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K-pop girl group Brave Girls (from left) Eunji, Yujeong, Minyong, and Yuna. They had one of 2021’s biggest hits in South Korea with Rollin’, released four years ago. They should thank their female fans for its success more than their male ones. Photo: Brave Entertainment

From Blackpink to Girls’ Generation to Brave Girls, K-pop girl groups have a lot to thank their female fans for

  • A Korean music and culture expert believes female fans are integral to the success of K-pop girl groups, and that this fact is being generally overlooked
  • The female audience is involved more actively in a variety of fan activities than their male counterparts, and at a much deeper level
Tamar Hermanin United States
Four years after its release, the song Rollin’ by K-pop girl group Brave Girls is one of 2021’s biggest hits in South Korea. Though much of the media narrative has been focused on how South Korea’s enlisted men have been supporting the band, that is just part of the story.

Professor Kim Jung-won, an ethnomusicologist and adjunct lecturer at South Korea’s Yonsei University, studies Korean music culture, K-pop, fandom, and gender studies, and thinks female fans are integral to the success of K-pop girl groups and this is being overlooked.

“The resurgence of K-pop girl groups and their old songs has been sparked by videos of their live performances their male fans took in local events and shared through social media,” Kim tells the Post, pointing to when EXID’s 2014 song Up & Down became one of 2015’s biggest hits after a fan-cam, recorded by a male fan, went viral.

“Once the fan-cams go viral, many viewers, including female audience members, get interested in the girl groups. Based on my observation of K-pop fandom, the ‘female’ audience has played far more important roles in promoting the girl groups and their music than male fans.”

EXID’s 2014 song Up & Down went on to become one of 2015’s biggest hits.

A similar instance happened with Brave Girls, when a video of their performances embedded with comments from audiences praising Rollin’ went viral earlier this year.

Kim questions the media narrative in which men serving in the military played a big roll in Brave Girls’ success, and raises concern over the way male audiences are being viewed as “saving” the band’s career. “They just made the group go viral. The actual and practical promotion has been conducted by female fandom,” asserts Kim, pointing to the work of female audiences over the years who have supported Brave Girls’ music, as well as Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation sharing on her Instagram account during a live-stream that she had been aware of the song being a wonderful one and good-naturedly chastised listeners for not knowing it since its release.

While female fans are often acknowledged as aiding the careers of male K-pop artists – especially boy bands – they are also prominent factors in the success of girl groups.

“Women have tended to spend their money and time on music and musicians through a variety of fan activities more actively and intensely than [those men who] merely consume K-pop girl groups as objects for male visual, and even sexual, pleasure.”

Some of the most impactful groups within K-pop, ranging from Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 to Blackpink and Itzy, have seen success primarily built on the way other women have seen themselves represented by them.
Solidarity between female fans with different K-pop female musicians is constructed and expressed through the fans’ cooperation
Professor Kim Jung-won, an ethnomusicologist and adjunct lecturer at South Korea’s Yonsei University

According to Kim, fandom spaces are often where women across the world showcase their power after facing difficulties in male-dominated industries and even within their personal lives.

“Women have been required to carry out multiple roles across private and public areas. These situations of gender discrimination have enabled females to seek for a territory where they could express their enthusiasm, exert their capacity for promotion as well as cooperation, and then feel fulfilled. Fandom can serve as that territory for female audiences.”

And it’s not just a single group of fans cheering them on. Though inter-group fan feuds do exist, female fans of girl groups are more likely to listen to and cheer on bands other than their favourite act.

“Solidarity between female fans with different K-pop female musicians is constructed and expressed through the fans’ cooperation,” said Kim, who says she’s witnessed female fans often collaborating to rally behind different girl groups for things like weekly television music show voting and streaming certain songs.

Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation: meet the leader of legendary K-pop girl group

“This solidarity is related to a new way in which young Korean females recognise and practice feminism that can engage with their cultural, political, and social acts in their daily lives,” said Kim.

Even though they’re supportive, and Kim feels female fans support girl groups as a sign of feminist solidarity, there’s always a bit of tension because many of these acts are being produced with a focus on male audiences.

“It’s said many female fans of the girl groups are feeling conflicting emotions about representations of the girls in music videos or stage performances, which reflect the male gaze, or the girls’ bubblegum pop produced by male producers.”

Kim suggests fans with these considerations might consider promoting B-sides rather than singles. This may lead to less visual objectification, as B-sides are not typically produced with live performances or music videos in mind.

Brave Girls’ ongoing success has seen other songs of theirs chart in South Korea, and they’ve become mainstays on South Korea’s television broadcasts in recent months. But they’re not the only girl group in the past year that has seen a resurgence in popularity. Another are Laboum with their 2016 song Journey to Atlantis.

Oh My Girl, a relatively popular girl group, has also seen older songs and B-sides gain traction over the past year; as when Taeyeon recommended Rollin’, Oh My Girl saw a lot of support after another popular female singer, IU, covered the band’s B-side Dolphin last year.

According to Kim, some of this may derive from the success of the 2019 television programme Queendom, where several K-pop girl groups faced off, and their music was reintroduced and reinterpreted. The show was hugely popular in South Korea, and spurred interest in many female acts.

An equivalent male programme, Kingdom , is currently on air and features several boy bands facing off.

Laboum’s 2016 song Journey to Atlantis has seen in popularity again in the past year.
The popularity of retro trends in South Korea may also be spurring people to take a look at past years’ music. Some have suggested that sleeper hits and shows like Queendom that look at older releases may be tied into the social movement of holding bullies in the entertainment world to task, and of giving credit to underdogs. The state of the world because of Covid-19 may also play a role.

“I’m not sure,” admits Kim. “But people, tired of the pandemic, might miss music or other cultural items they enjoyed in the pre-pandemic era, so their response to or rediscovery of older songs will continue.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Female fans key to success of K-pop girl groups