SEOUL: In recent weeks, South Koreans watched with mixed feelings as K-pop fans and artists spoke out on political matters in the United States.
K-pop fans mobilised online to drown out racist hashtags against Black Lives Matter protests, and also registered for tickets to a rally held by US President Donald Trump with no intention of attending.
Some South Korean fans expressed trepidation that US politics could be a slippery slope for K-pop acts, such as BTS, who expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
These fans said that US politics is unfamiliar territory for artists, who could get pulled into debates and associated with causes they may not fully identify with.
But as US-based fans have taken to activism, the more common reaction has been celebration of K-pop’s contribution to efforts to create a fairer society in the US.
In the memorable words of one South Korean commentator, “It’s natural that K-pop fans would give Trump a big taffy to eat.”
In Korean, instructing someone to “eat taffy” equates roughly to a middle-finger gesture. In 2014, after the South Korean national football team got clobbered at the World Cup, upon their return home, fans pelted them with taffy to communicate their disappointment.
While K-pop is apolitical music, it is nevertheless natural for K-pop fans to rally against racism, and we can expect to see plenty more of this sort of activism in the near future.
It is important to not treat K-pop fans as a monolithic group. Fans of popular Korean-language music come from all over the world and the music itself is divided into subgenres.
What we’re usually talking about when “K-pop” comes up is idol music – a musical landscape of polished performers cultivated by major music labels.
K-pop idol music did not spring forth from activism, but rather, aspiration, with groups performing slick songs accompanied by tightly choreographed dance routines.
Idol music has its origins in the early 1990s, when South Korea was a young democracy coming out of decades of authoritarian rule. It began as an escape from the political.
The spark of recent US protests was the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who begged for his life while being smothered by a police officer.
The particularly brutal circumstances of Floyd’s death, seen in a slow-burn video that showed Floyd panicking while three police officers stood by as a colleague kneeled on his neck, lit a fuse of simmering anger over police violence.
As protests swelled in many US cities, the online sphere filled with expressions of outrage over institutional racism and calls for change.
K-pop fans banded together online, using fancam videos to drown a police effort to collect footage of protesters. They embarrassed Trump by block-reserving seats of his Tulsa rally, misleading him to believe that the event will be a sold-out success.
READ: Trump looking to reverse fortunes after Tulsa fiasco
YOUNG AND DIVERSE
It isn’t hard to see why K-pop fans would be motivated to act against Trump and racist police violence. Trump has made demonisation of anyone who isn’t white, born in the US and English-speaking a lynchpin of his appeal to supporters.
He has castigated immigrants as rapists and criminals. He has worked to deny the rights of asylum seekers and described majority-black districts of the US as “rat and rodent infested”.
K-pop fans generally do not come from demographic groups that support Trump in large numbers. Many are young and people of colour, and probably feel personally attacked by Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
Moreover, K-pop acts owe a lot to African-American performers, with many K-pop artists borrowing styles of rapping and dancing from black music.
In short, while idol music is a top-down creation of large management companies, it is also music that resonates with people who feel they don’t fit into the majority.
K-pop fandom is for many a source of identity and community. Fans gather online in communities to express support for their favourite acts in much the same way sports fans do, watching their idols’ every move and cheering them on.
Before the coronavirus scuttled live events, those fans gathered offline to attend concerts and fan meetings, even showing up at the airport when a group was flying in or out of their city.
TRUMP VS K-POP
Idol music also prominently features messages of love. Themes of antagonism or confrontation are rare in idol lyrics.
For example, BTS, one of the most popular and successful K-pop acts in the world, have built a literal “Army” (the name of their fanbase) with messages of compassion and acceptance.
The lyrics to one BTS song state, “I live so I love” and “If it’s love I will love you.”
That is about as far away from Trump as it’s possible to get. The president bases his persona on appearing strong by depicting himself as tough and uncompromising.
His “America First” mantra is based on the idea that under liberal presidents, America got pushed around and taken advantage of.
When running for president, Trump pledged to end this humiliation and bully adversaries and allies alike into bending to America’s will. In one election debate, he appeared to use his physical stature to intimidate his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s insistence on pursuing self-interest is at odds with K-pop fans’ collective and inclusive mindset.
K-pop fans find their strength in numbers, and their well-established tactics of swarming to support their favourite artists can easily be deployed for political activism.
To address challenges including racism, COVID-19, economic decline and climate change, collective action is necessary. You can bet that K-pop fans will be heard from later this year when campaigning for the US presidential election ramps up.
It remains to be seen how K-pop fans will take conventional political action like voting.
But the takeaway from K-pop fans’ new storming of US politics is a very old lesson: Collective action is effective. Those who are young and tech-savvy have an advantage over the old guard.
In the near future, K-pop fans could harness their tactics to shape cultural and political movements.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.