My obsession with the group was the first step I took away from the life prescribed to me as the Korean American daughter of devout Christian parents.
This is From a K-pop Fan, With Love, a column by Giaae Kwon about her K-pop obsessions, past and present.
We Hate All Kinds of Violence
Reply 1997Reply 1997
It’s about us.
To be an international fan, though, is to exist on the fringe, and I never got to experience Shiwon’s kind of fandom. Instead of sneaking to another city to attend a performance, I snuck blank videotapes to an oppa at my church, asking him to record performances and television shows for me; I would watch them after school before my parents came home, in the few hours they were at Wednesday-night service, whenever I had a chance to be home alone. I would spend my allowance on CDs and pop magazines, which would arrive in Los Angeles a few months late, reading them between classes and hiding them in my closet where my parents wouldn’t look. I would try to learn choreography before body-shaming put an end to that, beg my parents for wide-legged white jeans so I could dress like H.O.T., and chatter anyone and everyone’s ear off about H.O.T. this, H.O.T. that, oh my god Tony did this and he was so cute!
My rebellions were small, in retrospect, but I was working within the limits of being a fan in another country. I didn’t have the means to ship H.O.T. personalized gifts, and I couldn’t join Club H.O.T., which meant I could never wear an official white fan club rain jacket or wave white balloons in the air during concerts. Instead, I obsessed. All of my waking thoughts were dedicated to H.O.T. I memorized all their songs, read interviews, watched all the performances and shows I could. I learned everything I could about them, even in those fledgling days of the internet when access was so limited. If I couldn’t be in Korea to demonstrate my love and devotion to H.O.T., I could at least give them my whole brain.
How did I get there, though? One year, I was worrying about my classmates’ souls, and the next I was going through AA batteries like they were nothing because I couldn’t stop listening to H.O.T. on my Discman, persevering through the pain inflicted by terribly designed, uncomfortable headphones. I don’t remember what it was that flipped the switch in my brain, that broke through the distorted Christian teachings that had me brainwashed through elementary school. That first summer in the sixth grade, I truly did believe that H.O.T.’s music was that of the devil—that thinking was fully in line with what they taught us at my private Christian school.
Instead of pep rallies, we attended chapels, where we would fill our school’s auditorium and pray and receive our regular messaging. I don’t remember much about these sessions, except for one part of a video we watched about music. The speaker played a line from a classical composer, either Beethoven or Handel, I don’t remember. The narrator praised the music, talked about how it glorifies God—and then he played a remixed version of the same line, with bass underneath it, a beat running through it. The narrator paused for dramatic effect when the music stopped, letting his point sink in—this God-glorifying music had been corrupted. This music was no longer in worship of God but had been made sinister and evil by the devil.
This seems ridiculous to me now, but I was a child then, and this was the world I grew up in. My parents didn’t necessarily subscribe to thinking so extreme, but they were (and remain) devout Christians. We spent our Sundays at church, and, as a child, I followed them to Bible studies, where I sat around, bored, waiting for the solemn sounds of study to give way to bursts of laughter and slices of cake. My parents did share a general unspoken wariness of contemporary pop culture, which extended even to the books I was given—I didn’t read a single work of contemporary literature until I was twenty years old.
When I fell into H.O.T. in middle school, then, it wasn’t only my world I was flipping upside down. It was my parents’ as well. None of us knew how to handle it, and, looking back, I think they had reason to be concerned. My love for H.O.T. was clearly taking over every part of my life, and, in a short period of time, I had gone from being a sweet, friendly but awkward child to a preadolescent obsessed with a boy band that sang about social injustice, young rebellion, and seeking hope in bleak times. I had moved on from a good Christian best friend who was going to be a doctor to a new friend who liked to dance, drank Starbucks Frappuccinos, and only went to church on Sundays out of obligation.
