The Kpop Life: Lessons from a Veteran Fan
While the title may sound a little strange, we as Kpop fans each experience the Kpop life differently, and pull from our experiences different views of people and the world around us. When you think about the genre and everything that you’ve seen, heard, and learned since you became a fan, what sticks out in your mind the most? Did a situation or event with in the Kpop world ever affect you on a personal level? Did you learn something about yourself because of something that happened in Kpop?
If you are a relatively new fan to this industry you may remember things like the latest scandals involving Rain and his military service, the explosion of PSY‘s viral hit Gangnam Style, EXO‘s and Nu’est‘s debuts, or even Big Bang‘s Tonight album release in February 2011. If you are a seasoned fan you may remember scandals like MC Mong‘s draft dodging (2010) and G-Dragon‘s alleged plagiarism of Heartbreaker (2009), along with SHINee‘s debut in 2008, or DBSK‘s mega-hit release of Rising Sun in 2005. Veteran fans, those who have been fans of Kpop for ten years or more, can clearly remember events like the debuts of SHINHWA, G.O.D, or Fly To The Sky, along with the break-ups of H.O.T and S.E.S.
These events, each solidified in our various memories, have affected each fan differently and, in the end, we each take away from each of these situations a different life lesson learned.Taking the good with the bad, the fun with the boring, and the outrageous with the mundane, we live a life surrounded by our friends, family, artists, and Kpop. We rejoice in our artists’ successes, suffer through their failures and mistakes, and learn lessons together–as one big family. As I looked back on my life, I began to recollect the lessons that the genre and its artists have taught me, and I realized, even more deeply, that Kpop has influenced all of us, in one way or another.
Before we discuss this topic any further, my qualifications as a veteran fan should be addressed. I came into this genre on January 21, 2000 after I heard my very first Kpop song during a random misadventure and getting lost on a highway. Coming to a gas station, in the middle of nowhere, I met not only one of the kindest Korean grandmothers I have ever known, but also the person who set me on the path of my Kpop life. My first song, the one that started it all for me, was Day By Day by Fly To the Sky, which was playing on a little boombox behind the counter.
Brian Joo‘s and Hwanhee‘s smooth, soulful, and heartwarming voices, combined with a melancholic-yet-infectious beat and the random splattering of English lyrics, pulled me in instantly and prompted me to politely grill Grandma Kim on Korean music for over two hours (before I even asked how to get back to the highway). Had I not gotten lost that night and stumbled upon this little store and grandmother, I wouldn’t have had the joy that this genre has brought me for almost thirteen years. It is a moment that truly changed my life for the better.
When I think back over the years, I’m reminded of so many events that have shaped not only my opinions and feelings toward Kpop, but also of how Kpop has shaped my world. From heart touching songs, angelic voices, and phenomenal performances to heart breaking deaths, disappointing scandals, and embarrassing behaviors from artists and fans alike, I’ve experienced an emotional roller-coaster ride that I will be forever thankful for and from which I have learned so much. Kpop has not only brought me an unfathomable amount of joy, but also has tested my resolve as a fan and presented life lessons that I cannot nor will not soon forget.
The Test of Faith.
My first real Kpop scandal I faced as a newly inducted member of the Kpop life hit me where I lived (so to speak), as it involved the person that to this day is still my ultimate bias. In 2002, Brian Joo came under fire for a statement he made on the radio show 1010 Club, where he responded to a question posed by Hyun Jin-Young about the Yangju Highway Incident involving the deaths of two Korean teenage girls who were struck by a military vehicle on Highway 56. During a time of growing anti-American sentiments, his statement, made in non-fluent Korean, was misinterpreted, and he was vilified in the Korean Media. He quickly clarified his position on the situation and has sincerely apologized for his misspoken words, on and off camera. Still, even to this day, the scandal has left a minor stigma on the artist and his career with those who still remember and harbor some resentment against his words.
