My best friend and I discovered BTS in 2017 and were completely blown away by their talent and hard work. BTS is not the first K-pop group I've discovered, but until BTS I had the impression that K-pop was artists put in groups and treated like robots. It just didn't seem like the music would be powerful or have a strong message for listeners. Sure, the members were beautiful and could sing and dance well, but it was also strange to me that they were whitewashed in some ways.
Telling people now that I love to listen to BTS and appreciate many other K-pop groups, there is confusion or weird faces. If they don't sing in English, how can you understand what they're talking about? Or, don't you think you're fetishizing the culture?
Like many popular bands or singers, there are always fans that give the rest of us a bad reputation. There are always fans that are uncomfortably obsessive, say inappropriate things, or generally get too emotional. What makes American k-pop fans different, however, is that we are accused of exploiting an entirely different culture and fetishizing the idols from Korea. And I completely understand.
I've heard and read many fans say things that make me cringe. Things that are far too sexual to say about any celebrity in general, or downright offensive and degrading comments that insult Asian culture. It's important to keep in mind that while, yes, members of groups like Exo or Blackpink are attractive and beautiful, they do not represent the entirety of the Korean population. They are made into stars, and just like American celebrities are held to an exceptional standard of "beauty," it is the same, if not more for Korean artists.
There is also the conversation that some fans might mistakenly lump any Asian person in a single country, without considering that there are so many different facets of Asian culture within south-eastern Asia. Japan is not the same as South Korea, just like Italy is different from Spain or Canada is different from the U.S.
What brought me to support BTS was the beautiful lyrics, catchy melodies, and impressive dancing that makes anyone say "wow." There is nothing that can stop people from learning what they are saying and the message they are putting out. Lyrics can be roughly translated, subtitles allow us to understand what they talk about in interviews and gauge their personalities, etc. The rise of K-pop allows us to learn more and expand our perceptions, while having important conversations of what is appreciating the culture and talent versus what is only fetishizing and degrading the culture.
The "Love Yourself" message that BTS pushes can be applicable to every fan across the world. The members of BTS say it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like, who you love or how you identify, because we're all individuals with a voice and beauty.
I was lucky enough to be able to travel out of state with tickets to their sold-out concert in Chicago on the 3rd, and the unity among fans was incredible. Everyone is talking to each other about when they started listening to BTS, what other K-pop groups they like, where they came from, who they came with, what album made them want to support BTS in the first place. We were helping each other make sure we all got a chance for photo-ops, group photos, room to dance, and making sure everyone could have fun and be included.
Before the concert, fans of every ethnicity were dancing with each other to perform choreography from music videos or live concerts. Most of them had never met before, but we were coming together as a community that just wants to push love, acceptance, and unity.
Listening and supporting K-pop does not equal fetishization or appropriation. Diverse artists deserve the same recognition that we give other celebrities, especially when their talent and dedication is at an even higher level. Not supporting a group just because of where they come from or the language they speak is not the inclusive message we are all striving to follow. I think the more important conversation is how we treat any people of influence, no matter what culture they come from. Supportive fans do not equal obsessive fans.