The recording this is from on Patreon (out 12/10) is uh… 20 minutes long and this is kind of a segue away from the thing I was actually focusing on and therefore not super relevant. But I wrote and recorded it so… here it goes anyway.
In Haeryun Kang’s NPR piece “’Hitman’ Bang Si-hyuk, The Brand-New Billionaire Behind BTS”, there are two parts that stand out to me when it comes to thinking of how people misunderstand and, to an extent, misrepresent, the parasocial relationship as it exists between idol and fans.
First, there’s this quote:
Fans say it’s not just about personality marketing, which isn’t unique to BTS. Plenty of pop stars worldwide, though perhaps not as effectively as BTS, appear on variety shows, documentaries, social media, etc., creating an image of intimacy and accessibility.
Music, fans say, is what distinguishes BTS. “Every good content has a good statement,” says Kim Youngmi, a veteran marketer, ARMY and organizer of the BTS Insight Forum. “BTS’s statement is about growing up together and asking questions about the self.”
I want to put this quote in conversation with this part from Groszman’s article where she says that:
I can understand why some may find the ideas of parasocial theory off-putting. The one-sided nature of parasocial relationships and the resulting uneven dynamic between fan and persona may seem psychologically unhealthy. However, this view might change if we think of celebrities as service providers. This is especially relevant in the K-pop industry, where idols not only record albums and perform their songs on live TV but also constantly interact with fans through meet-and-greets, social media posts, livestreams, and regular concerts. Unlike Western artists, who drop an album and then seem to drop off the face of the earth (at least until the next one), most K-pop idols are active throughout the year, delivering a steady stream of content to their fans.
Groszman goes on to make a comparison between baristas and idols, noting the similarities between a barista knowing a regular customer’s order and Jungkook from BTS briefly holding a fan’s hand at a fan meet. I’d even go one further and talk about how we know that many idols have repeat (who are often but not always rich) fans who show up at fan meets and fan signs and so they can vaguely remember some of them and say “hey, you’re so and so from the Chiba meet” or “oh, your hair was pink at the Busan fansign”… but it doesn’t mean that the idol is planning marriage, or that the fan thinks that they are.
I know that so much of coverage of K-pop in fandom and academic spaces focuses on the shape of manufactured intimacy and on the surface, as Groszman points out, it’s understandable to look at the one-sided nature and think there’s something truly off there… but not looking deeper and truly viewing it as a two way street does the space a disservice.
The relationship is itself one sided in that of course these idols don’t know who individual fans are. But celebrities can’t thrive without an audience that cares about and sees them because even in fandom that doesn’t involve music fandom merch drops, there are meet and greets.
Prior to the pandemic, sci fi fandom actors were known to collect fairly large amounts of money from meet and greets or photo opportunities. And half of the time, these actors were clearly not even able to pretend that they wanted to be there or that they liked their fans. I know folks who worked as volunteer staff at several of these conventions and well… yeah these celebrities don’t want to be there.
And it’s strange to me to pretend that essentially selling the experience of or the performance of intimacy between fan and the human object of fannishness only actually seems to be that big a problem when it comes to people outside of idol fandoms who are like in western fandoms looking at idol fandom from the outside.
With Destiel’s everything and that weird ending and Supernatural’s weird everything, it’s actually taken as normal that fans are distraught and emotionally attached to the show and the actors and the ships. People don’t frame it as “fans spend a lot of money on the show, on the actors via convention experiences, and on fanworks on the way to expecting certain things in response from the show… so if money is involved at these levels is it really fannish” like that’s not a thing people are saying as a way to distance themselves or dismiss these spaces as real fandom.
And yet, because idol fandom – like a majority of music fandoms, mind you – sees things like the labor of fan translators, hi-touch or high five events, and fans reacting widely and wildly (even though they’re jokingly) to comments like Namjoon’s “my ARMY, my lovers” is happening alongside the fact that fans are spending tons of money on CDs, merch with members’ faces or handwriting on them, or even ads that paper South Korean streets and subways during a particular idol’s birthday month –
It’s somehow… fake fandoming? It’s somehow corporate controlled? I would love to see PD Bang, control me that’d be hilarious. Let’s – let’s get it.
Most fans into idol groups don’t even actually shell out ass tons of money for content. While you can spend money for this content, and I do when there’s something that I want… the overwhelming majority of fans in and out of Korea will uh… pirate it. They pirate that shit.
Most fans aren’t supporting fansite fandom economies. They’re not buying Melon streaming passes. They’re not pouring their incomes into the idol industry. When articles talk about people spending thousands of dollars on singles or merch in a year, they are outliers and should not be seen as the norm in the space. They are fans and are valid and valuable because of their fannishness and how they express that.
But the average idol group fan is not buying thousands of CDs a year. They’re not buying 10s of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. They’re just not. At all.
The next quote from the article is about BigHit Entertainment’s PD Bang:
“Bang knows how fans feel, because he’s been a maniacal fan himself,” says Kim Youngmi, marketer and ARMY. “That’s what makes him a good marketer. But you can’t just attribute BTS’s success to media strategies, messaging, etc. BTS is about people doing things, not machines. I don’t think we can simplistically judge their success; lots of different things somehow fitted miraculously together.”
Kim Youngmi’s use of the word “maniacal” might make outsiders to the fandom balk.
Especially fan studies scholars.
After all, Kim Youngmi is using a word that doesn’t have a great connotation… It’s a word that makes folk think beyond passion in fandom to… fanaticism.
It’s an honest usage of the word though, and it’s one that speaks to what we’re willing to do on any level for fandom even when it comes to creating fandom for the next generation.
I get that fan studies folks are so fixated on how they and fandom aren’t taken seriously that something that threatens what they say about how and why we fandom would feel kinda… fake and frustrating to them, but well –
Having lightly familiarized myself with the kind of nerd Bang Si-Hyuk is and the kind of nerds he’s tapped for his various groups – and make no mistake, he gets big ole nerds in his groups on purpose – I think that Kim Youngmi is right and that this is a good thing.
Bang PD is a fan aware of and enmeshed in fandom probably before he was in charge of putting BTS’s face forward to this big ass fandom.
I’ve seen his goofy ass social media posts, I’ve done the reading – he’s a nerd and he’s managed to make a group of nerds and they appeal to… a form of kpop fandom that exists on multiple axes including nerdy fandom. Dude is a freaking fan who is creating for fans and with fandom in mind and he’s really wildly passionate about it all.
I’m open to and have had honest critiques of different idol fandoms and the capitalistic nature of music fandoms. I stomped around for ages after seeing all the prices for all the groups’ virtual concerts – many of which didn’t have video on demand – and the super high prices for meet and greet tiers or realizing the amount of CDs people need to buy to get into a longer fansign event.
There are critiques to be made here to be sure… by the people already in and studying these fandoms.