Living With Affect: A Memoir

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My name is Ahab and I’ve been living with affect off and on for about 25 years now (hi, Ahab!). From my days as a New Kids on the Block stan (yes, little five year old me stanned the shit out of NKOTB), to my years trying to balance my love for both 90s boy and girl idols/idol groups and heavy metal bands (meaning one day I would be screaming my head off at a BSB concert and the next, meeting Static-X (RIP, Wayne Static)), to my migration to and subsequent obsession with Korean and Japanese (and some Chinese) pop music, I’ve basically spent my entire life as a hopeless fangirl. I’ve got years of experience behind me and I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about both the lived aspects of affect and what it means to bridge the gap between oneself and one’s idols. How does one deal with the knowledge that one’s idol’s image is carefully crafted and controlled, to varying degrees, by a semi-faceless corporation, with the very real feelings one feels when listening to their idols’ songs or seeing them smile or cry? Come with Ahab on this journey — because that’s never gone wrong for anyone ever.

When I talk about affect, I’m talking about Gabriela Lukacs’s idea that idols become image commodities wherein their value lies in the circulation of their images. Further,

“The tarento and the intimate televisuality their circulation generates managed to revive and maintain viewers’ interest in the televisual medium in the 1990s. In other words, by simply watching any particular program, viewers were able to tap into the complete participatory experience of Japanese televisual culture and its network of information on cultural and consumer trends. Decoding and enjoying programs in their intertextual contexts requires intensive and regular participation. As encoding becomes ever more sophisticated, decoding requires greater and greater exposure and “training.” By way of the encoding-decoding game, television is becoming increasingly indispensable for rendering social realities intelligible and human relationships meaningful in contemporary Japan.”

Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying that we get sucked into this life like a black hole: we want to know more about the idols and wouldn’t you know it, there’s just so much out there waiting to be discovered. As long as the idols keep working and putting out new material (songs, television appearances, movies, magazine appearances, etc etc etc), we’ll never run out of things to learn. Ishmael has talked at length about how this is done in K-pop, and I think if you’re here, you can figure out the similarities and differences between K-pop and J-pop in manufacturing idol personas. I’m also glossing over the fact that there are distinct differences between entertainment companies and management companies in how information about the idols is presented. As any Johnny’s fan knows, they’re not allowed to have their images out on the internet, which makes it sort of a pain when you’re going to buy a magazine or you want to watch the preview for the new PV and you can totally do it for, say, BoA, but not V6, even though they’re both under Avex, so you’re left to informal networks (I could spend a week talking about gatekeeping and access to information and information networks, but that’s not the point here right now). With the right language skills and access to information, however (or access to a/a set of reliable translator(s)), one can gather information about their idols, order the information and add it to what they already know, reformulate opinions, lather, rinse, and repeat. Growing up, I could go out and buy magazines like Tiger Beat and plaster my room with pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Devon Sawa or all of the Backstreet Boys/N*SYNC, etc. Now, I can (do) do that with J&A artists. As Ishmael pointed out, this gathering of information and feeling of closeness to one’s idols fuels financial investment. In essence, the more one learns about one’s idols, the closer one is, and thus, the more real the relationship.

I’ve written at some length before about distance and the bridging of the gap, but how does it work in practice? If one bridges the gap, what does one stand to find? Well, their idol could be a human being with regular faults like anyone else, or they could have their opinion of them reinforced, whether through the idol’s actions or the fan’s own perception of the encounter (in my experience, it’s both). How does place affect encounters? This isn’t merely an exercise in self-congratulation or bragging; rather, I want to use my own myriad experiences to try to elucidate how fans experience these encounters with their idols. Too often, writers (academics and journalists) discount just how real and meaningful these encounters are to fans. To do so would validate the experiences, as we will discuss later (and as I have discussed elsewhere before), which would in turn validate that pop music and fandom are both legitimate and meaningful. There is a broad cultural (I would even argue global) perception that pop music and the fandom surrounding it are things that only teen girls do and are thus not worthy of attention or simply things to be derided. There was a great article on Groupthink a while back that addressed how the media derides teenage girls and the things they love (in this case, boy bands), though I remember being made fun of quite a bit in a lot of venues for being an enthusiastic teenage girl who really liked a certain band (pop, rock, metal; you name it, there was a dude out there ready, willing, and able to be a dick to me about my tastes). Again, as Ishmael stated and as I’ve talked about before, boy bands/pop music/love of celebrities are things that one is supposed to grow out of. The tastes of women and girls are not to be taken seriously so no one actually wants to talk about lived experiences, or if they do, it’s rare to find that these feelings are validated. Jennifer Robertson’s book on Takarazuka and its fandom did a beautiful job of not only analyzing the interactions fans have with their idols and their feelings about them, but treated them as they should be treated: as real, as meaningful. All that having been said, let’s get to actual analyzing.


