K-pop Thrives: Fans of Korean pop are stronger than ever

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By Olivia Munson

A sea of eyes.

That’s the first thing you see in Hope O’Brien’s bedroom in Chandler. The posters, juxtaposed against white walls covered by splattered paint, poignantly gaze at whoever comes in.

“I probably have upward of 30 Korean men on my walls,” O’Brien says.

Each wall is plastered with posters, primarily of icons of Korean pop, also known as K-pop.

This includes the K-pop boy band BTS, her favorite band. She has tacked photocards of the band members, with blue, purple, and orange hair, who smile unwaveringly beside her bed.

Twenty K-pop albums are neatly stacked in her cubby area. O’Brien has every release by BTS on CD, including four versions of the band’s latest album, “Map of the Soul: 7.”

More mementos such as keychains, banners, wristbands and lightsticks clutter the room. A basket filled to the brim with merchandise, such as photocards, cup sleeves and stickers, sits next to her desk. Each item from a different K-pop-themed event created by and for fans in the Valley.

The ASU student has been a K-pop fan since 2017. Within that time, she’s spent over $5,000 to satisfy her K-pop appetite. In the last year, she’s forked over $1,500 on concert tickets. Once, it took her four days straight on her laptop to get tickets to BTS’ concerts at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena.

That concert was postponed amid the COVID-19 outbreak, just as girl group (G)-Idle was set to perform in the Valley on April 19. It, too, will be rescheduled.

But even with postponed concerts, the Arizona K-pop community is stronger than ever.

 

It all began with BTS

Initially, O’Brien disliked K-pop. She often made fun of those who listened to this style and thought alternative music was meant for her. It was not until high school when a friend finally wore her down.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll watch one music video,’ and of course it was ‘Spring Day,’” she says.

The 2017 single by BTS piqued O’Brien’s interest instantly.

“I am a literature nerd, and when I found out this song was connected to one of my favorite short stories (‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’), I was hooked from there,” she says.

One video led to another and then another. She spiraled into K-pop. She spent hours on end watching music videos and learning more about these BTS boys she has come to love dearly. BTS was O’Brien’s first K-pop love, but now she’s addicted to 10 boy bands and listens to many more. She has over 396 songs on her daily playlist.

For O’Brien, K-pop is much more than elaborate dances, catchy beats and breathtaking visuals.

This music has given her something she always wanted—a community.

 

Musical origins and evolution

 

K-pop originated in South Korea and was heavily influenced by the music of American troops stationed in the country during and after the Korean War. In 1957, the American Forces Korea Network radio broadcasted Western pop music, increasing the genre’s popularity. It was from there Korean music began to adapt and change to fit the mold of the American style.

South Korea was impoverished by the war, and one way for Koreans to earn money was by performing for the American troops. Clubs dedicated to musical entertainment rose in number, as did the South Korean economy. This momentum would only grow throughout the years.

By the 1990s, the genre was still booming, but it needed an update. In 1995, South Korean producer Lee Soo-man, who was educated in the United States and knew of its musical trends, founded his own entertainment company to shift the focus of the K-pop industry toward teen-centered pop music.

Boy and girl idol bands began to infiltrate the scene, targeting a young under-30 market.

H.O.T., an acronym for Highfive of Teenagers, the first boy band, had its debut in 1996. H.O.T. set the trend of forward-thinking fashion, upbeat melodies and energetic dances.

With the 1997 Asian financial crisis, K-pop idol groups began to look toward international markets, including the United States. By the beginning of the 21st century, there was a tide of Hallyu, or Korean Wave, stars. TVXQ brought forth this second coming of idols, which included SHINee, Big Bang and Girls’ Generation, catapulting this music onto the Billboard charts.

Despite its growing popularity, K-pop did not hit American mainstream until 2012 with the viral success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” which is the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views. There had been several attempts to fully break into the Western music scene by K-pop artists, but none proved to be successful until 2017.

BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, was the first K-pop act to win a Billboard Music Award. The group’s performance of “DNA” at the American Music Awards was the first stage by a K-pop artist, helping the song peak at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Since then, BTS has sold out stadium tours across the United States and has performed on various shows including Stephen Colbert and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. The band performed this year at the Grammy Awards with Lil Nas X and in 2019, its album, “Love Yourself: Tear,” was nominated for a Grammy.

The band’s collaboration of “Old Town Road” with Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus brought even more attention, capitulating BTS further into the American music scene having reached 18.7 million viewers.

According to Billboard, BTS’s agency, Big Hit Entertainment, is valued at over $1 billion, as of 2019. By 2017, the K-pop industry itself was worth $5 billion.

 

Riding the Korean wave

 

Like O’Brien, Diana Franco was introduced to K-pop by a fan, in this case Franco’s big sister, Yesenia. Franco, of Tucson, recalled listening to the boy group Big Bang with her sister and becoming intrigued.

