Cue the ramblings of a 10-year fangirl
Along with proximity come limitations.
Alright, you might be wondering what the hell that has to do with K-Pop or my decade-long career as a fangirl, but humor me for a second. Anytime someone is too close to something, it becomes difficult to focus or function properly. This is the very reason why most people dislike front row seats in movie houses, why the idea of getting too close to someone can be daunting and why I find it so hard to write this article. I’ve been stuck in a cycle of starting and trashing drafts for this piece since last night. I’m so deep into Korean music, so deep into fangirling, that I don’t know where to start. Proximity, limits.
Something I’d often get asked in the past was why I liked K-Pop to begin with. Now that Korean culture has hit the mainstream, that’s changed a little. The confusion or condescension that was once laced into the question has been replaced with an air of surprise. Now, the question is this: Ang tagal mo na palang fan? (You’ve been a fan for that long?)
For most people, K-Pop is a phase. Korean music is now trendy and orthodox. It isn’t exempted from the way fads fall out of people’s interest lists, which probably explains the shocked reactions I usually receive. If my track record of saving and traveling for concerts, queueing in the dead of winter to get my hands on concert merch and staying updated on my groups like it’s my profession is any indication, I’m in it for the long run.
Perhaps that’s the real question here. Ten years isn’t a short time, so why exactly have I stuck around for so long?
When I fell down the rabbit hole in 2008, Korean music wasn’t quite as diverse as it is now. Back in the day, it was either you liked Super Junior or Big Bang, Girls’ Generation or 2NE1. Most tracks fell into the stereotype of K-Pop being either repetitive songs with the occasional broken English, or bubblegum pop hits crooned by teenagers in coordinated uniforms. Box sets, neon lights and cringe-worthy attempts at plot-driven music videos were also constants.
Fast-forward to 2018 and there’s a lot more to the music. To begin with, there are so many more groups and soloists in the music scene now. My choice of poison continues to be SHINee and Seventeen, but there are literally hundreds of groups that churn out tracks and music videos every month. Along with the increase in volume comes variety: it’s no longer difficult to look for convincing traces of hip-hop, jazz, EDM and even niche genres like new jack swing.
Creativity is in full swing, too. Concepts are no longer limited to the cute-sexy spectrum and artists are more hands-on. While the likes of G-Dragon and the members of TVXQ have been penning songs for years, it wasn’t until recently that listeners and the industry at large started to put a premium on singers doubling as songwriters. Seeing idol group members compose, write lyrics and choreograph is greatly valued but no longer rare. The K-Pop fandom is growing, but so are the artists.
Anyone who does a little digging would get an idea of how rigorous the Korean music industry can be.
The trade-offs of stardom can be surprising to those who are unfamiliar with their strict training system. When preparing for debut, trainees usually live away from home and spend countless hours in their practice rooms. There, they learn the foundations of performing and hone their stage presence. When an aspiring idol passes an audition, there’s no assurance that they’ll debut at all. There’s no saying how long they’re expected to train. They trust in the light at the end of the tunnel, pursuing it in the hope that it never fizzles out. Even after formally breaking into the music scene, a group can only hope to set themselves apart and win the public’s favor. In an industry so saturated, chances are spread thin.
I owe my bubbling ambition to my upbringing. Our home is one built on dreams and drive. I was taught that if I work hard enough, I could achieve the things I long for. In hindsight, K-Pop somehow reinforced this belief. The people I admire and I are traversing parallel timelines with completely different destinations, but seeing them work keeps my A-game in check. But it doesn’t stop there: knowing that I’m helping their dreams turn into a reality makes me feel good about myself, too, even if I’m just another fleck in an ocean of lights.
Bound by the unifying power of music, memes and beautiful boys, the K-Pop community has always been rather tight-knit. Sure, fan wars were wild and still persist in present day, but a degree of coexistence is generally observed. Now more than ever, fandoms serve as fertile ground for friendship.
I’m gonna be real with you, chief: there’s a lot to dislike about fans out there. There are actual stalkers, war freaks and everything in between, and I’m not much of a social butterfly to begin with. However, the Twitterverse (alternatively called Stan Twitter in our realm) has linked me up with friends—ones who can be either a bus ride away or halfway across the globe—whom I genuinely hold dear. In the summer and winter, those who are able drop what they’re doing gather in Seoul. We travel together, queue in all sorts of weather in each other’s company and drown in the sound of our own laughter over post-concert meals like we’ve known each other our entire lives. Nothing compares to watching my boys, but they aren’t the only ones I look forward to seeing now.
If there were a single emotion I could physically bottle up for safekeeping, it’d be the way I feel during concerts. It sounds like superlatives, but I’m at my happiest when I travel to meet up with my friends and see my favorite groups perform. Excitement builds up inside me as soon as we queue outside venues and the euphoria knocks the breath out of my lungs as soon as shows start. And that emptiness that washes up after the last song? I love that, too. It’s all part of the experience.
Ten years isn’t short, but I think about that time and I feel like I’m home. And hey, I might not be able to list “Can chant 13 names in 5 seconds” as a skill on my resumé, but I know I haven’t wasted a minute of my time.
Art Alexandra Lara