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How fans are powering their K-pop heroes to global stardom
Fans of K-pop group GOT7 react to a performance at an K-pop award show in Hanoi, Vietnam on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Huy Hoang)
TORONTO -- Slick management schemes and eye-catching visuals aren’t the only things powering K-pop’s domination of world music charts, as a lot of it comes down to the fans.
Fans of all ages and nationalities have hopped on the wave, with mega-stars BTS performing in New York’s Times Square for New Year’s Eve, girl group Blackpink performing at Coachella and Monsta X touring with the renowned Jingle Ball concert series.
But it’s the fans’ dedication and organization of projects surrounding their beloved groups that set K-pop and its supporters apart from many other entertainment acts.
“The importance of fan involvement in K-pop can be traced to earliest groups in the ‘90s,” said Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Thursday.
“K-pop groups have always talked about, focused on and reached out to fans, and fan activities have always been an important part of idol culture,” Cho said, adding that there is a perceived mutual acknowledgement between K-pop celebrities and fans, whereas fans of a Western artist generally have more one-sided interactions.
New fans of K-pop from outside East Asia may not initially be aware of the kind of fan organization -- including membership in fan clubs and affiliated activities -- that is characteristic of K-pop, Cho said, but due to heavy social media presence and fan promotion, they are quickly indoctrinated.
The scale of fan projects for K-pop acts may be “surprising” to the outside world, but for international fans of K-pop there is an “sense of cultural ambassadorship” to promote the subculture to the general public, Cho said. This often takes the form of fan projects.
Supporters of a certain group will band together and pool money, resources and time into projects in honour of, or to support their favourites on a scale that is rarely seen for international and Western artists.
BTS fans, known collectively as ARMY, were credited with raising a million dollars for a UNICEF campaign in 2018 because of the group’s charity initiatives with the organization.
And it’s not just charity that shows off the dedication of K-pop fans.
Chinese fans of BTS member Jimin paid for 34 riverside buildings in Qianjiang New City in Hangzhou to be lit up in a massive display celebrating his birthday this past October, along with subway ads, billboards across the globe and an entire bus decked out with photos of the star.
Protesting for change
More recently, fans of group Monsta X have flexed their collective fan power after a massive outcry over group member Wonho leaving due to a “scandal” quickly evolved into a rallying cry for change in the South Korean entertainment industry.
Fans of the group known as Monbebe – “my baby” in French – have been protesting collectively for months over the perceived mistreatment of Wonho by his management agency Starship Entertainment, using various fan projects; including a social media campaign, petitions and billboards in Times Square.
They insist that K-pop performers are held to impossible standards and have been decrying the “cyber-bullying” and “cancel culture” that they say pervades the South Korean entertainment industry.
Maria Etlender is a 32-year-old Monbebe from Germany involved in the latest fan project aimed at bringing fan demands to Starship Entertainment.
“This fight has been about opposing cyber-harassment and bullying, inspired and led by the injustice that happened to Wonho,” she said.
A team consisting of fans from several countries has crowdfunded an ad campaign this month to be played on a large video billboard in the Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, along with banners hung along the street in front of the management label’s building and hiring a truck with a large-screen LED display that will play videos and display the fans’ demands on a loop.
Starship has not responded to repeated requests for comment from CTVNews.ca or made any public comment on the fan efforts.
“We want Wonho back, we want to clear his name [and] we want to ensure the health and wellbeing of all Monsta X members and we want answers,” Etlender said in an email to CTVNews.ca, adding that fans have been feeling failed by the company’s wall of silence regarding the abrupt departure of a crucial group member.
It is a sentiment echoed by 27-year-old Eleanor Wagdy of Dubai, who told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Wednesday that she “felt blindsided by the accusations” regarding Wonho, and has since dedicated her Instagram fan account to raising awareness not only about Monsta X, but additional changes fans feel are needed in the industry and are campaigning for.
“This movement is about more than just Wonho, it’s cyberbullying and defamation and everything that is wrong with the ‘dark side’ of K-pop,” Wagdy said.
The fans are also concerned over the intense work schedule, international travel and extensive media appearances K-pop idols are expected to participate in.
“It’s just not healthy – mentally and emotionally—working day after day, day in and day out,” Wagdy said. “The companies need to take care of their artists, and give them time off.”
Cho said there is historical precedent in the South Korean entertainment industry for fans bringing about institutional changes to the way K-pop operates.
“South Korea changed their legislation around idol contracts and capping working hours as a result of fan activism,” Cho said, adding that the impact of fan advocacy is still evolving now that international fans have joined in.
Etlender said that some of the onus is on the fans to create change, including scrutiny of fan consumption habits.
“We can't continue to mindlessly consume what is given to us…we have to use our power to make a difference, to improve working conditions of the people in the entertainment industry in Korea,” she said.
“It is time to hold companies accountable, to remind them that it's our right to be fully and well informed as consumers…to be ensured that the people we look up to, people we cherish, are protected [and] properly taken care of.”