Private Consumption

Private consumption of information is something I would like to talk more about later, but it’s usually the first step in manufacturing this closeness between idol and fan. Hearing a song and wanting to hear more, watching a TV show and thinking they’re hilarious and wanting to see more, seeing them on a magazine cover or in an ad and thinking they’re just about the most gorgeous being to ever exist on this planet; these are some of the ways fans get interested. Thanks to the internet, fans from all over the world can seek out information on their chosen idol, whether it’s Harry Styles or Matsumoto Jun. From there, the fan takes information acquisition into their own hands. In essence, they’re only limited by what they can acquire and how much they can understand. They can remain a casual fan — listening to all the artists’ albums, sometimes watching shows they’re on — or they can become a hardcore fan — consuming everything available to them, interacting with other fans to share information. Fandom is, I believe, a spectrum, and where one lies on it is entirely up to the fan. To use myself as an example: I’m more on the casual end of the spectrum with TOKIO and, while I know quite a bit about them, watch their shows from time to time, and regularly listen to their albums, I didn’t feel I knew them well enough to go see them on their 2012 tour even though I really wanted to, and that if I went, I may be taking a spot from someone who enjoys them a lot more than I and who would enjoy the show more. (Maybe this is also a time when we should talk about how, the more a fan knows, and the more time one invests, the more one feels like they deserve something? Or is that just me because at my worst, I’m incredibly selfish and possessive? Just me? OK *slinks away*) (The flip side of this, which I haven’t addressed, is that there’s a feeling of indebtedness to one’s idol that also fuels consumption: for all the idol has done for them, or for all the things they’ve obtained on the DL, the fan owes something to the idol and thus the buying of merchandise, going to concerts, etc)


Concerts

Ah, the concert. Concerts are one of the main places in which fans get to see their idols in person and potentially interact with them. I’ve only been to one K-pop concert, so I don’t feel I can really speak to it as much, but at least at the Johnny’s shows I’ve been to and the many other ones I’ve watched, most groups do their best to get as close to as much of the audience as possible. Matsujun came up with the idea for the moving stage to get close to more of the audience and give them more of a chance to see and interact with Arashi, and now many other groups use that in their shows. V6 have the walkway around the upper level of Yoyogi so they can get as close to the entire audience in what is a huge venue. As groups go around the venue, fans are given a chance to have their idols wave, smile, give the peace sign, high-five them, etc etc etc. Being close to the walkways can get you attention. Having an uchiwa for your favourite(s) can get you noticed. Having a funny uchiwa can get you attention and get you remembered (remember the time Koyama talked about how he once saw an uchiwa that just said “ramen” on it?), even just in the short term. I’m about 95% sure Sakamoto waved at me the second night I went to V6’s concert because he remembered my face because I had a funny uchiwa the night before.

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I spent days thinking of what would be funny and memorable, because I had no idea if/when I’d be able to see V6 again after that. He purposely stopped, leaned down, waved, and smiled at me on his way back to the main stage, at least in part because he thought my uchiwa was funny (how many other fans have asked him to go drinking?). This is an instance in which my breadth of knowledge paid off (in addition to being white and blonde and super conspicuous, let’s not ignore that, it’s a huge part of it): by using what I know about him and his hobbies, I was able to use that knowledge to make him laugh and in turn, get noticed.

