By AUBREE STAMPER, Photo Editor
K-pop fandoms are probably the most dedicated, organized, and loyal fandoms in the world–especially within South Korea. There is even a thing such as “K-pop fandom culture” and it’s unlike anything that exists in Western fandoms. It consists of unique group lightsticks, individual fandom colors, fanchants, fansites, massive voting, philanthropy, and Times Square billboards.
Seo Taiji and Boys, Sechskies and other early groups like H.O.T. are credited for fueling K-pop fandom culture at its start in the 1990’s. That’s when terms such as “fan-girl” and “Hallyu Wave” were first used. Today’s fandoms, like EXO-L’s, are known for creating new trends in fandom culture just like EXO create trends in K-pop–they were the first fans to hold art exhibits and video showings, create and sell dolls, create holographic merchandise, hold birthday parties for the members, and celebrate events with ads in Times Square.
The market for K-pop merchandise is huge, and it’s mostly teenagers running the business. They are constantly creating new items and even taking old merchandise and making it into something new. It’s unbelievable how creative they are. EXO fans began making small adorable dolls that resemble the EXO members just a few years ago, and now EXO fans run a widely popular store in Hongdae (SP-Factory) that sells dolls, accessories, and clothing. The K-pop doll business has expanded substantially all over the world since then.
The trading business in K-pop is even crazier. If you walk into a CD store in Myeongdong (a popular shopping district in Seoul) after a K-pop group releases a new album, what you’ll see probably looks something like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange–fans will be furiously making deals and trading photo cards left and right (every album comes with a random members photo with a message on the back and fans collect them).
As you can see, being a K-pop fan is extremely serious business in South Korea. K-pop fans usually make a life-long commitment to their group or idol–even if they aren’t hardcore fans into their 20’s and 30’s, they’ll always support their group. The competition between the groups, and even between the members within one group, is very intense as well.
“When you are a ‘fan’ of a group, you support that single group completely and your main goal is to help them win as many awards as possible,” Soompi marketing manager Courtney McLachlan told Korea Expose´, “Loyalty is very important to Korean fandoms. For example, if you support Beast but you are discovered by Beast fans to be attending a recording for 2PM, you could potentially be banned from further Beast promotions.”
One of the biggest rivalries in K-pop history was between the two biggest idol groups of the 90’s: H.O.T. and Sechskies. Physical fights between fans would regularly break out. This and 90’s fandom culture in general was highlighted in the popular drama “Reply 1997.” This can almost be compared to the EXO vs. BTS rivalry, which is probably the biggest rivalry of this generation of K-pop.
For a full timeline of K-pop history click here.
Whether you’re new to K-pop or you’re just simply fascinated by it’s inner workings, here is a complete breakdown of K-pop’s fandom culture:
- Music Shows:
Let’s start from the very beginning. First of all, the music industry in South Korea is very different from here in America. When a K-pop artist releases new music, they promote it on music shows–M Countdown (Thursdays), Music Bank (Fridays), Show Champion (Saturdays), and Inkigayo (Sundays).
Fans can wait in line in the hopes of seeing their favorite group record their performances. To be able to get in, a fan must show that they are officially apart of the group’s fanclub, bring the group’s latest albums, and have the group’s lightstick. At the end of every music show, a winner is crowned based on votes, music video views, streams, physical sales, etc. This adds to the intense competition within the industry.
- Lightsticks & Fandom Colors:
Before there were light sticks, fans would wave balloons of their favorite groups color at concerts and music shows. Now, each group has a unique lightstick that glows that group’s fandom color. For example, Big Bang’s color is yellow/gold, Girls’ Generation’s is pink, TVXQ’s is red, and Super Junior’s is dark blue. They aren’t cheap though–you will spend about $40 on one, and if you’re buying it from overseas, you can add the shipping charge on top of that.
In 2016 though, SM Entertainment released an EXO lightstick that could be controlled by Bluetooth–which means the lightstick’s color could be changed to any color during a concert. This changed the game completely and added another exciting element to the group’s performances. Even award shows like MAMA started using their own lightsticks and handing them out to all fans that attend (then some fansites used them as stools to see above the crowd).
Usually at concerts, fans will simply sing passionately to all the songs along with the artist. That’s the case for K-pop as well, but fans also have fanchants they use during a group’s title songs. Fanchants are when the fans shout certain parts of songs as loud as they can, such as in the video. When a song comes out, the fanchant is decided on and released to the fans who quickly memorize before the first performance. This is a factor that not only shows the power of fandoms, but also makes the performances that much more exciting. No other country is better at doing fanchants than South Korea.
- Fandom Names:
Fandom names are used all over the world, not just in K-pop, but they play a very important role in it. Fandom names are used for fans to identify themselves and are usually created by the group and their management company. TWICE fans are called “Onces,” BTS fans are called “Armys,” Red Velvet fans are called “ReVeluvs,” 2NE1 fans are called “Blackjacks,” and Seventeen fans are called “Carats.” Some idols even make their own nicknames for fans, for example, EXO’s Baekhyun calls EXO-L’s “Aeri” which is how you pronounce “L” in Korean. You can learn about other groups’ fandom names in the video above!
In the video you can see giant DSLR cameras everywhere and the constant sound of shutters clicking, but those aren’t journalists or paparazzi (the news organization Dispatch does act as paparazzi though). Instead of just Dispatch following them, K-pop idols have their own “fansites.” These are fans that follow around their favorite idols from music shows, to airports, to concerts, and upload the photos online for fans everywhere to enjoy. Fansites each have an idol they photograph, and even sell products with their photos on them such as fans, stickers, keychains, etc. Some even hold exhibits showing their photos to fans. The most followed fansites of all all-time have almost 1 million Twitter followers. The more popular fansites will literally follow their idol where ever they go in the world, even when they’re on tour. Even at concerts in North America, Korean fansites will walk around selling their products to fans.
