K-Pop Starter Kit: A Beginner’s Guide (Part Three)

Finally, we’ve arrived at the last of the introduction posts! (I know it hasn’t been too long since Part Two went up, but I say “finally” because I’ve basically been working on these all month.) As I mentioned last time, Part Two was initially supposed to cover different aspects of the K-pop industry – however, I came up with so many that it ended up being ridiculously long. I noticed many of the things I wanted to discuss were about how people interact with and consume K-pop in general, so I decided to take those out and put them into their own Part Three. So, this final post covers K-pop in relation to fandoms and the Korean general public.

(If you’re reading my blog for the first time, hello and thanks for visiting! I’m an Asian-American who’s been a K-pop fan for 5+ years, and I also happen to work as a teacher in South Korea. I created this series as a beginner’s guide for people who just discovered K-pop and want to learn more, but any and all are of course welcome! This first month of my column is a basic introduction, and then I’ll start focusing on a specific topic for every month afterwards. Since I’m American, this post will mostly compare K-pop to Western pop because I don’t have any other personal context. And I’m not an expert, either! I’m just really interested in pop culture because I used to want to work in entertainment – former musical theater kid/dancer/drama major/film school student – and these are based on observations I’ve made over time. So please feel free to share your own experiences and knowledge in the comments, because I’d love to hear from you and get some other perspectives! If you want to know more details about my plans for the K-Pop Starter Kit, you can read my announcement post here. And you can read Part One of my Introduction to K-pop here.)

Things That Might Surprise K-pop Newcomers (Part 3)

A lot of the Korean general public doesn’t listen to K-pop or know it well.

This one comes from observations I’ve made while living here in South Korea. Of course, it’s possible that things could be different in other parts of the country – particularly Seoul, where K-pop has the most visibility. But based on my experience, it seems like many Koreans see K-pop as something for very young people – primarily high schoolers, university students, and *maybe* people in their twenties. (My older elementary school students also love it, but they’re obviously not the target demographic.) I’m sure a good amount of older Korean K-pop fans exist, especially because several second generation groups are still active and successful, but I personally haven’t encountered any. 95% of the Korean adults I’ve personally met pretty much treat it as something that you might enjoy when you’re young but will eventually outgrow.

One other thing I’ve found somewhat surprising is that most Korean people I know don’t even really recognize most groups or idols. (This includes my students, who are much more tuned into the world of K-pop.) They can identify all the popular songs, but not necessarily the group who sings them. They do know superstars like BTS and BLACKPINK, and there’s a decent chance they’ll have heard of a popular group from a big name company or one who’s particularly trendy at the moment… but anything besides that is probably a no-go. I’ve always thought this was fascinating because it’s not really like that in the United States, where extensive media coverage has made Western pop stars household names whether you listen to them or not. I have plenty of friends don’t listen to pop at all, but they’re still able to recognize famous singers’ photos. Though it does make sense why it’s not the same in South Korea, because recognizing groups and their individual members is much harder as a non-fan.

So sometimes when K-pop groups accomplish certain things, it’s largely because of their fandoms. For example, non-fans typically don’t buy physical albums – all those sales come from fans. So a group placing #1 on an album sales chart doesn’t mean it’s an album everyone in South Korea is buying; it means that group has a big fandom who can buy a large amount of albums. I’m not saying this to invalidate K-pop groups’ achievements at allgroups and their fandoms work hard for that success, and the industry is so competitive that any accomplishment is wonderful and well-deserved. I’m just saying that those kinds of achievements are more indicative of how large a group’s fandom is, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the general public’s taste and interests. If you want to know which K-pop groups and songs the general public likes, you should look at the digital charts – particularly streaming.

Brave Girls is a rare case where the Korean general public was very involved in their success story. They were largely unknown and on the verge of disbandment earlier this year, but their 2017 song “Rollin'” went mega-viral in South Korea when a fan uploaded a performance compilation video on YouTube. The song quickly rose up the charts as lots of people took interest, and it’s been highly ranked for several months now – something that’s hard for most recently released K-pop songs to do, let alone one that’s four years old.

