Some call their love unconditional. Fans and stars have an inextricable link: the latter sing, dance, and perform for the love of their fans, and the former exist to support and love these stars. As the Korean pop (K-pop) market spreads its influence to other nations, the number of K-pop idol group fans is proliferating. Their fans’ unconditional love is now forming a new worldwide culture: fandom.
Nowadays it is difficult to ignore fandom when discussing Korean culture. Many teenagers mention watching their favorite idol groups on YouTube as a hobby, and even traffic conditions change depending on where their concerts are held. Fans are no longer a simple cheering squad for their favorite stars; they are their greatest supporters, the force that propels those very stars, and a cultural phenomenon in themselves.
The word fandom comes from ‘fan’ of ‘fanatic’ and the suffix ‘-dom,’ meaning land or country. When combined, these roots are used to refer to a community of fans who commonly rally behind a particular star as their favorite. Idol groups such as HOT, god, SechsKies, and Shinhwa were the first to possess huge fandoms in the 1990s, and currently, fans of BTS, TWICE, EXO, and many other groups are leading the fandom culture in Korea. The fans are devoted enough to do whatever they can for their favorite stars, and their devotion has strengthened the bonds between fans as well, further bolstering fandom culture.
Distorted Love of Sa-saeng Fans?
But multiple concerns have been raised when fans carry things too far. Sa-saeng, derived from the Korean word for privacy, is the name for those fans who show distorted love for stars by stalking them everywhere. Waiting for stars in front of their apartment is no longer so surprising; recently, fans of one singer even followed him while he was visiting his mother in the hospital. The desire to unveil every detail and secret of the stars’ privacy has mutated into harm and even crime.
However, it is uncommon for stars to sue their fans for trailing them, one of the reasons being the possibility of ruining their image or reputation; there is a danger that these stars will be marked as ungrateful and hostile, and thus—unfairly— denounced. Instead, these days, normal fans are the ones raising awareness of less than savory acts perpetrated by so-called fans—and working to get rid of them. “We, normal fans do not add the word fan after sa-saengs, because we do not regard them as one of us. They are criminals more than fans,” said Kim Seohyun (’17, Home Economics Education), who is a fan of an idol group herself.
▲ A K-pop idol group member warning the sa-saeng on Twitter
“There has been a movement among fans not to follow stars in ACS, which stands for airport, commuting, and sighting. It is to protect the stars’ privacy; watching them on TV programs and going to their concerts are enough for fans,” said Kim. This awareness and attempts to eliminate unhealthy fandom culture are slowly but surely putting concerns regarding sa-saeng crime to rest. There are still reports of sa-saeng misdemeanors, but the attempt at self-regulation is still notable in that it indicates that fandom culture can become much healthier.
Music Charts Conquered by Idol Songs?
In addition to the sa-saeng issue, the influence fans have on music charts is also a controversy. Once an album of a popular idol group is released, fans create playlists of tracks to stream together, making so-called full-scaleattacks at the appointed time, and even bringing out old phones to rank the tracks; they are not really listening to their stars’ songs, but just playing them on mute to affect the records. Some believe this hinders the main purpose of music charts, which is to indicate the songs that not only big fans of a particular singer listen to, but that the populace at large loves.
Cho Sungmin, the editor of K-pop reviewing website Ideology takes a different view. “It is true that the idol songs on the top of the chart do not necessarily mean they are good songs, but the purpose of music charts are not to show what is good or bad,” said Cho. “Music charts reflect what kind of songs are loved the most at one time. Deciding whether the songs are good or bad—that is the duty of professional reviewers.” Nevertheless, regarding fans only playing and not listening to the songs, general listeners and idol group fans have continuously quarreled with each other online, but a satisfactory agreement on whether their streaming is justifiable has not been reached.
Loving Their Stars, Contributing to Society
Despite multiple controversies, fandom culture still has a positive effect on society. In the past, fans typically demonstrated their love for stars by buying albums and sending them expensive gifts. However, these days, for the sake of the public image of stars and also themselves, the fans raise funds for charity, planting forests, and even establishing schools in developing countries. The most popular method is sending wreaths made out of rice bags to concerts and events. The rice bags are donated to the poor afterwards.
Furthermore, fans are creating a new market of derivative arts. From fan fiction to dolls that look like their stars, fans are generating numerous goods, sharing them with each other and also making money from them. There are no official statistics available, but it is known that the annual sales of idol group merchandise (MD) is around 87.1 trillion won. The figure includes both official MD created by the stars’ management agencies and fanmade goods, but it still shows how fast the market for derivative arts is expanding.
The active support of fans and their culture also encourages foreign fans to visit Korea, vitalizing the tourism industry. One of the most popular venues for K-pop fans, K-star Road in Gangnam, Seoul, is always crowded with local and foreign fans, who come to see art toys that symbolize stars, renowned entertainment agencies, and places where stars visited. This indicates how much the K-pop market and fandom culture have grown, contributing not only to cultural exchange, but also to the national tourism industry and earning foreign currency.
Fans’ blind love and support do have a dark side and they are often criticized; it is hard to say if they are right or wrong. But one thing is certain: fandom culture cannot be ignored in society. We all are fans of someone or something—although their enthusiastic support might be seen in a negative light, it is hard to disregard the love of someone else. Rather than skeptically judging what they do for their stars, a social attitude of respect and acceptance would be more appropriate.