It’s more than just the fuzziness you get when your idol gets all aegyo (애교) on stage.
Recent years have seen the rise of one of the biggest phenomena in entertainment: K-pop. Be it from boy groups like EXO and BTS, girl groups like Red Velvet and BLACKPINK, or even solo acts like IU and Eric Nam, one song is all it takes for most of us (this writer included) to fall under their spell. The manifefstations are everywhere: with their songs topping international charts, K-pop dance challenges being performed left and right, sold-out concerts, and of course, the seemingly endless purchase of merchandise.
So what is it that makes K-pop fans so captivated?
A Sense of Belonging: Tribalism
K-pop groups have a loyal following of adoring stans arranged into fandoms. Whether consciously or not, people gravitate toward these fandoms not only to support the idols but also to satiate the basic human need to belong, which is much higher than one’s own safety or physiological needs. These groups then become a great source of the next level of self-esteem, a need that resides in a higher realm in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Case in point, BTS has a devoted fan base of around 40 million ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth) globally. Their devotion for the seven-member South Korean boy band even has an official emblem to somehow immortalize their loyalty. Riding on the wave, the group’s record company made a logo for the fans, a design representing a bulletproof shield symbolizing an ideally bulletproof future for the BTS-ARMY love affair. There are also variants of the logo in purple, which the fans use to replace the word “love,” also consequently the ARMY exclusive phrase: “I Purple You.” Fan chants are popular in the Hallyu world and are exemplified best in idols’ concerts, like Girls’ Generation’s SONE fandom. These chants allow them to actively participate in their idols’ performances and cheer them on in the process. In this way, they form tribes of their own.
According to neuroscientists, there are two groups involved in these dynamics: those who are members of the fandom, which are called the “in-group,” and those who are not, aka the “out-group.” In another study, it was found that there is an expectation of reciprocity from fellow in-group members, or what is called “group heuristics.” What this means is there is an unspoken expectation that their good deeds would be repaid by their fellow fans in the same group.
Several experiments have shown that people exhibited “in-group bias,”or the natural tendency to favor those who belong to the same fandom as they do, even if they have more in common with someone else outside their shared interest. Say, in a workplace, that persons X and Y are both fans of Red Velvet, while person Z is a fan of BLACKPINK. Outside their varied interests in K-pop, Y and Z both love volleyball and the arts, whereas X does not share any of these interests with the two. The study finds that since X and Y belong to the same in-group, they would form greater bonds even when Y and Z actually have more in common with each other.
The prejudice and discrimination towards member of an out-group is clearly defined, because belonging to an in-group appeals to a person’s self-esteem and social identity. It is only natural, then, for members of an in-group to perceive themselves as superior than those who do not belong to their “tribe.”
Blame It on the Oxytocin
If you ask K-pop fans around the world why they support the group or artist they idolize, answers would range from “their music is good,” to “I think they are good people,” or even to “My idol is extremely good looking.” The hormone to blame for these feelings is oxytocin, the same hormone that is released when one is deeply infatuated.
So if you suddenly feel giddy when you see your oppa and unnie idols dancing, that’s oxytocin at work. Feeling like crying from Kim Jong-dae crooning a ballad before his military enlistment? Again, blame oxytocin. However, this hormone is a double-edged sword. It is responsible not only for the positive love-like feelings one gets as a fan and within the fandom but also for hate and discrimination against nonfans, haters, or anyone percieved as a threat.
This scenario plays out in “fanwars” on Twitter, where members of an in-group band together against a common perceived enemy. In 2017, EXO fans took to the platform to spread the dirty finger in a #FuckYouMama challenge after their idols were said to be treated unfairly at a music awards show. The trending hashtag escalated quickly when they rallied online in posting photos of their middle fingers pointed toward other artists in the awards.
A thousands-strong social media group in the Philippines, KPop Trashtalkan, even allows antis or haters to openly bash other groups. Some of the popular posts you’ll find in the page have strong sentiments against each K-pop group, which include people making fun of BTS for supposedly being untalented, EXO for supposedly being a has-been, TWICE for supposedly not having powerful vocals, and BLACKPINK for not winning any Daesang Awards to date. In some extreme cases, these fanwars would even lead to fans of competing K-pop groups buying out front-row concert seats and intentionally boycotting the concert to make it appear that the other camp is lacking in support.
The extent of the power of fandoms is probably well illustrated by the instances that they demand for a public apology from personalities who disrespect their idols. This was the case when Kendis Gibson, an award-winning journalist, didn’t seem too pleased with BTS while doing a report about them on air. This resulted in hordes of fans up in arms on social media, signing petitions for the reporter to apologize and even be fired for his actions.
Show Me the Money
More than blaming oxytocin, of course, it’s human decision that leads to the chains of events involved, which itself is influenced by that innate craving for belonging. This, in turn, drives another aspect of fandoms — that is, how they affect consumer behavior. According to VICE’s Frankie Lantican, an average K-pop fan spends about USD 650 to USD 1,500 on merchandise, albums, and concerts yearly. BTS fans came out on top, spending USD 1,422 on average, followed by TWICE fans (USD 824) and BLACKPINK fans (USD 665). One of the most popular items stans are known to collect are photo cards of their idols. If you’ve ever experienced collecting a set of toys from cereal boxes as a kid, it’s more or less the same thing, only this time, it’s a special collectible photo of a group member placed inside the band’s albums. Repeat purchases of albums to collect such items and resellers selling the photos at high prices are not unusual to a K-pop fan.
Aside from merch and concert tickets, fans also purchase the products that their favorite artists endorse to show the extent of their support. In Korea, K-pop groups endorse everything, from cosmetics, to skin care, to fashion, to, yes, even cars. Sometimes, individual group members also become ambassadors of luxury brands. More and more global brands have recognized the brand loyalty that K-pop fandoms bring, and have utilized this strategy to boost sales. Brands build on this loyalty to create their own communities. As a result, fans who support their idols’ endorsements are likely triggered enough to defend the brand when push comes to shove. So, Lisa of BLACKPINK for MAC Cosmetics, anyone? There’s a Twitter hashtag for that, and it trended worldwide, too.
These consumer behaviors have even catapulted South Korea’s economy to new heights in recent years. This has been attributed to the industry’s power to encourage the export of goods, tourism, and an increased demand to learn the Korean language. Would you believe that in 2019, BTS reportedly accounted for about USD 5 billion of the country’s GDP?
The way K-pop fans behave has always been bizzare to the normal person. But at the end of the day, you can never fully understand it unless you experience it for yourself — the warmth of watching your idol on screen, the excitement of buying their merch, even the rush of chanting together in a concert. So the next time you see someone who can’t stop talking about BLACKPINK, or can’t stop gushing about an EXO member, remember that it runs deep.
It’s a K-pop world, and we’re just living in it.
This article was written by our resident K-pop stan, Carol Ortigas.