Korea is an amazing place with many things to offer: cheap and efficient public transport, perfectly coiffed, doll-like women, the pungent but amazing wonder food that is kimchi, for starters. Of course, there is no doubt you’ve also heard of the worldwide phenomenon that is K-pop (PSY, anyone?). Funnily enough, despite having lived in (and just left) the homeland of K-pop, I’m actually quite an unaware n00b about most things K-pop. I’ve heard of Miss A, Sistar and G-Dragon, and the blaring songs at the various clothes and makeup shops keep me in the loop in terms of what songs are ‘hot’, but other than that… I don’t follow groups, I don’t know all their names, and I generally don’t even watch the videos. When it comes to K-pop, I am certainly not the person to talk to. So when I wanted to find out more about it, I spoke to someone who is.
Enter Jenna, a superfan of the the all-male K-pop group SHINee. She also was another teacher at my school, to whom I didn’t have much exposure (she worked part time and we were on different floors, which is basically a world away in hagwon time). We happened to start talking one day on a shared journey to the train station, and all of the things she was telling me about her involvement in K-pop left me pretty gobsmacked. I was really curious to find out more about the goings on of K-pop groups and their hardcore, ride or die fans.
So, who is SHINee? Well, they look a little something like this:
Okay, no actually, something like this:
(Image credit: soompi.com)
They are a five-piece, all-singing, all-dancing group with extremely styled hair. Of course, each member has his own character – and this is used to the advantage of their management group SM. SM is one of the biggest K-pop labels around (YG is the other behemoth) and claims a host of other groups, including Girls Generation and Exo.
Jenna first discovered SHINee from a video her ex-boyfriend’s sister sent him. She doesn’t remember it specifically being SHINee, but she originally got into them because of their dancers (she was a ballroom dancer). This was around April 2013, and it only took two months for her to fall down the rabbit hole that is YouTube and become very into them. This was while she was still living in America, where K-pop is not really a ‘thing’ (although, as we know, that’s changing). After a few lacklustre introductions to their music she saw their video for ‘Lucifer’ which sort of sealed the deal. This quickly led to watching performances, variety shows and the rest – “and then you just kind of fall in love one day.”
First of all, Jenna is an everyday girl with an everyday life. “When it’s not promotion time, I do other things. Contrary to what people tend to think about fangirls, we have identities outside of this, and I do other things.” However, when it is promotion time, “I spend every weekend running around to stuff.” This involves immediately hopping on a train after work, or catching a taxi, right into Seoul to line up to get tickets for variety shows. And these start seriously early: “I look forward to the work week because that means I get to sleep in.” Her earliest check in to get into a TV show recording was at 3:30am.
Jenna introduced me to the concept of fan signs, which is basically the opportunity to meet the group and have them autograph your copy of their album. These work on a lottery system, where each album bought earns you another chance to get picked. Of course, the more you buy, the more chances you have. It’s a smart system that leads to fans buying multiple copies of the same album, all to get a chance to meet the group. As for Jenna, “I have bought twenty. Thirteen for the first one, and then I’ve tried for four, five fan signs, and I’ve gotten into three.” These are all the same album. In total, the money spent to meet the group this time comes to about 400,000won. To me, this initially seems mind-boggling, but then I think about how much I spent on Starbucks Toffee Nut Lattes over the Christmas period and I realise that a lot of people could find that questionable, too (including myself – did I really need to drink that much syrup?).
The world of super fans is also surprisingly cooperative. This was one aspect that I found quite touching and a testament to the human spirit (deep, ey?). The first people who arrive at the check in (to line up for show tickets) send a message out to all the other fans about the location. They then receive hundreds of SMSs from fellow fans, which they place into a queue. This way, when the fans eventually rock up to the lineup, their place is reserved, by someone they don’t know but have one big thing in common with. The reason for this is, Jenna tells me, “so we don’t have to sit outside overnight… ’cause we would.”
While most people assume K-pop fans to be teens and young girls, the fans of SHINee are generally a bit older, something I found surprising. As Jenna tells me, “SHINee has always been marketed to older girls. At lineups, you see all these groups outside the shows, all of their fandoms are out there, and they’re all like middle schoolers and stuff, they’re all very young. And then there are ShaWols [an abbreviation of SHINee World, the name SHINee fans have claimed], and like… I’m 24, and I’m one of the younger ones. Like, there was legitimately two women in there that were 65 in their line the other day. They sat through all of that shit with us.”
The thing that struck me was how slickly organised and streamlined the whole operation is. There’s also a difference between official and unofficial fans (apparently), although the official fanclub hasn’t been open since 2009. Jenna doesn’t understand this, because these ‘official’ fans can rock up without doing any of the hard work and get in before all of the other superfans. There are also levels to membership; Jenna is on S5, the highest of the unofficial membership levels. To hit this level, you need to have the album, as well as a printout which shows you bought it online, too (among other things, I’m sure).
At this point, I can’t help but feel that the whole thing is an organised rouse, something that Jenna herself acknowledges to an extent. “That’s how K-pop is set up. It’s set up to make you love the people as individuals. You love the group, not just their music. It’s very much a package deal… Most groups, I like their music, but SHINee, I know very well. I know them as well as you can know someone, without knowing them.”
