The Shape of an Idol

What sort of artist is an idol?

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I first came into contact with K-pop idols in 2009, at 14 years of age, when I learned that one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite German bands – Cinema Bizarre’s “Forever or Never” – had also been recorded by a Korean boy group called SHINee. The following year, most of my German band-loving peers had exchanged the likes of Cinema Bizarre, Tokio Hotel and Killerpilze with Super Junior, BIGBANG, SHINee, amongst others. Most of us had a history with J-pop and J-rock; I myself was briefly hooked on Super Junior because of Heechul’s visuals, which reminded me a bit of Miyavi’s, the visual kei rockstar I adored. It didn’t last long, though; as a Christian girl, my teenage mind was repelled by the label “idol”.

Cinema Bizarre “Forever or Never” live, 2008

Funnily enough, it was BTS’s 2018 song “IDOL” that ended up dragging me back into the industry, attracting me with the layering of Korean traditional percussion music and African beats that made my mornings as a then-freshly graduated (and unemployed) person less burdensome. That was around 2 and a half years ago. My more educated adult mind was able to overlook the negative connotations that the word “idol” communicated to me in the past, but once in a while I still have to explain myself when the topic arises in my daily religious contexts. Calling young stars such a name is a very unsubtle way of stating what they are presented for but, even so, there’s more to the name than a vocabulary choice.

I have said this many times, but I have always been a fan of things, since my late childhood. Being a fan is part of my identity and shapes how I interact with the world. This is relevant because, after becoming a K-pop fan, the process of learning more about what the label “idol” meant and how it informed so much of what made me enjoy these artists completely reshaped how I perceived my own fan experience. This piece is a very personal take, and a rather subjective first attempt at putting into words how my taste ethos changed over the last few years, as well as paying what little homage I can to one of the idols I cherish the most – Hoshi, from the group Seventeen – not just because today is his 25th birthday, but also because coming to appreciate him as much as I do today has a lot to do with my process of figuring out what idols were supposed to be. 

BTS, the biggest K-pop group in the world, stating that they are, indeed, idols. Aug, 2018.

I came into K-pop straight from a long career into different kinds of rock bands, from power pop to pop punk, to punk and stoner rock, and all sorts of sounds deemed “alternative”. My perception as a new K-pop fan was naturally highly informed by this previous experience, but, at the same time, because there was a poignant transition taking place, I had to admit that there had to be something specific, potentially new, attracting me to this very different type of artist (even though there are also important parallels, which even prompted an article about why so many former emo fans crossed over to K-pop). I had in me a deep sense of wanting to be able to appreciate the differences as much as the similarities. Like I mentioned before, I had just graduated, so my head was still full of my Bachelor’s Thesis and all the studying I had done to produce it, and I had enough free time to do my favourite thing: keep studying (by the way, that’s the rough version of how I ended up studying fandoms). I was lucky to make friends that pointed me in the right direction, showing me the songs, videos, live performances, articles and books that helped me lay a foundation to start to make sense of the general landscape of idols in Asia, in a way that gave context to the finished product I was hooked on. 

In early 2020, in a conversation with one of these more experienced fandom friends, she told me that every fan might eventually have to figure out who’s the one idol they will drop all others for once they no longer have the time (and energy) to put into supporting many different people. I remember saying I had no idea who I would choose; but then, not much longer later, shortly after Hoshi’s 24th birthday, I realised he had become my answer to that matter. When I first got into Seventeen, he was not one of the first members to catch my attention, but, the more I learned about the group, the more he intrigued me. Initially, there seemed to be some unusualness to such interest, because all of my favourite idols up until that point shared some specific traits that weren’t the most striking things about him. That made me think deeply about what could have sparked my interest. I ended up realising that my new-found love was a result of a larger process of shift that I was experiencing, and this shift was a result of the thoughts and conclusions I reached after seeking to educate my mind to perceive idols as idols.

Hoshi, in behind the scenes pictures of the music video for his solo debut song “Spider”, released in April this year. In his own words, he is “the kid who goes when you say not to go // “I’m the kid who tries until the end when you tell me not to do something” (from the lyrics of his self-produced unreleased song “Horanghae). Picture retrieved from Weverse.

What makes an idol?

Idol-ness is, in itself, a performance. Idols are a special brand of pop artist, whose persona is specially crafted to maximise the chance of stardom. Such performance is truly an artistic labour – a fact that can be easily ignored according to one’s definition of art. Because it’s a full-time performance, the role of the young people that work hard to bring up their idol-worthy images to life often ends up being overshadowed by the role of agencies and producers in the process. Trainees at K-pop companies spend their youth training in pursuit of their dream of being given the chance to debut in a group[1], and then work for the subsequent years to build relevance and stability, as a group, and as individuals. From the moment a new trainee is signed, and their journey begins, the ultimate goal is the stage; it’s the place where all parts come together, and they present themselves as idol-material, excelling both in singing and dancing to show they are worthy of the support of their fans. But the sovereignty of the stage is just one aspect of their performance. 

