As someone well outside the target demographic of my main fandom I wonder what the fuck went wrong inside my head. I still am not quite sure. But I’ve also seen that if something went wrong in my head, it’s gone wrong in the heads of many others.
Harry Potter was probably the first big fandom within my lifetime to attract a significant fanbase outside its target audience. The reasoning among adult fans is that even though the books were written for children, there was a lot about them that adults could enjoy, too. Granted HP has a bit more cred than say, Asian pop music, but as a fairly straightforward Campbellian Hero’s Journey tale, it’s not surprising that the series has a wide appeal. The Hero’s Journey is a timeless concept, used over and over again in many classic tales from Greek mythology to Star Wars. HP is the latest in a long line.
Korean pop music is a bit more esoteric, I grant. It is hardly as enduring as a popular fictional trope and definitely not what you’d call timeless. Yet for me, it does have the kind of nostalgic-yet-current appeal that Harry Potter does. When I first discovered K-pop, my initial commentary was, “It’s like the 90s never left!”
This, I believe, is the crux of why I took to K-pop while rejecting current western boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted. To me, the latter are too current and too teenage, so to speak. They have that Disneyfied, saccharine pop-rock sound that I loathe, probably because it came into vogue after the ‘90s boy bands of my youth had faded away. And they don’t dance, yo. Choreographed dance routines were so intrinsically a part of 90s boy band fare that I just am not here for anything less. BSB, ‘NSYNC, etc. captured a sound, image, and phenomenon from a particular moment in time that seems decisively finished in American media. The only way the boy band could return to the west was in an entirely new iteration, one designed to appeal to today’s youth and not yesterday’s. Lucky for us, Asia took up the slack.
This time with more guyliner!
Most current Asian boy bands seem to follow the 90s boy band model. K-pop first came out in the 90s, after all. But unlike the US, where that dance-pop sound fizzled out in the early ‘00s, in Asia it it endured. It’s still going strong now. The Asian boy band has taken staples of the 90s western boy band—highly infectious dance pop combined with choreographed dance routines—and run with them. I have to respect the bluntness of K-pop regarding how image-driven it is. The veneer of authenticity—probably a blowback from 90s pop—continues to drive American pop (an amusing piece of irony given how image-driven the genre is by definition) and prevents this kind of boy band from ever gaining traction again. Disneyfied pop-rock appears to come from a more authentic place than highly synthesized dance pop designed as much for the eyes as for the ears. It is impossible to imagine songs like Exo’s “MAMA” (which means “God” in Korean, and not a term of endearment for one’s mother) being performed onstage with the band members just bopping around holding their mikes. It’s swelling, epic power pop that deserves no less than flashy outfits, flashy choreo, and flashy pyro.
Yeah, 1D can’t do this.
K-pop bands are more than just knockoffs of western boy bands, though. They’re also very distinctly Asian. K-pop seems to be where fans of Asian pop who find J-pop to be a bit too much for them end up. (If you’ve never heard J-pop, just imagine crack in audio form). K-pop is western enough to seem familiar to western fans but foreign enough to intrigue them. It’s kind of the same appeal Europop has—it feels new and fresh because we’re not used to it.
And, you know, it’s just fun. I admit I haven’t really adjusted well to being a grownup in the sense of being as serious as I’m expected to be most of the time. I like to think I’m a functional adult—I hold down a job, I do what I gotta do—but sometimes I just want to enjoy brain rot in the form of pretty boys and infectious music. I wouldn’t call it an attempt to recapture my youth because frankly, my youth doesn’t need recapturing. Retaining the whimsy of youth while being a functional adult is quite frankly not that difficult. Those qualities associated with youth, the ones I’m supposed to have outgrown by now—the ability to find joy in simple things, to look to the future with excitement and anticipation—are, as far as I am concerned, a necessary part of life. I think everyone could use more of those qualities.
I know K-pop is not for everyone. There are some who are scared off by the sparkles, guyliner, and rampant metrosexuality. It’s definitely an acquired taste. But for the adventurous and open-minded, it can be addictive. Like any fandom, I’ve encountered the best people and the worst people through K-pop. And like any fandom, it’s hard to imagine life without it.