A sarcastic “Yeah right” is likely what you’d get from me, were you to somehow travel back to spring 2014 and tell me that after going to South Korea for my Fulbright grant, I’d become a fan of K-Pop. In my short few years of adulthood, following the Dark Ages of my music taste in middle and high school, I can hardly say I’m a pop enthusiast. Sure, if we’re talking pop as in The Beatles, I’m all in. But for the most part, my American musical taste is more centered around indie, hip hop, and alternative. To get an idea of what I’d normally listen to, don’t think Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber — think more along the lines of Talking Heads, Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West, Grimes, and Animal Collective, to name some of my favorites. When I saw social media posts from previous Fulbrighters who spoke to the infectiousness of “K-Pop,” I was dubious that the genre would offer anything of interest to me.
The beginning of the end of my K-Pop resistance was the day I learned my placement school was an all-girls high school in Mokpo. Emphasis on the “all-girls” part. Of course, some boys here also like K-Pop, and many of my students couldn’t care less about it. That being said, I can’t deny the popularity within my school of my students’ favorite K-Pop groups (or “idols,” as they’re called here in Korea).
Upon going to my school, I felt that being young and a woman was an advantage in cultivating good relationships with my students, and I was right. But in the beginning, I didn’t quite feel like our interests lined up enough for us to have lots to talk about. Cue my K-Pop self education.
While I don’t pretend to be an authority on K-Pop, and my knowledge is very much limited to idols I’ve stumbled across and happened to like, I have found that even my limited, selected knowledge has helped me form bonds with my girls. Students want to connect with their teachers, but just as I sometimes feel shy about reaching out to them, so do they. And sometimes, all it takes to start a conversation is noticing the Big Bang sticker on a student’s pencil case and mentioning that you love their music, too. These seemingly small moments have meant that my students feel they can relate to me more and make students who aren’t comfortable speaking English feel they have a safe, easy-to-discuss topic to talk to me about.
All this being said, what started off as a way to become closer to my students, later became genuine interest, much to my own surprise. Now, after nearly two years in Korea, I’ve been to four K-Pop concerts, two each of Big Bang’s and Winner’s concerts. (Big Bang is arguably the most famous K-Pop group in the world, and Winner is a group that debuted in 2013 with the same label as Big Bang.) That first Big Bang concert, my first K-Pop concert, is what tipped me over the edge and into solidified interest in the genre.
Whether you know a lot or nothing at all about K-Pop, these concerts are worth seeing at least once. The changing sets, costumes, and the spectacular lights alone are with the ticket money. The sweeping ballads, electrified dance numbers, and soulful love songs are moving and impressive, and of course they’re coming to you from performers who have been trained in song and dance since before they even hit puberty.
Besides the performers and spectacle of K-Pop concerts themselves, seeing the way fans consume these concerts is fascinating. Fans shout disarmingly coordinated, catchy “fan chants” during many of the songs. For many idols’ concerts, fans carry light-up sticks to wave during the concerts, these lights costing about 15 U.S. dollars and coming in colors and designs specific to each idol.
Seeing the fans at the concerts I’ve been to, many of them being the same age and gender as my students, is a wonderful reminder of why I got into K-Pop in the first place. Becoming interested has helped me understand Korean pop culture and the mindset of young people here. I’ve been able to learn new Korean vocabulary and grammar structures, and through this pop culture and Korean knowledge, I’ve grown close to many students who I might not have otherwise had common interests with. Two years ago, I would never have imagined I would know off the top of my head things like that G Dragon, the leader of Big Bang, was born on August 18th, 1988 and loves cats and Chanel. But taking interest has affected my grant years for the better.