Koreans who are K-pop fans probably only follow one group.

I think this is what I found the most surprising about K-pop when I was starting out. In the United States, people typically don’t spend all of their time on one artist. We may have our favorites whom we’re very passionate about, but we still listen to plenty of different musicians. Up until I moved here, I’d never met anyone who JUST listened to one person or group. So when I was first exploring K-pop, I started listening to a wide variety of artists like I normally would. After watching enough variety shows and similar content, I realized that most Korean K-pop fans are really just fans of one group… and I was SHOCKED. I think many other international fans think similarly, because a lot of us use the term “multifandom” to express that we listen to many different K-pop groups. But I think the “one-fandom” concept is on the rise internationally now that groups like BTS and BLACKPINK are so globally popular, because a lot of people are just listening to them and not really doing that deep-dive into the rest of the industry. (Which is totally fine, by the way!)

While the prevalence of the one-fandom system may be surprising, the reason is because Korean fans spend a ton of money supporting their chosen group. Since most K-pop groups aren’t recognized by the general public unless they’re super famous, fans provide a lot of that income… and all the ways you can spend money on your favorites gets EXPENSIVE. Like I said earlier, pretty much all physical album sales are from fans – who often purchase multiple copies so they can collect photocards of all the members and/or get into fansigns (pre-COVID). Considering that each album costs roughly 15-20 dollars, that can add up quickly. Plus fans buy lots of other things: fanclub memberships, concert tickets, merchandise, gifts for idols, snacks or food to support them during their activities, birthday ads in the subway, messaging services to text with your fave, etc. If someone spends all that money, it stands to reason they’d only do it for one group.

By the way, I’m not saying that you have to do any these things in order to be a group’s fan! I’m just illustrating what seems to be the norm over in South Korea. Personally, I buy albums from time to time and I go to concerts (or used to) if it’s feasible and I have the money. Otherwise, I mostly just listen through Apple Music and watch YouTube videos. Support your favorites however you want to!

BTS’s fandom ARMY is probably the largest one in K-pop right now, counting massive numbers of fans in South Korea and all around the world. BTS inspired so many people to become ARMYs that the group is now frequently recognized for their popularity and influence, most recently by winning Billboard’s Top Social Artist award for the fifth consecutive year.

Some things in K-pop are highly personalized to artists and/or their fans.

Most K-pop artists have to work hard to stand out, and there are many ways to do so. Some of these are fairly obvious and common in other music industries, like unique fandom names or logos and merchandise. However, K-pop takes things a little bit further. Here are some other things many K-pop artists likely have:

  • A greeting or catchphrase to introduce themselves on television shows or at performances. (This is mostly for groups and not soloists, though soloists who belong to a group might use that particular greeting when they’re promoting.)
  • 1-3 colors to represent themselves and their fans. In the beginning, each group got one color – but of course, there are only so many colors out there. So around 2015, groups started to pick two or three official colors instead.
  • Specially designed light sticks for fans to have at concerts and special events. Light sticks are super cool because the majority of concertgoers will have one, and concerts often use Bluetooth to link them all and create colorful light shows during the performance.
  • Fan chants for every title track with designated parts for fans to cheer or sing along. It usually involves things like repeating the ends of certain lines, joining in on the catchy parts, and shouting all the members’ names in succession at some point.

SEVENTEEN’s official colors are Rose Quartz and Serenity, and their greeting is, “Say the Name! SEVENTEEN!” Their fandom is Carat, a name that was chosen by fans in an online poll. (The meaning is based on an analogy; if you consider the group SEVENTEEN as a diamond, then the fans – as Carats – help it shine bright. This is also a reference to their pre-debut song “Shining Diamond.”) Their light stick reflects this by featuring a big shiny diamond, and it’s even nicknamed the “Carat Bong.”

There is an endless amount of K-pop content out there.

