When I first discovered K-pop, I was ten years old. This year, it will have been a decade since my initiation, but I still remember the way I felt when I saw my first music video. It was 2011, and the top social media platform was Facebook, with Youtube following steadily behind. In my messages, a local internet friend sent me an unknown link.
“u don’t know about 2NE1? u have 2 watch this!! xD”
2NE1’s “Ugly” music video had just been released, July 27, 2011. Upon clicking the link, I immediately felt the sparks I saw on screen. As Minzy smashed windows and CL led the group to storm through city streets, their sorrowful croons matched exactly what I felt. At that age, I had already internalized what an American girl, or woman, should be—and I, a Chinese American girl, was simply not it. “Just like her, I want to be pretty. I think I’m ugly, and nobody wants to love me,” 2NE1 sang. With 2NE1, I realized that I was not alone, and that I also no longer had to abide by white, Western perceptions of—not only beauty—but of being.
I moved further through the rabbit hole, absolutely captivated by the bright colors, fun bubblegum pop sounds, but edginess of 2NE1’s animated music video for “Hate You.” What was there not to like? At a time where the only youth-centered Asian representation I had was Mulan, K-pop filled that gap.
The following year, I was rapidly consuming more content, creating mental storages of bands and names. Tired of relying on fansubs, I also built my knowledge of the culture and language, filling sheets and sheets with the Korean alphabet, hangul. In doing so, I may have only found another standard to abide by, but for an impressionable middle schooler, how else could I figure out who I was and what I stood for?
Interestingly, the internet had also offered me a safe environment in which I could grow my interest. On Tumblr, I became friends with other fans who were from both the east and west coasts of the U.S., and as far reaching as Indonesia. At my middle school, the story was vastly different. My fanaticism for the music compounded with the foreign-ness that K-pop entailed. For a long time it was an interest regarded as “weird,” even by other Asian Americans around me, and often still today. It fell into nerdy subcultures such as anime, while One Direction and Justin Bieber were all the rage for my friends.
Then BTS hit the mainstream, at this point I was in high school. Their rise was meteoric and I watched from their debut, as online fandom communities across Tumblr, Twitter, and Youtube did the heavy lifting to promote the bands’ ever-constant releases: “any ARMY here?” Now everyone was representing and saying the word, “K-pop.” Although it was never really seen as “cool” to enjoy it by the average, white Western perception, K-pop was now an accepted commonality amongst Asian-Americans in my community, and surely making its way into everyone’s consciousness.
I felt K-pop’s reach the most when it somehow came up in a college interview. I vividly remember my queasy shock as the white, middle aged alumni man recalled seeing “BTS” on some American daytime talk show. As their name fell from his lips, I had thought to myself, was this what it “meant” to make it? Was this what we had aspired to, and whose standard we are still abiding by? Was this it?
With the globalization of K-pop also comes the necessary consideration of its interactions with social problems, specifically whiteness and white acceptance. Why was it weird and strange until white America decided it wasn’t? Until white America decided it was profitable enough to co-opt? K-Pop was always something to be consumed, but it becomes more apparent when crossing these hostile borders, and as its audience became more white.
K-pop was always something to be consumed, but what became more apparent in its international rise was the objectification of not only idols, but of culture and people. In the U.S., orientalist caricatures of Asian people are still rampant so it became difficult for me to reconcile that with American’s media newfound, rave reviews of K-pop.
It did not take long for these feelings to be proven correct. No matter how many records were broken, I watched how K-pop was still regarded as foreign and “othered.” Even the biggest artists continued to be disrespected by ignorant hosts, fellow celebrities, and Hollywood systems. Within fandom communities as well, discourse about BTS’s Western successes eclipsing those of other K-pop or Asian acts perpetuate xenophobia and imperialism. What is more, is that these issues are not new for many K-pop fans of color, especially those who are Black.
Within fandom communities and in K-pop itself, systemic issues of anti-Blackness, racism, and colorism are abound. From cultural appropriation of South Asian, Latinx, Black, and Indigenous cultures to the regular doxxing of Black fans, K-pop and its fan communities do not exist in a vacuum and are unfortunately bound by the same white supremacy that created its need. It is the very same white supremacy that led me to feel so lost, but then found, when I stumbled upon 2NE1 all those years ago.
This is also not to take away from the fact that K-pop has also positively mobilized large numbers of people. With its influence and because of many K-pop fans of color, we’ve heard of everything from fans completely selling out what adored celebrities are using, breaking virtual records, to supporting political movements and activism.
But it has to be understood that we cannot solely rely on K-pop for change. At the end of the day, we are consumers and we have to be critical of what we consume. Idols, more often than not, are also products. Money talks, and it is unsurprising that we also regularly hear about or see artists getting mistreated as well. We simply cannot rely on what we consume to empower us.
Moreover, it is irresponsible to interpret increased visibility as any kind of true power or justice. Especially when K-pop’s popularity and more Asians in American media has not mitigated anti-Asian attacks or stopped Western nations from restricting COVID-19 vaccine access from Asian and other Global South countries, causing an effective vaccine apartheid and countless deaths. This, of course, was never K-pop’s goal, but it should be ours. While the K-Pop industry does offer an avenue for many Asian creatives, we have to acknowledge its limits, the many barriers that exist within, and who it may also be harming.
We have to think about the fundamental reasons for where our passion and love for this genre comes from. Why does K-pop make us feel the way we do, and in what ways can we work with others to create what we want to see? Why do we love K-Pop? While we do love to see pretty people dance and sing, I believe another part of it is that we are also moved by how they have worked to accomplish their dreams, and more broadly, we understand and love what can result from believing and tapping into the creative potential of diverse groups of people. We should not let it stop there.
I thank K-pop for guiding me in this path of self-discovery and to learn and connect with people from all over the world, but I no longer rely on K-pop alone as empowerment. Our identities cannot stop at what we are proud of consuming. K-pop has only been part of my journey on learning about what it means to be Asian American, but I have found more of a foundation in the work and research of activists of color before me and those now.
In just a decade, many of us have grown and developed our political consciousness, so the next step becomes how can we build the world for us, all of us, in the next ten years? For many who relate to and are proud of the struggles or discrimination that their idols have overcome in order to succeed, we should consider what structures exist that determine that, and how those can trickle down to continue to harm and create the most vulnerable populations. The lessons from K-pop should inform us into creating a world where everyone—not only the most wealthy, powerful, or those deemed as desirable—can succeed, creatively or otherwise.
Check out how K-pop has been influenced by other genres over the years here!
Thumbnail by Nevi.