Idols were designed to become a source of security and an object of desire, one through which fans could live out their own dreams in the shape of unconditional support. To fulfill this fantasy, becoming an idol fan is made to be like stepping into a transmedia alternate universe, a realm in which all parts of the narrative eventually point back to one another[2], creating the illusion of a world of intimacy between an idol and their fans. In this world, a collective aesthetic utopia of youth is realised; more than just desiring their bodies and their lifestyle, fans are encouraged to perceive themselves as part of the journey. Just as idols grow from their trainee days into mature artists, all of their fans, too, will grow, and work hard to pursue their own aspirations and dreams. 

These processes are perceived as one, such is the architecture of parasocial interactions; in that sense, the idol fannish experience is a labour of (life)time[3] – as companies and idols work together to bring forth the images and texts around which support will be harnessed, fans come into the equation not only through supporting, but also in performing fandom. This performance is expressed through standard, daily fan practices, such as buying goods, voting for prizes and awards, streaming songs and videos, putting together fan events, producing fanart, supporting their brand endorsements. But, as the stage is the moment in which the idol presents their idol-worthiness, fans will also play their role during live performances, as they shake their lightsticks, sing the special fanchants and perform their fan events, holding up slogans with special phrases to their idols.[4] The entire idol system is built on this pact of kinship between idols and fans; and, as such, as Joanna Elfving-Hwang (2018) points out, whatever role one is assigned, being an idol requires never to drop out of character[5].

If being an idol circles back to articulating an idol-worthy expression of the self, the most desirable talent would be the ability to put on a captivating, consistent performance on and off stage. In that sense, when crafting their personas, the genius of performing as an idol is knowing how to use what they have to build a bridge between who they are and the role they are supposed to fulfill. Since every idol that gets to debut has gone through hard prepping for the chance of stepping on a stage, the very desired life-long fan support that will enable their careers relies greatly on their ability to make people fall in love with their dreams, and dream along with them. That’s why a compelling backstory plays such an important role in boosting a successful rendition, like a compass that informs the overall direction of the narrative and makes their story of growth all the more believable, and potentially sustainable.

Hoshi’s surprise appearance to the fans waiting in line to watch Seventeen’s concert in Newark, US. Jan, 2020.

Hoshi, the idol 

Hoshi, my favourite idol, is a force of nature. His stage name choice is a combination of the words “horangi” [호랑이, tiger] and “siseon” [시선, gaze]. His playful, talkative persona makes abundant use of loud cuteness aesthetics to showcase a soft, endearing side, which makes a great counterpoint to the real awe-inspiring tiger qualities he expresses in performance mode. Born in 1996 as Kwon Soonyoung, he made his official debut in May 2015 as the main dancer amongst the 13 members of Seventeen, after training for four years. Because of the large number of members, the group is internally divided into teams according to specialisation; there’s the Vocal Team, the Hip Hop Team and the Performance Team, of which Hoshi is the leader. He’s recognised as an earnest performer, a talented choreographer, and a pacesetter deeply obsessed with both the practice room and the stage. His absolute love for hard work and enduring the processes is one of his greatest assets – his passion transcends every step of the staircase that leads from the commitment and hardships of preparations into the place under the spotlight. 

Looking back, I believe that his ability to ooze passion in everything he did was what made me enjoy watching him so much. As I made my way through more and more of Seventeen’s transmedia content, he told a consistent story of a hard-working artist, who defied all odds to build himself up from nothing. As a young boy with a dream of becoming an artist and a solid background in taekwondo, he realised that his physical abilities were enough to give him a shot. He found little support at home, but he had enough thirst in himself to do his best to prove he could make it, so he created his own opportunities. At first, he practised on his own, at home. He went on to form his own dance club in school, entering multiple dance competitions, and even winning some. It was in one of these competitions that he succeeded in being scouted into an agency. Since day one, he became known for being the trainee that worked the hardest; this reputation has followed him ever since, and has been reasserted every single time he presented himself. 

Hoshi’s playfulness makes a sweet counterbalance to his fierce performance as a dancer. Seventeen “Ode to You” Tour in Seoul, picture by Eyes on You. Aug, 2019.

