Why Obsessive K-Pop Fans Are Turning Toward Political Activism



Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

In certain corners of the internet, the organizing prowess of K-pop fans — the typically young and diverse international enthusiasts of Korean pop music who congregate daily on social media — has long been the stuff of legend: Through coordinated group action, so-called fan armies of acts like BTS and Blackpink make sure that their favorite idols are trending topics who lead the music charts and sell out stadiums from South Korea to the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and Citi Field in New York.

在互联网的某些角落,“韩流饭”—通常是来自世界各地的一些每天在网上聚集的年轻韩国流行乐迷——的组织能力一直是个传奇:通过井井有条的团体行动,像BTS和Blackpink的所谓粉丝团可以确保他们喜爱的偶像成为热门话题,引领音乐排行榜,从韩国到洛杉矶玫瑰碗(Rose Bowl)再到纽约花旗球场(Citi Field)的所有演唱会门票都卖光。

Now, amid a pandemic, a forthcoming presidential election and inescapable conversations about race, this loose collective of digital warriors is trying to exert its influence in a new realm: the American political arena.


Spurred at first by the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around the world, K-pop stans made themselves known outside of music circles this weekend, when some took credit for helping to inflate expectations for President Trump’s rally in Oklahoma by reserving tickets they had no plans to use. But while the Trump campaign has denied that the pointed prank affected rally attendance, blaming protesters and the news media instead, the call to action in K-pop circles revealed a growing realization that fans’ efficient social-media tactics for fund-raising or making a song go viral can also be used for political activism.

起初他们受到了世界各地正在进行的“黑人的命也是命”(Black Lives Matter)抗议活动的激发,而在上周末,这群K-pop铁粉走出了音乐圈,因为他们中的一些人因预订了并不打算使用的门票,推高了特朗普总统在俄克拉荷马州集会的期望值而受到赞美。尽管特朗普方面否认这一狙击式恶作剧影响了集会人数,并称罪魁祸首是抗议者和媒体,但K-pop圈的行动呼吁表明,粉丝们愈发认识到他们在筹集资金或让一首歌大火的有效社交媒体策略,也可以用于政治活动。

In recent weeks, K-pop devotees — who use Twitter as a home base, but proliferate across TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms — have spammed a birthday card for President Trump, disrupted a Dallas police app seeking intelligence on protesters and flooded would-be white supremacist hashtags, while also announcing that they had matched a $1 million donation from BTS for Black Lives Matter groups. And in keeping with the growing popularity of K-pop in the United States, many of these budding digital activists may also be American citizens, according to experts.


“The English-speaking K-pop fans who are getting involved in this, who are up on these issues, these are not foreigners,” said CedarBough Saeji, an academic who studies K-pop fan culture. “These are Americans.”

“参与其中、关注这些问题的说英语的K-pop粉丝,他们不是外国人,”研究K-pop粉丝文化的学者西达博·塞吉(CedarBough Saeji)说。“这些人是美国人。”

“That these young, socially progressive, outward-looking people who are really adept at using these online platforms — who are stuck at home and online even more because of Covid-19 — that these people are doing political things is not surprising,” added Ms. Saeji, a visiting assistant professor of East Asian culture at Indiana University Bloomington. “These are young people who are completely willing to learn about a new culture to follow their interest in some pop-culture product. These are exactly the kind of people who are the opposite of the Trump audience that claps when he disses ‘Parasite’ and says that ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a real movie.”


In the days since Mr. Trump’s rally in Tulsa, no evidence has emerged that South Korean fans of K-pop were involved in any significant way in the “no-show” campaign. South Korean news media instead relayed American reports from Tulsa, treating the episode mainly as a gag by teenage fans of K-pop and TikTok users in the United States.


South Koreans tend to follow U.S. elections closely because they could affect alliance relations between Washington and Seoul, and American policy on North Korea. But they generally remain wary of taking sides in U.S. politics. Mr. Trump has been quite popular among liberal South Koreans, including young people, by raising hopes that his diplomacy with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, might produce a breakthrough in long-stalled talks on ending the North’s nuclear threat and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.


On Monday, some South Koreans responded to the news from Tulsa by expressing concern about how Mr. Trump might react. “Why does K-pop meddle in an American political dispute,” wrote one reader of a local newspaper article about the rally.


But while K-pop culture in South Korea is a largely apolitical mainstream concern, leaving fan armies to focus on boosting album sales and propping up their idols, the community’s position as a subculture in the United States may lend itself to more radical gestures, especially at a time of increased political polarization.