Like Shiwon, I existed in constant tension with my parents. My mother would get upset when I played H.O.T. in the car, losing her temper when they peppered their rap with mild curse words and “oh my god”s. When I was careless about my stash of CDs and magazines, my parents would take them, breaking the discs and cutting up the glossy pages carrying my H.O.T. oppas’ faces. I became a daughter who snuck around, printing out fanfiction to disguise as notes in a three-ring binder, sneaking batteries from the study to keep my Discman powered, and looking forward to church fellowship groups because then I could chat with other people about H.O.T. I was a bbasooni who couldn’t be stopped, not by my parents’ anger or by the public’s opinion of me, and, now, it was my parents’ turn to be worried for my soul.
What idols sell is fantasy. Idols sell the impression of a close camaraderie that is unique and special, and this fantasy extends to the fans.
H.O.T., which debuted in 1996, are considered by many to be the first K-pop idol boy band. H.O.T. broke new ground for an industry that was fledgling then but is no longer so niche, and it isn’t incorrect to say that global-hit BTS wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for H.O.T.
As the first, H.O.T. was, in ways, an experiment—a wildly successful one. The members each had their role—Kangta was a lead vocalist, Heejun the leader and main vocalist, Woohyuk the dancer and rapper, Tony the one from America, and Jaewon the maknae, the youngest who was quiet and unobtrusive. SM Entertainment, the company that created, trained, and, essentially, owned H.O.T., would go on to replicate this formula over and over again, making tweaks and adaptations with each generation of idols but holding to the formula. H.O.T. was followed by Shinhwa, a six-member boy band, the longest-running boy band in K-pop history in fact, and then was reproduced in TVXQ (debut: 2003), which was then followed by SHINee (debut: 2008), and so on.
What idols sell is fantasy. In Korea, the fantasy is that these idol groups are like family; they’ve trained together for years, and they live together, forming close, loving bonds. Idols sell the impression of a close camaraderie that is unique and special, and this fantasy extends to the fans. By loving idols, fans enter into a social relationship that is predicated upon unspoken rules—you are to be loyal and faithful to your idol group, you are to protect their image, you are to devote yourself to them.
K-pop fans don’t simply attend performances and tapings and buy merchandise. They bestow upon their idols extravagant gifts (including cars and, once, in Shinhwa’s case, a forest), send catering trucks to idols’ film sets, and prepare gifts for birthdays. Fans also donate to their idols’ favorite charities and do community service in their idols’ names—and this is the sweet and positive part of it, the unspoken contract between idols and fans running deeper and much more possessive. In return for their devotion, fans expect idols’ faithfulness. As the most obvious example, idols are not allowed to date. If they were to date, they would disrupt the fantasy between themselves and their fans.
I didn’t care much for that specific fantasy. As an international fan, I couldn’t participate in any of the most fanatical activities, anyway, and I didn’t want to marry Tony. I just loved H.O.T.’s music—it was so different, so charged with an energy I’d never encountered before—and, though I couldn’t articulate this at the time, I wanted so badly to belong, to be a part of something.
I was a lonely, awkward preadolescent who didn’t make friends easily, who didn’t know where she belonged, even in the church group she’d grown up with. Fandom gave me something that was mine and mine alone, away from what I knew, and loving H.O.T. was the first active step I took away from the life prescribed to me as the second-generation Korean American daughter of devout Christian parents.
In 2001, H.O.T. disbanded. It was messy and abrupt, following months of rumors the members tried to quell. When their split was made official, it came out that SM Entertainment had essentially been paying H.O.T. pennies (reportedly ten thousand dollars for every million records sold), and that SME wanted to renew only two of the members’ contracts for a lot of money. Enraged fans camped out in front of SME in protest, graffitiing the building and blocking the roads.
Again, I was across the ocean, trying to get as much news as I could on my crappy dial-up, on Soompi, the main online forum at the time for Korean Americans. I flipped through magazines talking about the disbandment in my AP European history class months later, feeling the emptiness in me. For four years, I had found my identity in H.O.T., and they were no more. Where did that leave me?
