K-pop Beyond BTS Conference Part 1: UNICEF, Koreaboos, and the Wonders of Social Media

This piece is long overdue considering this conference happened over a month ago on December 11, and I’m still trying to do my best to at least write monthly while I sort some personal issues out but it is definitely harder than I thought. One day, perhaps when I graduate university, I’ll be more diligent, until then please bare with me.

Anyways, I had the privilege of being able to go to one of the conferences on BTS while I studied abroad at Yonsei University for the fall semester. The conference was held at the university on December 11th, a Wednesday, for practically the whole day. There was a variety of guest speakers from within and outside of Korea though I wasn’t familiar with any of them. I actually only heard about the conference due to my Understanding K-pop class I took at Yonsei during the semester. Our professor wanted us to attend the conference for the sake of just attending but also for the extra credit she’d give us if we at least attended two sessions. Personally, I didn’t mind attending more sessions than since I had no other classes that day and nothing else scheduled because I’m a boring person who has no friends.

Biased presentations and BTS lovers await

 But when we showed up, the conference organizer’s and BigHit, who sponsored the conference, made it clear that the conference was more for the press and speakers than for the general public. My professor, bless her heart, said that that didn’t make sense since many of the topics that were to be discussed at the conference centered around the K-pop fandom and not allowing fans into the conference was a faux pas. Regardless, we weren’t allowed into the first session which was the only session offered in English–fantastic. However, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing all this out if that was that and we didn’t somehow by some miracle didn’t go in. Yes, somehow my professor managed to smuggle those who were really interested into the conference room for the second session.

Most peeps are journalists or people from an media company

They were kind enough to hand us a booklet which held the schedule but also previews to the papers and theses that the speakers would be presenting and defending while also handing us a badge that signified that we were allowed inside. That badge allowed us to go in and out of the conference hall as we pleased. I still have both today which is pretty neato in my opinion.

Kinda cool to be honest
Apologies for the quality

As for the conference itself…it was interesting. Despite the interesting topics that ranged from transnational culture to media technology with BTS at the center of all presentations, you really had to go in reminding yourself that all of these speakers and presentations are going to be biased for BTS and BigHit. Of course, BigHit is sponsoring the conference so clearly there won’t be much negativity, if any, casted upon BTS or BigHit. I only say this because this sentiment was already clear from the start in the first couple of presentations I saw that morning, but I particularly found it in the one focusing on BTS’s UNICEF campaign, but I’ll get to that one in a second. For now, I’ll go in order of the presentations and just give a short explanation of each as best as I can. Three sessions, three presentations each for nine in total. Though the rest of the sessions was in Korean, they gave us translators which was a big help. I took notes throughout the conference so bare with me.

Session II: BTS and Transcultural Fandom

Presentation 1: “They Make Me Happy” BTS and Transcultural Fandom in the Era of Social Media

What a title but apt for many ARMYs out there who revel and connect to the 7 members of the mega global K-pop boy group. This one was perhaps the most concise and clear one to my small brain because too many of these speakers threw in so much professional jargon and obscure concepts in these presentations that it made me really wonder if they were just trying to sound smart and actually knew what they were saying or they were just trying to alienate the average joe/jane like me. Regardless, this presentation was basically on research of fandom culture through the lens of social media. The researchers had surveyed and interviewed fans of BTS in Canada to see why they liked BTS and to understand how and what the seven men did to appeal to millions across the world. Most of the fans that participated were white followed by east asians, southeast asians, south asians, black, latin American, and west asian.

Intro slide to presentation
Age ranges of fans that were interviewed in the study

They also moved on to talk about the appeal of BTS and their main characteristics presented through their music. Their social commentary was said to have been a major factor in their global popularity and initially was received better internationally than in Korea. Their themes included dreams, youth, overcoming challenges, and self-discovery. Though originally having a hip-hop group image, there was discussion as to whether they could have actually been perceived as a hip-hop group. However, the researchers argued that they could be as songs like “Hip-Hop Lover,” “Silver Spoon,” and their Cypher series could be indicative of BTS being a hip-hop group along with the technical skills showcased by the rapper line (RM, Suga, and J-hope). Of course, they image has drastically changed since then.

