the sound from the image.
N: And this “audiovisual” package is what drew many many fans, including Emma Chang, creator of the popular YouTube channel Reacttothek, where classical musicians from the Eastman School of Music in New York react to K-pop songs. Their reactions and analysis of K-pop got so popular they racked up 700,000 subscribers.
Why we find K-pop so interesting is because it’s always changing. There’s always something that really draws you in and keeps you [hooked.] It is very concentrated on the music. And that means there’s going to be a shift in style throughout a three-minute song. There’s going to be a change in your genre. There are going to be surprising things happening in the video and in the music. And that’s just the starting point. That’s just reason Number One why musicians may be interested in some K-pop versus mainstream pop elsewhere.
Emma: Usually in pop music, they [artists] try to simplify the harmony. Harmony is basically — if you imagine the thickness of colors when you’re listening to things, its notes layered upon each other to create certain moods. This harmony is much more complicated in K-pop because it takes inspiration from R&B and so many other really interesting genres. Then it mixes that interesting harmony with a bunch of changes. So when you’re listening to it, it never makes you bored because they encourage change throughout.
That’s what makes them stand out from everything else.
S: It’s really interesting when this happens. For instance, since we were talking about EXO before, and this is one of my favourite K-pop songs, there’s a song by EXO called “Tempo.” It’s a pretty good hip-hop/rap song, and has these interesting vocal changes and keeps up a pretty good EDM tempo. But then towards the end of the song, in the part called the bridge, they just go into this extended really crazy acapella and showcase all of their vocal and harmonizing skills and the change is SO good to listen to and keeps you entertained throughout!
N: I have to say, this character of K-pop songs sort of reminds me of some Indian songs — especially those by A.R. Rahman. His songs have a lot of things going on and some are almost eclectic. So there’s this Tamil song called “Veerapandi Kottayile” from the 90s that is a brilliant mix of genres with surprising music transitions. It’s like listening to three or four different songs at the same time, so satisfying. You should listen to it.
S: Oh yes! I know this one – when I tried to explain why I liked K-pop to a cousin he made me listen to it, saying this multi-genre high-tempo formula has been a part of Indian music for a while. But again, with K-pop, like we said before, it’s not only about the music, is it?
E: I think a lot of people have seen a lot of comments saying that K-pop is a whole experience. It almost satisfies the five senses, minus smell and taste. But like visual storytelling, musical storytelling, it’s something that I was originally drawn to because not only did I like the music, but the fact that I didn’t understand the language is something I really enjoyed. Because a lot of what is mainstream in Western pop is just sexy stuff. Only sexy stuff about going partying, getting drunk, hooking up — I can’t relate to that. So when I got into K-pop and I couldn’t understand what they’re saying, I just learned the choreo and I listened to the music.
Like that’s all that matters.
N: I think that answers the question people often have — which is how can you like something you don’t understand? Well, K-pop can be experienced without needing to know the language.
S: Yeah, the “experience” part of it is really what makes you hooked to it. You would start off thinking a song is nice, and the music video is really compelling, but then you’re almost exposed to this whole other constellation of content.
And you know, that’s something the agencies and labels that run K-pop groups want and strive for — to create that sort of investment and relationship between the fans and the idols using all this content. Prof. Michelle Cho tells us how it’s unique to K-pop, taking the example of how BTS, and their agency BigHit Entertainment, have managed to do this incredibly well.
MC: I think the other thing that K-pop offers is all of this fan service content, which maybe is something that doesn’t necessarily translate or exist in every media industry. But in K-pop, it’s incredibly important social media content, video content that kind of depicts the group in. During supposedly candid situations, although all of it is produced by BigHit Entertainment (for BTS), and in the arena of reality television, don’t rely on Korean network TV to give them opportunities to showcase their behind-the-scenes persona.
They produce their own reality TV series called “run BTS,” which has been an ongoing series for quite a while on the neighbour V live platform. They’ve also had lots of other reality series that have been produced kind of in-house by BigHit Entertainment. And so in those spaces, BTS are incredibly engaging to watch, and fans really always remark on the friendship that the group members seem to have with each other, the relationships that they have with each other. It’s just really entertaining to watch them do these things other than the idol, professional content — which is the stage performances and music, video performances. In both areas, they’re just as engaging to watch kind of goofing off as they are on stage in this hyper-polished performance.
