K-Pop Pleasures and Fandom

Readers, remember E.L.’s helpful primer on the “male gaze,” and her search for a possible “female gaze” that’s turned on the big screen through ab and chest-baring spectacles like Boy Next Door, 50 Shades of Grey, and Magic Mike? (If you need a refresher, peep her article here.)

Today, I’m here to take you down the rabbit hole that is k-pop fandom, as we continue our search for spaces in which women’s pleasure flourishes. Prepare your inner (or outer!) fangirl.

*Note: This article speaks from the vantage point of (Western) international fandoms of k-pop, focusing specifically on mainstream k-pop boy bands (“idols”). This is no “Gangnam Style.”

There is nothing quite like the k-pop boy band. It’s a mesmerizing spectacle you have to witness for yourself—American boy bands, even in their N-Sync heydays, can’t hold a candle to the pure, eye-glazing joy of k-pop’s generous offerings: the eyeliner, the earrings, the choreography(!!!).

If you’re already a fan of k-pop, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t delved into this world before, please take a small taste culled from my current watchlist. Go ahead and take a look. It’s important. I’ll wait.

The mechanics of k-pop’s pleasures are both easily evident and yet difficult to parse. In one sense, these music videos can obviously be broken down into the slightly-unserious list I mentioned above. Cute boys. Clean choreography. Shiny production effects and slick synthesized sound. But this list reads as somewhat dissatisfying. It fails to really get at the enchantment that has reached across the Pacific to all kinds of fans—not just adolescent girls in Korea, as one might expect, but women and men of all stripes, from all over the world. It can be a heartening exercise to peruse youtube comments for these videos (one of the only times I recommend looking at online comment threads of any kinds). The diversity of the fans is a testament to the at-times astonishing strength of the pleasure k-pop offers.

The k-pop boy band is all about the multiplicity of desire and pleasure. Take EXO’s MV for “Call Me Baby” as an example (above). The video, in its simple emphasis on the male body, is a space that invites a loving fan gaze. Nothing gets in the way of looking—no experimental narrative, no pretense at complication. K-pop boy band performances are especially mesmerizing because of their seeming awareness of this collective interchangeability, and the way music videos offer the multiplied male body, slightly different but ultimately, pleasurably, the same. I imagine this is the way audiences who love The Rockettes feel—it’s easy to lose one’s self in a sea of those legs. But in the way that k-pop fandoms flourish, this multiplicitous desire also contains the potential for singularity—the viewer’s “bias,” or favorite member, can emerge. The boy band begs both levels of appreciation.

These boy bands negotiate complicated sexual politics. The success of these groups is built on heterosexual, heteronormative appeal for the most part, at least in the lyrics and approach of most k-pop boy bands. The boy band, in performance and in its appeals to “behind the scenes” fandom (through fan meetings, youtube videos of practices and hang-outs, etc.) opens itself up to the desire of the hetero female fan because such an approach preserves a fantasy of non-competition with other fans. The fanservice music video, in particular, invites this fantasy. Even its camerawork suggests a kind of direct and singular interactivity with the group. It’s always just you and the boys, all 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 of them…

[Yes, I realize the above is in Japanese. This is an example of these groups’ crossover appeal–2PM does well in Japan and promotes pretty heavily there. Some groups, like EXO, have crossover appeal built into them through the inclusion of members from both Korea and China.]

But of course, this overwhelmingly single-gender space is also a queered one—as the appeal of these groups, and their connection to fandoms, is also based on the fans’ appreciation of loving male interaction within the group. The queered nature of these spaces has little to do with the actual sexual orientation of the male idols, which is usually performed heteronormatively or hidden. It’s all about the potential—a potential that spills over from the music video/live performance and can be chased across the multiple platforms of variety show appearances and “behind-the-scenes” interactions.

K-pop idol groups negotiate both the queering nature of their single-gender presences and the heteronormative desire that such queered spaces paradoxically enable. In other words, an all-boy band appeals to hetero desire in its lyrics, while playing off of the never-quite-named fantasy of queerness implicit in its presentation. In the single-gender space of the boy band, the fan’s yearning is safe. These sexual politics are instantiated by the management practices that undergird these groups—the dark side of k-pop’s entertaining escapism.

In order to protect the fan’s pleasurable gaze and allow it to flourish in fantasy, the actual bodies of k-pop stars are policed and controlled in reality (whether or not these contracts are explicitly put into writing). In this way, the complicated sexual politics that fuel fandom leach into problematic reality. Perhaps this might prompt us to consider the ways in which the pleasurable gaze, from any fan and in multiple contexts beyond k-pop, is not only something affixed to the screen for a short while, but an act of participation in a structure of power and circulation alongside joy.  K-pop, and in particular the idol boy-band, is a highly visible point at which these politics of sex, production, and consumption converge—and thus far more than a mere “guilty” pleasure.

Of course, k-pop is a huge, flexible term that covers many different styles, genres, and approaches. Here, we have discussed one—but we do not claim to have covered the field by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t worry, the k-pop conversation will continue! Leave your thoughts below.


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