Here’s basically the rest of the presentation:

They asked interviewees why BTS?

Answer: Most people enjoy the music and the members personalities the most along with the message found in their music.  BTS can grow their creativeness through different activities. 

Found this quote interesting

Learning to Love Yourself

The Love Yourself series and UNICEF campaign embody the ideas of self-love and not being afraid to speak out for yourself. BTS inspired many fans to work hard, change for the better, and accept themselves while helping many fans to overcome their struggles along the way. Two examples I personally remember was of a 50-something year old BTS fan who left a toxic relationship after 28 years after finding the strength to do so after listening to BTS’s songs and another example was of a fan who lost their mother who felt like she would never be happy again until she found BTS.

They concluded that anyone could relate to BTS LYS (Love Yourself) series that carried a unique message that clearly resonated with millions of fans across the world. Yes, you could look at it that way though I wouldn’t say it is a unique message per se considering tons of other artists have done it, but hearing the different stories and examples from fans of how BTS personally affected them was honestly pretty touching. I like BTS, but honestly, have never felt particularly moved to the point that they cheered me up significantly or pulled me out of an anxious episode, I have other cures for that. So I found it interesting and even a bit envious that others can be able to take solace in the seven despite all the mess surrounding them and the fandom, but that’s a story for another time.

I’ll leave off with this slide from the presentation.

Presentation 2: “K-pop Fandoms Interpreting K-pop Differently: Focus on the BTS x  UNICEF “Love Myself” Campaign”

I swear, I will take better quality pictures next time!

This one was especially intriguing as it included a more queer focus on Korea. The speaker of this presentation was Canadian and seemed a bit nervous as it was his first presentation in Korean. To me, he did really well and I hope to be at his Korean level one day in the future (the far off future no doubt). The speaker brought up a cultural study of queerness that the UN had done some time ago with the results forcing the UN to urge South Korea to focus more on this as queerness is still a critical and sore subject for many Koreans in general society. He brought up RM’s UN speech and how his message could be interpreted to express their gender identity more fluidly under BTS’s ever endearing slogan of “Speak Yourself, Love Yourself.” He aimed to look at the K-pop fandom as a “Mikrokosmos” of Korean society (his words, not mine). But I see what he was aiming for and actually believed it was a good place to start. Since he is an avid user of Twitter, he utilised that to see how fans participated with each other and collected posts and tweets on BTS, the UN, and Speech in Korean and English. He also attended the fan meeting of Magic Shop to personally interview fans. 

Twitter results of his search

He goes on to mentioned a group called Rainbow Army Scouts or 무지개 아미단 (Mujigae Armydan) in Korean who are a group of ARMYs whose core is to love themselves and formed because there wasn’t a group like it yet. I do not recall if these particular ARMYs were specified of identifying as queer but I believe I would’ve picked that up if he had mentioned it. 

After his research, he drew a few conclusions I’ll present in bullet points again:

  • BTS lessened their masculinity as time went on (e.g. during their debut with No More Dream, they presented themselves as more masculine while steadily progressing to show themselves as less masculine and more metrosexual in songs like “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” and “Boy with Love.”)
  • BTS UNICEF Booth at their concert which he went to said nothing about gender identity
  • A Twitter thread of BTS saying gay rights and cited a part of RM’s speech proves that ARMYs at least are interpreting some of BTS’s words and speeches to be sided with queerness.
  • BTS colorful photoshoot representative of gender identity as some ARMYs believe
  • On the Korean side of things, the most talked about word was Billboard, showing that BTS’s ranking on the Billboard charts and other such activities centered around Billboard mattered more to Korean fans than the UN speech presumably
  • International fans say that BTS encourages them to express their sexual identity with Korean fans being less in tune with that. Most say that BTS are really just emphasizing self-love and self-expression. 