These interactions are incredibly meaningful for fans. It’s a way of getting recognition for the hours (or at least money, in the case of those who go to shops to get theirs made) they put in not only in construction of their uchiwa but also in their dedication to the group. There’s a feeling of being special: out of many, they saw/waved at/touched me! There’s also the potential for disappointment if one doesn’t get seen, but that, too, can be explained away: my seats were too far away, the fan in front of me was too tall, etc.

Idols regularly talk about how concerts are places where they can get close to fans and show their appreciation for all the time and effort fans put in to supporting them, and how they want to put on the best show they can every single time because this may be the only time a fan gets to see them, or because they know that concerts are places where fans can get away from all their worries for at least a couple of hours. Because their entire career depends on fans, from the casual to the crazed like me, idols seem to be some of the only public figures who will acknowledge that fans are the entire reason they get to do what they do, and they don’t deride or denigrate fans for it (unless they step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable, e.g. going to houses, etc). In the 2011 tour pamphlet, Inohara talked about how they talk about fans backstage: such and such fan was crying, did you see such and such fan, etc. By reading these pamphlets (in Japanese or in translation), fans can (re)affirm their hopes that one day their idols will notice and/or talk about them. This is a carefully crafted move on their part (I’m not saying I don’t believe they don’t talk about fans backstage, but). In essence, if a fan puts in the work, they will get a reward for their hard work: out of hundreds of other fans, they can get noticed and receive the attention of those after whom they have pined.


Fan Meetings

Meeting their idol(s) and wanting to tell them thank you for all the joy and support they’ve gotten from them is a thing I hear quite often from my friends. I’ve had friends learn Japanese just so they could one day say thank you to their idol(s), even if it was just a simple “thank you.” Fan meetings are a place where fans can do that. I get this feeling, I really do. Outside of the personal encounter, it’s about as close as a fan can really get to their idol, and might be their only chance to have their feelings directly returned to them. They may send letters, but there’s little way of knowing if it was ever read (except in the case of radio shows where fans do get their letters/questions read on air, but not all fans or letters can be or are read).

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The thing I noticed most when I met NEWS in 2012 was how emotional other fans got. I even cried a bit when they sang “Full Swing” because you’re a fucking heartless monster if you don’t DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY’VE BEEN THROUGH. For the fan who gets to meet their idol, shake their hands, and share their feelings, there’s, again, a feeling of reward coupled with pure gratefulness. I’ve talked about this elsewhere before, but pop music is a meaningful escape for a lot of people. I say meaningful escape because it’s not just a way to escape worries and whatever else but it’s also something into which a fan invests their time, effort, and most importantly, their emotions.

Idols, as well, talk about how they want to say thank you to their fans. After playing games and taking fan club pamphlet pictures, everyone in NEWS talked about how they felt terrible for having made their fans wait so much, and how grateful they were to the fans who stayed around to support them through their hard times. Essentially, the least they could do to say thank you would be to meet the fans face-to-face, shake their hands, and exchange feelings. For someone like me who’s been a (at times quite impatient) supporter through the myriad lineup changes they’ve gone through, it was an incredible opportunity to have the chance to tell them I basically came all the way from the United States just to meet them and give my thanks and have them all say thank you in return (well, except Tego. He was sort of stunned silent when I came up to him). I sat for almost an hour afterward at a Starbucks in the mall next door trying to get my heart to stop pounding and calm down enough to be able to go back to my friend’s place.

For a fan, seeing their idol in person is a sort of reaffirmation of the fact that holy shit, their idol is real; they exist, and they’re right the fuck there. Literally everyone I know who’s seen or met their idols has experienced that at some level. By seeing them or meeting face-to-face, one is getting past the media(ted) encounters through which one has experienced their idol before and affirming, with their own senses, their idol’s existence. Further, their idol now knows that they exist, and whether or not the idol remembers them down the road, they’ve had that experience and that encounter and for a lot of fans, it’s an extremely memorable and meaningful experience, one they might think about whenever they see their idols on a program, or when they need cheering up, or even at 4PM on a Tuesday for no real reason.


