K-pop and my family

Hi folks! I skipped sending a newsletter last week (I was in another post-vacation funk and my parents have been in town, so I’ve been prioritizing spending time with them). The upside of all these content platforms and media competing for our attention is that probably none of you noticed a missing newsletter, and for that I am honestly grateful. I know the fear of nobody caring can prevent us from sharing our work, but it can also be a huge relief. Nobody has any expectations, so we can experiment and have fun with it!

The new BTS album came out last Friday and it’s been amusing to watch hours of BTS content with my family. My mom, sister, and I are going to their concert in May, so we did some “studying” this weekend by watching their music videos (they have a LOT, my brain felt a clear excess of dopamine).

While watching, my mom mentioned that all the women on her side of the family are into celebrities. My grandmother would buy photo prints of actors she had crushes on and spent many hours watching Korean dramas and variety shows. My mom’s main pastime is to read entertainment news—she knows every single scandal to come out of Korea and updates me over the phone. My aunt has gone to idol concerts and my cousin and I would bond over K-pop groups. All of us grew up on a steady diet of ‘90s and early 2000s K-pop music until my sister and I split off, our tastes slowly replaced with American ones.

I flitted in and out of K-pop fandom during my college years, first with SHINee and then with EXO. I was bored and lonely, a perfect recipe to make a fangirl. The art and celebrity of these K-pop groups were the guiding lights but they weren’t the point; instead it was the friends I made online who shared struggles with mental health, funny dating stories, and everything in between. It was what so many people share online in the open in 2020, but within private Twitter and Livejournal accounts in 2010.

Being part of a fandom felt shameful. Making friends online was something to hide (this was life before dating apps). After graduating college I gradually spent less time online, just as fandom increasingly went mainstream. I shifted my musical obsession from K-pop to EDM/trance (the fervor that went into categorizing different performances of the same song now shifted to categorizing genre by BPM, ha!)

The first BTS song I heard was “Blood Sweat & Tears” in 2016. By then, Spotify became most of my friends’ discovery platform, and the song’s tropical house beats were alluring to friends who had probably never listened to a K-pop song besides “Gangnam Style.” I loved “Blood Sweat & Tears” but stopped myself from listening to more, in case I fell back into obsession.

Fast forward to 2019. My boyfriend and I went to Korea when “Boy With Luv” came out and they were smashing records left and right; we listened to a lot of BTS that trip. Many acquaintances who I wouldn’t have suspected to be into K-pop were posting about BTS on social media. Suddenly K-pop fandom was…cool?

Since my “ashamed to be in fandom” days, I’m thankful to have met a lot of people who also grew up “highly online,” casually refer to fanfiction without any semblance of judgment, and openly talk about their biases on Instagram. Part of me laments that my shame was self-inflicted, while another part knows that the judgment I felt was real and that I hid my fandom for legitimate reasons. If anything it’s a narrative that is seen over and over in culture—the othering of a concept or thing until it is appropriated or colonized and ultimately accepted.

This weekend, my “guilty pleasure” acceptance of K-pop started shifting into awe. Among the six different women in our matrilineage—me, my sister, mom, aunt, cousin, grandma—we are bonded in our love for pop culture (and also fashion, but that’s a tale for another day). Even though we grew up in America and had few similarities in our day to day, there were always fun entertainment topics to be talked about when we went back to Korea and met up with the rest of the family. We spent our nights watching dramas and music shows together.

In a way, K-pop has always been about forming bonds with others. First with my family, then with strangers turned friends, then with my family once more. I’m hopeful that in another twenty years, my family will still have these leisurely pleasures to hold onto and bond over when so much else in our lives will have changed.