Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a new series at GEN that tells a story about a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
If fandoms are meant to bring a tight-knit community together around a shared devotion, the irony is that for much of my life, stan culture made me feel like an outsider. As a lost young teen from Long Island in search of an escape, I fell hard for boy bands like One Direction in the 2010s, indoctrinating myself into the group’s fan base as a fully-fledged “Directioner.” But soon, the obnoxious whiteness of the famed fandom became overwhelming. Fans often used racial slurs and viciously defended the band when members were caught using the N-word — many fans flooded my inbox with name-calling and slurs when I dared to speak out. One Direction itself often illustrated the bland mediocrity of Western pop culture that’s wildly popular in ways that felt unearned. As Zayn, the only non-white member of the band, said in a 2015 interview with Fader, the genre was “generic as f***.”
My world opened up when my best friend Erin first introduced me to K-pop in 2014. That year marked the beginning of K-pop’s third generation, an evolution from the industry’s roots in the 1990s when groups first introduced Black American hip-hop influences into Korean pop music. By the time I got hooked as a 15-year-old, K-pop had already gone global, giving fans a more intimate connection with idols through social media and world tours.
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Watching a video of the 12-person group EXO during their dance practice to the song “Growl,” everything changed for me. From the group’s perfectly synchronized dance style to their laid-back streetwear, their performance in a shabby rehearsal studio pointed to a vastly different K-pop world. The group’s raw talent was levels above the…