Personal Encounters

Like the fan encounter, the personal encounter — which I am defining as a fan meeting their idol outside of a concert or fan meeting — is kind of the height of fandom. Experiences to meet idols outside of sanctioned events are rare, and not an insignificant number of people freak out a little when it happens. With a fan meeting, one can kind of prepare oneself for what may happen (I say “kind of” because even the most stoic of people sometimes can’t hold back their emotions (*waves*)), but seeing their idol on the street, one is caught off-guard. The idol may or may not be in their idol mode (see: Sakamoto walking around on “One Dish”) but the fan is occupying a different role: worker, student, etc. and having their idol in front of them is a breach in the sociological sense, wherein someone steps outside expected interactions (like, if you stood facing everyone else in an elevator, or sat on your teacher’s desk instead of in your own, or just stood around doing nothing). The fan obviously comprehends that the idol has a life and is a normal person like them (stars! they’re just like us!) but in a certain sense, there’s a kind of dissonance between what one rationally understands and what actually gets through. What I mean is, we understand that our idols go to the store just like we do, but we’d probably all be shocked to see them there at the same time we were, buying a bunch of oranges or some coffee just like a regular person. A fan does not experience the idol’s daily life, even if one gets glimpses into it through videos (TV, DVD extras, etc.), so the fan would/will be caught off-guard when encountering their idol in a mundane setting.

In 2011, the Lincoln Center brought “Kinkakuji” to New York City for their annual summer festival of foreign plays. Shingo had come before that for “Talk Like Singing,” so this wasn’t the first time a J&A idol had come to do a play overseas, but it was the first and, at that time, the only way for me to see any of my idols in person, so with a few friends in tow, I went to NYC. The second night, we managed to make it to the stage door, along with a group of Japanese fans. The short version is I asked if we could give some gifts we’d made to Go (even though we know you’re only usually allowed to give letters, but we thought to try anyway), gave the letters we wrote, and, when he was leaving, I called out to him and we had a very awkward conversation in which I was tongue-tied and he seemed very surprised and shy. As we finished our sort-of conversation (it’s hard to have a real conversation when both people are super shy and I mean have you seen Go’s stare because goddamn I have met a lot of celebrities in my life and I was perfectly calm and collected and normal around them and then I get five inches from Go and just can’t handle him staring at me and forgot how to Japanese or English or breathe). Then, in 2013, on our first night in Osaka, as he was walking around the arena, he looked at my friend who was with me both in NYC and Osaka, then at me, then gave a look of “OH!” and leaned back around to wave and smile at us.

Now, let’s analyze how I’m presenting and interpreting all this. I’m shortening it and leaving out personal details, obviously, but second of all, I’m trying to be as objective as possible about two instances that a) still make me really twitterpated and b) may not be related. Maybe Go didn’t recognize us. There’s the possibility that, by virtue of being foreign, we got extra attention because, if you’ve seen me, I sort of stand out a lot (poor Ishmael has to live with the curse of my conspicuousness — we’ll be out places and people will only remember her in relation to me). I’m interpreting Go’s actions in New York as shy rather than as someone completely troubled by me/my actions (though I’ve worried about him secretly hating me and thinking I’m terrible and rude every moment since I called his name and kind of keep replaying the moment and wishing I’d done a hundred things differently and vowing to be more eloquent next time), even though, as he was leaving, he turned back around to call out “we’ll meet again~!” with a big, genuine-looking smile on his face.

What I think is most interesting with these encounters is that, when fans meet their idols, the first thing they tend to think or say when they talk to others about the experience is “he probably doesn’t/won’t remember me,” as though the fan is but a faceless member of an ever-increasing horde of starstruck girls who fawn over the idol(s) in question. And in a way, that’s not wrong. But there is still a desire to be remembered, especially if one is a foreign fan because we have to work so much harder to get closer to our idols.

