How to Cover K-pop Fandom With the Seriousness It Deserves
People want to understand K-pop stans after their contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement. The first rule: They are not a monolith.
On Monday, the Korean boy group Tomorrow X Together (TXT) was interviewed by Good Day New York anchor Rosanna Scotto about their upcoming performance at the KCON:TACT festival. Toward the end of the exchange, Scotto posed a question that seemed to catch them off guard:
“Do you know anything about that whole movement of TikTok users and K-pop fans getting tickets to President Trump’s rally and then not showing up?” she asked.
After the five members of TXT traded wide-eyed, befuddled glances, one of the bandmates, Yeonjun, responded diplomatically in his non-native English: “Yeah, we don’t know anything. We’re just preparing for KCON:TACT, and, yeah, we were practicing.”
Scotto was quickly criticized by fans and concerned onlookers for asking a group of young musicians to answer for a larger political moment in which they were not involved. But her question represents part of a massive issue, one in which mainstream media has by and large overlooked the realities of K-pop and stan Twitter and now appears ill-equipped to address or report on either.
It is a tenuous moment for K-pop stans. Right-wing talking heads now accuse fans of the genre of at once being South and North Korean foreign interference agents and claim their social media accounts are in fact bots. And online leftists often deem them mindless supporters of capitalist entertainment — a charge that could easily extend to fans of other music in other countries.
If the media—seeing stans’ propensity to shut down police apps, sabotage Trump rallies, and spread awareness of issues through Twitter—finally wishes to cover the enigmatic communities it has never taken seriously up until now, it will need to learn a few things immediately rather than continue to speculate on stans’ values based on shallow, brief forays into the subculture.
K-pop stans are often marginalized people
Outsiders can seem hasty to overlook the ethnocultural backgrounds of K-pop stans online, instead essentially narrowing their identity down to being stans. This neglects the reality that many K-pop stans themselves are Black — meaning Black Lives Matter is a revolution directly based on their struggle for liberation.
“Who cares more about Black lives than Black lives themselves? Who cares more about LGBTQ+ rights than LGBTQ+ people?” asks Daezy, a Nigerian member of the global fan base BTS ARMY who helped coordinate the fandom’s unprecedented #MatchAMillion campaign. The effort raised over $1 million for multiple pro-Black organizations in response to the band’s own $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter.
Though BTS ARMY has long had a propensity for good deeds, as evidenced by the fandom’s charity project One in an ARMY, the quality of diversity among international fans has been true of K-pop for many years and across essentially all fandoms. K-pop fans come in every race, gender, and age. And while it’s clear that discrimination against Black fans has long plagued fandom communities, Black fans themselves should be consulted (and commissioned) to discuss racism they face instead of having it whitewashed by non-Black non-fans briefly observing these marginalized experiences.
K-pop fandom is incredibly intricate
A frustrating reality that stans have been forced to live with is the constant grouping of K-pop stans as a singular entity. In reality, the term “K-pop stan” holds several meanings. According to a 2013 article by scholar Crystal S. Anderson, fandoms among groups and artists vary widely. “K-pop fandom can refer to fans who identify as fans of K-pop the amusement. Of 790 respondents who answered a question about why they were K-pop fans between April 29, 2011, and April 15, 2012, as part of an iFans survey, many described themselves as fans of K-pop in general, not of a particular group or artist,” Anderson wrote. “K-pop fandom can also refer to fans who identify as fans of an individual K-pop group or solo artist.”
It can be disheartening, then, for specific fandoms to see their ideas and their work attributed merely to generalized “K-pop stans” when they originate from specific and unique subcultures and communities. (Monbebe, for example, is the official fandom name for the group MONSTA X; the band Loona’s fans are called Orbit.)
Additionally, the political and charitable acts of many stans should not be confused for political endorsements. Another BTS ARMY member, G.M. Cantave, warned against the community becoming overtly politicized and mobilized by outsiders: “This new recognition that we are receiving for something we’ve always done is great, but I also feel like we should be cautious … we have to be aware that this recognition we are getting, especially during election time, can in fact be used by politicians in their machinations and fight for power.”
K-pop stans have always been thoughtful—at times
Much of the supposed vapidness of K-pop fuels onlookers’ shock toward any thoughtful actions on the part of K-pop stans; but, ultimately, K-pop stans are, first and foremost, a complex group of humans. While they may utilize the communities and organization tools of fandoms to enforce direct action, there are still constant points of contention within fandoms. For instance, “fanwars” often encompass targeted harassment toward fans and artists themselves.
However, issues like the Korean idol industry’s numerous faux pas with cultural appropriation and artist exploitation cannot always be pinned on fans. As a matter of fact, the work of fans on sites like YouTube and Twitter is often what has brought these issues to light globally. Fans themselves should be studied and conversed with over their own actions rather than spoken over or forced to speak on behalf of multitudinous communities which they mostly have not been involved in.
Rather than bastardize conversations of politics and race in stan spaces, journalists and curious observers should look to stans for thoughtful input on how their own communities succeed and where they need to improve. But the media can also do well to interview and commission thoughtful, eloquent members of these fandoms to discuss these issues.
Ultimately, fandoms are showcasing the ways often-derided parasocial relationships can not only positively impact artists and fans but the world as a whole. Their methods of online organization should prove educational for those looking to directly affect systems of oppression. But they are not simply cute factions of trendy teens fighting the power in between fawning over their oppars: Stans are writers, scientists, scholars, activists, artists, and more. They are human. Treat them as such.