I must say, I did like his presentation as it wasn’t exactly what I expected but as he presented, I couldn’t help but wonder what his take was on BTS performing in Saudi Arabia recently. That place arguably is the antithesis to the very message BTS has been preaching for the past few years so is their message less striking than it was before? Many have pointed out how hypocritical performing and singing about loving and speaking for yourself in a country where you could be executed for being gay or saying the wrong things is insulting to the victims of these senseless acts. However, there was no mention of that, not even in the Q & A which took place right after he finished though that was to be expected. 

Presentation 3: ‘Koreaboo’, a Missing Piece of the BTS Universe Puzzle

Oh shit, Koreans are finally learning about Koreaboos. Prepare yourselves.

This is a somewhat misleading title. While they did talk about Koreaboos as an introduction, the direction of the presentation veered away from that in a way that puzzled me. Even my professor guessed retroactively that they probably didn’t know what Koreaboo really meant. Well, she was partially wrong. The presenters, I believe there were four–three Korean men, one foreign woman, accurately described Koreaboos as not K-pop fans who respected and genuinely wanted to learn about Korean history and culture outside of its popular culture. But then they began to discuss how racism and discrimination play a part in people hating on Koreaboos as well and seemed to paint them as victims. Haha, what? 

Yes, yes, this is good but it was downhill from here

They go on to mention how much of the academia on BTS were focused more on their success than anything else. They believed there was one missing piece to that puzzle which is the one on the hierarchy found in the fandom and race. 

I mean, I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with hierarchy in the fandom and racism especially within ARMY, but I never really thought that a talk about Koreaboos would escalate into this kind of talk. I was just caught off guard, but I guess I can see where they could have gathered that conclusions especially since I noted that they gathered most of their data from YouTube and Reddit.

Totally reliable sources

Which now in retrospect makes me really want to laugh because those places are perhaps the best places to find such awful behavior but hey, they were actively searching for Koreaboo horror stories and they found them along with some very accommodating netizens, I’m sure.

Now, at this point, there is a little recession where we can all take a bit of a break and go use the restroom or eat our little snacks waiting for us outside the conference room. But before that, we have to listen to one of the hosts give a little speech as a sort of summary of the presentations as well as a reaction to what was said. 

The man who was to carry this burden for this session actually revealed himself to be an acquaintance of Bang Shi-Hyuk, BigHit’s CEO and ARMY certified 8th member of the group. The host admitted that he couldn’t say more than that because BigHit is recording this so he has to spare us the details. He did mention in terms of the first presentation that BTS’s rag to riches story added to their authenticity and BTS’s success in Canada is because fans are being provided something they can’t find in their society whatever that means.

As for the second presentation he mentions that Westerrn fans are more open to queer culture but tend to overanalyze thing such as BTS’s lyrics and their colorful photoshoot which I can heartily agree on. He also urges that instead of asking why BTS is so popular, we should ask more on what kind of environmental elements made BTS so popular. To be honest, I find that a bit thought-provoking since though I like BTS, I’m still puzzled on why they hit it so big, honestly. 

Lastly, he gave his remarks on the last presentation stating that the issue of race in K-pop is not a very common theme in K-pop academia (at least in Korea. I’ve personally seen/read a few race-related K-pop theses). He does understand the negative connotations of being labelled with being a Koreaboo but also says that it is evidence of the racist/hierarchy found in fandoms. Well, okay then.

All in all, a pretty good first session. I mean, some of it was janky for sure but that was to be expected along with the whole biased nature of the event. I’m honestly not expecting much in the way of groundbreaking research on BTS, BigHit, or K-pop here, but the studies conducted and presented at the conference along with the discussion were interesting to see from a Korean perspective. I heard at this conference that there was to be another like at a college in England as well. I saw some tweets floating around Twitter during that time and from what I gather, the conference was more or less the same. Honestly, I’m sure BigHit screens whoever is going to be presenting at these things to make sure no slander is being thrown their way in order to protect themselves and their artists, so if you’re looking for some deeper discourse on topics related or centered around BTS, I’d look elsewhere than a conference sponsored by BigHit themselves unless you don’t want to take some ugly truths as well.

For the next two sessions, I will write up in a future posts. I swear, I will actually write them up soon as in before another month passes. This post was getting a bit too long and I like keeping my posts somewhat consumable. Thank you for reading and see you again soon.

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