Doug Mills/The New York Times

“Although K-pop’s message is not necessarily political in an overt sense, they are often about empowerment and self-confidence,” said the author of the “Ask a Korean!” blog, who uses the pen name T.K. Park. “Lots of first-time K-pop fans, for example, got into BTS because the group’s message of ‘love yourself’ strongly resonated with them.” And since such content has attracted an audience made up largely of women and people of color, Mr. Park added, “this message pushes them to be more expressive with every aspect of their lives, including politics.”


They had also already honed the necessary skills. “K-pop fans learned how to organize through their fandom,” Mr. Park said. “K-pop is a digital-native music,” he added, and South Korea’s early adoption of nationwide broadband service “made Korean pop music respond to the demands of the internet, and also made K-pop’s fandom the most sophisticated actors in the digital sphere.” He pointed to the near-constant campaigns to flood radio stations with song requests or sell out concert tickets in a matter of minutes as a training ground: “All of these activities can be translated into politics very easily.”


Nicole Santero, a fan and Ph.D. student with a focus on the BTS Army who also runs the data-focused @ResearchBTS account, found that in May, there were only two days when a term related to the group was not trending worldwide on Twitter.

K-pop迷妮可·桑提罗(Nicole Santero)是一名研究BTS粉丝团的博士生,还运营了侧重数据的推特账户 @ResearchBTS。她发现,在5月,与该团体有关的词每天都出现在Twitter全球热门标签中,只有两天是例外。

“Sometimes they don’t even mean to trend, but there’s so many of them that sometimes they accidentally trend random words,” she said. “They’re really, really passionate people who just fight for what they love. Those characteristics translate well when you look at social issues.”


A spokeswoman for Twitter said that K-pop was the most tweeted about music genre worldwide, with more than 6.1 billion tweets in 2019, an increase of 15 percent from the year before. BTS was the most tweeted about artist for the last three years, the company added. TikTok and Facebook declined to provide data.


The recent turn toward political activism in the United States also follows a concerted effort by K-pop fans in recent years to make positive change en masse, in part as a reaction to the groups’ reputations as superficial, silly and even menacing mobs. Like the most fervent fan bases of American pop stars — including Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, Beyoncé’s BeyHive or Nicki Minaj’s Barbz, known collectively as “stans” after the Eminem song about an obsessive stalker — K-pop followers have been accused of harassment for piling onto critics or rivals. In South Korea, they have also been viewed as overly fawning, and even cultlike, banding together, for instance, to buy presents like luxury watches for famous singers.

K-pop迷的政治行动主义转向,也伴随着最近几年齐心协力做出的积极改变,这样做的部分原因是回应该群体肤浅、愚蠢甚至是危险暴民的形象。就像美国流行歌星最狂热的粉丝群一样——包括贾斯汀·比伯(Justin Bieber)的Beliebers,碧昂斯(Beyoncé)的BeyHive或尼基·米娜(Nicki Minaj)的Barbz,在埃米纳姆(Eminem)唱了一首关于痴迷跟踪狂的歌后被统称为“stans”——K-pop迷也被指控骚扰或对批评者或竞争对手施加巨大压力。在韩国,它们也被视为过分谄媚,甚至像邪教一样聚集在一起,例如为著名歌手购买奢华手表这样的礼物。

But these days, philanthropic donations to uncontroversial causes like the poor, the old or the terminally ill — often in made in the name of chosen artists — are more common. “This was a way to remake fandom in the eyes of the public,” Ms. Saeji said.



Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

Black Lives Matter in particular may have represented an urgent cause to K-pop fans given the artists’ debt to hip-hop culture and black music, with groups like BTS having been accused in the past of cultural appropriation. “Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by black culture whether they acknowledge it or not,” the South Korean singer and rapper CL wrote recently on Instagram.


“You have K-pop fans educating other K-pop fans about this,” Ms. Saeji said, noting the overarching enthusiasm across subjects both serious and playful. “You can go on K-pop Twitter and you will see somebody post about Black Lives Matter and then 10 minutes later post something about the cutest idol that they are totally fan-girling over. They don’t see a contradiction there.”


“What’s really important about this entire thing is that young people are seeing their political power, they are flexing and they are feeling it,” she added. “And you know what they are going to do next? They are going to vote. These K-pop fans are not feeling cynical right now. They are feeling empowered.”