When I reflect on this scandal I, unlike many fans who would have taken the artist side in all things, truly acknowledge that his statement (as it was translated) did exude the feeling of anti-Korean, pro-American sentiment. So, I could honestly understand why the Korean public was in such an uproar. Even I, a completely biased fan, became extremely concerned by his statement and I worried (for a short time) if that was truly how he meant it. However, his apology clarified his original statement, and for me his true feelings on the matter were explained properly. My faith in Brian and all that I knew of him was being tested. Could I, as a fan, understand that he had made a mistake, or could I not? Could I ever forgive him?
Having faith in someone who will most likely never know your name may sound foolish to some, but as Kpop fans we all keep that faith as a way to support those artists we hold so dear. In the end, I could not dismiss his heartfelt apology nor his earnest remorse for his mistake and I held onto the belief that he had truly repented of his misdeed. We all make mistakes, and when we do, we must learn from them to grow as a person or, as in the case of Brian, as an artist as well.
With my forgiveness given, I realized that this incident presented the very first (of many) lessons I would learn on my journey through this Kpop life. What we say and what we mean are sometimes quite different. So, we must be careful in all that we say and all that we do. Hold on to the belief that with our sincere effort we can relay our actions as honorably as possible, and always have faith in those that you care for by bringing understanding, patience, and forgiveness to every situation.
The Test of Loyalty.
In the middle of 2003, rumors abounded about a new five-man group that would be debuting soon under SM Entertainment. Fans were in a frenzy as the first images of the group began to surface. In late December of that year, the group that literally changed the face of Kpop, debuted to ecstatic crowd during a BoA and Brittany Spears showcase and performed their debut single Hug. DBSK‘s entrance into the Kpop world, while demure by today’s standards, became a moment in time firmly fixed in the mind of this veteran fan.
In 2009 a scandal erupted when members Kim Jaejoong, Kim Junsu, and Park Yoochun–under the guise of mistreatment, non-payment, overly lengthy contract terms, and the lack of artistic freedom–filed a lawsuit to break their contract with SM Entertainment. The news of the lawsuit sent shockwaves through the Kpop fan community. Their fans’ loyalty was being tested. It became tested even further when Jaejoong, Junsu, and Yoochun chose to come back to the music industry as the trio JYJ. Fans found themselves torn between JYJ and the remaining members of DBSK, Shim Changmin and Jung Yunho.
With the fans divided, who should they support? The duo? The trio? All five? This division in the fanbase caused so much turmoil between individual fans that anyone who followed the whole situation truly felt like crying. Before the split, their die-hard and ever-loyal fans were the most impressively-close fan groups I had ever witnessed in my Kpop life. After the split, my heart broke to now see a once loving and ever-faithful fan family at each other throats. Clear divisions between fans of the duo and the trio were constantly battling each other, with the supporters of all five members (known as OT5‘s) doing all that they could to play the peacekeepers.
It clearly wasn’t about the music anymore and centered more around being loyal to one group or the other. Having a favorite member of DBSK made this situation extremely difficult for me personally. I felt very torn trying to make a choice between the two while trying to understand who was to blame for the whole situation. Ultimately, I placed the blame on the entertainment company instead. After all, at the heart of this great division was the lawsuit and how JYJ was being unfairly treated by SM. Through it all, I chose the life of an OT5. I could not turn my back on one side or the other for something as trivial (in my mind) as a contract dispute, simply because for me Kpop is about the music first.
In late 2012, when it was announced that the lawsuits had been dropped and that JYJ would now be completely free to do as they saw fit, fans sighed a reluctant sigh of relief with the hope that the worst part of this whole situation was finally behind them. Sentiment within the fan family instantly improved, and the brother-against-brother mentality that blatantly overtook the fan base began to slowly dissolve.
This situation reaffirmed a valuable life lesson from my childhood; Loyalty lies in the heart, be forever faithful to that which you love. No matter the divisions within the fan family, each fan kept this belief in their hearts and continued to support their affiliations through it all. Putting all the fan wars aside, the fans proved their loyalty through and through, and made me realize that holding onto the loyalty you feel for the ones you love is the greatest gift you can give.
The Test of Truth.
