The origins of Korean popular music can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it was the formation of the hip hop boy band Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 that created a distinctive new musical genre now considered the forerunner of K-pop today. The audience for this brand of K-pop was mainly a domestic one until the late 1990s when pockets of K-pop fans started springing up in East and Southeast Asia.
Being an international fan of some of the biggest K-pop groups of the 1990s and 2000s, including H.O.T, S.E.S, g.o.d, TVXQ, Girls Generation, and 2NE1, meant belonging to a small subculture. Then, as our lives migrated onto social media platforms, K-pop hit the mainstream. From the mid-2010s, groups, such as BTS, Blackpink, EXO, and Twice began enjoying global success. It wasn't until PSY's huge viral hit Gangnam Style, released on YouTube in 2012 and watched by billions worldwide, that K-pop fully arrived on the global music scene.
Fast forward a decade and K-pop continues to attract new audiences, helped in part by the formation of groups with international members (Lisa from BlackPink is Thai, and NCT's WinWin and Yuta are Chinese and Japanese respectively) and through collaborations with other international artists (BTS have collaborated with Coldplay and Nicki Minaj; BlackPink with Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa; Super Junior with Latin-pop star Leslie Grace).
Who are K-pop fans?
The average age of a K-pop fan is 23 years old, and over half are female. This young demographic has transformed K-pop into a social media phenomenon. Fans take to social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, to express their love for their favourite K-idols and to access original content, including photography and translations of K-pop material into their own language. K-fans are just as important to social media platforms as the platforms are to K-fans. In 2021, the hashtag #KpopTwitter amassed a whopping 7.8 billion tweets – a number equivalent to the world's total population. In recognition of this important community Twitter has now put together a dedicated Global K-pop and K-content Partnerships team.
The K-pop activist
The power of K-pop and its various fandoms should not be dismissed lightly. K-pop fans are active not only as adoring supporters but also as powerful socio-political entities. They are not affiliated with specific political groups, but they are extremely effective in uniting against matters of perceived injustice. In 2020, Donald Trump, then President of the United States, held a free, ticketed rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a perfectly orchestrated protest against his policies, K-pop fans reserved as many tickets as possible, and then did not use them, leaving many of the seats in the 19,000-capacity venue empty.
'"Trump has been actively trying to disenfranchise millions of Americans in so many ways, and to me, this was the protest I was able to perform", Erin Hoffman, an 18-year-old New Yorker, told the Times, adding that she reserved two tickets and persuaded a parent to book two more.'
In the same year, K-pop fans successfully drowned out racist commentary of those using the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter by flooding it with anti-racist messages and images and videos of their favourite K-pop idols. When K-pop group BTS posted a statement on Twitter in 2021 against the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID pandemic, K-pop fandoms again mobilised, raising awareness for the #StopAsianHate campaign and helping the tweet to become the most shared tweet of the year in 2021 with nearly 1 million retweets.
The language of K-pop
K-pop and its fans also have a significant impact on language and how words are shaped and shared across borders. Global fans connect with each other online using a mix of English and Korean. In doing so, they create new spellings for Korean words that appear more accessible to English speakers. For example, the Korean words 'eonni' (meaning 'elder sister', said by women) and 'nuna' (meaning 'elder sister', said by men) are changed to 'unni' and 'noona' respectively. In 2021, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added 26 Korean words due to the frequency of their use online, including new spellings such 'unni' and 'noona' created by K-fans, demonstrating their power as innovative creators of language.
In 2016, the word 'purple' became synonymous with the word 'love' amongst BTS fans (otherwise known as ARMYs). At a concert, one of BTS' members, V, spoke about purple signifying eternal love because it is the last colour of the rainbow. From this, ARMYs started to use the purple heart emoji when communicating online and invented the phrase "I purple you", meaning "I love you". They also coined the phrase 'borahae', which is a combination of the word 'borasaek', meaning 'purple', and 'saranghae', which means 'I love you'. The phrase has become so widely known that brands, such as McDonalds and Samsung, have made reference to it in their advertising campaigns, highlighting the commercial power that K-fandoms wield. K-fans famously spend large amounts of money purchasing K-pop merchandise and brands are always looking for ways to tap into this purchasing power.
On another occasion, ARMYs popularised the phrase 'soboksobok', a lyric from one of BTS Jimin's Christmas songs. Jimin released the song on Soundcloud, accompanied by a blog post with the lyrics in Korean. Fans picked up on the word 'soboksobok' in the chorus of the song and wondered what it meant. In an interview, Jimin explained that it is an onomatopoeic word meaning 'falling' but in a gentle manner, as snow does. Fans, including those that aren't Korean, now regularly use #soboksobok in their social media posts.
K-fans are not just consumers of K-pop content, they are also creators. Translators are prevalent in K-fandoms, translating not just K-pop songs into English and other languages, but also their idol's social media posts, interviews, and variety show appearances. These fans actively influence what content is accessible to international fans, especially for smaller K-pop groups, and therefore how these fans perceive their idols. The fandom translator is a phenomenon that has emerged due to the internet and a growing global interest in cultures outside North America and Europe. Translation is no longer an activity restricted to a privileged few in academic circles.
More than K-
Have you ever seen someone holding up a 'finger heart'? Even if you are not a K-pop fan you most likely have. The gesture is made by crossing your index finger over your thumb to form a tiny heart shape. The finger heart is a gesture that has been popularised through the world of K-pop. K-idols pose with finger hearts in photos and use the gesture in real life to show love to their fans. Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were seen posing for photos with finger hearts, when the two met and visited Mount Baekdu on the Chinese–North Korean border in 2018. Even American President Joe Biden posed for a photo doing the gesture when he met with BTS at the White House in 2022. What was once the gesture of a subculture has now taken on a universal meaning.
The impact of K-pop and its fandoms is greater than anyone could have ever anticipated. K-fans are a transnational, transcultural, and translingual body operating without borders. Prior to the smartphone and the social media era, K-fans were unable to communicate internationally with such ease. During this time, K-pop was a small subculture that was popular mostly in Asia and in diaspora communities around the world. Since social media has become a daily part of our lives, K-fans' ability to connect with K-idols, and other international K-fans has grown enormously. Their impact now goes beyond the expressions of loving fans, and extends into popular culture, socio-political affairs, and linguistic developments. K-fans are the seed of the Korean Wave, actively constructing the meaning of K-pop and the significance that it has in the world. They have changed the K- in K-pop to mean something bigger than 'Korean'. K-ness is now a phenomenon that is being shaped globally.
This article was written by Dr. Jieun Kiaer, Professor of Korean Linguistics, University of Oxford