K-pop Fans Find Community at UT and Other Local Campuses
By Hailin Zhang
Dance crew ATX KDC, founded to promote South Korean pop culture through modern dance styles, serves as a local manifestation of K-pop, the music phenom sweeping across the globe with its formula of catchy and trendy songs, loyal fans and smart use of social media.
The New York Times states that roughly 90 percent of views from K-pop videos on YouTube come from outside of South Korea.
“Of the top 10 music videos with the most views in their first 24 hours, nine are songs by the K-pop groups BLACKPINK and BTS, as of July 13,” according to the Times.
The rise of K-pop can be heavily attributed to the globalization of culture combined with the many movements to push for increased representation of ethnic minorities, head director of local dance crew ATX KDC Sanjana Aluru said.
“Another contributing factor is definitely the production value of songs and videos, as well as the fact that the dance and performance aspect is equally a part of the experience,” Aluru said. “A lot of groups have extensive storylines and concepts behind their music and videos, and there’s a lot of extra content—such as behind the scenes videos and idols’ social media lives—to dive into.”
Unlike American artists who have no set schedules for releasing new music, most K-pop groups will have a comeback routine, Southwestern University student Nicole Diaz said.
“After [a group’s] first year of activity, fans will come to expect a certain amount of albums within a certain amount of time,” Diaz said. “For the most part, there’s not a divergence from that. There’s a lot of discographies to look through if you find yourself going down the K-pop hole, which is not always present for American artists.”
The genre also places considerable emphasis on visuals.
“Every K-pop idol is going to be classically beautiful,” Diaz said. “Whereas in America, it’s slightly more about talent and a sob story, in K-pop, it’s entirely about visuals.”
A large part of what makes K-pop attractive is its performance side. Substantial effort is put into stages and styling.
“It’s a much more immersive experience than watching a singer or band simply standing on or walking around a stage—even watching performances online, it’s extremely easy to appreciate how elaborate the whole thing is,” Aluru said.
While American artists generally showcase one type of talent — singing, rapping or dancing—K-pop idols do all three, or they’re in a group where all three elements are present.
“People who consider themselves to be solely rap fans might find themselves enjoying K-pop because every song is going to have rapping parts in it,” Diaz said.
Those who prefer singing can similarly appreciate it because the rapping won’t intrude on or overwhelm the vocals. The same can be said for those who like dance.
“There’s choreography for pretty much every single song, even slower ones and ballads,” Diaz said. “When you’re watching a performance, there’s always something different to look at.”
Since dance is what sets the genre apart, learning choreographies can be appealing for many fans.
“Some people might do it to experience what idols experience and some, like [ATX KDC], do it because they themselves are dancers, and it’s fun to try out different styles,” Aluru said.
The “K-pop in Public” phenomenon has become increasingly popular. Searching the phrase on YouTube never fails to conjure up recent videos from all around the world. ATX KDC brings this concept close to home.
The student dance team covers K-pop choreographies and performs at various events around the University of Texas at Austin. At the university’s Find Your Way event in August, they performed ENHYPEN’s “FEVER” as part of their set and went viral on TikTok, where ENGENES—fans of ENHYPEN—praised the cover.
“It feels super surreal to know that our performance has reached such a wide audience, especially on a platform that’s so popular right now,” secretary Katie Chung said. “Preparing for “FEVER” was actually done a lot faster than our regular covers. We finished it in a week and a half back in June and then had an extra week before the performance to review and clean.”
In the past, ATX KDC has won international 1thek dance competitions, getting recognized by groups like CIX and PENTAGON.
“Once those start back up, we would love to have the opportunity to compete and potentially place again,” Aluru said. “As of right now, our main focus is enjoying what we do and sharing that passion with those around us.”
The power of K-pop is visible beyond the music industry, most notably in digital activism on Twitter. For instance, when “those hoping to hold back the tide of support for Black Lives Matter amid global protests against the police killing of George Floyd” tried to rend #WhiteLivesMatter on the social media platform, K-pop fans drowned them out by flooding the hashtag with video clips and content of their idols, according to The Guardian’s Justin McCurry.
Diaz said she isn’t surprised it’s the K-pop fandoms that are being proactive.
“Fandoms for American artists and celebrities aren’t used to being active, but with K-pop, you’re expected to show your support in very concrete ways,” Diaz said.
Fans will coordinate the use of specific hashtags on Twitter, a tactic known as a total attack, to support groups and publicize fandom culture, according to the Times.
Thus, it isn’t difficult at all for them to shift this energy toward political action. These characteristics translate well when looking at social issues.
Diaz said she doesn’t think any other fandom has the organization or practice to pull something like that off.
“Being in a K-pop fandom, you’re part of an elite group, because there are certain linguistic and behavioral codes you have to know in order to participate,” Diaz said. “You have to know what a comeback is, you have to know why the debut stage is important and you have to know about network manipulation.”
One example of a behavioral code is picking a bias, or one’s favorite member in a group.
“It creates a sense of community,” Diaz said. “Feeling like you’re part of a community is a very, very strong tactic to keep people invested and make people want to become invested.”