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 white mediocrity of other American pop bands I latched onto earlier in my youth. Here were 12 young boys of color, many of whom spent years training for this moment, practicing a song that would catapult them into the fame they deserved. (To date, the video has topped more than 40 million views on YouTube.) Their meteoric breakout into the white-dominated pop culture space embodied a phrase I heard repeated to me as a young Black girl: “You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.” Finally, I’d found my place.
There’s little room to be a fan without that material proof, which has turned into a major boom for the South Korean economy.
The world of K-pop fandom soon consumed my every waking hour during high school. Erin and I would gossip about industry updates before and after school, sharing pictures from omniscient Korean paparazzi and the news outlet Dispatch. During math class, I’d snatch bathroom passes so I could connect to the single bar of cell service by the window and watch blurred figures in music videos from my favorite groups.
My first concert was to see the band BTS, the biggest pop group in the world, the following year on the first stop of their “Red Bullet” American tour in New York City. Erin and I saved up for the concert weeks before tickets went on sale. The tickets cost $100 each for the standing-room-only section of what was then called the Best Buy Theater in Times Square, so I set aside money from my $9 per hour minimum-wage job at Panera, which I’d initially taken to pay for college application fees. We couldn’t dream of affording the $300-plus it cost for seats close enough to the stage to see our idols in detail. The $50 official BTS hoodie was also out of our budgets, so I made my own T-shirt out of tie-dye and iron-on lettering to rep my BTS bias (fandom-speak for your favorite group member), J-Hope. During that time in my household, you bought what you needed and what would last; what you wanted came in third to those requirements. I also brought a handmade poster using glow-in-the-dark line art to get J-Hope’s attention in that small, dark venue.
The next summer, we spent almost every other weekend going to “the city,” which is what kids from Long Island call Manhattan. We’d shuffle into the Long Island Railroad and dash to Koreatown the second we pulled into Penn Station. The itinerary was always the same: Go to Koryo Books to longingly scout albums and photocards to add to our mental wish lists, then off to Food Gallery 52, and back home. For weeks, I’d save for LIRR tickets and to buy only the albums I felt would be worth their sentimental value for years to come.
Where I’m from, the railroad tracks act as a wealth line dividing our town. The south area is distinguished by its bays for private boats; the idyllic, Hallmark-esque row of petit bourgeois shops and restaurants. The north, where Erin and I lived just a street from one another, is a backdrop to the town dump. My hometown is a horrid example of environmental racism where, in the eyes of white residents, the faltering gated community lost any sense of “safety” once families of color decided to rent in the neighborhood.
In the K-pop fandom, your legitimacy as a stan is based on wealth.
Class consciousness hit me every time after that first concert, when I was relegated to P5 nosebleed seats, doing fan-chants among other stans with homemade merch and outdated ARMY Bombs, the handheld light sticks named after the BTS fandom ARMY. It hit me when I had to torrent summer packages of their latest songs on alternative sites because I couldn’t afford the $50 albums, or when I had to watch virtual concerts via short clips on Instagram. By the standards of the wealthy stans who get to go mic checks before concerts and have every possible version of an album, I was not a stan.
In the K-pop fandom, your legitimacy as a stan is based on wealth; your perceived loyalty is dependent on having money to stream the music, buy albums, and stock up on extraneous merch so you can brag about having your bias’s photocard or limited-edition posters. There’s little room to be a fan without that material proof, which has turned into a major boom for the South Korean economy. Last year, BTS alone accounted for roughly $5 billion of the country’s GDP. The industry as a whole is estimated to generate roughly $10 billion U.S. dollars annually.
Erin and I were the biggest K-pop fans you could imagine; we’d tune in to our favorite variety shows and reblog pictures of our idols like our lives depended on it. But our status as stans became abundantly clear the further we delved into our obsession. For us — two young girls of color from working-class homes on Long Island — “stanhood” was not always an option. Erin once ordered me a limited-edition EXO poster straight from Korea; knowing we shared the same cultural value of money, it meant a lot to think she’d spend anything on me in the first place.
Erin and I weren’t the only fans struggling to prove our stanhood. I recently spoke with a fellow girl group and BTS stan on Twitter about the difficulty of keeping up with others in the fandom. Because the community is so centralized online, working-class fans have limited options to show off their support without feeling pressured to buy merch they can’t afford. “It’s not really sustainable, especially when groups release albums within weeks of each other,” my fellow ARMY said. “Saying BTS are the 1% is met with such hostility because [ARMYs] think that statement means they didn’t earn their wealth. Fans basically frame it as a rags-to-riches story and that they worked hard for their riches. Everything about it just reinforces neoliberalism.”
Covid-19 has only exacerbated my growing disdain for celebrity and pop idol culture. While less-wealthy fans of color like me struggle with unemployment and racial trauma, K-pop groups are raking in the dough. BTS is now worth $100 million, a vast difference from the scrappy group I grew up with who lived in the same room where they trained for their debut and passed out flyers for a free show to just get their name out. The group has only gotten wealthier during the pandemic; each member now holds larger shares in their company, Big Hit Entertainment.
Meanwhile, crowdfunding efforts like Funds for Bangtan exist to raise money to buy albums for fans who can’t afford them. Years ago, I would have loved the financial boost, but these initiatives point to the larger problem within the industry. It perpetuates the assumption that fans must own albums in order to be considered a real ARMY. As of its most recent update, the fund has amassed more than $38,000 in donations for albums.
I don’t strive for material fandom any longer. The groups we stan profit off us as we spend our last dollar. I haven’t bought merch or albums for almost three years. Of course, I still listen to the music, but their songs from older albums tend to be my go-tos. Striving for the golden status as an equally participating stan created what Marx called a “false consciousness”: thinking I had to work in competition with others as an individual when I should have considered us as a collective. We were being exploited by these entertainment companies for money we could barely scrape up. Searching for community and belonging in capitalistic structures was a mistake. I’ve learned now that my self-worth is not tied to my potential profit as a stan.