March 11, 2020, 9:18 p.m. Popular Twitch streamer Froste tweets “if BTS gets Coronavirus the stans are gonna find a cure within 24 hours.” The battle gates open. The BTS fandom or ARMY, as they call themselves, launches their attack:
The tweet spread like wildfire, for better or worse. There were coordinated attacks to have Froste’s account removed, cancel his sponsorships and send messages of hate. At the same time, Froste’s fanbase (as well as many others on Twitter with a distaste for ARMY) attacked back. At one point, even Grammy Award-winning producer Finneas (Billie Eilish’s brother) retweeted Froste’s tweet, adding more fuel to the fire. All of Twitter was entangled in this maelstrom of hate. In fact, there were still efforts to attack Froste fairly recently.
On the other hand, that same ARMY, in conjunction with many other K-pop fandoms, has been a catalyst for social justice and political activism. They sabotaged Trump’s Tulsa rally by inflating registration numbers and then not showing up, spammed the iWatch Dallas app during protests to help protect protesters from being identified and arrested and showed incredible support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The BTS fandom, and K-pop stans in general, have a complicated reputation on the Internet. On one hand, they are a hellish horde of rabid horny teens that trend #____isOverParty and direct a tsunami of hate to anyone who dares to say anything remotely negative about their favorite group. On the other hand, they are a powerful vector for social justice, raising awareness and spreading information across the Internet swiftly.
Obsessive fans are not a phenomenon unique to K-pop — the term “stan” comes from an Eminem song from 2000. Thinking back, obsessive fans have been a constant throughout history. Whenever there were idols or rockstars, there were obsessive fans: from Lisztomania during the 1840s, to Beatlemania in the 1960s, to the Beyhive from the 2000s till now. K-pop stans are no different, only their presence has been amplified by the prevalence of social media.
There is something inherently human in wanting to cling to our favorite artists and imagine ourselves in fantasy scenarios where we meet with them, however unrealistic — an impulse to assume a close relationship with them because we listen to so much of their music. Music is a deeply personal experience and we share that experience with the artists. It also translates into affection for the artists themselves. I think this is true for almost any fan: I know I would love to have a coffee with Wheein from Mamamoo (email me). Only, most people control these desires. They know their boundaries and what is socially acceptable. I would say a majority of K-pop fans are normal, pleasant people, the same as fans of any other artist.
But then why are K-pop stans so notorious? Part of the reason is just due to the sheer size and presence of K-pop groups nowadays. BTS is no doubt one of the most recognized groups internationally, and other K-pop groups like Blackpink, Monsta X, NCT and Twice also have a tremendous influence. Korean culture is spreading around the world at an insane rate, referred to as “Hallyu,” meaning “Korean wave.” Information and trends transmit much farther and faster than ever before, and fandoms therefore grow much bigger as well. The bigger the fandom, the more the mob mentality settles in, and the radicals and extremists tend to represent the group more than the majority.
This global spread of Asian culture is very new and unwelcome in some regions, so K-pop fans have had to really fight for their place. Many have had experiences with bullying and being ostracized for their passion. This aggressive mentality can very easily accidentally transfer to what once were benign and harmless comments.
The last reason I think is somewhat more sinister: the way these groups are marketed. The demographics for K-pop fans are overwhelmingly female and in the 10-29 age range. These idols are manufactured to appeal to this demographic. The male groups market merchandise, events and videos that propagate the fantasy of the boys in these groups being very platonically intimate with the fans. The female groups tend to have a very “girl power” dynamic and many of the idols in these groups act as role models or act like big sisters. I would even go so far as to say that this is a dehumanizing practice. These people become concepts, they become idols with a perfect set of traits. Fans become abnormally attached to these idols, which can damage their social skills and their psyche. This dangerous level of perceived intimacy at its worst gives rise to the absolute insanity that are “sasaeng fans.” These are fans that will breach the privacy, safety and comfort of their favorite idols just to get an extra picture or get closer with them. At the end of the day, K-pop is a business, and an extremely ruthless and competitive one at that. Any tactic that makes money is used, no matter how psychologically damaging to both the artists and the fans.
What everyone needs is a little perspective. K-pop stans need to be able to view their actions and words from an outsider’s viewpoint, and people who hate K-pop stans need to understand where the aggression of K-pop stans comes from. Exercise a little patience, and who knows, maybe the other side will see your point. #HateisOverParty.
Daily Arts Writer Jason Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.