Image Source: Getty / Chung Sung-Jun / Frazer Harrison / Manny Carabel and Photo Illustration: Becky Jiras
Last March, 25-year-old Kiana Fazeli was at the library studying for the MCATs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., prepping for medical school applications. "I was honestly kind of depressed," she remembers. "It was a very, very lonely time for me."
Then, the YouTube algorithm surfaced a video for Stray Kids, a K-pop group, and a member, whom she now knows as Felix, caught her attention. She wondered: "Who is this handsome fellow?" She started poring over Stray Kids's TikToks and music videos and learning more about the eight-member group. That snowballed into Fazeli getting into BTS after watching their holiday docuseries, "In the Soop [Forest]," and their variety show, "Run BTS."
A friend from LA noticed her new interest and offered to answer questions and introduce her to other fans. In October, Fazeli paid more than $500 to see Stray Kids in concert in Oakland with her newfound friends — they all travelled up from Southern California and stayed at her place in San Jose.
"Our love for these men helps us form strong bonds."
New Yorker Yosub Kim, 36, was working at Giphy when an editor mentioned that "BTS" was a trending search. A Korean American who grew up listening to K-pop in the 1990s — he was a fan of first-generation groups like H.O.T. and S.E.S. — Kim did a deep dive into the BTS members, their music catalogueue, and their openness about mental health, especially in South Korea. As a gay man, the songs "Spring Day" and "2!3!"resonated with him.
"I often felt alone growing up because I was deeply closeted, so songs like '2!3!,' where there's talk of hoping for the future and letting go of the past, which I still dwell on constantly, [resonated with me]," he says. "I also love the song '00:00' because it reminds me of the same thing: to let the past go."
At his next job at Twitter, he struck up a friendship with a West Coast-based coworker after she gave a presentation about BTS that he considered "thoughtful and fascinating," Kim says. "We just really bonded over their music, their gentleness and kindness towards their fans, their being open and honest about their struggles."
Two years ago, Nicole Haack, a 46-year-old Chinese Mexican American reverse logistics specialist in Wisconsin, stumbled on BTS on her YouTube feed. She descended into the rabbit hole familiar to any ARMY. Now, in addition to being a diehard BTS fan, she listens to Blackpink, Twice, TXT, and Seventeen.
None of her close friends were familiar with K-pop, but in June 2021, Haack found a Facebook group for BTS fans over 40 and made friends — including with a woman from Germany. Just five months later, they met up at the Permission to Dance concert in LA. On a bus chartered by the Facebook group's members, she also met a woman from Tennessee who has since become a good friend — she and her daughter travelled with Haack to Chicago last July to see BTS member J-Hope headline Lollapalooza. She's also travelled to BTS concerts in Las Vegas and South Korea with friends she made through the group.
These friendships — at times unlikely — are rooted in their love of K-pop. Because the nature of the industry requires "fan service" from their stars, or "idols," community is a key component of a K-pop group's success. There's a specific infrastructure for fandoms, too: each has a name, merchandise, lightsticks, and a prolific presence on social media. As people get more familiar with the genre, they often get drawn into fan communities, and ultimately form deep bonds that can transcend a love of K-pop. Most K-pop fans are in at least one group chat where their favourite artists serve as the foundation for daily conversations and then more profound connections.
"BOOM, another friendship happened."
The relationships often travel from online to real life: meeting up at concerts, special events, cup-sleeve events. and dance parties, where gifting "freebies" — customised swag in the form of keychains, accessories, photo cards — is the norm. Fans also open up their phones for the Air-Dropping of memes — another key component of K-pop fandoms — at these events.
Fazeli, who works as a clinical research coordinator at Stanford University Medical School, says that insider knowledge of K-pop can lead to fast and real bonding in a way that cuts quickly through superficiality.
"You can work with somebody for years and still only know a certain bit about them. But even based off K-pop biases [your favourite in a group], you can tell a lot about somebody," she says.
