The Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 20 June was underwhelming. The Bank of Oklahoma Center wasn't even half full. According to The New York Times, fire marshalls reported only 6,200 attendees’ tickets were scanned. How was it possible that so few turned up when more than a million tickets had been requested?
We now know it was the work of huge but underestimated segments of US internet subculture: TikTokers and K-pop ‘stans’. The first are users of TikTok, an app where one-minute videos can be shared; the second are fans of Korean pop music, which has dominated Western music charts since the early 2010s. They torpedoed Trump’s rally by sharing how to register for free tickets and encouraging people to not attend.
This is the ‘Gen Z’ way of making a difference. Many young Americans feel unheard. Without a vote and so with little choice over who their president is, they found a subversive way of getting their voices heard. The young people of today know how to use social media platforms to get the most exposure and are skilled in turning algorithms to their own benefit.
K-pop stans are known for their dedication, large numbers and strategic mindset. Fans spend hours streaming YouTube videos or voting using multiple different apps and websites to promote their favourite groups. Some K-pop stans have created fan accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. Accounts like these made it easy to spread information about the Trump rally.
It’s not the first time they have used their extensive online know-how to help non-K-pop causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. K-pop fans have drowned out racist posts under #WhitelivesMatter, #Bluelivesmatter, and #Alllivesmatter hashtags with videos of K-pop idols. They have also held off using their K-pop-related hashtags to ensure that #Blacklivesmatter and other hashtags they think important trend on Twitter.
Fans are influenced by groups and the messages they send out. K-pop groups encourage charity and activism: BTS, one of the biggest groups on the planet, donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter; their fanbase, which calls itself ‘ARMY’, set up a charity called ‘One In An ARMY’ and helped to raise an additional $1 million for the cause.
K-pop has been around since the 1990s but only reached Western audiences in the 2000s. It has wide fanbases across the world: outside South Korea itself, most live in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the US, Japan, Philippines, Brazil and Mexico. Many are socially and politically progressive, as we can see from their powerful actions to help the BLM movement and against Trump. Unfortunately, the K-pop industry, which trains its idols and controls their careers strictly, does not support these values. Companies insist idols remain apolitical.
K-pop stans need to come together to try to change the darkest parts of the industry. Most K-pop fans tend to be knowledgeable about its problems but haven't done enough to effect positive change.
One major problem is how idols are viewed and treated, and how this might influence their fans. Korean beauty standards are extremely demanding and often unattainable for the majority of the public. Ex-trainees and retired idols have spoken up about plastic surgery in the industry. They have said that many are encouraged to have plastic surgery to ‘fix’ any features that are below the beauty standard before their debut.
Popular surgeries include blepharoplasty, more commonly known as double eyelid surgery, as well as rhinoplasty, jawline surgery, and botox. Trainees and K-pop idols are also required to be under a certain weight, typically below 50 kilograms for women, and are usually kept on strict diets. Idols who are not seen as skinny are often fat-shamed, which has led to mental health issues. Equally, idols who are too skinny have received hate mail from fans and trolls.
Pale skin is considered to be most beautiful and many Koreans use skin-bleaching products. Photos of K-pop idols have been ‘whitewashed’ to make their skin tone appear paler before they are released. There is prejudice against darker complexions such as those of southern Asians. Only one Indonesian has debuted in a K-pop girl group, for instance, and the first-ever Indonesian K-pop idol, Dita, has debuted recently this year. Chinese K-pop idols are often paid less or mistreated by companies, partly because some Koreans look down on Asians from developing countries. Some south-east Asians succeed, mainly from Thailand, but agencies prefer Koreans and Japanese talent.
These beauty standards also feed racist attitudes. Many K-pop fans feel that K-pop should be strictly for Asians. The first-ever white idol, Lana, from Russia, has been well received by Korean audiences but, by contrast, Alex Reid, the first non-Asian star to debut and the first African-American, received a lot of hate.
Then there is the issue of exploitation. K-pop idols train with a company before they have the chance to debut in a group or have their solo single released. To join, they need to sign what is often described as a ‘slave contract’. These contracts often last up to seven years. Companies invest in training, with the expectation of a profitable return. This accumulation of training debt, which must be paid back when K-pop idols debut or if they leave before their contract has ended, means that many make very little financial gain. Monthly evaluations and weigh-ins can result in contracts being summarily terminated, increasing the vulnerability of trainees.
In addition, companies impose dating bans and often restrict the use of social media, further isolating young trainees from normal life. Underage idols have been heavily sexualised, which has caused much controversy. Younger idols also need to balance school and the idol lifestyle.
This combination of deeply exploitative contracts, lack of financial reward, strenuous performance schedules, bullying, adherence to unrealistic beauty standards and enforced isolation has unfortunately led to many suicides of K-pop idols.
K-pop fans, who have clearly demonstrated the ability and know-how to affect change for a cause they believe in, need to push the K-pop industry for better conditions for idols and trainees. They stood up against Trump, they stood against racism, they stand against hate. Now it’s time to stand up for what they love.