By Sonia Rosenquist, June 29 2023—
Bang! Tan! Hello, we are BTS!” a saying that can either make someone scream at the top of their lungs or groan and roll their eyes. In recent years, K-pop has become a global phenomenon, with groups promoting their new music on late-night talk shows and holding stadium concerts worldwide.
K-pop has been active in Korea since 1992 when the group Seo Taiji and Boys performed for the first time on Korean television. K-pop’s relevance in the West increased with Psy’s “Gangnam Style” which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012. Psy’s popularity encouraged other Korean groups to promote their work in the United States, notably, the girl group Wonder Girls going on tour with the Jonas Brothers.
Other groups also made traction during this time, with the boy group SHINee being acknowledged by President Barack Obama in a speech and boy group BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan) attending the Billboard Music Awards for the first time after being nominated for Top Social Artist in 2017. The awards are regarded as the first time BTS got their name out to Western media, as they won their nominated award — which had been awarded to Justin Bieber for the last six years.
Their win allowed the West to get a sense of the current state of K-pop, as there had been no popular songs out in the Western world since “Gangnam Style.” Fans and non-fans alike spoke about their win on Twitter — which garnered even more attention. However, the attention was not all positive. There was a considerable amount of racism towards the members and criticism towards the fans for enjoying the group’s content and music.
Fan culture has been around for years, for example, Elvis and his dedicated fanbase that aided him in his rise to stardom; why are K-pop fans singled out? Other artists such as One Direction and Justin Bieber had strong fan bases that allowed them to become more known worldwide. But when it came to fans of BTS and other K-pop groups, the fans’ liking of K-pop and Korean media was odd and an obsession.
Sports teams worldwide make a great amount of money by selling jerseys with each team member’s name on them, all the many games the teams play and collectors cards. Even though many people spend large amounts of money on sports, it is seen as something common and is almost encouraged. The difference between how the general population perceives sports culture and K-pop could very well be due to the demographic each one pertains to. Sports pertain to young boys and men — meanwhile, K-pop is enjoyed mainly by teenage girls.
The occurrence of what is popular among teenage girls being ridiculed is common.
Although One Direction and Justin Bieber became well-known through their fandoms, their fandoms faced criticism and were seen as obsessed. Now K-pop fans are seen as unhealthily obsessed to a greater degree than those who are fans of Western artists. But even though Western artists fans may be more extreme than K-pop fans — K-pop fans are vilified to a greater degree as they are teenage girls and enjoy Korean media — which is seen as different. It is not uncommon in our society for things that are considered different to face a greater level of criticism.
As Korean media has become more popular and groups other than BTS have made their way into Western media, there is underlying xenophobia in interviews and with reporters. K-pop artists who are not BTS have been repeatedly mistaken for BTS — implying that all Asians look the same. A popular example of this is the member Mark from the group NCT 127, who made a note to correct that they were not BTS and rather NCT. Members have been complimented on their English even after stating that they were born and raised in English-speaking countries, which is not entirely offensive but shows a general lack of interest and respect. These examples may not be deliberately hateful, but they still show that despite one’s intentions, there continues to be underlying xenophobia amongst Western populations.
Xenophobia is not only prevalent in Western populations but in fans of K-pop themselves. K-pop groups learn English as part of their training process and although they do not speak fluently they know enough to promote their group. This could mean talking with fans briefly and expressing their gratitude. During fan meetings (when a large group of fans who purchased many albums meet the artists face-to-face or on a video call) some group members are mocked for their inability to understand English. Often these artists are seen as unintelligent or less than the English-speaking members. Although K-pop fans greatly admire their favourite groups, they are still capable of xenophobic behaviour and it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge this occurrence. Such an instance shows that although one may enjoy something — it does not necessarily mean they respect all that comes with enjoying it.
K-pop will only get more popular with time, and eventually, it will become commonplace to see Korean artists nominated for awards in the United States. Recently, talking about being a K-pop fan has become less intimidating and is something I feel comfortable bringing up to new people. I don’t feel as though I will be as heavily judged for liking Korean media and content as I did when I first started liking K-pop back in 2017. I have made friends with whom I can talk about our liking for K-pop and Korean media together, and I feel happy that I have been able to make such friends after feeling alone in my liking Korean content for so long. Although there continue to be issued with how K-pop is perceived globally and even amongst fans — no one can deny the impact K-pop has had on the music industry.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.