Because so much K-pop campaigning and promotion happens online, and because the fan base is global, communities are also built there, and then transfer into real life. Twitter, especially, has been key to building the K-pop community.
"Especially on Twitter, you see people just spilling all of their thoughts onto the internet," Fazeli explains. "It's like talking into a void, where it's mildly cathartic, because you know that people are listening to you, but it's like a place to vent. So I feel like that's also something that sets it apart from other types of friendships."
The global scope of K-pop also allows its fandoms to meet in a melting pot. Constanza Jorquera, 33, a longtime K-pop fan and an associate researcher at the Chilean Korean Study Centre at the University of Santiago, notes that K-pop embraces universal themes that supersede language.
"K-pop has a lot of literary tropes that are significant when it comes to generating friendships, belonging, and bonds with artists, such as the 'hero's journey,' 'coming of age,' 'empowerment,' and 'teenage angst,'" she explains.
Many fans say the friendships they've formed through fandoms have pushed them beyond their comfort zones, too.
"Because of BTS, I have met people I would have never met. . . . Our love for these men helps us form strong bonds," Haack says. "None of these women are Asian. I am the only one. I am travelling to places I would never go to, doing things that are out of my comfort zone because I stan BTS. Most of the ARMY that I meet are the most kind, caring, and thoughtful group of people. There is no judgement. I have also made a group of friends here in Wisconsin because of BTS. We do lunches together, do shopping trips to H Mart, and go to concerts together."
Something similar happened when Kim's colleague introduced him to other ARMYs. They bonded over their love of BTS and the group's messageing, but they also checked in on each others' work lives.
"Now we have the world to talk to."
Although the coworkers often met for lunch when in the same city, in February of 2020, Kim and his ARMY colleague were able to share an incredible experience. A friend invited him to "The Today Show" for a BTS performance, and he in turn invited his colleague. "I was shocked but not shocked that she would come at a moment's notice," Kim says. "We were all the way in front of the stage and even though it was freezing, we loved every second of it."
Kim remembers making eye contact with Jimin, who also threw out his hand warmers at them. It was one of the highlights of 2020, he adds.
— yoey⁷ 요섭 🥢 (@yosub) February 21, 2020
"It makes me so happy thinking about how I had no one to talk to about K-pop or Korean music in middle school, high school, and now we have the world to talk to," Kim adds.
Like Kim, Clarice Chang, 32, a teacher in Los Angeles, has been into K-pop since she was young. Her favourite groups are TVXQ and Super Junior, but she also loves SHINee, BoA, and Epik High. She grew up with friends who also knew and loved K-pop, but as it's become more global, she's also acquired far-flung friends through social media, especially during the pandemic.
"Finding people who like the same groups as me and who are in the same age group as me has been comforting and lots of fun, and oftentimes we end up learning more about each other beyond the lens of K-pop and bonding on those as well, whether it's shared experiences or other hobbies," Chang says. "A lot of the friends I've made on social media are from all over the world, so it's also an awesome opportunity to learn about so many other cultures."
When Fazeli started her new job at Stanford, she quickly found that her coworker, Cynthia Pérez, was also a BTS fan.
"Obviously, I was still friends with Cynthia prior to knowing that she was ARMY. But knowing that we also had that in common, it was almost kind of a relief, that I could express that part of myself in a place that's generally supposed to be a professional atmosphere," Fazeli explains.
Then, one day, one of the professors in a neighbouring lab noticed Pérez's BTS Mang plushie.
"BOOM, another friendship happened," Pérez remembers. "To have a doctor also share the same love for a group was just amazing. The casual, 'Have you seen Hobi's new music video or JK's early Vlive?' in the hallway is fun. Nobody else understands what we are talking about but the eye contact — we know what's up. All three of us went to see 'Yet to Come' at the cinema, it was so much fun."
Before the professor went on sabbatical, she gave Pérez and Fazeli gifts: BTS ARMY Bombs, or lightsticks.
"Both of us almost started crying," Fazeli says. "This is our first lightstick ever. And she gave them to us. So it was definitely really special."