Korean Idol

The Highly Structured World of Kpop and Its Fandom
by Frances Cha
Members of the Kpop band Super Junior. Image courtesy of super-junior.co.kr.

Korean Idol

Frances Cha
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K pop—a certain Asia-enveloping strain of contemporary Koreanpop music—is ­characterized by upbeat, hook-heavysongs and teary ballads, performed by highly choreographed boy bands and girl groups whose members generally range in age from fourteen to twenty-three. The most prominent of these are known as “idols.” They are the source of traffic jams and barricades in Seoul as they move from place to place. When they travel, legions of fans swamp airports, from Japan’s Narita to New York’s JFK, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols; indeed, some devotees fly into these airports just for these brief moments.

But Kpop fandom has its stalkerish element. Jaejoong, a Kpop idol who resembles a manga protagonist, recently took to tweeting against sasaeng (short for “private-life fans”), the most crazed of fans, who shadow him relentlessly, whether it’s on his daily trip to the hair salon or a vacation to Tahiti. Such microscopic attention is made possible by the so-called “sasaeng cabbies,” who cruise around Seoul trying to spot the idols’ cars, tipping off the sasaeng in exchange for cold hard cash.

The sasaeng, naturally, are also diligent recorders, with thousands of blogs dedicated to their idols’ whereabouts. These sites are updated daily, sometimes hourly, albeit in code. For example, a post reading “Exit palace. G R O K. 85. What did I tell you? Kekekeke. Enter palace” means that the idol left his house, went to a karaoke bar in a car with a license plate ending in 85, and is now back at home. “Kekekeke” is meant to mimic laughter.

The sasaeng look down on the gongsunee (“official fans”), who take pride in showing up only for the “official” activities of their bands. Meanwhile, the gongsunee think the sasaeng are batshit insane. Online, epic ­battles ensue, with daily readers’ comments sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands on gallery portals like DC Inside. Usually, the gongsunee attack the sasaeng for violating privacy and sometimes endangering the lives of their idols. ­Members of JYJ have been in car accidents trying to elude sasaeng cabbies. And in a highly publicized 2006 ­incident, a sasaeng anti-fan of TVXQ’s Yunho spiked Yunho’s drink with superglue, sending him to the hospital.

At concerts in Seoul, different fan clubs hand out business cards, trying to recruit individual fans who have yet to select their bandwagon. But all ­defer to the jjang fans. Their activities include organizing charity donations and blood drives in their stars’ names, and bagging endorsement deals via personal and political connections. A number of T-Max jjang fans recently delivered four hundred lunchboxes packed with handmade rice balls, desserts, and drinks for the entire cast and crew of the TV drama that one of the members is starring in. Jjang fans are awarded such privileges as physically relaying birthday gifts (Louis Vuitton luggage sets, German cars) or penning “official chants,” the only form of verbal communication allowed between them and the objects of their affection.

Though Kpop fandom reaches heights seldom attained by its American counterparts, the concept of paparazzi does not exist in Korea. Most sasaeng zealously document their obsession by photographing every move their idols make, but they prefer to keep the pictures in their own hard drives as gaein sojang—“jealously guarded personal possessions.”

The Korean media holds back from reporting on Kpop scandals, partly because management companies can withhold future access to their talent, but also ­because these idols have become the source of great national pride. (There are college courses devoted to the study of Hallyu, as the Asia-conquering wave of popular Korean drama and music stars is known.) In the Korean army, soldiers are militant about devoting their precious TV time to the perky choreography of Girls’ Generation (whose latest song, “Mr. Taxi,” is presumably not about sasaeng cabbies). It’s said that by the time their two-year mandatory service is over, every able-bodied Korean male can distinguish each of the group’s nine members just by looking at a screen shot of their legs.

Crucial to feeding the soyuyok (possessive desire) of these idol fans is the belief that their stars are single. Kpop idols are contractually obligated not to date. When Jong Hyun, a member of the boy band Shinee, was revealed by a rogue newspaper to have a girlfriend (the actress Shin Se-kyung), the backlash was immediate and vicious. Despite the fact that, at the time of this writing, almost six months have passed since the relationship was made public (the equivalent of a decade in idol years), Jong Hyun has yet to make a single official appearance on television, ostensibly for health reasons. The other four perform stoically without him. Shin Se-kyung closed her home page after it was terrorized by Jong Hyun’s fans (sample comments: “As a public entertainer, how dare you acknowledge your relationship in public!,” “Take some pills and die, bitch”).

Thus, barred from exhibiting any contact with the opposite sex and yet tasked with arousing and maintaining fan mania, Kpop idols, especially boy bands, are increasingly exhibiting homosexual ­displays of ­affection toward bandmates. At their most recent concert, Big Bang showed a video clip featuring two lengthy lip-locks among the guys, to roars of approval. The yearly Super Shows of ten-member male group Super Junior feature a lot of kissing (albeit on the cheeks), and JYJ’s newest batch of promo pictures shows all three guys in the same bed, under one cover, eyes aglow.

It’s startling to observe that in a single decade, idol fever has uprooted centuries’ worth of deeply conservative Confucian roots. In the past, Korean society was rigidly defined by traditional rituals, proper forms of behavior as moral guides, and the relentless push to study and seek knowledge as the means of becoming a better person. Now, according to a survey by Edu-Moa (a Seoul-based education institute), for the first time in history, Korean students no longer want to become doctors or lawyers. Instead, they dream of becoming yeonyaein—entertainers—and flock to entertainment companies by the thousands. They give up school and childhood to train in basements for years. “Try to be like me, try to be like me,” the girl group 2NE1 goads their fans. And then what? 

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