This past summer, in the midst of a Western, pop queen dry spell, I ended up falling into the abyss that is Korean Pop, or KPop. While I was aware that it existed, I never really found it to be something worth exploring. When my friend suggested that I try listening to KPop, I figured there was no harm in it, so he made me a playlist and sent me on my way. Now, I am able to name every member from multiple groups, I can recognize their individual voices in the songs, and I can discuss the complexities of the industry. However, as a Latinx, KPop fan from the United States with a decent amount of social capital, there are a lot of factors of transnationalism that I needed to discuss and understand. People have already noted the prevalence of Latinxs in the KPop fandom in the US, and for me, grappling with issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, etc has been a prevalent part of my KPop experience. At face value, KPop provides another source of music that one can consume and enjoy, but implementing a critical lens to this industry can bring out new ways of understanding the extent that transnational exchange plays a role.
In the era of globalization, it is quite impossible to create any kind of content that is free from transnational influences. The process of globalization is one steeped in capitalism and the exploitation of labor and people, and KPop is not free of that. In the United States, music artists often need to work independently until they get noticed and signed by an agency to start producing and releasing music. For KPop stars, they first must audition for an entertainment agency, and if they get accepted, they can begin training with hopes of debuting as soon as possible. For some, they debut with less than a year of training (Mina from TWICE), while others train for ten years before they finally debut (Jihyo from TWICE). The entertainment companies essentially control the lives of these kids deciding when and where they will debut, just to sell them as objects into an international market. The nature of the KPop industry has groups release new music around 2-3 times a year in the form of “mini albums”. Mini albums tend to have somewhere around 4-6 songs. This form of marketing allows more money to be made by releasing more frequent, smaller increments of music rather than full length albums (though groups do release full length albums). Additionally, this form of promoting can lead to exhaustion in the idols, which speaks to the exploitation of their labor and their bodies as a way of making more money in this international music market. From a transnational perspective, the monetary potential is significant, but at the expense of the idols’ wellbeing, the international market is inherently violent. Keeping this in mind, I find it incredible stressful to be an ethical KPop fan. I buy the music and the physical copies of the albums, I watch the music videos, I vote for my favorite groups. However I cannot seem to shake the discomfort in knowing that I am still aiding this hypercapitalist structure. At the end of the day, I keep up with a lot of what is going on with my favorite groups, so that I can shift my ways of consumption into something more generative.
The potential for transnational unity through KPop is incredibly present and is one of the biggest incentives for entering the KPop fandom. Fans from around the world can come together to discuss and fangirl over their favorite KPop groups, and often people build platforms for themselves that transcend geography, race, sexuality, and gender identity through their love for KPop. Community building is essential to the KPop experience as a fan because for many fans, it provides a source of comfort in a niche community. Because many KPop idols, like Tzuyu of TWICE and Lisa of BLACKPINK, are from Asian countries that are not South Korea, Pan-Asian solidarities and pride are formed on a national level because these idols become icons in their home countries. Many KPop idols come from China and Japan, and then proceed to redo popular songs in their native languages establishing a more personal aspect to KPop. It is these transnational networks that allow for greater solidarities to build among fans. Thought I have not reached out too far into the KPop community, many of friends have and have found immeasurable community.
When I reflect on my limited experiences as a KPop fan, I take note of the potential harms that come with this transnational market, and it becomes to difficult to reconcile those issues with powerful community that it creates. By understanding the dynamic nature of music, it becomes easier for me to come to terms with issues of appropriation/exchange as well as the nature of the market. At the end of the day, these idols are doing something that they love, and there is inherent agency in that. While there is much more work and dialogue to be done surrounding many of the issues of KPop (i.e. capitalism), creating spaces where this unity can form is generative to changing the way we consume.