The labels quite openly manufacture these groups, and while in the West a contrived pop act is something to hide or be ashamed of, in K-pop it seems to be a source of pride. Just because they’re manufactured doesn’t mean they don’t work hard – or aren’t talented. Jenna reiterates this numerous times throughout our conversation, stressing that they are all talented dancers and singers, each with their own unique style. She describes their sound as “really progressive pop, they’re all hella talented. They’re all really good singers, really good dancers… which is not common. In Kpop there’s a thing called ‘the Visual’, the visual does nothing but be someone to look at really. SHINee doesn’t really have a Visual.” Of course, “they’ve got a few songs in there that only Shawols could love,” but objectively, Jenna says, SHINee make good pop music.
The downside of hardcore K-pop fandom is perhaps an uglier side of the glitzy, overproduced image that is presented to the world. Take the treatment of the staff at various events and lineups. “Even the staff of recording studios, they treat us like animals sometimes. They won’t touch me and my friends, cause we’re western. They’re kind of afraid of us. But the Korean girls, they really treat them like shit.” She also describes the difference in opinions about Korean and foreign K-pop fans. “You can see how they look at us, and laugh. And they really look at us foreign girls and laugh, ’cause they think we must be even sillier than the rest, ’cause we had to leave our home countries to do this. And that’s bullshit. It’s absolute bullshit.”
Judgement from others is something Jenna has experienced firsthand as a SHINee fan – to the extent that she has lost friends over her chosen pasttime. “In America, my brother gives me a lot of shit for this… My brother follows around his favourite footballs team, and I’m like, ‘do you not see the parallels here?'”
So why exactly do people tend to roll their eyes or have certain preconceived notions about K-pop fans? “It’s because this is not considered a normal pasttime, that it’s okay to be an asshole about it, or it’s okay to think I’m stupid for it. And I’ve lost friends over this, who thought I was stupid for this, and I’m like, why? I don’t spend anyone else’s money but my own, I don’t skip work to do anything, I take care of my responsibilities: pay my bills, take care of my cat… all of that stuff first. And if I want to spend literally all of my disposable income on SHINee pillows, I should be able to, you know? It’s not even hurtful anymore, it’s just stupid. Why waste your energy on judging me for something I do with my life?”
You know, I completely agree with her.
Numerous times throughout our conversation, I am touched by her undying dedication to her cause. She really loves these guys – and who is anyone to judge? “When you get used to it it’s really not that bad. .. Because they’re really excellent performers, and because when you go to those things, you see the shit that no one else sees. Like when you go to a recording, they do that multiple times, like 4 or 5 times.” This is useful if there is a camera angle they didn’t like, or change the blocking of the stage. The fans also get told to scream louder when they are doing their fan chants. Jenna also talks about one time one SHINee member (Taemin) was wearing a completely mesh, see-through shirt. “What most people see is the performance, and it’s him doing this dance that pulls the jacket open to show the mesh shirt and being super sexy. But what we see is the kid, 21-year old guy out there being like ‘don’t look at my chest, my eyes are up here!’ and he’s blushing… No one else would see that.”
So how does Jenna really feel about the judgement she’s copped for liking a music group? She makes a really valid point that people mock her for it due to inherent judgements about girls, and particularly teenage girls. “Think about how you would feel about meeting someone in her mid twenties who followed around Justin Bieber. think about that for a second. You have a knee-jerk reaction to think, ‘oh she must be stupid,’ because Western culture has a real problem with like trying to make anything a teenage girl might like seem stupid and insignificant. It’s like, ‘if a teenage girl likes this, clearly it must not be worth anyone’s time.'”
To be honest, I have absolutely no problem with whatever anyone chooses to do with their personal time, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Libertarianism and all that. Of course, I can’t exactly relate to this particular past time, but then again I don’t really understand people who dedicate their life to sports, or to fashion, or not to food. I don’t get it… but that’s fine. It doesn’t matter. People are people, right? So, what does Jenna think about people who side-eye her dedication and call her out as a K-pop worshipper?
“It’s not worship. It is immense respect and admiration because of how talented, and hardworking and just good people they are. I wouldn’t like them as much as they do, if it weren’t for all of the things they do outside of work.” This includes members donating clothes and art supplies to an orphanage, while another openly supports gay and transgender rights in Korea – no small feat in the still-conservative culture.
One of the really nice things about K-pop fan culture is the dedication they apply to their group. I mean, from where I’m sitting, it’s a lot. It seems to me like there is an inevitable time limit on this sort of life… but then again maybe not. Would Jenna be as committed to the in years to come? She answers with equal parts sincerity and sardonic humour: “Yes. I’ll be with them in one capacity or another, until they’re finished. And then the day when they’re like ‘OK, SHINee’s over’, it will break my heart… but I’ll be happy for them, because that means they’ll get to move on and do other things. and have families … ‘cause they’ll all make absolutely incredible fathers… even the little shitty one. He’ll make a good father too one day. He just has to get past his… demonic traits. Whatever girl manages to pin them down…” she claps, “godspeed. Go you.”
I ask Jenna if she has any parting words for me about #shawollife. “You know it’s actually really cheap. It really is. Except for fan signs and concerts, actual concerts, everything’s free. It’s really nice. Except you gotta pay for transportation. You pay in time… and sanity. But it’s worth it, cause it’s fun. You make a lot of friends. you know, you’re sitting there, in this line, and you’re surrounded by nothing but Korean girls. You’re cold. and one of them pokes you, and hands you a heat pack cos she can see you shivering. And you can’t say much to each other, but you have this like… ‘you love SHINee, I love SHINee, SHINee wouldn’t want you to die on the sidewalk from freezing to death, so here, have a heat pack.’ It’s a community. it’s nice, and it’s fun. and everyone there is just as in love with them as you are.”
Also: “The Beatles didn’t get to where they are by having white, old men as fans. It was the teenage girls.”