An Accidental Tourist in K-Popstan

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As a travel writer used to exploring far off destinations and enjoying new experiences on the regular, these Pandemic Times have pushed pause on my wanderlust. Like others in the field, my world has reduced itself to spaces reached by foot or bicycle, while contending with navigating through the professional wasteland of underemployment. 

The newfound time on my hands has kept fingers busy in other spaces, namely on the scroll bar of social media. While first filled with sourdough successes, political upheaval and blow upon blow of bad news in the tourism sector, bright spots unexpectedly emerged in my feed. Here could be found ten-minute ab sessions to flatten my Covid curves, cute videos of marauding puppies, and making vegan ice cream

In spite of my home confinement in Vancouver, little did I know that this online portal would trigger my journey as an accidental tourist to a new and fascinating place that I’d never been, and barely knew existed.

It all began with a song and a tweet. I had stumbled upon a new release by a member of BTS. For the uninitiated, BTS (aka the Bangtan Boys) is a seven member South Korean boy band whose musical success spans the entire globe.

Founded around 2010, BTS mixes rap with a wide variety of musical traditions and genres, spicing it up with sharp dance choreography. The band made its U.S. debut in November 2017 at the American Music Awards, the first K-pop group to do so. Their tour-de-force performance blew everyone away, me included. 

Admittedly, I hadn’t followed the skyrocketing success of the BTS crew so closely since that day, so we can call our 2020 reunion a Covid coincidence. The song that caught my attention was Sweet Night, a solo performance composed by one of the band’s members, V (Kim Tae-hyung). 

As of mid-July, Sweet Night set a world record as the first song ever to reach number 1 in 105 countries (it peaked at 109 countries). V’s song success eclipsed Adele’s ‘Hello’ and BTS’ own string of world-wide hits, a feat deserving of more media attention (much less air play) than the song and its artist have received so far in North America.

I liked the song, and composed a tweet complimenting the news of V’s impressive achievement, complete with congratulatory clapping hand emoji.

And then things got strange. My phone blew up with thousands of likes, retweets, thanks and invitations to explore more of the BTS musical catalogue, but it was not from the usual suspects of the travel-obsessed and the odd political straggler. Like Alice, I had opened a door into an alternate universe – the purple-hued Wonderland of K-Popstan. 

Like any nation-state, K-popstan is a land of symbols, rulers, communities and an enviable communications network. If it had a flag, it would be festooned with purple hearts symbolizing trust and love, the nation’s core values. K-popstan would have an international reputation for positivity, mad love for its kings (and queens), and an enthusiastic appreciation for accidental tourists who reach its shores. 

Of course, this land is not a physical place. A K-pop stan is essentially a fan of Korean pop music. In the case of BTS and its members, the BTS fans, or stans, are particularly ardent and fierce in their creative love for their musical idols. Together, they form a bit of an army, or if you will, by force of numbers, a metaphysical space occupying a large chunk of the digital universe. 

My attraction to the melodies of K-popstan was a surprise. The music of BTS is worlds apart from my own sonic youth, which was filled with the distinctive riffs and wails of the New Wave, and in particular the anthemic and desperate How Soon is Now by The Smiths. 

The mournful crooning of Morrissey ‘needing to be loved just like everybody else does’ sound different from Sweet Night’s soft harmonies of friends becoming lovers. But the yearning for love and acceptance is timeless, and certainly rings equally clear in my middle-aged ears in the 21st century.

Such universal themes are the bread and butter of pop success since inception of the art form, but the music and the world of K-Popstan is different. Not only are they instantly and globally accessible (what a young fan of Shaun Cassidy would have given for a similar support network in the 1970s), and nurtured through social media, its legions (citizens?) have transcended the musical sphere and moved into the realm of political activism.

In 2020, the impact of K-pop stans pivoted from filling international stadium tours to emptying stadiums of political rallies. They co-opted hashtags, raised millions for anti-racism campaigns, and crashed the apps of law enforcement in the United States. Their activism in rallying hundreds of thousands of relatively young fans into high-profile political smackdowns of major proportions was incredible to behold.

According to Wired Magazine, K-pop stans are large and growing, pumping out 6.1 billon #KpopTwitter tweets in 2019 alone. They’ve created an ‘affinity space’ of like-minded fans, sharing art, mutual support and creative expression in a safe community without borders. Marshalling that power and channeling it into activism with a purpose that achieves measurable results may not be new, but the scale certainly is. K-pop is more than meets the ears.

Pre-pandemic, many of us sat in the comfort of our own curated bubbles of friends, experiences, cuisine, music, and opinions, both at home and abroad. This year has confined our physical spaces, resulting in urges to move beyond our bubbles, if only in a virtual way. While the social media world can be a brutal place at times, my accidental voyage on Twitter wings to K-Popstan has revealed and illuminated a land as rich in culture, complexity and community as any in real life.

Claudia Laroye
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