My experience and the emotional investments I’ve made absolutely colour my impressions, so think about that as you read all my accounts. It’s entirely possible I’ve just been filed away as “generic white girl #92530823” in the heads of every J&A idol who’s seen/met me instead of “that one girl from NYC/Sapporo/Osaka.” (Ken also wrote about a white girl coming to see them in Sapporo after the night of the first show there on the 2011 tour and I’ve always assumed it was about me because I was the only white girl there).

But again, keep in mind that I’m using my knowledge base to interpret Go’s actions. I’m assuming he’s shy because that’s the character he’s presented on TV and in magazine interviews and that’s how he’s come off in basically everything. He needs time to warm up to people. I’m choosing (and I can’t stress that enough) to interpret all these interactions, both the ones I’ve talked about and the ones I’m not talking about (waves, peace signs, etc.) in a positive light because a) in essence, I have that freedom; and b) it would be devastating for it to be negative.

This is the thing about being a fan and bridging the gap: you risk being hurt by what you find. Maybe they’re a huge dick, which you could then interpret and explain away through secondary explanations of belief, as “maybe they were having a bad day” or “I shouldn’t have bothered them.” Or maybe they’re, as you thought, a big sweetheart, but even if they are, you still have to contend with the idea that maybe they’re just really good at this whole idol thing and are faking everything. It’s like putting your feelings out there to a friend: they can either accept them and be gracious or they can rip your heart out and eat it in front of you. But with idols, you’re putting so much more of your heart and soul into it, because you’ve invested so much time and emotion, and they’re presenting themselves as so much more genuine, so the precipitous drop can be that much more painful. So you’re left with one of two options: you either resist or embrace it. You know it’s happening and you collect the information but resist getting emotionally involved, or you throw caution to the wind and let it consume your soul.

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Hallyu is People!

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happening. Hallyu is PEOPLE! It’s made out of people. You’ve gotta tell ’em!….but you don’t necessarily have to stop them.

TL;DR: Hallyu is addictive because of the interplay of multiple media platforms that are designed to provide a wealth of detailed personal information, fostering a perception of intimacy between the audience and idol(s). Some of the mediums that contribute to this process, such as social media, directly enhance the sense of belonging to a community. Meanwhile, that perceived intimacy motivates and rewards those who consume a broader spectrum of media to glean more details about idols, reinforcing their commitment to Hallyu.

A lot of people have been asking why K-pop is so darn addictive. We lived for years without depending on a steady supply of eye-piercing costumes and catchy choreography (Well, some of us did anyhow. Some people are lifers. This is a judgment-free zone). If you follow K-pop -and the odds are good if you’re reading this- I probably don’t need to explain to you that the music is only the tip of the iceberg. The catchy beats are fun and addictive, don’t get me wrong, but the real product being sold is the idols themselves: their bodies, their characters, their personal lives, and their emotions. Today Ishmael wants to look at why the idol as product is powerful fuel for Hallyu, while also enhancing its influential power and representative roles. I’ll show you how these lives are produces, distributed, and consumed. After that I will re-examine the consequences of this strategy not only for the idols, but also for the future development of Hallyu as a representative nation brand.

It doesn’t actually take much to see that the music itself is not the driving factor behind K-pop’s success. Nor is it purely a matter of good looks. After all, there are dozens of good looking idols and some of those outfits really threaten to undo all the effort put into making idols cool. When you pay attention to what fans say (and really, not enough writers do), it’s clear that what makes K-pop special is the idols themselves. The music is equal to or even less important than the idols’ personas. The constant sharing of private information creates a sense of intimacy. Fans can accumulate so much data that it’s easy to feel one knows the idol as well as a close friend. Seriously, Ahab is my best friend and I know less about her underwear than G-Dragon’s, Jay Park’s, or Junsu’s. Not that I sought out this info; honestly, the things you learn from variety shows … that is my whole point. They’re putting that knowledge right there in easy reach. As such, fans become emotionally invested in a perceived relationship with idols and likewise invested in the artists’ welfare and success which then this fuels financial investment. In order to keep this up, artists must constantly perform their character role and package their daily experiences and emotions for audience consumption.