This is hands down the most addicting thing about K-pop, because there are so many videos on the Internet. When I say “endless,” I truly mean “endless.” I’m pretty sure I could spend a full 24 hours watching videos featuring just one group, and I still probably wouldn’t get to them all. And that’s not even counting the ones made by non-idols: reaction videos, compilation videos made by fans, former idols or industry insiders with YouTube channels, etc. Seriously, the list goes on and on! Here are some kinds of videos you can easily find for any K-pop group or soloist:

  • Performance videos – dance practices (sometimes with different versions), special choreography videos, music show performances, performances on American talk shows, PLUS group and individual fancams, relay dances, special versions performed at awards shows and end-of-year festivals, etc.
  • Variety shows produced by television networks – these are usually hard to find for international fans because TV channels tend to just upload clips and highlights on YouTube. However, you can usually find subbed full episodes on the Internet.
  • Online segments for YouTube channels – these have become more popular nowadays because they’re easy to watch on YouTube and they draw in a lot of international fans. While a lot of them are done by Korean production companies, a number of K-pop groups have recently been doing segments for American media like Cosmopolitan‘s “TikTok Challenge” or Elle‘s “Song Association.”
  • Reality shows (or mini-shows) featuring one specific group – in the past, a group’s company collaborated with a television network to make a show specifically about the group and air it on that channel. That still happens, but nowadays idols’ agencies are also creating their own shows for them and uploading them to YouTube. Sometimes idols even have their own personal YouTube channels and shows.
  • Behind the scenes videos for comeback promotions and other things
  • Music video reactions
  • Interviews and radio broadcasts
  • V-Live – this is a video platform that’s been around for about 5-6 years. Many K-pop idols usually use it to do more personal live streams for talking with fans. Some groups put their reality shows or mini-shows on V-Live, and they often hold longer broadcasts on the day of their comeback and things like that. Note that V-Live recently entered into a partnership with HYBE (aka Big Hit), so it will be combined with the fandom platform Weverse into something completely new in the near future.

ITZY is a girl group that’s extremely popular in South Korea, and they frequently film content for both Korean and international audiences. Here are four of the videos they participated in for their latest comeback “In the Morning” (although they’ve done plenty more):

Music Video Reaction (JYP Entertainment)

On top of the traditional music video reaction, they also filmed a reaction to fans’ reaction videos.

After_ZZZ (Arcade Pang)

A popular Korean ASMR variety segment where idols make some kind of craft while trying to be quiet and not wake up their “dad” sleeping behind them. (It’s a spinoff of the original series, where they have to cook and not wake up their “mom.”)

Relay Dance (MNET/M2)

A popular dance segment where idol groups stand in a line and perform parts of their song one by one or in pairs or threes.

“Portrait Mode” (Harper’s Bazaar)

An online segment for an American magazine where the guests draw portraits of each other while answering interview questions. (Also, props to ITZY for speaking almost entirely in English!)

Some K-pop fans (or “fans”) can really take things to the extreme.

To be clear, I’m not talking about general K-pop fan behavior or fandom wars or anything like that. There are obviously stereotypes associated with being a fan of something or someone pop-culture related, and we all know there are people out there who act certain types of ways… but that just comes with the territory. In this case, I’m referring to a very specific kind of person who constantly crosses boundaries and takes things too far. One thing that’s special about K-pop is that idols often go above and beyond in interacting with their fans. The amount of content we get from them is ridiculous, and the level of access we get because of that is unreal. And because idols share so much with their fans, some fans unfortunately take this to mean they can approach their favorites whenever they want.

There is a specific term for an overzealous fan in Korean, which is “sasaeng.” Basically, a sasaeng is a stalker fan who continually violates their favorite idols’ privacy. Their behavior can be so extreme that a lot of people don’t consider them to be actual fans, just stalkers. They do things like routinely camp out in front of idols’ apartment buildings (sometimes breaking into them), follow idols to their schedules both announced and unannounced, get hold of their phone numbers and call them nonstop, book the same flights and hotels as them when they travel, and so on and so forth. Many idols have taken to calling out these sasaengs on social media, and agencies are getting better about taking legal action and trying to put a stop to this behavior. However, it sadly still continues to be a problem.