As she got older and more involved in other groups’ fandoms, Franco found a way to incorporate another passion into her newfound one—art.

“I loved to draw,” she explains. However, Franco, riddled with self-doubt, never showed off her art. It was not until she joined the K-pop community that she decided to take a chance.

Franco began collecting K-pop pins designed by fans after seeing BTS at the Rose Bowl in 2019. She began to design enamel pins herself and sell them online and at fan events. She was 16.

Once she received parental approval, Franco created her first pin based on the song “Mikrokosmos” by BTS. Her company is called “MoonchildChimChim” and she sells on Etsy, BigCartel and at fan events.

Without K-pop, Franco says she would not have been able to come out of her shell. It allowed her to form a business, express her creativity and connect with an American K-pop fan community.

O’Brien has followed a similar path, but in her case by way of poetry. She fell in love with the written word in English class when she was in grammar school. Since then, she has written many more poems. The most recent poems are based on BTS and their songs.

O’Brien’s twitter hashtag, #PoemsForArmy, allows fans to message her to get personalized poems and positive affirmations — which most of the time relate to BTS.

“Creating these poems forced me to grow and expand my ability to write,” she said, and “brought inspiration back into my writing.”

In addition, O’Brien has written a book on Wattpad, called “The Theory of BTS.” It has been viewed nearly 600 times and she continues to update it whenever BTS posts new music.

 

First store of its kind 

Kristine Luengas, a student at Grand Canyon University who resides in Goodyear, operates a popular and well-known store—KPOP Arizona—with the help of her family.

She said she and her younger sister constantly listened to K-pop, with a focus on BTS.

On February 23, the store hosted a launch party for its online store at a park in Goodyear. About 100 people attended, even though the launch party had to be rescheduled due to rain.

“We expected hardly anybody to come out,” Luengas said. “When we saw the amount of people that came, it really showed us that no matter what there will always be people in the K-pop community support you as long as you treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Other vendors, including Franco, and attendees ate homemade BTS-themed desserts, danced, sung, and simply gathered from across the state for their shared love of K-pop.

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, online K-pop commerce is thriving. But, KPOP Arizona has had to adjust to the recent changes in regard to their shipping and handling.

“We do receive all our products straight from South Korea so shipping has been slower than usual and right now we can’t unbox everything as soon as it’s received,” Luengas explains.

“The boxes that we get have to be sprayed down with a disinfectant and sit in the sun for four hours.”

 

You never walk alone

 

Maddie Alonzo, of Mesa, found the genre during a low point in her life. At a birthday party, one of her friends sat Alonzo down to watch hours’ worth of K-pop content.

“It was then that I saw how beautiful and complex the K-pop industry is,” she says.

Fans often note K-pop is an icebreaker that takes them out of their comfort zone that helps them meet new people.

“With BTS specifically, I have been able to meet such wonderful people that will be lifelong friends,” Alonzo says.

This is how it works: O’Brien and Julie Nguyen were school friends who later bonded over K-pop. Nguyen and Alonzo struck up a friendship on the ASU shuttle after Nguyen noticed Alonzo’s K-pop photocard on her phone case. Now, O’Brien, Alonzo and Nguyen are friends, and created their own fan club.

 

The community’s enduring spirit

 

In a time when coronavirus is causing worldwide chaos, the K-pop community remains strong. Many recent fan events were postponed, including KPOP Arizona’s pop-up set for April 18.

K-pop bands and solo artists are also using their platforms to connect with fans.

BTS created a YouTube video as a reminder to stay strong during this time, thanking doctors and medical staff for their effort in fighting the virus. The group emphasized the importance of taking preventative measures to ensure the fans can see them quickly.

“Standing on a stage facing empty seats, we realize how each moment with you was,” member Kim Seokjin says.

(G)-Idle, alongside the boy group Monsta X, is scheduled to appear in Phoenix during the summer. They participated in Twitch’s “Stream Aid.” Donations from the 12-hour online program went toward the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization.

From April 17 to 18, BTS livestreamed its previous concerts and fanmeets (musters) from 2014 to 2019 as a free gift.

BANG BANG CON was set up in response to the group’s postponed worldwide tour which was supposed to start in April. Fans were even encouraged to sync their lightsticks to the Weverse app, which utilized Bluetooth to change the lightsticks color and sync with whatever song was being performed during the stream.

Throughout the stream, many fans commented praise toward the member of BTS for their hard work and dedication that helps fans feel connected during this difficult time.

On March 30, BTS took part in a televised concert event called “Homefest,” organized by late night host James Corden. The group performed its single, “Boy with Luv” hoping, it said, to raise spirits in a dark world.

“I was really bummed about the concerts being pushed back and this virus, but then hearing RM [BTS’s leader] say we are still connected made me feel less alone,” O’Brien says.

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