When he’s dancing, he’s untouchable and enticing; on camera he’s a reliable and active figure of comfort, with an approachable aura that makes his fans regard him as one like a friend. These many sides shape the complexity of his “tiger power”, the brand that summarises and iconifies the genius of his idol-ness. Kwon Soonyoung, who says that he’s actually an introvert, often chooses the energetic, loud and bordering on the insane as a booster, and seems to have his artistic mind set on putting on a show, whatever the assignment is. I would even argue that the differences between his performance and what he sometimes describes as his “true self” make the show more interesting to watch. He can count on the reliable support of his compelling backstory that makes the complete package being presented on stage easier to believe, and more enjoyable to watch – as if we could see the extent of the road that he’s walked so far every single time the lights are on him. There’s a sense of coherence that he presents across all forms of media which is hard to describe, but, ultimately, it translates to me as a sense of commitment and assurance that he’s infatuated with his own dreams as much as us fans are infatuated with him. 

His ability to communicate himself coherently over the years is perhaps the reason why it’s so easy to fall in love with his dreams and desire to watch him fulfill all of them. That was very evident during “Spider”, his remarkable solo debut this past April. The release is a great display of all that he has built ever since he decided he wanted to be on a stage; the luscious track, written and produced by his long-time friend and fellow Seventeen member Woozi, allowed him to show himself as a fully-grown artist beyond the group, highlighting his poignant moves, sultry vocals, beautiful angles and addictive visuals. The song is an easy listen that begs for a replay, and the music video, as well as the multiple stage performances and even the dance practice are a visual feast, as he makes his way through the backup dancers and the rectangular frames that are part of the choreography. His high quality standards are noticeable in every aspect of the release, since its inception, as described by him in the behind the scenes clips and interviews he gave about the song. It’s not so different from Hoshi, the SVT member, but it’s a few steps beyond, like the feeling of walking a bit further in order to get a bigger picture.

If you’re my close friend I have probably made you watch this at least once.

The shift

Taste is a very tricky topic to navigate, because there are multiple collective and individual, external and internal layers behind what biases and binds us; there are several unarticulated aspects of subjectivity which are both like a sifter and a strainer filtering and shaping how we digest everything that we ingest. Even more when it comes down to the many different kinds of fan discourse that exist, not only because of the emotional qualities, but also the communitarian aspect that entails the general perception of being a fan as being part of an extended array of people sharing the same taste. The extent to which fan taste should be discussed is highly debatable since, after a while, telling apart individual reactions to collective speech constructions can be hard. From the get-go, I stated that this was a personal account, because that’s what a person’s own bias will always come down to. 

But, even in that sense, even though coming to appreciate Hoshi, specifically, was a subjective endeavour, there’s a more general outlook in question, of my process of coming to love a dancer above all others, which is the thing I’m calling a personal shift, and the main product of my own experience of growing in knowledge. That sounds stupidly simple, and perhaps not worthy of a lengthy piece, but reshaping a lifelong perception of the worth of the multiple mediums through which expression can be articulated is quite a challenge. In Architecture school, my greatest asset was my ability to translate images and space into words, and vice-versa. Even my skills as a foreign language teacher are largely indebted to my talent to overthink verbal speech. As a result, someone’s ability with words has long been my biggest source of admiration – the sort of perception I nurtured growing up as a fan of things, and which I carried into idol fandom.

Initially, all of my favourite idols were the talented songwriters, the ones that had a poetics to them that was articulated verbally, going as far as releasing books. Even if I was so addicted to the complete package of the show, at the end of the day I still subconsciously attributed more value to those who could express their artistry in words. Getting deeper into the non-verbal contents of K-pop and how every aspect added its own value to the finished product made me more appreciative of the many layers of the show as equally important; the core of what I called appreciating idols as idols would be an overall sense of seeing each one for the role that they play on an equal footing – from the ones who write and the ones who sing most parts in songs to the ones that provide striking visuals but don’t necessarily lead performances. One of the reasons why idol groups have a diversity of looks, personalities, talents and assigned roles is to maximise appeal; the wider the possibilities, the higher the chances of someone’s story resonating with someone watching – because what is being communicated by one end still depends largely on the other end’s ability to get it.

A fancam of Hoshi dancing to Seventeen’s 2016 mega hit VERY NICE. Once Twitter’s #1 public enemy, fancams were one of the things that I struggled the get the point of when I first became a fan of K-pop but that became a natural part of my experience the more I enjoyed the performance aspects. I have watched this one countless times. Jul, 2016.

Once I had opened myself to cherish the various facets of how idols articulated themselves, I could channel my long-standing enjoyment of the ability to build up a coherent artistic narrative into appreciating an idol’s overall performance more wholly, which eventually developed into love for Hoshi, the idol and artist. Becoming his fan was a bit like figuring out how much I earnestly desired to find new points in the fabric of reality in which the sensibility of bodies and souls seemed to connect with the higher orders of the world – the window of possibility which leads into a taste of the numinous, if we’re lucky. It’s as simple as a deep craving for beauty. There are countless collective and individual, external and internal layers behind what biases and binds us as we make our separate and communitarian ways into the world, but, as such, it is a constant that time will keep going, and we will keep changing along the way. That’s when an idol’s performance points back to their successful journey to the stage, the intersection between falling in love with watching someone, and falling in love with their dreams, and wishing to turn that passion into support. That’s how a fan is born.

