I used to be a ‘music elitist’, listening to only indie music and the like. Somehow, along the way, I found myself turning into something I never thought I’d be: a stereotypical, tudung-wearing K-pop fan. And I am not ashamed to admit it, even amidst the controversy surrounding the tudung-clad girls being hugged by B1A4 during a game on stage.
People hurl horrible remarks about this ‘ridiculous culture’, but it doesn’t make sense to demonise K-pop when it serves the same purpose as other pop cultures present: for fun and leisure consumption. While I cringe at how this could have been avoided and how people were ready to take out their pickets to slain the evil deeds of K-pop, I wonder: do non-Kpop fans actually know what’s K-pop about? Do they know why we’re all so crazy over it?
As someone who never wanted to have anything to do with K-pop, let me open a window into our world to see why and how they’ve got us all in a bunch.
1. Everyone’s amazingly pretty and talented.
Before I found myself almost-obsessed with the K-pop culture, I avoided anything Korean like a plague. Pretty boys? Plastic faces? Pop music? eeeyer.
It was after I watched a K-drama out of curiosity that it hit me how GOOD LOOKING they are. While Indie/hipsters are filled with bearded guys who desperately need a shower, K-pop is filled with guys and girls who packed a lot of smiles and powder on their faces.
I’m considered a late bloomer because I got into it in 2008. Bored in my university dorm with no wifi and surrounded by K-pop fans, I joined their squealing and was amazed at how these boys are SO great at dancing the most intense choreography I’ve seen in years, while keeping their high notes in check.
But what amazed me was these guys and girls are actually talented. Some do have really amazing vocals and belting power, and some can bust a move or two. Of course, like any pop groups, we do have the anomalies that couldn’t succeed at both, so they excelled in one aspect: be ridiculously weird (or as we call them, 4D).
However, I did face some difficulties in telling them apart. It took me roughly 10 different pictures of Super Junior to learn their names! 3 singles to differentiate all members of Girls’ Generation! They might’ve used the same catalogue from the 2054 plastic surgeons in South Korea.
Everyone, even K-pop fans, likes to poke fun at how different they are before and after. Pre-debut pictures are a goldmine in the fandom. It’s a kind reminder that puberty CAN be kind to some people (or you can opt for the other p, plastic surgery)
As a hijabi, we all have to appreciate God’s finest creations, right? But the main reason why I got into K-pop is because…
2. They bring back good pop music of the 90’s.
Let’s be real, western pop has been rather stale after Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Spice Girls and the like. K-pop reinvents the good old nostalgia along with other genres, providing forward-sounding tracks to move you to the beat.
As someone who had The XX’s emo-electronica songs on loop, I found Wonder Girls’ Nobody to be annoying at the start. But oh good grief, it was terribly infectious. It combined a great beat with karaoke lyrics, making it so easy to sing along to. Soon, everyone was jamming to the English version, including Najib!
It was good pop, and the world knew it.
In the earlier days, K-pop was dominated by the Big 3: the R&B and standard pop sensation SM Entertainment (Super Junior, TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, EXO), the hip-hop influenced YG Entertainment (Bigbang, 2NE1, PSY) and the retro funk sound stamped with a Yusuf Taiyoob-like whisper by JYP (Wonder Girls, 2PM). After the great boom in 2009, more companies popped up, offering variations of the genre.
Other than in-house producers, Swedish, British and American producers also started to offer their works to be the top hits of K-pop. While the tracks may sound recycled and sound like a terribad 80s/90s throwback, some notable songs deserve recognition beyond K-pop due to how they’re pushing boundaries. In fact, my hipster senses be tingling when even the hipster-bible Pitchfork has their own K-pop list.
Now, even the idols get to craft their own songs, and some may be even BETTER than these producers. The songs do touch on serious issues other than love, too, such as the Korean education system and xenophobia.
K-pop proved to grab more attention world wide as 2NE1’s I Am The Best is used by Microsoft and f(x) was the first K-pop act to be invited to SXSW.
To add to that, great choreography is the blood and bone to every K-pop performance. Noted choreographers like Nick Bass and Tony Testa crossed over borders to work their style, and local choreographers even show off their fangs too. I mean, who would have thought a human tree or machine gun formation is possible, right?
3. They give their all in promoting their work.
Because the K-pop market is oversaturated with groups, they may promote up to three or FOUR singles in a year to chase that number 1. And their trick is to serve pop music in fantastic packaging, and it’s the greatest bait of all time. Each promotion has to be more than just a good song; it needs to have a unique concept.
High school sweethearts, delinquents, food, horror, aliens… you name it, they’ve done it. These concepts involve intricate looking sets to quirky and questionable outfits. Some would actually fly out to other countries to add that exotic flair, dancing in the middle of their malls or magically turns Shah Alam into California.
Even the CD packaging design counts. Why stick to the boring plastic CD cases when we can have fancy boxes that come in different versions, accompanied by a 92 page photobook and a random photo card? Fans will turn it into a Pokemon hunt as they collect all cards. Oh, and these may come in different versions too. Flipping through them feels like you’re owning a collector’s item, especially in the current age of digital sales.
And they’ll start dropping more merchandise. Photobooks. Calendars. Perfumes. Post-it notes. They’re out to get your money, and you find yourself willingly trading it.
Speaking of money…
4. You really get what you pay for at a K-pop concert.
K-pop concerts are expensive for a reason: it’s more than just the music. There are other concerts at similar prices, all for a big stage, fancy lights, the band’s performance and perhaps violent mosh pits. But K-pop concerts? It’s like buying a value-added toy with 8-in-1 functions, with music being one of ’em.
