Glimpse into K-pop culture via fandom
On Aug. 5, as the clock struck midnight in South Korea, an online game went live. Termed as the “Labyrinth Project,” the game involved solving nine riddles, each correct answer unlocking the next stage, with the concluding one being “EDEN OF EXO.”
The game was developed by EXO.LAB, a fan group in South Korea of one of the most popular K-pop groups, EXO.
It was available only for 24 hours and the sole reason for its existence was: to celebrate the birth anniversary of EXO-Ls, the “official” name for EXO’s fans.
This is a sneak peek into the hypnotic world of K-pop fandom where within the corporate colonnades of an intensely competitive entertainment industry, a pristine bond has developed between fans and artists which makes K-pop followers pull out all stops to express their love and gratitude towards their artists, who are referred to as idols in South Korea.
K-pop or Korean popular music is one of South Korea’s biggest cultural exports and has emerged into a $4.7 billion industry, according to a Bloomberg report.
A defining characteristic of the K-pop entertainment industry is the relationship that K-pop artists have with their fans.
The role of fandom is crucially tied to the success of a group and K-pop idols always acknowledge their fans’ presence in their journey as an artist. These lead to K-pop fans, from all over the world, forging strong ties with the their favorite artists which go beyond their love for music.
K-pop fanbases: Elves who work round the clock
K-pop fans come together to form groups and carry out projects of varying magnitude and nature. Some are flashy like putting out digital billboard advertisements of their idols in New York’s Times Square, one of the major tourist attractions of the world. Other times, fans mobilize money for philanthropic causes.
For eg. SJ Charities, a fanbase of K-pop band Super Junior and B.A.P’s Helping Hands, a fanbase of K-pop band B.A.P, have made donations to build many schools in Africa over the years.
Closer to home, fanbases in India regularly contribute to charity efforts like donating to old-age homes and orphanages and also animal shelters.
When not executing large-scale projects, the fanbases work behind the scene to ensure victory for their favorite group at Korean music shows which involve a lot of fan participation.
Fanbases organize mass streaming sessions of their artists’ songs, orga- nize fundraisers to buy physical albums and hold mass voting sessions during award show season. They also routinely announce Twitter hashtags to ensure social media visibility for their groups.
K-pop fansite: For idols, because of idols
Within the ecosystem of the K-pop fandom, there also exists a culture of fansites which mostly comprise of a single person or a small group that follows an artist to all their public events and chronicles their life through photographs.
Fansites fly across the world, following their idols to public events and unlike paparazzi, they don’t infringe on the privacy. They also provide high-quality pictures and videos, host fundraising drives and exhibitions of their photos and use the money to carry out projects to publicize the idol or give them extravagant gifts.
Iridescent Boy (IB), a fansite that boasts of over 1 million followers on Twitter has been covering the activities of EXO member, Oh Sehun, since April 27, 2012 and in six years has attended all concerts of the band except missing out on six. This year, she also put up a digital ad at Times Square to mark the birthday of the idol.
“Sehun is Iridescent Boy’s reason for existence. He is the only one that I have implicit trust in. The reason I did the Times Square ad was only because I want to introduce him to the world and celebrate his birthday for a long time,” said IB, who didn’t wish to disclose her real name.
Why K-pop fans go distance
“Fanbases and fansites have played a major role in K-pop since its earliest days as a way of fan mobilizing to come together and spread their love while bonding communally,” says Tamar Herman, a K-pop columnist for Billboard.com, in an email interview.
“I believe it’s a mixture of love and the need to make a better community for oneself. You’re a more involved fan because you want to bond with others as you support an artist ... The dedication that people have to show, whether by spending a lot money or being immensely active on social media, is an outward show of their love and appre- ciation,” Herman said.
“Enjoying EXO’s music itself would be an extremely satisfying fan activity, but I want EXO and EXO-L to love and bond with each other for a longer time and to form a stronger relationship. If I can achieve this dream through taking part in EXO.LAB, there is no reason for me not to participate,” said one of the members of EXO.LAB, who didn’t wish to be named.
Thus, when EXO.LAB coined the final answer of the online game as EDEN OF EXO, it metaphorically meant EXO-Ls have entered paradise which in this case is the K-pop band itself.
This metaphor is not just confined to EXO but extends to millions of K-pop fans who experience a bit of heaven during the journey with their idol, irrespective of the spatial difference. Perhaps, this is what propels the dedicated passion within them.
EXO members pose for a photo during a press conference to promote their new album "Don't Mess Up My Tempo" at COEX Artium in Seoul, Thursday.
Fans put up an ad at Times Square in New York for Jimin of BTS.