Would you brave record temperatures, a tropical storm, ridiculously high ticket prices, and preposterously long lines just to get a glimpse of your favorite band? For some K-pop fans in Stuyvesant, that is a piece of cake. Alumna Geyanne Lui (‘13) battled brutal weather in Hong Kong, paid over $200 at Madison Square Garden, and waited for over six hours at a high five event just to see her favorite K-pop bands such as EXO, SHINee, and f(x). For most K-pop fans in Stuyvesant, this level of obsession started casually: they might have heard of K-pop from a friend or clicked on a random video on YouTube. Usually, it is the legendary songs like Taeyang’s “Wedding Dress” or Girls’ Generation’s “I Got a Boy” that draw people in, or the popular groups like Super Junior or Infinite that catch their attention. This casual interest quickly spirals into an obsession, and, well, there you have it. Over the past few years, the number of K-pop fans in Stuyvesant has skyrocketed. As Stuyvesant’s interest in K-pop blooms, many wonder what exactly about it captivates Stuyvesant students, and how it affects their intensely busy lives.
Although coming to Stuyvesant might have been the spark that ignited an obsession for K-pop for some fans, others delved into the K-pop world at a young age. K-pop club founder and alumnus Daniel Lin (‘13) is one of the oldest fans of the genre. “I first began listening to Korean pop in 2002, back when Korean pop was still relatively unheard of and Japanese pop was busy dominating the scene,” Lin said. He had heard the song that the Korean singer BoA had released for the anime Inuyasha (called “Every Heart”, the song had both Japanese and Korean renditions), and his love for the genre began from that point.
Unlike Daniel Lin, other fans like junior Udita Tonne and sophomore Regina Weng  were introduced to the genre by family members. “I first got introduced to K-pop when my cousin immigrated from China, around the time when I was 8 or 9,” Weng explained. “I didn’t fall in love with it until about sixth grade of middle school, but looking back on some old songs of the groups I like, my cousin used to play them constantly and I remembered them from when I went over to her house.” Like Weng, Tonne’s cousin introduced her to K-pop. “I was actually really going through [the] phase of ‘no one understands me’ and [K-pop] really made me feel happy and honestly, I didn’t like the [other] music coming out then because it was all becoming auto tune,” she added.
Not all K-pop listeners fit the description of the typical passionate fan, as many take the role of casual admirers. “One of my friends introduced me to Big Bang [in freshman year], and I thought they were really hot, so I just listened to one or two of their songs, and it was super upbeat, which kept me in a good mood to do homework,” said junior Nicolette Hussain. However, both types of fans agree that K-pop has various distinct qualities that separate it from western music.
“What really attracted me to [K-pop] was how diverse the genre was because there were so many different styles, concepts, and artist personalities. It wasn’t always just about the music, it was also the choreography, the music video, the live performances, and variety show appearances,” junior Hilary Tung said. In addition to performing on up to four to five music shows in a week following a new music release, many groups have a slew of other promotional activities on their schedules, meaning that it’s not hard to find something to watch by your favorite band. After discovering and enjoying the music, fans really get to know the people behind the voices through variety shows. They get to watch their favorite groups complete missions at various locations in and out of Korea, play traditional Korean games around a campfire, talk amongst themselves, or just live their daily lives in a messy dorm. Junior and K-pop Club President Alexander Gabriel added, “K-pop stars frequently participate in reality shows and fan meets, which make them seem very human. It’s easy to get to know things about your favorite idol, and it makes being a K-pop fan more than just enjoying the music.”
For other students, it was the choreography and dancing that drew them in. “I really like to dance a lot, and I think something that is totally nonexistent in every other kind of pop scene is that pretty much every K-pop song- because [the groups] always go on stage to perform at those music shows- every song has a dance to it!” Gabriel explained. “When I listen to the music and I close my eyes, I’m doing the dance in my head! Honestly, that’s a huge part of it – that I like dancing, and I like music, and it just goes together [in K-pop].” The choreography many of these groups perform lie on a spectrum of dance styles, ranging from modern to hip hop, and can enrapture even the newest of dancers or dance admirers. “I get into K-pop usually from the dances,” Weng said. “When I listen to a song or watch the performances, instead of remembering the song lyrics I always manage to remember the choreography first, maybe because I’m a dancer.” Bangtan Boys (BTS) is Weng’s favorite K-pop group in terms of choreography. The powerful and sharp choreography of K-pop groups like BTS that demands your attention, combining high level choreography and impeccable synchronization to create a spectacular visual effect.
If it is not choreography that draws you in, it might be the lyrics and content. “For one, the nature of mainstream K-pop songs is much tamer than American pop music. This isn’t to say there aren’t K-pop anthems about partying and dancing and being sexy, but it’s a lot more toned down than what you find here,” Gabriel related. “For some people I think this is large part of what makes K-pop appealing. The lyrics, even when they are suggestive, are never explicit.” Coming to Stuyvesant from a small middle school can be lonely and the work monotonous, but for alumnus Kevin Lin (‘13) it was K-pop that picked him up. “I came to Stuyvesant pretty much alone,” said Kevin Lin. “It was during this transitional time that I felt really depressed and lonely… It was around this time that I discovered K-pop. I fell in love with it right away – the pretty colors, the bright and happy atmosphere, and the catchy music enthralled me.” Yet it was not the brilliant, funky colors that he adored; it was the softer, more meaningful songs that really made K-pop an obsession. “What I was feeling, music understood. When I was lonely, music was there for me and it picked me up,” Kevin Lin explained. Songs like Big Bang’s “Let Me Hear Your Voice” or 2AM’s “Can’t Let You Go Even If I Die” captivated him, as they both exhibited wistful lyrics sung on top of soft, catchy beats. Much of Asian music is less sexually charged and explicit than the western alternative, giving it a charm that attracts many students.