How They Do It

Everything starts in the training period. Since the early stages of K-pop in the 1990s, major entertainment companies have molded aspiring talents’ public personas, speaking skills, appearance, and language as much as singing and dancing skills. The careful construction of group concepts and dynamics is no secret. Cognitive dissonance allows audiences to accept these personas as genuine, while open acknowledgement of planned characters enables fans to appreciate multiple layers of the “real” self. The search for better/more data can draw fans deeper into the interplay of Hallyu formats and bolster a stronger sense of connection. This is also why you got the “beastly” tough party guy who wants to be cuddly and the flower boy who has a black belt. This duality is a key strategy in appealing to conflicting audience desires simultaneously.

Of course, the music alone cannot convey the rich personal details that really keep fans hooked. That’s where variety shows, social media, and fan meetings come into play. There is a plethora of media formats through which idols can promote themselves.Keep in mind this is absolutely essential because the need for knowledge (and through knowledge, belonging and connection) is the major force that drives this genre. It can’t be over-stressed. Fans constantly need more information to feed the obsession (I mean that in the nicest way). Let’s take a look at how Ishmael’s deep need to procrastinate ended up becoming rather educational in more ways than one:

The first thing is that idols should seem approachable and close. Seoul is a space that we share. That’s why  on “Guerrilla Date” (KBS), the stars arrive at crowded public, even touristy, locations for the interview. This strategy is also used in K-dramas’ trendy locations to invite the audience to physically enter the idols’ world by visiting the same places (giving a convenient boost to tourism as well). Programs can also assist through sets designed to appear casual, seated on the floor of an apartment eating snacks in “Come to Play,” visiting a sauna on “Happy Together,” or driving around Seoul and visiting average restaurants in “Taxi.”

Emotional vulnerability and openness is another crucial technique to secure the hearts and minds of the audience. In interviews, artists share embarrassing stories for humor, often performing a calculated persona such as having a ‘princess syndrome’ (Goo Hara) or playful antagonism between band members. I mean, there’s a special warmth in my heart when I watch Big Bang try to manage their incorrigible maknae, Seungri (that’s it, that’s all the confessions you’ll get from me. I’m a professional, dammit). By carefully removing the façade of perfection, they invite audiences into a perceived intimacy.

“Strong Heart,” whose premise was a competition among celebrities to tell the most amusing or moving story, rewarded stars who were most articulate and adept at selecting personal material that appeals to viewers’ interest. Some of the stories revealed the trauma of childhood poverty or losing family members to cancer. Sharing these intensely personal hardships may be to forge a connection, but it can also be an opportunity to set straight a scandal. “Healing Camp” on SBS is a show aimed at healing the mind and body of stars who appear to frankly discuss their personal and professional problems.

Performances on both television and concerts are opportunities to manage an idol’s image through powerful emotional displays. (Of course, these emotions can also be sincere. Ishmael isn’t trying to be cynical, but spontaneous or pre-planned, the impact of the display is the same). It is not uncommon for idols, male or female, to publicly break down in tears. In July 2012, I attended one of BEAST’s concerts in Seoul, and Yang Yoseob was so emotionally overcome by the opportunity to perform live after a long hiatus that he had to leave the stage during the band’s farewell speeches until he was sufficiently composed to sing the final song. On another level, the themes of these stories often appeal to Korean cultural values, such as the importance of family and hard work.

Sometimes the premise of a show can blend reality and fantasy by placing “real” stars in imagined scenarios and relationships. “We Got Married” is a popular variety show that depicts celebrities as imaginary couples acting out daily married life. This kind of plot easily allows the audience to imagine the celebrity as their own romantic partner. This format also offers international audiences insight into Korean culture and manners by depicting events like housewarming parties, interactions with parents, and holidays. Additionally, the domestic sphere allows men to portray a variety of masculine roles through participation in housework and childcare. The show has specifically included couples with considerable age and cultural differences. Recently, the show has introduced an international twist, pairing couples from different countries.

