Parasocialism and Industry Amnesia in K-Pop Fandom

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While “Global North” parasocialism tends to lean towards non-reciprocal parasocial interaction of fans merely admiring a celebrity, parasocialism in K-Pop fandom proves to be a more multi-directional devotion.

By Sharon Kong-Perring

In February 2020, three weeks before the world shut down, I began the grand rituals of a night out with someone special. Like any serious employee, I took half a day off from work to devote hours to my hair and makeup, and finding the perfect lingering perfume. When I stepped out of the shared employee restroom, my co-workers exclaimed with the perfect amount of enthusiasm and suspension of truth, “We love! He’s going to die!” With a thankful smile, I whisked off to my destination. I was surprised I was feeling this way. Though I had known of this person for years, and I admired his professional work, it was not until this moment that I felt a kind of nervous giddiness that accompanied the first phases of courtship.

He was in an orange jacket and white jeans; his crooked smile distracted from his neon attire. He loosely placed his arm around my back, his hand hovering over my shoulder; we shared a few details about ourselves—I had just applied for doctoral programs studying Korean popular culture, he was excited to be back in the city he went to college in. We snapped a photograph to memorialize the night, he wished me luck on my grad school applications, I may have winked at him at some point, and then we parted ways… he had to be up on stage after all. My intimate night was actually a minutes-long fan meeting with K-Pop singer, Eric Nam.

Korean Popular Music (“K-Pop”) includes a range of genres and sub-industries, with the “idol” music categorization being the most internationally recognized. Idols are called such for their supra-worldly auras, much like how Euro-American media coined the term “star” to describe opera singer Jenny Lind’s ultra-celebrity in the 19th century. Idols are made. They undergo extensive instruction in singing, dancing, media relations, and languages as trainees, often dedicating years to intense preparation with hopes of being selected for the agencies’ next group. Trainees sign strict contracts, indicating the agencies’ investments, and thus the trainees’ obligations for paying the company back if the contract is broken. Trainee systems have been characterized as boot camp-like, and when a trainee is selected to be in a group, the would-be band trains together cohesively until a formal debut date is set.

Debuting, much like other formalizations in K-Pop, is ritualized and marks the transition from trainee to idol. While debuted idols revel in their entrée to the industry, it does not guarantee success. In conversation with culture critic Lee Moon-Won in her book “The Birth of Korean Cool,” journalist Euny Hong discusses the sheer numbers in the K-Pop idol industry. While South Korea only has a population amounting to a sixth of the United States’s, the number of pop acts in each country is the same, meaning not per capita. Lee and Hong speculate that Korean agencies cannot rely on the organic triage of star-quality talent that occurs in a population size as large as the United States, so stars must be made.

Nam does not wholly fit the K-Pop “idol” paradigm; he straddles the realm of independent singer, with more creative control of his content, and idol-adjacent spaces of curated content and persona. He is, however, a fixture among idols. Though I was by no means a super-fan of his, having the opportunity to meet him meant embodying a ritualistic tenant of K-Pop fannish behavior: intense parasocialism. Unconsciously, I adapted and performed affectual parasocialism based on my understanding of K-Pop fandom’s cultural grammar; I had “gotten lost in my fieldwork.”

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Researchers Nicole Liebers and Holger Schramm from University of Würzburg deploy the general term “parasocial phenomena” to describe the variety of ways in which media audiences respond to media characters, spanning low-stakes and one-sided parasocial interaction to deeply emotional parasocial break-ups. Situated on this scale, Liebers and Schramm outline parasocial relationships as “cross-situational” between the media consumer and character.

While “Global North”—referring to dominant media flows from Euro-American centricity to periphery markets—parasocialism tends to lean towards non-reciprocal parasocial interaction of fans merely admiring a celebrity, parasocialism in K-Pop fandom proves to be a more multi-directional devotion. It manifests in the intense idealization of the K-Pop idol as simultaneous romantic partner who flirts with and cares for the fandom and relatable sibling, setting a model of earned success in a profoundly competitive, Confucian society. Idols, in turn, facilitate at least an illusion of reciprocity, deploying specific strategies that capitalize on the participatory traits of their imagined fandom communities.

Scholars Bertha Chin and Lori Morimoto define imagined communities, in the context of fandom studies, as internet-created transborder communities that share a mutually created experience around an object of affinity. Fans declare themselves members of said community by understanding the subculture’s rituals, proving deep knowledge of the idols, and employing the fandom name and fandom vocabulary. Fandom names are one such strategy that crafts the illusion of reciprocal flows of parasocialism; they are industry-institutionalized mechanisms of language that signal membership. Agencies release official fandom names with great ceremony and fans receive the name with great reverence. Fandom names allow the idol to synthesize the numbers of fans to a central persona, casting the fandom collectively as a significant other.

