Who’s afraid of K-pop stans?
In the lead-up to his campaign rally at Tulsa, Oklahoma, US President Donald Trump claimed that a million people sought tickets for his superevent. Filling a 19,000-seater stadium in the middle of a pandemic, in a city whose history is steeped in violence against Black people, seemed unsound, to put it mildly. But this is America in 2020.
Normally, I’d get wind of such things via my daily news monitoring. But Trump’s event reached me from an odd place: stan (noun: superfan) Twitter. I was scrolling through pictures and memes of global superband BTS (surprise, surprise: I’m an ARMY!) and saw US fans tweeting registration links for tickets to the Tulsa rally.
“Hey guys, there are many people that respect us for what we have done but they need our help again,” one fan had tweeted. “Trump is going to do an event and the tickets are free. Let’s get all the tickets.”
By that, he meant the way K-pop stans were relentlessly tanking right-wing hashtags and police apps tracking protesters from the #BlackLivesMatter movement with fancams and edits of their favorite idols. Here in the Philippines, stans also successfully hijacked hashtags expressing support for the controversial anti-terror bill and ABS-CBN’s closure. These virtual shock-and-awe tactics captivated the world, and even more so after the embarrassment in Tulsa. Who knew K-pop fans were this hyperorganized and this progressive? But for the people paying attention (me), these displays of collective strength and progressiveness may be inherent in a subculture that, at the onset, requires commitment and will to learn or educate others about other cultures.
It’s not that liking K-pop is by itself radicalizing. But it’s also not uncommon to see fans realize that the more they learn about their idols or about Korean culture, the more they come to terms with their own unchecked racial biases—“K-pop is just a seedy industry that overworks its trainees to suicide!” “How can you like music in a foreign language?”—or prejudices against heteronormativity, for example.
Like other fandoms, the BTS ARMY is propped up by a community of translators, artists, writers, even meme creators. They often translate and reproduce the band’s content not only to make them more accessible for the other fans, but also properly contextualized, especially since BTS’ works are often referential.
When the band’s songwriter and producer Min Yoongi dropped his second mixtape last May, the fandom translated the lyrics and also explained the historical nuances referenced in the words and music videos. I like to think such efforts make the fans more critical consumers of content.
Much of Korean pop music also owes itself to Black culture: hiphop, R&B, and rap. So while K-pop remains mostly apolitical, it was inevitable for artists like BTS, Lee Chae-rin (CL) of 2NE1, Ateez, and Monsta X to express their support for the community that not only helped shape the entire industry, but also formed a significant part of their own fandoms. Their public statements of support helped galvanize the K-pop stans even more toward BLM’s cause.
There are many more factors that come into play here. But for me the most important part is also the most personal. A large part of why K-pop stans are often dismissed as mere “bots” is rooted in sexism: the idea that young girls’ interests in fields like music and politics are invalid or illegitimate.
In any case, that does not even hold water, as it’s been proven time and time again that fanbases for K-pop acts are actually diverse in terms of race, gender, and age. But the stereotype that K-pop is only for “screaming, obsessed young girls” is to underestimate as well women’s buying and collective powers, and of their hopes to see change in society.
Certainly there are a lot of things that have to be addressed, both within the industry itself and the communities around it. But the unexpected truce between the “locals” and the “stans” is something I hope could help other progressive causes gain traction. K-pop stans have proven that it’s possible to counteract seeded propaganda on social media. How can the same be replicated in the Philippines, whose democracy is overrun by trolls?
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Krixia Subingsubing, 24, “fears BTS stans and no one else.”
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