Currently working on…
K-pop Fandom(s): Understanding(s) of Narrated Authenticity
(2018 – Ongoing)
K-pop, or Korean pop music, has become a global phenomenon in recent years, with fans worldwide who are passionate about the music, the idols, and the culture surrounding it. Yet, despite its popularity, K-pop still needs to be studied more in academic research, particularly in Korean studies. My Ph.D. project aims to fill this gap by investigating how K-pop fan communities interpret and engage with K-pop in different ways, both online and offline.
My study revolves around “authenticity” in K-pop, a concept heavily promoted by entertainment companies that produce and market K-pop idols. However, fans often have their interpretations of what makes K-pop authentic.
To explore these issues, I will be using a theoretical framework that draws from area studies, gender studies, and ethnomusicology, as well as methods from digital humanities. It involves conducting online and offline ethnographic research, including participant observation and interviews with K-pop fans and professionals from South Korea and around the world. I deliberately distinguish between Korean and non-Korean fan communities to demonstrate that debates about K-pop authenticity occur within and between these groups.
My preliminary findings suggest conflicting understandings of what constitutes “authentic” K-pop, and these interpretations are shaped by factors such as national identity, gender, and cultural background. Furthermore, the concept of authenticity itself is constantly evolving, contested, and “narrated” within the fan communities.
My research provides insight into how fans engage with and interpret K-pop, contributing to a better understanding of this cultural phenomenon and highlighting its significance in Korean studies. Furthermore, as K-pop continues to gain global popularity, understanding how fans interact with and perceive K-pop has broader implications for studying popular culture, globalization, and cultural identity.
Main objectives and Contributions
1. Separate K-pop from the Outdated Framework of the Korean Wave
The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, refers to the global popularity of South Korean culture, including music, TV dramas, and films. In academia, the terms “Korean Wave” and K-pop have been interchangeably used when it comes to their relevance in the field of Korean Studies. However, K-pop stands out from other cultural elements of Hallyu because it encourages interaction between local and international audiences. This project will challenge the existing literature that has taken this connection between K- pop and the Korean Wave for granted.
2. Relocate K-pop as an object of study in Korean Studies
The second objective is to relocate K-pop as an object of study in Korean studies by examining the power dynamics between Korean and international fans. K-pop fandoms have become so diverse that it is challenging to establish accurate demographic data to define them. Korean fans refer to international fans as “overseas fans” or “fans from outside the country,” creating an insider-outside binary. Korean fans have “othered” international fans, creating a hierarchical perception of fans outside of Korea, depending on how committed they were to the idols and how faithful they were in sticking to the strict rules of the Korean idol fandom culture. As K-pop became more widely available, international fans also got more exposure to Korean idol fandom culture, and regulations began to be acknowledged and transmitted among them. However, it is sometimes not enough, and Korean fans’ initial frustration often resurfaces. This frustration is just a reflection on a smaller scale of Korean mainstream media’s tendency to allocate great importance to international (i.e., American) discourse about Korea. Regarding my project, I argue that giving all the credit and power to the American public does not challenge any discourse regarding the Korean Wave.
On the contrary, it complies with reinforcing America’s hegemonic power in terms of popular music. As a result, this framework will help situate K-pop as a relevant object of study in Korean studies by dealing with issues pertinent to the Korean context, such as Korean nationalism or Korea’s position in globalization. Moreover, this framework contributes to broader debates in Area Studies, such as the dichotomy of the global/local or the sense of Western/American hegemony emanating from the field.
3. Explore a broader theoretical contribution between K-pop and “authenticity”
The third element that justifies this project’s focus on K-pop fandoms is the paradox between K-pop being inherently difficult to define and how its growing popularity brings up a discussion on what is “authentically” K-pop. In the academic, fan, or even media sphere, there has been an ongoing debate on what should and should not be considered K-pop. Former interviews with K-pop fans made me notice that when being asked what made them become a fan of a specific group, a lexical field of terms such as “unique,” “genuine,” and finally “authentic” often came up. Authenticity also implies a sense of authority. As a result, it also embodies the notion of soft power often attributed to the Korean Wave. I want to complicate it by showing how this authority is “narrated” throughout the fandom through the relationship between Korean and international fans. This binary of “Korean vs. International” in the K-pop fandom will be, at the same time, the starting point but also the common thread of the project. By looking at why it exists and how it is problematic through several layers of analysis, it will discuss how those groups’ different interpretations of K-pop shape a sense of authenticity that is “imagined,” hence the use of the term in the title of the project. The diversity hiding behind the term “K-pop Fandom(s)” also alludes to how this sense of community is built based on a common approval or disapproval of this “narrated authenticity.” Similarly to the previous theme of power dynamics, focusing on authenticity helps situate my project in a broader context of Korean Studies and Area Studies by putting it in parallel with notions of cultural essentialism. Moreover, authenticity works as a flexible theoretical concept that coincides with a vision of my project as trans/pluridisciplinary, thereby building a bridge that enables the theoretical conversation between those disciplines.
BTS x UNICEF “Love Myself” Campaign:
same message, different interpretation from K-pop fandoms
Currently on Hiatus
(October 2018 – Ongoing)
On September 14, 2018, RM, the leader of BTS, gave a powerful speech to the UN General Assembly, which became a significant moment in K-pop history. His message encouraged people to “speak [them]selves (…) no matter who [they] are, where [they’re] from, [their] skin color, gender identity.” His mention of gender identity was significant to international ARMYs and positioned him as an advocate for LGBTQ+ human rights. While the speech also resonated in Korea, it did so for different reasons. Despite K-pop being produced in a conservative and heteronormative society, it challenges gender norms worldwide. This article will explore the following questions: (1) How did RM’s speech resonate differently among international and Korean K-pop fandoms? (2) What does this discrepancy reveal about BTS’ influence on their fans? The study will use on-site fan interviews and social media analysis of tweets to answer these questions.
More info on the coding part in the Digital Humanities Portfolio
Previously worked on…
Understanding the Korean Fandom of K-pop: Focusing on Its Perspectives on Foreign Fans
MA Thesis published as a Journal article in the Journal of Korean Communication Studies with Prof. Cho Younghan
(September 2014 – February 2017)
This study aims at understanding Korean fans who are also one of the most inquisitive consumers of Korean pop products. For this purpose, it examines how Korean fandom perceives the procedures of K-pop’s globalization and constructs different perspectives of foreign fans. Firstly, it examines Korean fandom’s national pride as K-pop expands to the global markets. Secondly, it explores how the Korean fandom rationalizes its possessive instinct while the global fans and markets become increasingly important. Finally, it explores how the Korean fandom constructs different perceptions of foreign fans. In order to observe Korean fans’ thoughts and activities, it participates in the interactions between twitter users and an online community. The Korean fans’ perspective reflects both individual tastes and the social dimensions through which fans live through. Through the lens of Korean fandom, this study attempts to explicate the Korean fans’ perception of foreign fans, which reflects another dimension of K-pop’s globalization.