In the mid-2010s, several of the big idol groups from that first generation of K-pop staged reunions. They held their own concerts and appeared on variety shows, some even releasing new music. From groups like g.o.d. (for Groove Over Dose) to S.E.S. (a three-member girl group from SME) to H.O.T.’s rivals, Sechskies, these groups came back together to the delight of fans. H.O.T.’s fifteenth anniversary, however, passed without a reunion, then their twentieth. There were constant rumors the members were meeting and discussing a reunion. For years, nothing happened. I didn’t think it ever would—H.O.T.’s disbandment had not seemed amicable—but I hoped it would one day, and that I would be able to fly to Seoul to be there when it happened. I would finally get to go to a H.O.T. concert, wear a white rain jacket and wave a white balloon and scream the fan chants. I would be a part of it.
It never happened, at least not for me.
H.O.T. did reunite in 2018, but I never made it to Seoul. Instead, I watched footage of their performances on the internet, feeling a mix of overpowering emotions as I watched the cameras pan over the audience in white jackets, waving white balloons and screaming in delight. The camera would close in on women who cried as they yelled the age-old fan chants in freakishly timed unison—H.O.T.! H.O.T.! Saranghaeyo, H.O.T.! I wished I could have been a part of that.
If I could, I’d go back and tell that girl on the cusp of adolescence that this boy band is going to change her life—and her soul is going to be just fine.
But maybe I was a part of it. I may have been an international fan who was never officially a part of the fandom, but H.O.T. was a part of me for three intense years. H.O.T. insulated me from the painful loneliness that has been my constant companion since youth. Fandom protected me by wrapping me in its consuming obsession during very vulnerable years of my life, so I couldn’t worry about what other people thought about me, my awkwardness, my lack of social grace. I could lose myself in fandom, and, while I was lost, I could find new ways of existing. I learned to write better, to think more creatively thanks to fanfiction. I learned to think outside of Christianity. I learned to take tentative steps that would lead me here, to who I am today.
In Reply 1997, Shiwon gets plenty of shit from her parents, teachers, and friends who don’t understand her behavior and find her commitment extreme. She’ll get up at five a.m. to get in line to purchase H.O.T.’s second album, which she’s already preordered, just so she can have it immediately. She’ll camp out in front of the bank to buy concert tickets. She’ll happily take home a T-shirt drenched in Tony’s sweat. Maybe her behavior is extreme and irrational, but maybe it’s OK—she’s a teenager. She’s discovering who she is. And, in the end, fandom leads her into her future: Her homeroom teacher tells her to give up on her dreams of even getting into college with her grades, and then he learns that she writes fanfiction about H.O.T. With his help, she edits her fanfic, submits it to a university contest, and gets into Dongguk University.
After H.O.T., I go through several fandoms, mostly from SME—Shinhwa, Fly to the Sky, TVXQ. I have a brief stint as a fan of Big Bang for a few years, and I dabble a bit in J-pop. Eventually, I will feel as though I’ve aged out of K-pop, because the age gap between me and the idols debuting today is too great for me to have much personal interest. They seem so young in my eyes, their fandoms also young, and I’m too fatigued from trying to manage my own life to keep up.
H.O.T. never leaves me, though.
Over the last two decades, I’ve come back to H.O.T. over and over. As technology has grown from battery-powered Discmans to bulky iPods to sleek iPhones, I have often carried a playlist of my favorite H.O.T. songs with me. Their music still holds up, and I find comfort in the nostalgia, of sinking into the familiarity of their songs, singing along, and swaying my body in dancing movements, much like my classmates did on that car ride to Disneyland so many years ago. If I could, I’d go back and tell that young girl on the cusp of adolescence that this boy band is going to change her life, it’s going to change who she is, and she’s going to be better for it—and her soul is going to be just fine.