N: Oooh! I get exactly what she’s saying. Their goofing off is so entertaining. What I also found interesting when I watched a few K-pop videos — I picked it up from fan comments — was this whole alternate universe story-building going on in some of the videos.
S: Yes, some groups like “Loona” and “BTS” have these very elaborate storylines where the members play fictionalised versions of themselves, and it’s very, very detailed. There are these little hidden details throughout their videos and other content that only hardcore fans can pick out.
N: It’s getting more and more interesting, and more and more immersive, I feel. Like the more time you spend on it, the more you get to know and it makes you want to spend more time on it!
S: The story building is one aspect, but K-pop companies have also come up with other ways to get you to be more immersed and feel like you’re really “close” with an idol and create that sense of intimacy with them.
N: Oh, I know what you’re talking about. I think I’ve experienced this. I once went down a rabbit hole of BTS videos. There are like a million of those on YouTube. I’m not even a huge fan or anything, but it drew me in and kept me going for hours. By the end of it, I felt like I was somehow the invisible eighth member of the gang. I hadn’t thought about it too much then, but now that we’re discussing it, I realise what exactly happened and how it was a planned exercise that the agencies undertake. It’s just dawning on me.
S: Yeah, it’s unbelievably effective! But to create this intimacy, beyond the music [and] the variety shows, BigHit Entertainment, which manages BTS, also released a couple of games. In one of these, it’s a simulation game where you “manage” BTS when they are just starting off as a group and have to get them to succeed. And while playing this, you actually have to “text” the members in the game and they respond to you in sometimes flirtatious tones. One example, where a member Jin is saying in the game: “Manager, how are you so perfect? Your personality, your face.”
N: And you’re supposed to respond to it?
S: Yeah. And you can respond with:
“Ans 1: Did you do something wrong?”
“Ans 2: I mean, yes, I am”
“Ans 3: What is this?”
N: Oh. This is actually a nice way to handhold socially awkward people. Also, that sounds similar to the Japanese Otome games — the dating simulation games that are made for young women.
S: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. They released another game too, which is well, a whole other story. But then it’s not just BTS, you know? Two of the most popular K-pop agencies SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment also got their idols to be on this app called “Bubble.”
N: Is that Bumble for idols?
S: Lol, that would be really wild. Bubble is basically an app for fans to receive messages from SM, JYP idols. It actually looks like a messaging app and you have the option to add idols as your “friends.”
N: And then you receive automated messages from them? Like receiving a text?
S: Well, it’s not a bot, [not] a person, no way of telling whether it’s the idol themselves or a staff member still sending these out. It’s more like receiving a WhatsApp broadcast message, so it still shows up in your “chat.” But I want to talk about one example — this may have been done as a tongue-in-cheek joke, but it’s really illustrative of the kinds of interaction [with] idols and fans that K-pop companies encourage. This is a message that Baekhyun, who is a member of the groups EXO and SuperM, sent to fans on Bubble when he first joined the app.
I’m going to say it like you’re the user, okay?
N: Go for it.
S: “Hello Nirupama! If I remember correctly, we’ve met before, right? That first time we met, I was really interested in you so I asked for your number, but you have no idea how nervous I was then. I’m honestly really nervous right now, contacting you again… Let’s become close enough from here on out so that these nerves will become more comfortable, and later on, we can share all of our happy things and sad things with each other!”
N: Oh my god, this is insane. He roleplayed as the guy who asked your number? So, it WAS Bumble for idols! I can imagine fans skipping a heartbeat while receiving this. Initially, I was not sure why anybody would use such a thing, but this sounds really effective. Not for older people who probably write it off as a joke, but, imagine, if you’re still a young teen, how “real” it could seem.
S: And a large section of K-pop fans are, in fact, young people — because these are girl and boy bands, after all.
N: And all this is what Prof. Michelle Cho calls “digital intimacy.”
MC: I definitely think that digital intimacy is an incredibly important aspect of K-pop and K-pop fandom. In fact, Korean idol pop has been a popular genre of musical entertainment in Korea since before the internet.
But it really has only become as globally successful as it is because of digital distribution. Like I said, the way that fandom operates nowadays, as a kind of global phenomenon so fans are everywhere, is only possible because of social media platforms. And the way that K-pop groups are able to leverage the kind of the global reach of platforms like Twitter and YouTube in order to distribute their content, and also to give fans a space to interact both with the adults and with each other. I think that that’s really how intimacy is created even at such large geographical distances.
