How K-Pop Fandom Can Be Considered a Subculture: Comparison of the K-Pop and Western Fandoms

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Subcultures are when individuals join specific groups to collectively carry out certain activities that deviates from mainstream culture or society (Grinnell College, n.d.). Whereas the term ‘scene’, is often used to — particularly in the context of music — capture the relationships between members, such as fans and musicians sharing common tastes that exists around communities or subcultures (Subcultures List, 2019).

I will be discussing the applicability of the term subculture as a descriptor for the social practice of participating in Korean pop (K-Pop) fandoms; including ‘sasaeng fans’, scene for Western music fandoms and how these terms allow me to understand how fans participate in a fandom.

K-Pop Fandom as Subculture

Fandom is a term associated with a subculture, made up of fans who are characterised by collectively sharing a mutual feeling of appreciation and admiration for celebrities, sports, fashion, music, books, a character or films. Within the entertainment industry of South Korea, almost all artists and idols has a fan base. One of the most notable characteristics of K-Pop besides the music and members of various groups, would be the fandom; and how it is inarguably different from other fandoms within the music industry. This is due to the fact that they would even be interested in the most minor details of the group such as how each member act towards each other or what they were to the airport.

However, on a larger scale, participating in a K-Pop fandom for most teenagers — not only in South Korea, but also internationally — is almost identical to having a custom or a daily habit of fulfilling their roles as members for the groups that they ‘stan’. Such as fan projects, where they would raise money to advertise their admired group’s anniversaries or birthdays in forms of Times Square billboards or subway advertisements.

Furthermore, there are also multiple ‘fansites’, usually for each member or a group as a whole, that would purchase thousands of albums with their own money to support their artists for every new released songs. Moreover, memorising fanchants to every song is a unique aspect that we don’t usually see in Western pop music culture, the chants usually consists of the member’s names that fans would chant along to during the song (SBS PopAsia, 2018). With an abundant amount of commitment and loyalty that fans would pursue still not mentioned, it can clearly be seen that participating in a K-Pop fandom is not just merely being interested in its music. This indicates how this type of fandom can be considered as subcultures which differentiates to scenes, which is when not all members of a subculture are actively participating (Haunss & Leach, 2004).

Sasaeng Fans

On a more extreme level of fandom as a subculture, “stan culture” is a term that depicts when fandom evolves into a culture of intense defensive and adoration of their favourite artists coming from what they would call themselves as ‘super’ fans (Mulcahy, 2018). In the case of K-Pop, these ‘super’ fans are called ‘sasaeng’ fans, which means private life in Korean. They are known to be obsessive fans who engages in stalking, invading privacy, and in many instances, putting the idol groups in danger. This is evident in a case where a member from the group TVXQ was poisoned by a fan who have sneaked backstage while he was preparing for a television appearance, was hospitalised and the perpetrator was caught.

Other horrible activities that these sasaeng fans would also do is install CCTV cameras at apartments, hack mobile phones, intentionally go on the same flight or book the same hotel as the artists (Lansky, 2012). This demonstrates the class difference between normal K-Pop fans and sasaeng fans, who has access to different resources, money and time to achieve this. On this level of subculture, it is as if these sasaeng fans are living in their own parallel world that is not aware of the consequences or danger that could cause both the artists and civilians. Hence, the term subculture is a perfect descriptor for the sasaeng fandom.

Sense of Belonging and Identity

Although I do not engage in the ‘sasaeng’ aspect of the K-Pop fandom, I do participate and carry out my role as a member of subculture, especially for a boy group called ‘NCT’. I regularly vote for them for music and award shows through multiple mobile apps, buying their album for every comeback (i.e every time they comeback with a new song or album; usually every few months) and streaming their album on Spotify and Youtube. By having this platform consisting of thousands of members who share the same interests as me, it allows me to not only have a shared identity but also my individuality. I am able to express what type of fan I am meanwhile also call myself as an ‘NCTzen’; NCT’s fandom name. Moreover, obtaining that sense of belonging and collectiveness from a subculture that I can actively participate in without a sense of judgement within the group, although I have experienced some sort of judgement when in an environment that is not heavily Asian based; especially when I get asked for reasons why I listen to Korean music when I don’t understand it.