Fansites follow around idols from schedule to schedule, but they respect them and don’t cross the line. Fans that invade idols’ personal lives or even go as far as to harass and hurt them are called “sasaengs” or in other words, crazed hardcore fans. These people can hardly even being considered fans–they are in the same category as “anti’s” or “anti-fans” because in the end, all they do is hurt idols. One of the worst sasaeng/anti-fan incidents was when TVXQ’s Yunho drank a poisoned drink given to him by a “fan” that hospitalized him, damaged his throat, and traumatized him to this very day. Ex- K-pop idol and China’s biggest pop star, Luhan, has confronted sasaeng fans that have followed him on a couple different occasions, calling them out on their obsessive behavior.
According to an interview with a sasaeng, these people work together in groups and will get jobs in places such as phone companies in order to get their hands on idols’ phone numbers. Some will wait outside idols’ homes and hotels and will even break inside. The interview mentioned that since it is expensive to be a sasaeng, some young girls will go as far as prostituting themselves in order to fund their sasaeng lifestyle. EXO’s Baekhyun was recently in the middle of an Instagram live when a sasaeng continuously called his phone (this happens all the time when idols go on IG live or VLive and it visibly annoys them). He quickly got fed up of this and read the sasaengs phone number out loud telling them to stop calling him. Some people criticized the idol for what he did, but most people praised him for calling out the sasaeng and think all idols should do the same. (Baekhyun did apologize on his Instagram though.)
Adding to the expenses of being a K-pop fan, is fan-meetings. Most K-pop groups use the “lottery” system to pick the fans who can attend the fan-meeting. This means that fans have to go to a certain store during a certain time and purchase albums. Every album bought is an entry into the lottery. This means that fans will purchase 20-50 albums at once simply for a chance to meet their favorite group. For bigger groups like EXO, fans are known to have purchased 100-200 albums (and sometimes still don’t get chosen). Obviously no one needs 100 copies of the same album, so fans will leave the albums somewhere with a sign telling people that they can take one for free.
Fans try so hard to get into these because during fan-meetings, fans get to meet their idols face to face, have conversations with them, give them letters/gifts, and get their signature. Fans like to gift idols with cute things such as flower crowns, animal ear headbands, stuffed animals, funny toys, and more. This means tons of cute videos and photos come out of fansigns!
- Concerts: During K-pop concerts you’ll hear fanchants, see the fansites and their giant cameras (you might even get hit in the head with their lens), and see the colorful oceans that the lightsticks create. But you’ll also experience a lot of other things that you might not at other concerts. Fans will create and hand out banners with different slogans on them that they’ll hold up during a specific song. Fans will also hold special events for the group during the concert that are planned in advance like in the photos above. During festivals like Dream Concert where several different groups come together to perform, the stadium is split into sections for each fandom. One section will glow aqua for SHINee, one section will glow green for GOT7, and so on. This turns into a competition between fandoms over who can cheer the loudest, but in some cases fandoms will help each other out. On the other hand, fandoms can come together to give a group they don’t like a “black ocean” which is when everyone turns off their lights. The most famous black ocean was Girls’ Generation’s at the 2008 Dream Concert. When the girls took the stage, the stadium was completely blacked out and silent for ten whole minutes.
- Voting: No one takes voting more seriously than K-pop fans. Whether it’s for a massive award or a small online poll, K-pop fans will go all out. Fans will create several accounts, plan out strategies, mass-vote at certain times of the day, and even pay money if they have to in order to win whatever they can for their favorite groups (even if it means cheating). During MAMA 2017 voting, hundreds of millions of votes were cast. BTS fans were even recently able to beat out Justin Bieber fans in voting during the Billboard Music Awards, and won BTS the Top Social Artist award–a first for a K-pop act. Currently, the iHeart Awards Best Fan Army voting is going on and hundreds of thousands of votes are being tweeted and retweeted every day. The K-pop fandom’s voting power is really no joke!
Even though K-pop fans will drop tons of money for their favorite groups, they will also fundraise and donate tons of money to different causes and charities under their favorite group’s name. K-pop fans have planted trees (even forests), built schools and libraries, donated blood, and donated thousands of dollars to causes and charities all over the world. The amount of examples of this is literally endless; almost every (large) K-pop fandom that has ever existed has done this. It helps create a good image for the fandom and the group, since sometimes sasaengs create bad reputations for fandoms (giving idols poisoned drinks, following their cars, breaking into their hotel room, hacking into their social media, etc.)
- Times Square Billboards:
One of the newest trends within K-pop fandoms is to buy ads in Times Square for idols’ birthdays and groups’ anniversaries. Fans have always bought giant ads in subway stations all over Seoul for events like these, but this is completely on another level. EXO Lay’s biggest Chinese fansite, XingPark, was the first to ever do this back in 2016 for the idol’s 26th birthday. Now members Chanyeol and Sehun, as well as BTS and iKON have appeared in Times Square too. Fans in the area will flock to the ads for a chance to see their idol up on the large screens.
K-pop fans dedicate all of their time, energy, and money to their idols no matter what the cost or sacrifice is. Many grow out of this when they graduate high school, but they still love and support their favorite group no matter how old they are. There are so many fans that use K-pop to motivate them to be the best they can be and they are able to accomplish so much because of that. Even though they might get criticized a lot by their family and society, fans continue to love their favorite K-pop groups and that’s why they were able to spread K-pop all over the globe.