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[Grace Kao] K-pop 'fanmeetings' and collective nostalgia

By Korea Herald

Published : June 4, 2024 - 05:30

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The term “fan meeting” ought to be self-evident. It’s an event where artists meet their fans, but don’t fans and artists meet at a traditional concert? Perhaps one imagines a “meet and greet” event where you pay extra for the opportunity for a photo or to say hello to your favorite artist. In the world of K-pop, a “fanmeeting” (one word) refers to an event with a very unique format.

My husband and I just attended the VIXX Starlight 6th Fanmeeting at KBS Arena in Seoul on May 19. VIXX is a third-generation boy band who debuted in 2012, and its fandom is known as “Starlight.” It was my first K-pop fanmeeting in Korea, and it was not what I expected. Instead, it combined elements of a concert, myriad dance challenges, fun parlor games and interactions with the audience to create an experience of collective nostalgia for an imagined shared past between the artists and the fans.

We were invited to attend by the kind folks from Jellyfish Entertainment and immediately jumped at the opportunity to go. While I am not too familiar with the group, I have long been an admirer of their song “Error” and its fabulous music video, from 2014. It includes androids and seemed far ahead of contemporaries in contemplating love and artificial intelligence.

I was also familiar with the group's 2015 song “Chained Up” with its brutalist structures and chains and the 2017 track “Shangri-La,” featuring fan dances. In preparation for the fanmeeting, I listened to a dozen or so of the boy band's other singles. I knew that it was originally a six-member group, but only three of them -- N, Leo and Ken -- would be performing. As with most idol groups, it’s nearly impossible to surpass the 10-year mark intact with all of original members.

In all honesty, because I am not a Korean speaker and only a casual fan of the group, the emotions evoked by this experience are likely less intense for me than for those of their longtime fans. Despite these obstacles, both my husband and I could feel the collective joy felt by the audience and its members. It was also special for us, but more on that later.

The fanmeeting was three hours long, longer than a typical K-pop concert. The last time I attended a concert for a single artist that lasted so long was one with Bruce Springsteen. Much of it was like any other K-pop concert – beautiful choreography supplemented by backup dancers along with pyrotechnics. The bandmates introduced themselves a few songs into the concert and talked to the audience.

In addition to the typical elements of a standard concert, the fanmeeting included parlor games like those on Korean variety shows. Some of the games involved dance challenges, but these were less about accuracy or showing one’s dancing prowess and more in jest. What they demonstrated was a genuine camaraderie. There was also a game that involved one of the bandmates re-creating a position from an old photo of them. The photo was shown to the audience and the bandmates who was chosen to model it. Once his position was fixed, the other two, who were blindfolded, had to emulate the position by first physically touching the model.

They also shared banners from previous concerts. So many of these activities were designed to evoke shared memories of the group and its longtime fans. It was as if the audience and bandmates were attending a family reunion.

Some K-pop groups are especially gracious when it comes to interacting with fans.

Despite the fact that the KBS Arena is not a tiny venue, the bandmates of VIXX ran up and down the aisles to meet as many audience members as possible. A highlight for my husband and I (but especially my husband) was when Leo ran to our row. He pointed to my husband and then they shook hands. Because my husband was not holding a light stick, Leo handed one to him. My husband beamed along with his new light stick, and the eyes of everyone in our section were on him. At that moment, I think my husband not only became a fan of VIXX, but would also name Leo as his "bias."

Later, Leo went to a member of the audience, who turned out to be VIXX's own Hyuk. He is currently fulfilling his mandatory military service, but was able to attend. Fans were excited to see a fourth member of VIXX sitting among them -- and we were too.

In all seriousness, the evening reminded me of the unique relationship between some K-pop artists and their fans. Fanmeetings and albums are numbered and dated. Banners are issued for specific tours. Part of the effect of these systems of accounting is to index shared memories. The reminders also reinforce the emotional bond between groups and their fans. Even those of us who were unfamiliar with the references (like me) could sense the happiness fans felt in their collective walk down memory lane.

The term nostalgia was first coined by Swiss physician Johann Hofer, and it referred to a medical condition where the patient felt pain for their homeland. In modern times, nostalgia also involves feelings for a past which is associated with feelings of melancholy.

However, what we witnessed at the VIXX fanmeeting was a happy collective nostalgia. The fans there seemed to be long-standing fans. The love expressed there was contagious, and even we left as bigger fans than when we arrived at KBS Arena.

By Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.