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In addition, every K-Pop fandom has not only an official fandom name, but also official colour and lightstick, this strengthens the sense of belonging that fans would experience. Being such a fan myself, I could never imagine and understand why one would indulge in that sort of life of being a sasaeng. From what I can understand, the reason is that many has the desire to attract some sort of attention so that they can be recognised by their favourite idols. Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University described it as “an act of self-display, rather than a ‘delusional disorder’” (The Korea Times, 2018).

By having this extra information and knowledge about the stars’ private lives, perhaps this is the only way they could feel the pleasure or specialness of being true fans compared to everyone else, even if that means damaging their reputation as fans in the eyes of their admired artists. Many K-Pop artists are aware of this kind of subculture that unfortunately exists, and would constantly and publicly exposing these kind of behaviours online through their social medias. Thus,

Western Fandom as Scene

On the other hand, fandom within the Western side of the music industry tend to be fairly different and is more suited with the term scene compared to what was discussed above. Fans aren’t that emotionally attached to their favourite artists as their expectations for most celebrities are having the ability to just sing, dance, rap or produce music. This means, fans often analyse the artists’ artistic merits and comments on the song itself. Whereas in K-Pop, the idols are expected to have the ability to have all sorts of talents and not just specialise in one area, fans are also more competitive in areas such as Youtube views, which is not the case for fans of Western artists. Something that differs K-Pop from Western pop music is that if one decides to enter this industry, they would have to constantly participate in reality and variety shows; main purpose is to promote their songs.

Hence, this exposes more of their true personalities off stage which enables fans to be more attached to the artist. One of the reasons why fans are so invested — time and money wise — into K-Pop stars is because it is harder to become a celebrity in Korea than in countries such as America, UK, Australia, etc. Big entertainment companies would have auditions both domestically and globally, once one gets accepted, they will become a trainee back in Korea. Due to this reason, many from around the world would leave their families and travel to Korea to begin their training in order to become a K-Pop star.

Their training includes singing and dancing practices for as long as over ten years, extreme diets, packed schedules that usually leads to health concerns, public image pressure, and endless more (Chua, 2017). Even after debut, it is not certain if one will become famous. Hence why fans are able to have more empathy and commitment due to the diversity that K-Pop offers, with a growing international fan base that promotes culture and identity. Whereas artists in Western pop, it is not mandatory for them to undergo this. “Music is a particularly potent representational resource… a means by which communities are able to identify themselves and present this identity to others” (Dawe and Bennett, as cited in Bennett, 2004, p. 224).

This suggests how individuals are only participating in a fandom for the sole purpose of sharing common interests over the artist and their music with this developed sense of identity, and would then return to their daily life. Thus, the term scene is more applicable for fandoms within the Western pop music industry as it is a network where a particular subculture identity is expressed as well as a network of people that identifies with a subculture.

The term scene allows me to understand the different levels of commitment that a majority of fans go through for their favourite singers or artists. I would say fans are more relaxed in Western countries and would never go beyond the level as a sasaeng fan. I am a fan of many Western artists, however not to the degree of me being a fan of K-Pop groups. From time to time, I would occasionally check on the news and updates circulating around social medias on singers such as Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift. For every new song they release, I would add it to my playlist and show my support by tweeting about it on Twitter.

I also watch them every time they are on television shows such as The Ellen Show. Although I do not invest as much time as I would for K-Pop, I would still say I am a part of the ‘Arianators’ and ‘Swifties’ fandom. I understand that with the advancement of technology, fandoms are becoming a global phenomenon. However, there are also fans who participate in local fandom scenes such as clubs or small conventions (Grinnell College, n.d.). For small artists such as newly discovered indie artists, fans would collectively differentiate themselves from mainstream by using cultural signs that would eventually represent local scenes.

Overall, subculture is an appropriate term to describe the social practice of participating in a K-Pop fandom; especially the sasaeng aspect of it, as these types of behaviours are usually a sign of deviance from mainstream society. Whereas for scene, it would be an ideal term to describe the fandoms within Western pop music when comparing it to K-Pop. However, this does not apply to every fans out there. For some, perhaps scene would be a perfect term in describing their experience as a fan for K-Pop and vice versa.

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