EXO’s Sehun recently said on Instagram Live that he gets at least 100 calls a day from sasaeng fans. EXO in particular has had a lot of trouble with sasaengs over the years because they’re one of K-pop’s most successful boy groups. If you Google “EXO sasaeng,” might be surprised by some of the stories you find.

Don’t expect to see many K-pop “power couples” out and about.

You’d think that since K-pop is filled with all these attractive people, they’d all be dating each other. And that *might* be true to an extent, but we’ll probably never know for sure. As things stand now, not that many idols are currently in public relationships. Even fewer of them are married and have kids. The majority of active idols are either single or presenting themselves as such, even the ones well into their thirties. And that’s because in K-pop, idols are specifically marketed to fans as the ideal romantic partner. This inevitably fosters a strong level of attachment, especially with fans who are (normally) often able to meet and interact with them at numerous events. So, some Korean fans can react very negatively when they find out their favorite K-pop star is dating someone else. Not all of them, of course, but enough to make a fairly accurate generalization.

Every idol’s dating or marriage news goes over differently, but there’s rarely a 100% positive reaction from the Korean side of things. Sometimes the fallout gets so bad that idols have been kicked out of their groups or forced to go on extended hiatus. (Well, that’s never the *official* reason… but we all know what’s what.) Some companies actually impose dating bans for the first few years of a group’s career to avoid this situation. That’s doesn’t mean you’ll never hear about any idol or celebrity couples, but you’ll rarely see them together or doing couple things in public – even if they’ve been dating for a while. The only photos we usually ever see are the ones if their dating news gets revealed by Dispatch, which is basically like a tabloid.

As an American, this was a major culture shock for me. In the United States, a lot of us love to hear about celebrity couples. (Actually, our curiosity about who’s dating whom can present a whole other kind of issue.) So the idea that being in a relationship or getting married could effectively tank an idol’s career is kind of wild. I think many international fans feel the same way, because dating reveals are often met with many supportive comments from global fans on social media. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like this is an aspect of K-pop that will be changing any time soon – but everyone deserves to be happy, so let’s hope it does.

Soloists HyunA and DAWN are really the only idol couple you’ll see a lot of in K-pop. They were both originally with Cube Entertainment – DAWN as a member of Pentagon, and HyunA as a member 4Minute and then as a soloist. When the relationship rumors started, Cube initially denied them. However, both artists came forward and confirmed they’d actually been dating for several years. The two were eventually kicked out of Cube, who basically said that they had breached the company’s trust. Thankfully, they both signed with PSY’s agency P Nation and are currently living their best lives. They’re especially popular with international fans for being so willing to share their relationship on social media.

And that wraps up my introduction to K-pop! I’ve been a fan for so long that I’ve gotten used to the way some things are, so it was really interesting to revisit some of the things I wrote about in these posts – especially since I now live in South Korea and understand the culture a little better. What are some parts of K-pop that surprised you when you first discovered it? Feel free to respond in the comments! And stay tuned tomorrow to find out what June’s K-pop Starter Kit topic will be!

NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here.

IMAGE CREDITS: bnt international (Brave Girls), BTS’s Twitter (photo of BTS at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards – original tweet here), HyunA’s Instagram (profile here), Pledis Entertainment (SEVENTEEN group photo, light stick image, and official colors image), SM Entertainment (photo of Sehun)

VIDEO CREDITS: YouTube, Arcade Pang (ITZY on After_ZZZ), Harper’s BAZAAR (ITZY doing “Portrait Mode”), JYP Entertainment (ITZY’s Music Video Reaction), MNET/M2 (ITZY’s Relay Dance), Pledis Entertainment (SEVENTEEN “Left & Right” fan chant guide)


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