When you poll any Kpop fan in the world and ask them do they know who Big Bang is, you will almost-always get a resounding yes. Big Bang has become one of the hugest groups to come out of Korea since the first vibrations of the Hallyu Wave began to spread across the world. From their formation in 2006 to the present day, the group has swept charts, sold out huge venues worldwide, pulled down multimillion dollar contracts, and has single-handedly (by some accounts) solidified YG Entertainment‘s superiority in the industry. Their music and fashion styles, paired with their impressive vocals and stunning good looks, has placed Big Bang on the pedestal of the Kpop elite.
They say that when you reach the top the only direction you can go is down, and in the case of Big Bang sometimes it’s a slip rather than a fall. In May of 2011, the Kpop world was hit with a horrifying scandal when it was reported that member Kang Daesung was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a motorcyclist. Reporting news agencies gave sporadic reports on the situation, with little to no facts to go on, leaving the fans of the artist shocked, terrified, and in disbelief.
With the lack of evidence to clarify the situation, fans went off the deep end. Many fans instantly condemned Daesung with outrageous slurs and accusations, while others stood firm in their belief and support of the artist. Those who stood beside the artist waited impatiently for clarification on the whole situation. The search for the truth became priority one for every fan of Big Bang and Daesung.
When all the details of the incident finally came to light and the truth was revealed, we found out that Daesung wasn’t emphatically responsible for the death of the motorcyclist. While fans were relieved that he was cleared of all charges, fans concerns then quickly turned to the mental and emotional stability of the artist himself. When he announced that he would be taking time off to reflect and recenter himself, the fans feared that this would be the end of Big Bang. We found ourselves truly frightened for the very first time.
I found myself, being a fan of Big Bang since their debut, on the concerned and supportive side of the whole situation. However, I could not deny my insatiable need to know the truth. My concern for Daesung and the future of Big Bang compelled me to find out all that I could about what really happened that night. Reading through hundreds of reports, in multiple languages, from credible and non-credible sources alike, I found myself trying to piece the situation together as best as I could–just like every other fan out there.
Why? Why was the search for truth so important to us? One of the reasons fans enjoy Kpop so much is because we feel a close connection to the artists with every glimpse we get of their personality or of their life. Along with the music, its that “perceived” close connection that makes fans so passionate about this genre. This passion then turned into a burning curiosity, that none of us could ignore, and prompted us to seek out the truth with such unrelenting conviction.
The saying, “The search for truth is an arduous journey, but when its fulfilled, it sets you free,” has never been more personified in my Kpop life than during the reports of Daesung’s accident. We, as fans, suffered the agony of the unknown and subsequently felt the joy of relief when the situation finally came to a close. The relief we felt as fans, although muted by the then uneasy future of Big Bang, taught us that while the truth is sometimes painful it must always be sought after, reminded us that falsehoods and deception not only hurt ourselves but everyone around us, and (on a personal level) reminded me of the greatest life lesson ever taught to me by my late grandmother: “Speak the truth in all things and be better for it.”
The Test of Patience.
Each Kpop fan has their own personal hopes for their favorite artists and the genre we love so much. While fans’ wishes, hopes, and dreams for Kpop are as various as the fans themselves, there is one resounding dream that they all truly share: Making Kpop a global household name. You may ask yourself, why are fans so dedicated to this dream? While the answers are never simple, you could say that it’s centered around not only selflessness but selfishness as well. After all, what fan hasn’t ever wished that their favorite artists would perform in their home country or make appearances on their local TV stations? What fan out there doesn’t want to be able to hear their favorite artists’ songs being played on their cities’ radio stations?
When the global phenomenon of PSY (Park Jae-sang) and his mega-hit Gangnam Style appeared on the Kpop scene in July of 2012, no one in the Kpop world could have ever imagined that it would receive such an unprecedented response from the global community. Considered to be one of the most entertaining, yet often times quite controversial performers in Korea, PSY has garnered the love of fans throughout his country for over a decade. Still, although he had amassed a large community of fans in Korea, PSY’s presence hadn’t been truly felt within the international mainstream Kpop scene, despite the fact that he had been making music since the early 2000’s.
