K-pop fans: a political force to be reckoned with

From pranking Trump to rallying behind the BLM movement

When Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa was foiled by an unexpectedly low turnout last weekend, K-pop fans emerged as the unlikely masterminds behind this apparent ‘prank’. We look back at what else they’ve been getting behind…By Nat Cheung.

For the past two weeks before, they had been calling for people to reserve tickets that they have no intention of using, in order to inflate the expected turnout at the President’s post-lockdown comeback. 

Recently, these fans have also rallied behind the Black Lives Matter movement. They have matched the band BTS’s $1 million donation to relevant groups, spammed white supremacist hashtags, and crashed the Dallas police app ‘iWatch’ that was intended to collect videos of ‘illegal activity’ at the protests, by flooding it with ‘fancams’ of their idols’ performances.

Is there something inherently political about Korean pop that mobilised these fans? K-pop as an industry is anything but liberal. There are notorious ‘slave contracts’ that impose strict rules on artists’ diets, love lives and spending. Many songs perpetuate heteronormative gender stereotypes. There is very little representation of different races, body types and sexual orientations. It shies away from controversial topics, because it is treated as a political resource that gets considerable state funding.

Then why have fans organised themselves for apparently incompatible political ends? The answer probably lies in the fans themselves rather than the music. We have to remember that the vast majority of those involved in these recent activities are not native Koreans from Korea, but anglophone fans, mostly from America. In Korea, K-pop is just pop; elsewhere, it’s a subculture.

The tribalism of K-pop has always been there, but it’s evolved as it went international and online. In the 90s, Korean fans would set up fanclubs, buy up their idols’ CDs and flock to weekly music shows together.

Now, the most accessible way for fans all over the world to show their devotion is to stream their songs, inflate music video views, and trend hashtags. That’s how BTS fans (dubbed ‘ARMY’), for example, got 74.6 million views on their music video for ‘Boy with Luv’ in the first 24 hours it was posted on Youtube.

These are young people who are at home on the Internet and have devised ingenious methods of organisation. They have embraced a foreign culture and even made it part of their identity. The fact of being a ‘subculture’ in their home countries also reinforces those feelings of difference and community at once, which makes them more inclined to ally with marginalised groups and oppose conservative politics. 

The band BTS has tapped into this narrative of inclusivity. In 2018, they delivered a speech at the United Nations that urged young people to ‘love themselves’ and ‘speak themselves’, a central message in their music that has resonated with many women of colour, who make up a large portion of their fanbase.

Indeed, the genre is heavily influenced by the sounds of hip-hop and R&B, even if they don’t talk about the same themes. Being now world-famous celebrities who are susceptible to Western ‘cancel culture’, BTS are all the more obliged to express support for BLM in line with their fans’ demands as well.

It must not be forgotten that to some extent, what K-pop fans have done to Trump, the police and anti-BLM forces in the past few weeks are also just jokes. K-pop, at the end of the day, is entertainment.

In a way, these fans are also simply representative of Generation Z: digitally literate, more ethnically and racially diverse, and more comfortable with social change. But as K-pop stars are empowering their fans to speak up, fans will start to expect the same from stars and their peers too.