I cried over a K-Pop group the other day. And I’m not embarrassed. I don’t mean I wailed like a Beatlemaniac, not that there’s anything wrong with that (there isn’t). But yes, I sobbed real tears, streaming down my face, for a K-Pop group. October 24 was the two year anniversary of Ateez, the first K-Pop group I’ve loved since infancy, and my babies are no longer rookies. 😭 As I watched these eight talented young men perform their milestone stage, my emotions completely overwhelmed me. I felt motherly pride. Because they’re one of the few groups I’ve stanned since predebut, and the most successful of those, it felt extra special to me. Atiny number in the millions, but only a few thousand of us were with them before eight made one team.
Something you learn when you get into K-Pop is that you are quite often late jumping onto a bandwagon. I was pitifully late to the bandwagon of K-Pop altogether (Nov ‘17), but even early adopters of K-Pop are certain to have been tardy to the party of at least one group they stan. Most of us aren’t discoverers, we’re converts, ushered into a fold by someone already on the inside. How many times have you thought you stumbled upon a group no one else knew about only to find 10+ “Unhelpful Guide“ videos already uploaded? You feel like Madame Curie as you download your “Discover Weekly,” only to find that you’ve long since missed the boat sailing around with those groups’ first fans.
The exception to this is if you were one of the few people watching MBC’s talent show on April 11, 1992 who said, “man, this Seo Taijji group kicks butt, I’m becoming their fan today, and every other K-Pop artist too, from now until the end of eternity!” Hey, someone like that might exist! Another exception is if you stan only one successful group that you lucked into discovering at debut (or earlier) and have ridden their wave, and their wave only, from there on out. Those people definitely exist. But if either of those exceptions don’t describe you, then you’re probably late to some fandom, somewhere, somehow. It’s OK, most of us are, it’s nothing to feel bad or ashamed about. Someone’s provenance in a fandom doesn’t define their value in it. But sometimes it sure feels that way.
When you’re late to a fandom, you occasionally feel like the in-law at a family reunion. It doesn’t matter how many years ago you married into the family, or how devoted you are to it, you’re simply never gonna have the same pedigree as those in the bloodline. Whenever you enter an established fandom, at some point you’ll encounter the long-timers going on about “the early days” or “pre-debut time” and suddenly you’re left out of the conversation. This is why we continue to hunt and hope that we will someday find ourselves in the genesis of a fandom. It’s exciting to be a group’s first fans!
With 30-70 kpop acts debuting every year, there’s plenty to choose from, and every one of them needs ardent fans. The opportunities to not just jump on a bandwagon, but BUILD one, are seemingly endless. But don’t get too excited. Less than a handful of debuting groups become even subjectively successful, and still fewer objectively so. If you habitually stan unknown debuting groups, you may find yourself rich in “first fan credibility,” but frustrated as your faves don’t take off. It’s unfortunate, but the majority of K-Pop acts are lower-profile. Many are neglected, poorly-funded, under-managed… but they ALL have fans, even if it’s just a few hundred. We all have that mutual that stans 5 groups you’ve never heard of, has been with them since day one, and will gladly educate you on all of them. It doesn’t take long, because… well… there’s usually not many songs to hear, or mvs to stream, or a reality show to watch… There’s one Unhelpful Guide, and this fan is the uploader. Don’t get me wrong, fans like this are freaking AWESOME, I love them, I truly admire their devotion to their underdog ults. But they’re not having the fan experience I desire to have in K-Pop. I need more than one song, I need more than a sprinkling of content. I don’t thrive on being underfed.
To this end, some fans may only stan debut groups from the Big 3 or similarly affluent companies. Stanning a high-profile debut is a near guarantee that your new faves will not wither away in anonymity. You’ll get more content than you could possibly need, and First Wins, ROTYs and SOTYs are actually realistic possibilities! Sure, not every Big 3 debut is a gigantic success, but every one has the potential to be. In other words, if you’re placing your bet on a current SM, BigHit, or JYP rookie group, you’re not exactly picking a long shot. This translates to less clout for early fans of these groups. Sure you were first on the bandwagon, but so were a million other people; you’re not special.
It must be quite a feeling to stan a group through a climb from the bottom to the very top. I don’t have affection for ginormous fandoms in general, but I admire those fans within them that have been there during the hardscrabble early days. These first fans took a genuine risk falling in love with a team that could have languished in obscurity; they jumped in heart first, for better or worse. It’s gotta feel great to see your ults finally reap the reward for years of hard work and know that you had a small part in their success by supporting them from the beginning.
I got a small taste of that feeling on October 24th, 2020. It felt so incredibly special! I know that Ateez has many more years of hard work ahead of them, and I know that my part in supporting them is infinitesimally small. But I’m 100% in it for the long haul, for better or for worse. And every milestone they hit, I know I will cry pride-filled tears of joy like the K-Pop mama I am!