S: Yeah, we see artists around the world using social media, but it is nowhere close to the structured kind of engagement that you’re seeing with K-pop.
N: This level of intimacy and investment that is created by the K-pop universe has to be what makes superfans out of so many people. It’s very different from how I am a fan of, say, “Coldplay.”
S: Ya. When you’re a fan of bands like “Coldplay,” or music directors in India, you have one album a year. If you’re lucky, a lot of times it’s one in two, or three, or even five years. With K-pop, it’s almost like, for the time that the group is active, once you get into it, there’s so much content available for you to consume that you don’t even feel the need to look elsewhere for entertainment.
N: Okay, that sounds exaggerated. Won’t you get tired of watching the same music videos, choreos and variety shows? I feel like all that can be watched in a day. What after that?
S: Ha, you’d think, but there’s so much more than that. Let’s say you’re a fan of group X. You get to know they have an album coming out in two months.
For the month before the release, you’ll have teaser videos for each of the members, you’ll have teaser videos for the lead single, photoshoots, album cover reveals, MULTIPLE covers reveal, then the lead single, the choreography video for the lead single, then the album itself, and live performances in multiple channels and programmes for the new songs, V lives from the members talking about the whole process, and…
After one release, before you know it, in a couple of months there’s an announcement of another mini-album.
While all this is going on, the members are appearing in dramas, releasing their solo or sub-group songs, going on variety shows, modelling, appearing in fashion shows and a steady stream of social media updates. Whew.
N: Okay, this is like a vortex. I truly get the fan service content aspect of K-pop now. But, all this is a massive commercial apparatus, right? So then the natural question that would come to people’s minds is don’t people know they’re being played, and object to it?
S: This sort of commercialisation is not unique to K-pop — maybe only the scale at which it is done. So, there are fans who acknowledge this and pick and choose the content that they want to consume and how they indulge their “fannishness.” Another way fans engage with this industrial complex, as you’re putting it, and this is just my opinion, is that whenever there’s something that’s excessively commercial, fans complain that it’s the company, the agency that’s doing all this to make money — and it’s true.
N: Oh yeah, I’ve seen fans on Twitter say things like “Ugh, XYZ entertainment doesn’t stop at anything to make money.”
S: Yeah! But despite it all, they’ll still find a way to support their group, because idols are always telling them how important the fans are to their success.
MC: And so that acknowledgement of fan artist dependence in a certain way creates a very, very passionate fandom who was really invested in the success of their favourite groups. So, I think that that kind of sociality, groups talking, and fans feeling a sense of responsibility to support their favourite artists. Almost as if they are like not exactly parenting them, but maybe a little bit sort of caretaking, I guess, for their idols. That’s I think something unique to K-pop as a form format of popular music.
S: This sense of “responsibility” is also the cause for a lot of fan wars and basically [the] ugliness that you get to see in K-pop fandom.
N: Do you mean the stans?
S: Yup, the stans. So, if you read mainstream media coverage of K-pop, “Stans” kind of proclaim that K-pop fans are coming to save the world, and how politically savvy they are and what not— and this completely falls apart when you closely look at the kind of doxxing and toxicity that goes on in the fandom world.
N: Yes, I’ve heard stories, including from some of the people we interviewed, right? But this sort of toxicity — it can’t be just K-pop. All fandoms that grow beyond a certain size tend to have elements like this within them.
S: Yeah, absolutely, it tends to be there in all fandoms. But here, you actually have people being harassed and sent death threats when they call out cultural appropriation by idols or criticise them.
N: And while we’re talking about toxicity, you know the flip side also exists. K-pop fans actually tend to routinely donate to social causes too. Like when fans donated over five lakhs for the Assam flood relief in India, or globally when fans matched BTS’ $1 million donations to the Black Lives Matter movement.
S: Yup, it’s important to remember that both of these coexist, and not only talk about one aspect over the other.
N: That is true. Another ugly side of K-pop thing that gets thrown at K-pop fans is this popular narrative around K-pop being an idol factory – which is to say that these idols are just pretty puppets in the hands of corporations, that do what they’re told to do and “manufacture” the same kind of music. And they’re [bands] always performing, even off stage — in their fan meetings, interviews and social media.
S: Yeah. What they’re doing is really questioning the authenticity of K-pop. I’ve thought this was a bit dehumanising — taking away the agency that K-pop stars do have and assert and with this, it becomes a question of, knowing all this, how can you still be a K-pop fan?