Kelly, who has been a K-pop fan for 8 years and has attended more than 50 K-pop-related events, described a K-pop concert as:
A sensory experience – the visuals are as much of the experience as the music. I would even say the lights, stage set up and choreography takes precedence over the actual singing. No other fandom pays good money to watch a full concert of lip-synced* performances, I think.
*Yeah… we admit it. But some DO sing live! [defensive fanmode on]
The idols are on stage like Energizer bunnies, with nonstop singing and dancing, pouring out their sweat and the fanservice. Ah yes. The fanservice.
When we pay more than RM500, you better give us great fanservice. They interact with fans more than anyone else, giving hi-5s and sometimes even take a selfie using the fans’ cameras. Unfortunately there are several rules in Malaysia that stops them from going further (Super Junior did tease us with a disclaimer: “We really wanted to show you our abs, but sorry girls, we’re not allowed to strip!”). This is up to the organiser on outlining what they can and can NOT do.
Another thing about K-pop concerts is that they take the extra effort to learn the language. While indie bands only mutter the standard “apa khabar” and “terima car-say”, these bands will have a full script in Malay. At Infinite’s One Great Stop in KL, the boys flirted and joked in Malay, although we suspect their tutor was a mat rempit due to the cheesiness.
Ili, 33, who has meddled around the local music industry for a while, recently got into K-pop thanks to acts under YG Entertainment. She popped her K-pop cherry at Singapore’s SG50 party with BigBang as the headlining act.
What struck her as most impressive, and at the same time puzzling, was how strong the K-pop fandom banded together. Speaking of which…
5. K-pop fans are freakishly committed.
K-pop fans make up a community that is so special, so tightly bonded that it’s as though we’re a cult of our own. Again, Kelly pointed out how this phenomena is unique to the K-pop fandom:
K-pop fandom is an organised system with many unspoken rules and an informal hierarchy that facilitates a very active and thriving fan culture. In fact, Korean cultural commenters use the term “fancom”, or fan company, to refer to the high level of fan participation in K-pop fandom where fans actively participate in the roles usually taken up by management ie. Promotion and reputation control.
Each Kpop group comes with a legit fanclub and a fandom colour. We have great names such as Bigbang’s VIP, VIXX’s Starlights, BTS’ ARMYs to the embarrassing ones such as BAP’s BABYs, After School’s Playgirlz (uhm yep not gonna say anything), and Super Junior’s ELFs. Or you could risk getting friendzoned such as Boyfriend’s Bestfriends.
There are fans who create country-specific fanclubs.
May, administrator of SMTOWN SEA fanbase, is responsible for bonding South East Asian fans of SM Entertainment acts together. She finds pleasure in preparing hand banners and fangifts for other fans, all of this for free. She sees it as an opportunity to bond with other people. “It’s more than just fangirling. It’s like meeting a whole new family.”
But to be fair, she did complain difficulties on executing some of the events, mainly because Malaysian fans could be lazier than other regional fanbases (seems like you can never take the word ‘malas’ out of Malaysian).
There are also fans who translate videos for free.
Sonographer by day, translator by any other free time, Ily (with a Y), 24, puts Korean language as one of her skills. When she started getting into K-pop back in 2005, she lurked for hours on youtube, trying to find translated lyrics. She found none. Feeling irritated, she rolled up her sleeves and decided to learn the language herself.
Now, she and her team of 60 staffs are responsible for translating news articles, videos, and media related to the group EXO under the international forum, CODE:EXO. All of that without any monetary reward. Her reason?
“I don’t want people to go through the trouble I had before. We love the group, and we would love it if other people can get to know them better too.” – Ily, non-profit K-pop translator
There are fans who do AMAZING dance covers.
The great choreography proves to be a workout more fun and less embarrassing than Zumba, so it’s no brainer that fans would want to reenact it. Epsilon, an all-female dance group, has gained a lot of attention with their videos and even performed for MTV World Stage 2013 roadshow.
And there are also fans that do charity work all year round.
Mostly unnoticed by public, K-pop fandom actively participates in charity work all year round. Other than sending birthday gifts and letters to our favourites, fan-bases aim higher. Various drives and donations have been made and signed under the idols’ name.
The local fanbases in Malaysia are not shy from charity work, too. EXO Malaysia has organised several charity drives such as for the recent East Coast flood victims, flood victims in Sabah, and Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund.
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“But.. but… You all don’t even speak their language!”
All mat sallehs and everyone out of SK be like, “Who are these people? You don’t even speak the language!” Sure enough we don’t, but like I said in point 2: it’s good pop. And you know it’s good music if it breaks the language barrier. Plus, many of us are learning to speak Korean! Talk about sharing cultures 🙂
In a nutshell, K-pop exemplifies the concept of music beyond borders. It’s easier to make friends through the K-pop fandom. Fans from Malaysia to South America are connected thanks to this shared interest, and online K-pop communities actually involve discussing and exchanging cultural knowledge.
In the end, when people ask or criticise me as to why I am into K-pop, I just shrug it off. Some people are born haters, obviously (hah!), but it’s just another harmless fandom that entertains and connects me to people. K-pop fandom is actually the friendliest fandoms I’ve ever been in, as they accept everyone regardless of their age, race, and religion. Being a hijabi doesn’t restrict me from enjoying all sides of it, as long as we keep to our limits.
People often have the misconception that majority of K-pop fans are hormonal teenagers, but we’re not. Some fans hold professional positions in the workforce. Teachers, doctors, journalists, masters students, corporate execs- all of them drop their jackets and ties, and come together for the music and the fun.
And imagine them wearing baju melayu.
Well, a girl can dream, right?