A surprising aspect of some K-pop idols can be their young age. It is not abnormal to start training as an grade school student to become a star; Lee Taemin, who was only 14 years old when his group SHINee debuted in 2008, is a prime example. Junior Labiba Chowdhry, who only knows of K-Pop in passing, said, “It’s sort of like Disney. [The stars] start off young and [companies] control them so they don’t do anything inappropriate.” On the other hand, fans see this young age in a positive light. “To follow a group of people, some of which might be only a year or two older than you, through everything they experience as they struggle to become famous is an amazing experience,” Weng reflects. “I just love how much work and effort they put in compared to a lot of artists from other countries that don’t have this debuting system.” Because K-pop can be considered the product of competition between entertainment companies churning out boy groups and girl groups, applying various tactics to promote both the music and the celebrities, these young idols must devote hours upon hours of time honing their talent in hopes that their next release will become a hit. In a competitive school like Stuyvesant, many students lives follow a similar track of intense studying. “It makes me work just a little harder because I become more motivated to do my best every day when I see my favorite idols do their best and give back to their fans,” Tung said. Watching someone they relate to and admire work hard at what they do can really influence students to do well in their own passions.
Besides talent and personality, much of what K-pop boils down to is the attractiveness of its stars. Teenage stars are packaged as the perfect people, almost as if they were flawless demigods. Junior Tiffany Chan views visuals as an initial kick-starter of the obsession, with talent and personality carrying it through. “When [people] see this group dancing and singing, and they see their faces, if they’re pretty faces, they’ll want to get to know them more. But the thing is, after they get to know the group […] they respect the group more for their personalities,” Chan said. “A lot of it has to with talent too, because if you’re just a pretty face, and you have no talent, then there’s no point.” On the other hand, it is rare to find a celebrity that does not fit South Korea’s standard of beauty, however talented or kind they may be. “You want to sell idols as attractive people that you dream of, and that’s the reason why idols don’t date a lot,” Gabriel said. “Even if people don’t wanna admit it, part of the appeal is that they’re these beautiful, perfect, talented people, and they’re always single, and they’re really good-looking, and I think that adds to it.” Korean celebrities are craftily catered to the young population as another product in a world that values beauty, an attribute that is viewed as a vice or virtue to different students.
A major con of K-pop might be the language barrier. After all, many wonder how people listen to and love something they cannot even understand. Junior Eric Zhao pointed at this particular characteristic to explain why, despite the occasional links to K-pop songs he receives from his friends, he has not yet fell for the allure of its music. “I tend not to listen to foreign music because I don’t understand what they are saying,” he said. The language barrier is a reality for many international fans, but it is up to them to decide whether it is really a critical obstacle. “Other than the fact that [producers] put a lot of English in the songs, it’s also [that] most people listen to the music and the way the lyrics are sung- the emotion behind the lyrics,” Chan said. To many K-pop fans, the positive characteristics of K-pop far outweigh the obstacle of language. This obstacle can be remedied, as Tung noted. “Besides, when you become a K-pop fan, you become fairly acquainted with something called English subtitles,” she said. In the end, as Zhao acknowledges, everything depends on a personal “preference in music,” he said. But K-pop fans believe “it shouldn’t matter what language it’s in—it’s still music. And if it’s good music, people enjoy it,” Chan said.
Above all, K-pop has allowed students in Stuyvesant to grow close in the face of their shared interests. “After coming to Stuy, I’ve definitely made tons of friends because of K-pop,” Weng said. “It’s our mutual love for the idols that pulls us together.” Similarly, as Kevin Lin said, “It’s kind of like gum in a way… You ask someone if they like K-pop, they say yes, and bam! insta-friendship.” The K-pop Club has particularly fostered a sense of community among fans in Stuyvesant. When Daniel Lin came to Stuyvesant, K-pop enthusiasts existed, but there was no collective passion. “I had started the club four years ago with the intention of bringing Korean pop fans together and to this day, this community means a lot to me, because it encompasses many close friends,” he said. The club’s frequent gatherings allow students to meet other K-pop fans within the student body and develop their friendships by watching videos and movies, playing K-pop jeopardy, and dancing to songs. Unlike the tight-knit group of friends the club started off as, the club has evolved into one that has more than 150 members. “This year there has been an enormous jump in the number of sophomore and freshmen who started attending. It’s exciting to be the leader of a very popular club now, but it’s a lot of responsibility,” Gabriel said. He attributes the club’s increasing popularity to a heightened awareness of the existence of such a club. “Word just gets around, and everyone is like, oh, this club is really cool, to all their freshmen friends, [and says that they] should come check it out.” Gabriel hopes that the K-pop club can continue to “create a welcoming community for Stuy’s K-pop fans.”
K-pop has definitely become a major part of Stuyvesant’s culture, and its unique style and flavor has attracted a substantial portion of the student body. K-pop has become all the more popular around the globe in recent years, and it has catered to the growing international attention it has been receiving: English subtitles have become a must on Youtube videos uploaded by major music distribution labels, video chatting sessions with fans from all over the globe are on every group’s schedule following a new release, and the number of world tours exploded in 2013. It has become much easier for international fans, like those who attend Stuyvesant, to participate in fan events and purchase goods like autographed albums and fanclub benefits. On a smaller scale, K-pop has offered a safe haven within Stuyvesant for students to relax and bond with one another, helping them cope with problems and the intense academic rigor of our school.