We've Been Taught How to Obsess by Kpop
Noona fans, Uncle fans, saesang fans. Stanners and shippers. ELFs, Blackjacks, EXOtics, SONES, VIPs, Shawols. There are so many ways to obsess over Kpop. But what does that really mean?
Active obsession is a modern phenomenon. Historically, to obsess was a transitive verb. One could be obsessed by something, but it was not until as recent as the 1970s that we began speaking of people being able to actively obsess. Kpop, as a genre, both celebrates and promotes active obsession by modeling this behavior in popular music videos.
A common trope in Kpop music videos sees idols of one gender obsessing over a member of the opposite gender. Take Akdong Musician’s “200%” or the extension song with Hi Suhyun, “I’m Different.” Or Shannon’s “Why Why.” The plot of all three videos involves a woman devoting herself to a single man without question. The women follow him around. They take pictures when he is not looking. When he does look, they turn away and blush. They express happiness when he is alone, and become upset when he is not. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a model of obsession for the female Kpop fan.
The men have role models too. Take GOT7’s “A,” in which they mercilessly follow a single woman, begging her to like them. Or, for the exact same plot, see BTS’s “War of Hormone.” Male obsession, according Kpop music videos, is much less shy. It may even be violent, in the case of Big Bang’s “Haru Haru.” But it is absolutely an active and all-consuming obsession.
Even in the absence of any compelling storyline in a music video, we see this trope of obsession time and time again. Consider Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” or “I Got a Boy.” The actual plot of the two videos is not granted any real focus, but the viewer still sees the nine superstars regularly obsessing over a single man. And we accept it. What choice do we have?
Writing about spectacle in general, Guy Debord notes that passive acceptance is demanded by the “manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” Obsession is everywhere in Kpop, and so we passively accept it. Over time, the repetition of that trope ingrains obsession into the fabric of Kpop culture. And before long, we exhibit these behaviors ourselves.
What’s odd, of course, is that it is the idol who teaches us to obsess. In the typical Kpop music video, it is the idol who takes on the role of active obsessor. Even as we recognize that our favorite idols are in the exact same position as us, we are also unconsciously aware that they are teaching us as viewers how we should react to some future model of beauty and form: themselves. The music video humanizes and elevates the Kpop idol at the exact same time.
There are plenty of music videos which avoid obsession altogether, though they typically do so by avoiding themes of sexuality. An astute reader might also point out that the short format of a music video necessitates a simplification of love, which might give the appearance of obsession quite by accident. It’s hard to read multiple members of one gender chasing a single member of the opposite gender as anything other than obsession, though. It’s rare, but we do receive counterexamples. Take Big Bang’s “Bad Boy,” in which all members are seen in separate relationships. It’s even more rare to see the empowerment in Miss A’s “I Don’t Need a Man.” These exceptions, as the saying goes, probably do more to prove the rule than stand as argument against it.
There is, however, one music video which purports to do something quite a bit different. Stellar’s recent single, “Fool,” had no interest in the kind of obsession reserved for a member of the opposite gender. Instead, “Fool” was a clinic in how a true fan should treat his or her idol bias. In the video, the women of Stellar are depressed by the fan-reaction to their recent work. They are only able to pick themselves up through the help of their most devoted fan, a giant stuffed monkey. It’s a metaphor. The monkey is the true fan that sticks with Stellar through thick and thin.
What’s interesting about this video is not the monkey, it’s that Stellar do not model behavior here. There’s no meta-cognition where the viewer recognizes the same emotions which they feel for the idol being acted out on screen by the idol herself. Instead, Stellar shames the viewer. This fan on screen, they seem to be saying, is a better fan than you are.
Whether Kpop fans will rise to that bait is yet to be seen. What I can promise you is that active obsession is not going anywhere. Active obsession is the cornerstone on which Kpop has been built. Now that you notice it, you just might see obsession everywhere.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.