K-pop stans' anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter activism reveals their progressive evolution

K-pop fans around the world have shown consuming entertainment does not have to be a passive act — but this type of online activism didn't emerge overnight.
Image: Fans Come Out In Droves To See K-Pop Band BTS Perform In Central Park
Fans wait for K-Pop group BTS to take the stage in Central Park, on May 15, 2019 in New York City.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Suk-Young Kim, author of "K-Pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance"

Live concert arenas packed with zealous fans quickly became a thing of the past amid COVID-19 lockdowns, but K-pop fans have found no-less-exciting ways to show their love for bands — and their collective power.

In support of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited by George Floyd’s death, K-pop fans acted en masse to silence #WhiteLivesMatter voices with K-pop memes linked to the racist hashtag. Highlighting the impressive organization skills typical of K-pop fandom, they also reportedly helped spoil President Donald Trump’s MAGA rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by reserving huge batches of tickets they had no intention of using.

Live concert arenas quickly became a thing of the past amid COVID-19 lockdowns, but K-pop fans have found no-less-exciting ways to show their love for bands.

Who would have ever associated the hyper-commercialized world of K-pop with American politics? But given the history of K-pop fan activism, this phenomenon is hardly surprising. Over and over, K-pop fans around the world have shown consuming entertainment does not have to be a passive act.

Even so, it would be a mistake to assume the K-pop army originated as an anti-racist force. “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver claimed that “K-Pop fans aren’t just trolling racists; they may be managing to have real-world impact.” Oliver is right in that K-pop fan activism has had real-world impact for years, including legislating a law against the blacklisting of celebrities in South Korea in 2015.

However, this type of K-pop online activism did not emerge overnight. It follows more convoluted and devious incidents of group action, such as the online hazing of idols or sabotaging a rival group’s concerts, just to name a few. But just as K-pop as a music scene has been evolving over the past two decades, its fandom is also maturing with age, learning from trial and error.

The vast fandom’s remarkable ability to organize online has been honed by the very nature of the industry. K-pop stars’ success is often defined by fan activities: voting for their idols’ songs to get them to the top of music charts, repeatedly streaming music videos to increase their view count on YouTube and retweeting content to make stars trend online. Now they are using that same skill set to organize politically.

But again, the K-pop industry did not start out as a banner-carrier for political activism. K-pop as we know it today — dominated by good-looking young singers producing music primarily for young listeners — was born in the 1990s and came to global prominence just as patterns of music consumption were rapidly shifting. With the advent of freely downloadable MP3 files and easily accessible YouTube music videos, traditional ways of consuming music and showing your appreciation for your favorite artists were evolving. Born amid this time of transition, K-pop was shaped to suit digital consumption, identifying online space as its natural habitat.

Because of its attractive visual production and strong adaptability to online media platforms, K-pop travels well across the globe without language barriers. When K-pop started to gain traction among U.S. fans some 10 years ago, its high-quality music videos appealed especially to media-savvy millennials and Generation Z.

But it wasn’t simply the pleasing visual content that transformed K-pop from a marginal youth subculture into a music scene with a considerable American following.

Many young fans found K-pop idols’ virtuous personalities as appealing as their talent and good looks. To be successful, K-pop artists constantly have to show humility, sound judgement, band camaraderie and respect for their fans. Because of their influence, they are seen as role models and are supposed to inspire a positive worldview for their young fans.

But it wasn’t simply the pleasing visual content that transformed K-pop from a marginal youth subculture into a music scene with a considerable American following.

BTS’ involvement in UNICEF’s “Love Myself” anti-violence campaign is a prime example of this. Indeed, many BTS fans confess the band’s music helped them address depression and self-abuse while motivating them to stay socially engaged. In an era of cultural and socioeconomic instability, millennials and Generation Z have found solace in these kinds of positive messages — and acted upon them, such as matching BTS’ $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter in about one day.

There is a fluidity to K-pop that doesn’t always apply to other music genres, with its hip-hop influences and gender-fluid stars attracting the attention of a diverse global community. Notably, this is not a fandom that is dominated by men, and they have earned monikers such as “online vigilantes” or “digital warriors.”

For most of us, life is unimaginable without social media. That seems particularly true for millennials and Generation Z, but if they have to live with it, they might as well use it in impactful ways. Who says that staring at your screen has to be a mindless act? K-pop embodies the spirit of both commerce and community-building, and recent events have shown that entertainment and social engagement do not have to be mutually exclusive.