In BTS’s case, the fandom name is ARMY, an acronym for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. During live streams, variety shows, and interviews, BTS can declare their love to their other half, ARMY. ARMY is generically employed by BTS to refer to the recipient of their love, even going as far as embedding this parasocial messaging in their music. On the September 25, 2021 episode of Korean variety show, “Amazing Saturday,” the show’s host relays BTS leader RM’s description of the song “Telepathy.” The English-translated description of the song expresses that BTS is always thinking about their lovers… ARMY. On the surface, BTS is singing romantically to a significant other, but in this world of idol adoration, BTS is in fact singing to ARMY. Social media and non-scripted reality and variety shows also contribute a heavy dose of non-curated idol content that gives fans a look into the idols’ “true selves,” injecting an air of authenticity to mediated content.

This may seem “bizarre” to our Global North cultural superstructure. However, when you remove Global North injections from Korean domestic fannish behaviors, these filial and romantic parasocial relationships are somewhat normalized. Perhaps stemming from a long history of Korean collectivism or Korean jeong (connectivity with others), parasocialism in K-Pop Fandoms is nuanced with rules and rituals that encourage affectual bonding but also dictates “healthy” boundaries. Breaking these boundaries casts the perpetrating fan as a sasaeng, a Korean term for a stalker-fan; there is a fine line between a proper or a “crazy” fan. But even proper K-Pop fans, in terms of Global North fan archetypes, would be pathologized in the western world for being extreme. Perhaps the lack of pathologization and the ability to be an expert of your idol without cries of insanity is attractive to international fans.

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And perhaps it is this veneer of a profoundly forged bond of mutual affection and the perceived authentic reading of an idol, that enables fans and fandoms to keep a measured distance from a structure of industry that encourages intense training, overexertion, and harsh social environments. 

In a factory system of tremendous competition and plurality of groups, being a fan and believing oneself to be in a relationship with the idol where their pains, struggles, and hard work are things the fans are privy to, allows fans to overlook the inherent problematic structures of idol making. Effectively, the pains of being an idol, the extreme pressure and scrutiny of evaluation, is all made worth it if they succeed. This is especially true for success in the western-market, where a score on the Billboard 200 Music chart or an award show nomination is considered the ultimate coup, the absolute reward for every hardship made possible by the fans. Infiltrating the Global North market is considered “World Wide Domination,” a term that fans readily deploy to describe a group’s success—and therefore justify their dedication and industry amnesia.

I must say here, though, that we need to be mindful that our framing of this industry as exploitative is western-centric. This kind of “Spartan” dedication, while problematic, is a bedrock foundation of Korean society fueled by centuries of Confucian meritocracy and analects on positions in life. Bound with other cultural mechanisms of collectivism spanning Buddhist sangha to collective survival in the face of brutal imperialism, this kind of formidable dedication to craft and job, and understanding of how the job situates you in society, is present across industries in Korea as exemplified by intense competition in the job market and schools. 

Global North critics may be able to readily imbue projections of individualism, self-care, and self-preservation into their readings of this industry, condemning what, on the surface, appears to be a monolithically troublesome business. It is essential, however, to understand the underlying cultural foundations of industry mechanics to be able to fully reconcile why these seemingly exploitative tenants will remain, while some facets of the industry’s structure can be “fixed”.  

This brief review of Korean cultural ideals does not absolve an industry notorious for peddling “slave contracts” nor justifies compromising an idol’s wellbeing. Korean society does seem to recognize aspects of the industry’s problematic nature; the government began regulating contracts a few years ago. Some agencies have integrated their idols into production, giving idols a semblance of control. But while these parts of the industry are changing, cries for change from fans are often times silent when it comes to the established training systems; the cries for change erupt when the fans feel like their idols have been wronged and their potential for success blocked—not enough attention from the company, the idol’s music not being promoted well enough, etc. Even then, the fans mobilizing to make the idol successful means that the idol’s suffering will be abated by triumph.

Fans can generally dismiss the foundational issues inherent to K-Pop idol making, based on a perceived parasocial understanding of the idol’s true, authentic self. The way to secure an idol’s happiness and to vindicate all the idol’s past hardships is to ensure that the idol sees success in a truly saturated market. There is no limit to the justification vis-à-vis success that fans can give to their idols; fans will campaign for Grammy nominations, will fervently vote for MTV Music Video Award nominations, and will endlessly stream Spotify. These metric measurements will bring idols success, and therefore happiness, something that all fans collectively want to bring to their hardworking oppa or unnie. Don’t worry, Eric Nam, I got you.

Sharon Kong-Perring is a Doctoral Researcher in Media and Cultural Studies, researching K-Pop Fandoms at Birmingham City University in Birmingham, Great Britain. She specializes in American, British, and Korean domestic fandom groups and is particularly interested in translations of Korean traditional culture into Anglophone products and fandoms. In her professional life, Sharon is a museum curatorial professional currently working for two American historical sites in Boston, Massachusetts. A second-generation Korean-American originally from southern California who has has to re-learn and re-love her identity, she is a great lover of K-stuff (BBQ, Beauty, Dramas) and an ardent ATINY (#ATEEZWorldWideDomination).

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