What Does K-pop Have to Do With U.S. Politics? Plenty

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Maybe the first time you heard of K-pop fans, or maybe even K-pop music, was in the wake of President Trump’s campaign rally last weekend in Tulsa, Okla. But it will not be the last.

TikTokkers came up with the idea of ordering thousands of tickets to Trump’s rally with no intention of showing up, in hopes of making the arena embarrassingly empty. Whether the TikTokkers or COVID-19 was the reason for low turnout is up for debate. What is clear, however, is that K-pop fans took the TikTokkers’ idea and signal-boosted it across social media with lightning speed and algorithm-savvy tactics. It was only the most recent of a number of social media disruptions caused by K-pop fans, which I believe will increase, especially as the presidential election draws closer.   

Loosely, K-pop is the term given to pop music created by artists from South Korea, typically by what are erroneously referred to as boy bands and girl bands. (These are grown men and women.) The songs’ lyrics are mostly in Korean with some English words. But that has proven no inhibitor to the genre’s worldwide growth. The beats and grooves are universally appealing, the artists’ choreography is spellbinding, and the artists themselves, by and large, tend to project an agreeable, even wholesome persona and are increasingly associated with charitable causes. Like any musical genre, the songs cover the range of emotions, but much of the music is positive and affirming. This is music you can dance to AND feel good about supporting, as opposed to wallowing in whiny emo rock or bloodying your head with nihilistic metal. 

But you don’t really need to know about K-pop music. It’s the K-pop fans you need to worry about. If you’re involved in politics, government, advocacy or communications and you don’t know about K-pop fans, then you’re engaging in professional malpractice. 

Why haven’t you heard K-pop? Pretty simple. The songs don’t get the same American radio airplay as English songs. (Though K-pop gets big radio airplay in Europe and Latin America.) Even in 2020, radio is still a common touchstone for the non-digital tastemakers, i.e., the Olds, who continue to decide much of what is considered important in American culture. If they don’t hear K-pop on the radio, they reason, it must not be important. Our parents probably felt the same way about rap back in the day.

Want some numbers? In a New York Times article, a Twitter spokeswoman said that K-pop was the most tweeted-about music genre worldwide, with more than 6.1 billion tweets in 2019, an increase of 15% from the year before. 

The most popular K-pop act now is the band BTS, which was the most tweeted-about artist for the past three years, Twitter said. That beats Beyoncé, Taylor Swift or Kanye, artists you may have heard of.

CNN reported that in April 2019:  “BTS became only the third group in 50 years to have three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 charts in less than 12 months, joining the ranks of The Beatles and The Monkees.” Earlier this year, Forbes reported that ticket site StubHub said tickets for BTS shows worldwide were outselling tickets for shows by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.

Not without reason have K-pop fans been called “the most potent online force in the world right now.” They have boosted their musical idols to global success, as measured by music and ticket sales and YouTube views. They have helped get politicians elected in Korea and raised funds for social causes globally. And they have rained down havoc on their enemies. Now they’re setting their sights on American politics and our culture wars. There’s a digital storm coming.

K-pop is made for a generation that gets its music not from vinyl or CDs but from YouTube. K-pop fans don’t just use online tools, like we use Amazon for shopping. They are digital natives who live their lives online. As such, they have become highly proficient at understanding how digital tools and social media work in ways that mystify the establishment. 

The vast majority – vast majority – of K-pop fans are NOT Korean. K-pop fans are multi-ethnic (in the U.S., mostly people of color); they live everywhere around the globe, are male and female, and can be any age, though the highest concentration of fans is younger. Politically, they skew left, embracing LGBT issues, globalism, anti-racism activity, and feel-good self-affirmation.

Quoting T.K. Park, the pen name of the author of the popular “Ask a Korean” blog: “K-pop fans gather online, around a shared interest over an idol star. Their organization is decentralized -- there is no clear leadership or hierarchy, but they nonetheless coordinate smoothly to create high impact events both online and offline.” (To read this entire instructive Twitter thread, click here.) 

Now, K-pop fans have focused on U.S. politics.

Earlier this month, they crashed a Dallas police department's app that was soliciting videos of illegal activity by flooding it with K-pop fan cam videos instead, as a way to protect protesters. They attacked racist hashtags on Twitter, such as #whiteoutwednesday, and flooded those with K-pop fan cam videos, rendering the hashtags impotent. K-pop and K-pop fans have been attracted to the Black Lives Matter cause, and BTS donated $1 million to the movement. Within 24 hours of the BTS donation, the amount was matched by K-pop fans around the world, spontaneously. That’s fundraising.

While the K-pop fans’ impact on physical attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally is cloudy, the impact on the most valuable of political assets – voter data – is real. If a voter requests a ticket to a rally, that person is considered a strong supporter and likely to give money. Signing up for a ticket usually requires an email or phone number, and presidential campaigns use this data, and sell it to down-ballot candidates, to solicit donations. 

If a campaign gets 50,000 ticket requests from real supporters, that’s a gold mine of fundraising data. If, however, the ticket requests come from political enemies using phony email addresses and temporary phone numbers from Google Voice or Burner – people who would never donate to the candidate’s campaign – then the data set can be rendered useless. It’s “sugar in the gas tank,” as one economist wrote on Twitter.

If you’re a communicator or political consultant, you are naturally asking yourself: “Okay, how can I use K-pop fans to my benefit?” You can’t. No more than you can hope to hold a cobra by the tail and aim it at your enemy.

First off, whom would you call? There is no Media Contact for K-pop fans. They are a global network in the most 21st century use of the term, united over social media by hashtags and symbols, such as the purple heart used by the BTS ARMY fan club. Second, they can’t be bought. Any attempt to do so would backfire; the candidate or brand attempting to strike a paid partnership with K-pop fans or otherwise cozy up in a disingenuous way would be outed and crushed on social media by the fans. 

You can certainly learn digital marketing lessons from K-pop fans, and should. But if you are dead set on trying to harness the power of K-pop fans’ global network, your best bet is to be authentic in your candidacy or product messaging, honestly embrace the causes and narratives that appeal to fans and cross your fingers. Otherwise, you proceed at your peril.         

 

Frank Ahrens is a principal at BGR PR. He lived in Seoul for three years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.”



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