When Kim Nam-joon of the South Korean band BTS last week expressed regret for “the sacrifices of countless men and women” in the 1950s Korean war, it sounded innocuous. But RM, as Kim is known, irritated some of the world’s most powerful and sensitive consumers: Chinese fans.
“I am Chinese so I decided to be angry and quit the boy band’s fan club to express my clear attitude,” one fan told the nationalist tabloid Global Times, which denounced RM’s reference to the “history of pain” shared by the US and Korea (with China on the other side) as “one-sided”. A user on the social network Weibo declared: “Get out, don’t come to China to make money.”
The contretemps was not enough to spoil the first day of trading for shares in Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s music agency, in Seoul on Thursday. Korean fans pushed its value to $7.6bn — nearly double its initial public offering price — despite a rapid effort by companies including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors to distance themselves from BTS in China.
But if BTS, whose slick dancing, polite manners and collective cuteness make it the world’s biggest K-pop band, cannot keep fans happy in one country without angering them elsewhere, what hope have others? Boy band devotees used to be docile — the stars sang, they swooned. Now they bite.
RM at least tried to be sensitive; John Lennon did not bother. In an interview in 1966, Lennon mused, “We’re more popular than Jesus now . . . [He] was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” The British Invasion — the Korean Wave of its time — was then two years old and The Beatles were morphing from mop tops into maestros.
Lennon blundered across a cultural divide between Europe and the US — religion was in decline in the UK, but not in the Bible Belt. Christian radio stations organised Beatles record burnings on the band’s tour of the US that year, which marked the end of its paid concerts. “Letters arrived at the house, full of threats, hate and venom,” his first wife Cynthia later wrote.
The diplomatic task facing bands was simpler then. Europe and the US were easily the leading markets, although The Beatles toured Japan and the Philippines in 1966. The cultural revolution started in China that year, so its teenagers were otherwise occupied.
The world is now wider. Measured by YouTube video views — a crucial metric for today’s musicians — K-Pop’s top five markets outside Korea are Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The video for BTS’s first English-language single “Dynamite” is full of American symbols — a disco, a doughnut joint — but the band also needs to attain global reach.
K-pop’s answer has been to engineer a consistent, feel-good, homogenous output, akin to McDonald’s in the first wave of consumer globalisation. K-pop idols are recruited young by Korea’s big three music groups (not including Big Hit), trained to dance, sing and behave well — and only put on stage in bands when they are honed.
Being “designed by an oligopoly with very little diversity in the product”, as Mary Jane Ainslie, an associate professor at Nottingham Ningbo China University, puts it, only goes so far. One study led by Prof Ainslie in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines found that consumers were tiring of K-pop’s sameness. Some perceived it as a form of cultural imperialism.
Fans are more exacting than they used to be. It is partly because they have greater choice — the days of western brands being greeted with unalloyed delight on their arrival in emerging markets have passed — but also thanks to technology. Lennon had the buffer of popular protest needing to travel by post. The backlash to RM’s remarks was immediate.
Technology and social media were vital to the growth of BTS and the value of Big Hit. K-pop is visual and the band cultivates fans on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Big Hit streamed a two-day BTS concert last weekend on its own platform, WeVerse. BTS fans, known as The Army (Adorable Representative MC for Youth), marshal online.
But technology-enabled fans are hard to corral. Some of K-pop’s most fervent followers, known as stans, spontaneously arranged to disrupt a Donald Trump campaign rally in June, while so-called Fanquan Girls — politically active Chinese fans — flooded social media with slogans criticising Hong Kong protests last year.
Participating in a celebrity fanquan (literally, “meal circle”) is hard work. Fans are prodded by others to post praise and pay for stunts, such as writing one star’s name in the sky above Hollywood. They also expend a lot of energy eulogising idols and flaming their rivals. “You B-lister, stay away from my boy. Don’t try to share his spotlight!” one warned.
Fierce devotion can turn to angry disappointment when fans feel let down, as RM has discovered. K-pop has been remarkably adept at spanning borders and cultures in an age when that is difficult. But even a cute boy band cannot please all of its followers all of the time.
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