Pre-debut documentaries, often with an aspect of audition or elimination, are another broadcast format that aims to create and emotional bond with viewers. YG is the master of this format and he’s been polishing it into an art form of its own. Compared to Big Bang’s pre-debut, the shows “Who Is Next” and “Mix and Match” have been used as an opportunity to connect new bands to their seniors, other companies and shows, and even bring some 90s hits renewed relevance. These are not only important sources of publicity, they relate the dreams and struggles of hopeful young idols and generate a sense of connection often before the audience has had a chance to see them perform or hear their songs. Along with reality shows (another popular format, particularly effective thanks to YouTube) they follow stars through their daily schedules and reveal interactions with other stars and staff, backstage preparation, killing time between photo shoots, their pets, their homes, and their literal dirty laundry. Some of these shows, such as “2NE1 TV,” have social networking complements. Stars purposely expose their labor, exhaustion, frustration, doubts, loneliness for family, and the simplicity of their lifestyle instead of presenting a glamorous or luxurious lifestyle that came easily thanks to innate talent. Some stars have also given tours of their homes complete with dirty laundry and that one room we all have where there’s a system underlying the chaos, we swear. Actually, it’s pretty common to see idols’ dorms. There is a multitude of videos out there on YouTube if you want to see them being reluctantly awakened on camera. You can watch them cook with varying degrees of confidence and success. As if that weren’t enough, the most recent shows have given audiences the vote on who will become a member or which team will debut!

Bulletin boards, blogs, and diaries all serve to make things more personal. Through posting comments or participation in ranking systems and contests, audiences feel that they are able to influence and contribute to the creation or success of the novels they enjoy. K-pop idols similarly use social media to connect with their fans. Thanks to Twitter, followers can share even experiences as mundane as what an idol made for dinner and how it tasted. On Instagram, idols can share images that inspire or appeal to them as well as personal pictures, even childhood photos. Websites such as these allow the public to leave their own messages for stars or to observe the communication between stars. Many K-pop idols also post messages in multiple languages, sometimes double posting, in order to include as wide an audience as possible. These accounts allow fans to constantly check in with what the stars are up to and in the event of any scandal, you can be sure every detail will be scrutinized for possible clues.

Big Bang even wrote a book, “Shouting Out to the World,” on their self-development. Both in the book and its publicity, the members discuss their personal thoughts, dreams, and struggles. G-Dragon can be seen reading the book in his music video “Michigo.” He further emphasized the personal connection between the band and fans by adding “Fans and students have sent me many books. Whenever I had the time, I would read the books. But to say the truth, I feel that my level of writing is not to the level of my lyric writing.”.

Idols frequently mention the influence of fans in their own lives, describing a multi-directional interaction. They share stories about the importance of fans’ comments and support upon their own moods and motivation, and prove that they use gifts from fans. The personal significance of fans to artists is frequently and passionately expressed. The fans also consider their behavior to represent the idol and as such they carry out charity work in the idols name and remind others to act respectfully at performances (but not always. I mean, I was actually literally beaten and cursed by Korean fans at a G-Dragon concert). Perhaps the most direct fan to idol connection is the fan meetings. A limited number of tickets are sold to these meetings where idols will perform and talk. The highlight is the end of the meeting when fans are able to greet, give gifts, take pictures, and sometimes even hug the idols. Such fan meetings are sometimes also held internationally. Ahab does a waaaay better job of explaining this. Ishmael wants the info without the affect, which is an uncomfortable position because those tend to go hand in hand. I’m very sincere when I say it’s hard to follow a band and not come to care about them.

So, what can we learn from this?

The Need to Connect with Something “Real” (but from a Safe Distance)

Whereas previous generations could find self-determination and belonging from the workplace or family (shoutout to Durkheim), it seems that young people are seeking these experiences elsewhere. Gabriela Lukacs argues that the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan demonstrates the ability of a cultural product to provide personal and thereby “authentic” entertainment through the description of private experience. Korean idols strive to create this effect through variety programs and social media. Thus, Hallyu markets idols not only as affect producers (performing labor in which emotions and subjectivity are the raw material), but also as affective products themselves. The sense of connection and intimacy engendered by this “authenticity” is central to K-pop’s appeal. As a need to connect drives consumption of Hallyu, fans may also seek to learn more about Korea’s language, history, and culture in order to better understand their favorite stars. Also, the avid consumption of stars’ personal lives transmits a multitude of social and cultural details (not by accident either).