S: Rimi Jain, who’s an MBA student and editor of a fan-run website Seoulbeats, which critically analyses K-pop and Hallyu in general, answers that better than I can.
Rimi: There are definitely dark sides to the industry as the Western media likes to point out, but then [there are] also downsides to all other music industries. People say K-pop is manufactured because they have trained for years, [that] they are presenting this perfect facade in front of the camera, but I think that a lot of American pop is also manufactured, right? Not all pop artists are writing their own music, and that’s totally fine. Again, for me, I don’t see the need to reconcile a love for it [Korean music] with anything, because I think those questions come from a place of ignorance.
S: In fact, I read this Guardian article where a professor of performance studies says that K-pop idols are well known for providing excessive emotional labour to their fans, and that was their form of authenticity.
N: That’s kind of true. But, this doesn’t mean there is no truth in the stories about the “dark side” of K-pop, right? I remember when I first got interested in Korean stuff, I read up on K-pop and its exploitative culture, and that really threw me off. That’s probably why I didn’t get too much into K-pop. I’m guessing things would have changed now?
S: Yeah, a lot has changed since then, and mainly because of a lawsuit that shook the K-pop industry. In 2005, TVXQ, or Dong Ban Shin Ki, was the most popular K-pop group. Three of the members filed a lawsuit against their agency SM Entertainment saying they had no right to refuse an engagement, that their contract was too long, and the terms were exploitative. To quit their contract, they would have had to pay an exorbitant amount. After much public debate and efforts by fans who took out full-page ads in newspapers asserting the labour rights of these idols, the lawsuit was granted in favour of the three members. And this has actually changed how K-pop contracts work now. The terms are now supposed to have a fair minimum contract period and artists have more autonomy to quit when they want.
N: That’s really good to hear! Since I seem to be listing all the negatives to K-pop at the moment, I’ll just go with the flow and ask one more thing. You know, there have been several unfortunate incidents like the Burning Sun scandal where K-pop idols were found to be involved in secretly filming and sharing non-consensual sex tapes and the suicides of K-pop idols.
As the people who are supporting this industry, don’t fans have the responsibility to question, demand and reject things?
S: A lot of the issues that are seen as K-pop issues are actually problems of South Korean society, and they need to be seen with that lens. Burning Sun came to light around the same time that the Molka or Hidden Camera scandals were going on in Korea, where it was found out that women were secretly being filmed in public places, in restrooms. So yeah, fans are aware of the context and talk about things like, do I continue to support this group/member if they’re known to be part of such scandals, how do they push for change, and what does it mean to still be a fan of K-pop? And I think what Rimi said about this [incident] really stayed with me.
R: It’s also worth noting that K-pop fans are discussing [this], they’re not glossing over everything that’s wrong. You know, the fact that people are entering the industry at a really young age when they should be in school and they should be living with their parents — the fact that instances like the East Light, which again, were really these teenagers being abused physically by the producers and the CEO of their agency.
So, there are these things that happen and it’s not like K-pop fans are pretending they don’t exist. The underside exists and those discussions are happening. If you look at Seoulbeats, we have a lot of commentary on such instances. It’s just that those discussions are happening in fan communities. And then because that’s where, as you know, I think sadly that’s where, non-fans like journalists and commentators aren’t part of those communities. So they don’t see those discussions happening and they think, “Oh, fans just pretend it doesn’t exist.” But I mean like I mentioned, the music other people are listening to is not without its problems. Other industries have other issues as well.
I think it’s just a question of understanding that when you are looking, when you are asking these questions, you are painting K-pop as the Other, as something that’s different and homogenous. And you’re looking at it from the point of view of an outsider, but when you actually start listening to it, there’s a lot of diversity. Yes, there are fans that gloss [over] or would particularly like, you know, that I’ll find some to try to silence any criticism, but, a discussion is happening.
N: That’s a fair thing to ask. I liked what one of our interviewees said about the Korean Wave — it ebbs and flows in different ways at different times, and as things get more popular, we must remember that it is okay to be critical and to voice out our opinions on what strikes us as wrong or insensitive.
S: You can say that again! It’s an important reminder to keep close to us as we continue to support and follow K-pop.
N: Oh, and get really into the whole glowing skin, pink hair, “don’t care” vibe and start wearing green suits with sneakers to work which is what we’re gonna talk about in the next episode. The whole Korean aesthetic that is so appealing.
S: And we’re going to talk about all of that in the next episode — which is on the Korean Aesthetic.