So, for most Kpop fans, it was startling that this relatively obscure artist seemed to come out of left field to become the hottest Hallyu star of 2012. In six months following the release of Gangnam Style, PSY has been honored with praises from actors and artists like Tom Cruise and Katy Perry, has received acknowledgements from various organizations such as the United Nations–which dubbed the artist an “International Sensation.” PSY has received invitations to perform at events like the American Music Awards, with veteran rapper MC Hammer. He has even performed for President Obama. The global phenomenon of the song itself, paired with virility of the highly entertaining and addictive music video, quickly affixed the eyes of the world onto PSY and subsequently brought the genre of Kpop to the attention of the mainstream music scene.
Never before had we Kpop fans seen such a small ripple of the Hallyu Wave turn into a tsunami that would quickly consume the global community. PSY’s and Gangnam Style’s seemingly near-instant success was met by Kpop fans with a myriad of emotions varying from joy and excitement to apprehension and disappointment. Fans were ecstatic that their non-fan-friends were all of a sudden asking about PSY, but were disappointed to find that many of these new fans thought that the style of the song and video were “par-for-the-course” when it came to Kpop as a whole. In layman’s terms, many new listeners believed that all Kpop was like Gangnam Style and that all Kpop music videos were just as silly. This misunderstanding between non-fans and fans became a source of inner conflict for Kpop fans, because they felt disappointed that the genre was being so generalized–and so quickly.
While I am one of the many fans that dreamed of a day where I could turn on the radio in my car and hear artists like Super Junior, SHINee, and Big Bang singing their hearts out for everyone to hear, I honestly was part of the apprehensive fan mentality. While very proud of PSY for his amazing and surprising accomplishment, I worried that the instant success of Gangnam Style would end up being a detriment to the Hallyu Wave. Why?
After the music video’s YouTube views surpassed Justin Beiber‘s Baby, I was questioned by several of my non-fan-friends about the song and Kpop. While I took this as an opportunity to educate my friends about a genre of music that I’ve adored for so long, I immediately was faced with three very different reactions: generalization, indifference, and contempt.
While my experiences with the Gangnam Style phenomenon are uniquely my own, I found that many Kpop fans from around the world were experiencing the same reactions. Non-fans that had experienced Kpop for the very first time, because of Gangnam Style, were making judgements and assumptions about the music based solely on the song itself and were dismissing the entire genre simply because they felt that it wasn’t a respectable form of music.
These reactions, while not unexpected, did affect my perception on the current future of Kpop. I had hoped, along with all the other fans, that one day a song would come along that would turn the world’s attention towards the genre, and as the Gangnam Style phenomenon continued to build momentum, I thought that this was the beginning of a new era. Although it was quite an idealistic notion, the potential for the global mainstreaming of Kpop was (and is) still there.
The old saying, “Good things come to those who wait,” has never before been more real to me than when I think about Kpop and its potential. That longing feeling that every Kpop fan shares, while sometimes difficult to bear, has taught us that we shouldn’t rush headlong into the global mainstream market, but instead should continue to take baby steps to solidify the validity of our beloved genre. We must continue to be patient, understanding, and dedicated–because we will get there one day. As we continue to have patience in the present, our future looks even brighter.
The Test of Hope.
What are your hopes when it comes to Kpop? The global mainstreaming of the genre? Meeting your favorite artist in person? Seeing a Kpop concert? Traveling to Korea? We all have little hopes like these, but if you’re like me, you may also harbor a very important one: the reunification and comeback of SS501.
After their contract ended with DSP Entertainment in 2010, members of SS501 went their separate ways and signed with different labels. When details of the so-called split hit the Internet, fans were frantic. Could this be the end of SS501? Are they falling under the five-year curse? After the split, leader Kim Hyun Joong made an official statement that basically said that SS501 would never really split up. The members were just going to pursue their own individual activities. He guaranteed that SS501 would reunite someday and would continue to release its music. This small sliver of hope is something that SS501 fans still hold onto fervently even now.
