By Monique Melendez
K-pop fans descended upon the Javits Center and Madison Square Garden in July for KCON NY, a hybrid convention and concert that brings K-pop acts and other figures from Asian pop culture to the East Coast. With banners and poster boards in hand, K-pop fans were ready to congregate with their fandom peers to support their favorite groups and discover new ones. Everyone from veteran acts like Seventeen, who made their second KCON NY appearance this year and have toured the States independently of the event, to first-timers like VERIVERY and fromis_9 aimed to court American fans through their KCON sets. The annual convention is just one of many live K-pop events populating local calendars, as American K-pop fans have been rewarded with more stateside concerts each year. And through various conversations with fans at and outside of KCON NY, one thing became clear: Fans are working around the clock to keep the genre’s momentum in America alive.
After years of the genre’s success being limited to Korean shows and chart metrics (and thus Korean fans), American K-pop fans are finally able to play a key role in the advancement of their faves’ careers, and they aren’t passing up the chance, helping to turn 2019 into a watershed year for K-pop in America. Blackpink and NCT 127 have already rounded out their inaugural U.S. tours with appearances on Good Morning America, Strahan and Sara, and The Late Late Show with James Corden, with Blackpink also landing second-row billing at Coachella. GOT7 — who toured the U.S. for the past three years — brought K-pop to the Today show stage for the first time ever in June. KCON NY performers The Boyz and ATEEZ both made appearances on Good Day New York, a solid feat for rookie acts who only debuted in Korea within the last two years.
Fans await their faves at KCON NY
Fans often push for appearances like these across social media, where they flood the mentions of local TV hosts and Ellen DeGeneres alike in hopes of landing their faves coveted airtime, or a puppy interview. “When groups announce world tours, a lot of fans immediately go tweet and email a lot of well-known companies — places like BuzzFeed, Build Series, and local news stations — to try and book them for interviews,” Seventeen fan Stephanie Contreras, 23, says. “We try to get them as much positive exposure as possible.”
Though American K-pop fans congregate across most social networking sites, Twitter is the preferred place for fans to make these key moves, says Masia, 15. “Something could trend, could go worldwide, and your favorite K-pop group could get noticed in the U.S.,” she says. The platform has also become the go-to place for all K-pop news. Quinn Roche, 27, stumbled upon the fandom after hearing BTS’s “DNA” on Spotify’s Top Hits playlist in late 2017. The lure of the genre drew her onto Twitter for the first time. “I was like, ‘I don’t understand this social media platform at all, I don’t get it,’” she says. “But if you wanna know anything, you have to go on Twitter.”
Plus, some awards, like the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, rely entirely upon fan engagement on Twitter; Billboard gathers the acts that have received the most Twitter mentions and hashtags within a specified window of time, and the most active fanbase will propel their favorite act to the BBMAs stage. This was the first year where multiple K-pop acts — EXO, GOT7, and now-three-time winners BTS — were up for the award. It’s an undeniable milestone for the genre as a whole, and for many, it became a crucial opportunity to get their faves the shine they deserve.
Emma Myers and Stephanie Contreras show off their banners
Running concurrent to K-pop fandom’s all-consuming Twitter culture is its streaming culture, which treats YouTube views as a form of scorekeeping, whether it’s racking up millions of views within the first 24 hours of a video’s release or reaching a goal number of views before a specific date. To achieve this, fans will often head back to Twitter to promote “streaming parties,” digital gatherings where they will all stream a video or playlist of videos, strategically following methods that will keep their views from getting docked or frozen by YouTube — peppering other videos in between, keeping volume above 50 percent, allowing ads to play in full. As a result, Korean acts have been dominating YouTube metrics, with BTS and Blackpink leading the pack and crushing previous milestones.
Despite celebratory results, the urgency to support their faves has led to a hypercompetitive landscape on K-pop stan Twitter that some fans have found exhausting — and as the playing field becomes saturated with labels looking to cash in on the global rise of Korean pop, every tweet and every stream matters. Over fifty acts have debuted on the K-pop scene in the first half of 2019 alone: What was once a domestic platform that highlighted a handful of idol groups is now a global marvel that churns out almost two new acts every single week. The odds of all these acts garnering Korean attention, let alone international fame, is slim to none. “K-pop is that thing where you feel super emotionally invested in how well your group does,” Emma Myers, 20, says. As we speak, she distributes fromis_9 banners and stickers, a home-grown collaboration with a fellow fromis_9 stan, or Flover. “It’s such a competition out there that you have to constantly be promoting your faves, otherwise they’re just gonna sink under the radar,” she says. “It’s kind of a toxic culture, to be honest. You always have to be promoting.” This constant need to promote may burn out some fans, but the consequences — exiting the industry without so much as a music show win, or fading into obscurity without anyone noticing — are too dire.
ATEEZ greet fans at KCON NY
The fervor to support their faves is further fueled by the idols themselves. As the Internet makes global fame increasingly possible for Korean acts, they’re placing greater importance on American tours, awards, and charting feats. Seventeen member Vernon stated he hopes to perform at the Billboard Music Awards, while the group’s leader S.Coups named New York’s Citi Field, where BTS made history and opened doors just last October, as his dream venue. And when idols dream, fans follow suit. “We’re gonna make that happen no matter what it takes,” Contreras says, “‘Cause that’s what they want, and we want them to be happy, and that’s really what it comes down to. … We all know idols go through a lot, with training and having to [leave] their families, so we want our favorites to feel like those rough paths they took to get where they are were completely worth it.”
K-pop fandom is fixated on numbers — inevitable when sales numbers, downloads, and streams determine which groups survive to see another year in the industry. But beyond numbers, every milestone helps K-pop acts become more intelligible to the global community. K-pop fans are slowly chipping away at the English-language domination of the American pop landscape. “A lot of people that would never consider music with a different language are being exposed to this more now because of us,” Lindsay McNamara, 26, says. “We’re actively stanning these groups and we’re actively participating in these events and — for BTS, for example — getting a ton of attention because there’s a ton of people that are going to these shows. People like my mom, who would never consider something like this, can actually begi[n] to understand why we like it, and their messages, and their stories.”
And for many fans, like KpopMaine.com creator Leocardia Sheehy, the aim is even higher than bringing their faves into the spotlight. “K-pop is awesome, and I think it has potential to open doors to not only a diverse music scene, but for diversity in general,” she says. “I strongly feel that as more foreign musicians gain recognition and fans here in America, that we might begin to be reminded of how amazing it is to live in a place that is made up of different individuals and different cultures; a place where you can turn on the radio and [hear] a song mostly in Spanish, like ‘Despacito.’ So why can’t we turn on the radio and hear K-pop?”