Even so, regardless of my big words, ultimately, the artist-fan exchange is a transaction. The reason for the complex structure that makes up the pact of kinship between idols and their fans is the need for steady, life-long support that will enable the careers of all the people involved in putting the show together. And what do fans get out of it? Various are the reasons why we give way to the emotional currency we have to offer in choosing to keep supporting and enjoying something we are fans of. Perhaps I also crave the feeling of doing life together, as distant parallel lines in a huge world, that will meet somewhere in the distant future, in the place where souls gather to look back on the journey. Even if that comes across as overly optimistic… Maybe it’s just my pandemic-struck mind in need of distraction speaking louder than my best senses, but it’s been said that the beauty of the world is like the mouth of a labyrinth. I love writing about my favourite artists, because they help me think about myself too. And I love writing about Hoshi, but I love watching him the most. Like strong, bitter coffee, every single time he steps forward I’m left with a taste that lingers on my tongue, gives me extra energy in the early mornings and might keep me up at night if it’s convenient. And that’s my proudly, fully, completely, passionately biased opinion on what makes him a great idol.

Itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout;
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out;
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain;
And the itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again.

OTHER Readings:

Filmi Girl. “Why an Idol Group isn’t a Boy Band.” The Idol Cast and Other Writings. Mar 4, 2021.

Musikosmos. In the Spider’s Web.” Musikal Kosmos. Mar 29, 2021.

Sara Delgado. SEVENTEEN’s HOSHI Talks First Solo Mixtape “Spider”.” TEEN VOGUE. Apr 2, 2021.

[INSIDE SEVENTEEN] HOSHI Mixtape ‘Spider’ Behind. SEVENTEEN Official Youtube Channel. 14:07. Apr 12, 2021.

Footnotes:

[1] Many idols who begin training at a very young age and/or who debut as teenagers might interrupt their education due to the demands of training/performing (Saeji et al. 2018: 12)

[2] In “Idols: The Image of Desire in Japanese Consumer Capitalism”, Galbraith (2012: 186) describes this using the term “inescapable intertextuality”: 

“Constantly present and exposed, the idol becomes “real,” the basis of feelings of intimacy among viewers, though this is independent of “reality.” John Fiske (1987, 116) describes the situation as “inescapable intertextuality,” where all texts refer to one another and not to any external reality. This is not to say that reality does not exist, but rather that what is accessible in cultural products is a construction of reality, which must be understood on its own terms. “Images are made and read in relation to other images and the real is read as an image” (Ibid., 117). The meanings of images, however temporary, are made (or negotiated) in interaction with images.”

[3] for more on this, I’d recommend specifically Lee Eungchel’s “Always Fans of Something: Fandom and Concealment of Taste in the Daily Lives of Young Koreans” (2021). Huge thanks to Prof. CedarBough T. Saeji who shared a link to this paper which sparked in me the desire to write this piece. 

[4] About fan practices, there’s a special place in my heart for the dense autoethnography “K- Popping: Korean Women, K-Pop, and Fandom” (Kim, 2016) 

[5] Showing consistency between the multiple venues of interaction with fans, media and other spectators is key to forming both the long-lasting bond with fans, as well as presenting a reliable, worthy image as a celebrity before society. (Elfving-Hwang 2018)

REFERENCES

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. (2018) “K-Pop Idols, Artificial Beauty and Affective Fan Relationships in South Korea.” In Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies, edited by Anthony Elliott: 190-201. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/36343905/K_pop_Idols_Artificial_Beauty_and_Affective_Fan_Relationships_in_South_Korea 

Galbraith, Patrick W. (2016) “The Labor of Love: On the Convergence of Fan and Corporate Interests in Contemporary Idol Culture in Japan”. In Media Convergence in Japan, edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin: 232-64. Tokyo: Kinema Club. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/25849863/The_Labor_of_Love_On_the_Convergence_of_Fan_and_Corporate_Interests_in_Contemporary_Idol_Culture_in_Japan 

Kim, J. (2017). K- Popping: Korean Women, K-Pop, and Fandom. UC Riverside. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5pj4n52q

Lee,  Eungchel (2021). “Always Fans of Something: Fandom and Concealment of Taste in the Daily Lives of Young Koreans.” In Korean Anthropology Review 5: 53-78. Retrieved from: https://s-space.snu.ac.kr/handle/10371/174377 

Saeji et al. (2018) “Regulating the Idol: The Life and Death of a South Korean Popular Music Star.” In Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16 (13:3): 1-32. Retrieved from: https://apjjf.org/2018/13/Saeji.html 

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