Can We Depend on Them? After All, They’re Only Human

Although this format may seem well-suited to nation branding’s soft power goals, it carries an inherent weakness: it depends on the idol’s ability to attract and maintain audiences’ interest. As such, the demands of representation limit the range of characteristics through which artists’ personas may be developed. The constant pressure and scrutiny of idols’ behavior — often from the fans themselves — is probably exhausting. I can’t absolutely confirm because I don’t exactly have a lot of personal conversations with idols, but this seems like a pretty safe assumption. Just the thought of sasaeng (stalker) fans leaves me kinda horror-struck. Your past is never really behind you and you may not be able to change your image freely in the future, because an idol is always held accountable by and to the fans, fans which have been encouraged to tear down personal boundaries.

Because Korea currently focuses on a clean image, one misstep can derail an artist and one bad apple can taint all of Hallyu. People under pressure will make mistakes (and oh wow! have there been a lot of mistakes: racism, being flippant about other countries natural disasters, racism, questionable lyrics, and sometimes even racism). Not to mention, a squeaky clean image doesn’t necessarily play well in every market. Even Taeyang has revealed in interviews that his “model student” image may be an obstacle for his career. For example, the US market may find itself questioning exactly what misdeeds CL has committed to warrant her title as the “Baddest Female”. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, but it will require some careful balancing of priorities.

On top of all this, idols’ training includes many things but they’re hardly masters of international relations. They know that they are representing Korea, but I suspect that in most cases there is very little education on the countries they visit (and hip hop aesthetics don’t exactly center around diplomacy). Northeast Asia is a region fraught with political tensions and they’re throwing powerful gendered imagery on top of that. Those aiming at the US can’t escape the complicated history of race relations there, not only because they are Asian, but because they have heavily appropriated hip-hop culture. God knows I’m intimidated by the task and I have an M.A. on the subject. Block B and B.A.P are great examples of why we don’t make teenagers diplomats. From truly awful lyrics (Zico is under fire, rightly so, for his “ignorant” use of the term “faggot bitch” and wearing a confederate flag on his sleeve), to jaw-droppingly racist music video images, K-pop’s rising visibility threatens to expose a side of Korea that could be intensely problematic. Maybe it’s because I’m from Michigan, but I don’t approve of B.A.P in face paint dancing in the smoldering ruins of Detroit while black rioters battle white cops or black people shoot each other in the back after a (drug?) deal. Our prisons are not your props. Actually, I have a lot of issues with B.A.P’s videos which feature robbery, vandalism, gangs, domestic violence, suicide, racism, and oh how the list goes on. That deserves its own post (as a white girl from the Midwest, I’m not in the best position to talk about racism and cultural appropriation in Asia, but if no one else is going to…..). Of course, some bands do have international members or focus on a specific country. When Block B managed to insult Thailand, 2PM was right there at the forefront calling them out on their poor behavior (2PM’s Nichkhun is Thai so the band has a particular connection to Thailand). Also, speaking of 2PM, can we talk about how Hallyu puts bodies and sexuality at the front of Korea’s national image?

By way of closing remarks, I’d like to suggest we all take a moment to consider what it means for Hallyu if the predominant music style and/or production process should change? Audition shows cut training time and include artists from other genres. Hip-hop in Korea — a rapidly growing genre in the mainstream — certainly does not rely on creating a perceived bond between artist and audience. Meanwhile, rookies are being sent overseas within a year of debut. Plus (stay tuned to Ishmael & Ahab) not all K-pop idol are Korean. There are a lot of changes taking place this year that could strongly impact the way that audiences consume Korean music and through it, Korean culture.