Not even the world’s best fortune teller would have been able to convince me five years ago that I would, one day, become a K-pop fan. I ignored every friend who tried to “turn” me and, while I did not scoff at them directly, I always had a ready, closed-off reply like “I just don’t get it” or “Aren’t all the groups just the same?”
Fast forward to today, my Instagram feed is a mix of Blackpink’s Jennie swapping Chanel suits like it’s nothing, and overzealous fan accounts for each of BTS’ seven members. My Instagram Story Highlights are also filled with photos of me posing with finger hearts.
It’s not just on social media. On my bookshelf, standing beside postcards from friends and an issue of indie food magazine Lucky Peach, is a stuffed anthropomorphic heart with beady eyes and a thick, almost beak-like yellow mouth. His name is Tata, a character created by my BTS bias, V. For those who are not well-versed in K-pop-speak, that means it was drawn by my favorite member from the “biggest boyband in the world.”
I was not always a K-pop believer. In fact, I was actually a hater.
While Korean pop culture only recently blew up in the West, it has had a strong following in the Philippines (and most of Asia) for years — one that I actively tried to resist. My iPod as a teenager stored a mix of 90s alternative rock and indies I stole from shows like The O.C. and One Tree Hill. It had pop songs too, but always from the American Top 40. Back then, I thought these were “cool.”
Being into Asian pop culture was not, or so I was told.
This has a lot to do with the Philippines’ one-sided love affair with America. In 2014, a Pew Research study found that Filipinos like the United States more than Americans do. This extends to Filipinos’ entertainment preferences, which is very Western. Just five years ago, music from K-pop groups were only played by campy radio stations. Those that took themselves too seriously never did, even though they had no problem with equally poppy Katy Perry tracks.
Being a pretentious teenager, I imbibed this mindset and shrugged off my love for girl group 2NE1’s “I Don’t Care” as a guilty pleasure. “It’s fun,” I thought, “but only for variety shows and kids’ parties.” To me, K-pop was corny and its fans cult-like.
Then, I traveled around Asia more and found that outside the Philippines, I was a minority. Sure, K-pop is geared towards teenage girls all over the world, but they’re much more mainstream in places like Japan and Hong Kong.
Feeling slight FOMO as a self-proclaimed pop culture nut (pretentious with a capital P, I tell you), I kicked myself for being so judgmental. And so last year, I finally dipped my toes into the K-pop pool.
I started with BTS.
One night last July, a friend who considered herself Army (the BTS fandom), linked me the music video to their song “Spring Day.” I took it as a sign and watched.
The video opens with V standing at a train station, before kneeling and resting his head on the snow-covered tracks. Then came one cinematic frame after another.
“This is K-pop?” I thought, shocked by the ballad’s complex metaphors on love, life, and death.
I spent that night watching more videos my friend sent me, reading all the random trivia she had on the band, and downloading them all into my brain as if it were a blank hard drive. I had spent hours scrolling through Netflix and Spotify looking for something fresh from Hollywood (and failing), while all this and more were just waiting for me on my side of the world.
My toe-dipping instantly became a full-on plunge. I clicked on every video thumbnail that featured BTS members Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. Their music videos scratched the same itch other boy bands like One Direction and Backstreet Boys did for me in the past, and their polite banter in interviews were soothing in the same way The Great British Bake Off is for some people.
They were my gateway band and, not long after, I was listening to other groups too. I excitedly guessed the film references in TWICE’s “What is Love?” music video. Unlike my teenage self who turned up her nose at the Wonder Girls’ “Nobody ,” I gamely danced to Momoland’s equally viral hit “BBoom BBoom.”
Eventually, I moved past idol groups and started listening to solo artists like IU, who’s woke commentary on celebrity culture and toxic social media “BBIBBI,” is a supremely underrated bop, at least in the mainstream. Another friend introduced me to indie band Hyukoh, and I still wonder how I’ve spent emotional nights in the past without their cathartic “LOVE YA!"
Much can be said about the K-pop industry. It’s demanding, imposes unrealistic beauty standards, and is sometimes, straight-up abusive. But like how BTS was for me — or Super Junior or Big Bang was for earlier fans — K-pop is also an open invitation into a new culture.
Finding out that BTS was divided into a “hyung” and “maknae” line (older and younger members, respectively), became an unexpected lesson on Korean age hierarchy. Watching Girls' Generation's Tiffany Young talk about her struggles when she moved to South Korea as a trainee helped me understand the Asian-American experience a little bit more.
And, I guess, that’s what pop culture is really for — to open ourselves up to a world we know nothing about, something I had been missing out on until I pressed play that one night in July.
So for the haters, try dipping your toe even just a bit… and see you soon on this side.