SS501 solidified their place as my ultimate group bias many years ago and, to this day, no group has ever been able to replace them. Before SS501 debuted in 2005, I was on a Korean Indie group kick and had turned my focus away from mainstream Kpop, so-to-speak. I got the news that a new five-man group would be debuting under DSP Entertainment when a close friend from Japan sent me a few of the latest promotional shots of the group’s members. As I nonchalantly glanced through the six photos, I suddenly stopped when it came to one of the individual member shots. It wasn’t the subject’s stunning good looks or bright smile that caught my attention, it was his eyes.
They didn’t sparkle. They didn’t shine. They looked lost and sad. It was strange that a photo would look that way, isn’t it? It’s especially when you are talking about a group’s promotional shots that are supposed to grab the Kpop world’s attention. Perhaps it was just my imagination, or how I perceived the feel of the shot, but it struck a chord in me to the point that I followed SS501 activities from then on.
Looking back on how I found the group and how I felt about them before I ever once heard them sing, I tried to understand why I was so fascinated by them. Still to this day, I can’t really put my finger on the exact reason why this group spoke to me initially. When they finally debuted, in June of 2005, their first track, Warning, shattered my ideas of their vocal abilities and music style, and consequently, blew me away. After that, I found myself literally loving every song they released–which is rare since I’m normally overly-critical when it comes to music styles, lyrics, and arrangements. Perhaps it was their vocals that really spoke to me, or perhaps it all boils down to that one photo. I may never really know.
Since the split, members Heo Young Saeng, Kim Hyung Joon, Kim Hyun Joong, Kim Kyu Jong, and Park Jung Min, have continued to produce music as solo artists, and up until the middle of last year, fans were still adamantly looking forward to the promised comeback. Then, in July 2012, it was announced that member Kim Kyu Jong would begin his military service. This surprised the fans simply because, up until the announcement, it was common knowledge that he had been exempt from service because of a medical condition. The corresponding policy that exempted him from service had been revamped, and his exemption had been lifted. The whole situation felt like a train derailment to all of the group’s fans. Their hopes were quickly dashed with this one event, and the reunification of SS501 looked even more unlikely.
However, even through everything the fans have endured since the split in 2010, leader Kim Hyun Joong has still been quite adamant that there will be a reunification and a comeback of SS501. Even though the comeback will have to be delayed for two years due to Kyu Jong’s enlistment, the possibility of a comeback is still obtainable.
The plight of SS501 reminds fans that there are no true ‘definites’ in this world. Where there is a will, there is a way. Hope is as precious as it is fragile, and still we cling to it with all our might. While our hope of SS501’s reunification maybe hindered by the realities of this world, having hope brings us almost the same amount of joy as the actual fulfillment of it. This life lesson is the most loved lesson I’ve learned during my Kpop life. We hang our many hopes on our beloved artist and genre and make the choice to do all that we can to see them realized.
Admittedly, Kpop has put me through many tests as a fan and has also taught me so much more than the life lessons mentioned within this editorial. However, it’s the fans of the genre that have taught me infinitely more. While I spent the majority of my beginning of this Kpop life feeling like I was the only Kpop fan in my area, I soon realized how extremely popular the genre is all across the world, and I begin to find new friends through Kpop. Getting involved in fan groups and fan clubs gave me an opportunity to find like-minded individuals and to learn more about not only my favorite artists but more about the fans themselves. Subsequently, the ability to find other Kpop fans from around the world has also been a great blessing to me. In my search for other Kpop fans, I have not only found some of the closest friends I will ever know, but I also have been able to meet and work with some amazing artists through the job I ultimately found because of them.
2013 marks my thirteenth anniversary as a Kpop fan. To me that signifies so much more than just my being a fan. I could never repay the universe for the joy Kpop has given me, nor can I ever fully express my gratitude to those fans and artists that have touched my life in so many special ways. This journey began with one song, one voice, and I will forever hold in my heart a debt of gratitude to Brian Joo and Grandma Kim for putting me on the path of my Kpop life.
I hope that through this editorial you will each look back on your Kpop life and decipher your own individual life lessons you have picked up along the way, and that by doing so you begin to understand that it really isn’t always about the music. Now that you’re thinking about it, what lessons have you learned during your Kpop life? Tell us about them!
[Main Photo collage created by Author]