<The Canberra Time> "K-pop's growing international fan base promotes culture and identity"

When Korean boy band Got7 take the stage at Jeff's Shed this month, their audience will be an eclectic cultural mix – much like the band itself.

While they are the latest K-pop stars to follow in the footsteps of 2012's global phenomenon, Psy – whose Gangnam Style clip is YouTube's most-viewed video – as well as the band's quintessential K-pop good looks, and their all-singing, all-dancing triple threat, Got7 brings a multicultural diversity with members of Thai, Chinese and Taiwanese backgrounds, as well as Korean.

It's all part of the compelling appeal for Melbourne fans such as Susan Lin. "Got7 is almost like a worldwide international-no-language-barrier group … It's just amazing because they are able to connect with so many people in the world," she says.

Beneath K-pop's glitzy surface, the connection its performers have with the fans can run deep. For some, it's even changed the way they see themselves and their identity.

    Beneath K-pop's glitzy surface, the connection its performers have with the fans can run deep

    Beneath K-pop's glitzy surface, the connection its performers have with the fans can run deep Photo: AP

    Lin and fellow Melburnian university student Sara Lui remember what first drew them to K-pop in their early teens. The 18-year-old friends pause and look at each other before laughing.

    "It was a whole mixture of things. A lot of the times it was like, 'well the really pretty members'," Lui says hesitantly, with another laugh.

    "Koreans are hot, we all know that, right? But I think I was kind of amazed how every group has to dance and sing at the same time as well, and you don't see that a lot in Western culture,"  Lin says.

    The girls, whose favourite groups include BTS and Big Bang, are part of the growing international K-pop fan base.

      Korean pop sensation, Psy, has YouTube's most-watched video with <i>Gangnam Style</I>.

      Korean pop sensation, Psy, has YouTube's most-watched video with Gangnam Style. Photo: Marco Del Grande

      Yet, Hyunjoon Shin,  a cultural studies professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, says K-pop shouldn't be treated as something new, or specifically Korean.

      "K-pop's ancestors are not in Korean popular music before the K-pop, but how that kind of commercial pop music developed in different parts of the world," he says.

        Academics suggest the likes of K-pop group Big Bang are filling the gap for idol music worldwide.

        Academics suggest the likes of K-pop group Big Bang are filling the gap for idol music worldwide. 

        K-pop is just filling the gap for idol music worldwide, Shin says. After the internet initially swamped the music industry 15 years ago, the South Korean music industry almost died, but K-pop helped revive it.

        "[The] K-pop industry was very desperately exporting their idols all over Asia first and then beyond Asia. So they … were quite keen on using YouTube and other new platforms and internet," he says.

        Stacy Nam, the marketing and communications manager from My Music Taste, a South Korean concert crowdsourcing platform that has put on K-pop concerts worldwide, says social media has hugely influenced the global popularity of K-pop.

        "Forums have helped K-pop communities form and flourish. Platforms like YouTube and Tumblr especially.

        "The ability for fans to be able to watch subtitled videos and show clips of Korean music videos and shows, has a definite correlation to the rise of K-pop," she says.

        Nam says the quality of K-pop music videos is just one of the appeals for Western fans.

        "K-pop artists also have an appeal that's not as polarising as many Western artists. They have an innocence and wholesomeness that is appealing to many fans from Western countries," she says.

        But she says now the South Korean music industry is under pressure to keep up with current music trends.

        "No one knows how long the Hallyu Wave is going to last, so industries are continuously thinking of ways to ensure that K-pop doesn't remain just a passing fad," she says.

        One way to fuel the wave is by holding concerts abroad in cities such as Melbourne, which has hosted big name boy groups such as BTS, Big Bang, B.A.P and Seventeen.

        Susan Lin remembers when she saw Big Bang, the group that got her into K-pop, live in 2015.

        "Oh my heart, my poor heart," she says, her eyes lighting up and voice becoming higher. "It was really exciting, I was like 'oh, my god I'm in the same room as them, oh my gosh'. But it was just really amazing. We saw their talents as well and they interacted with the fans a lot, which was really special."

        Stacy Nam says Western fans  often react differently at concerts because they don't have as much access to K-pop and are often seeing the artists for the first time.

        "Western fans emulate Korean fan behaviour with the fan chants, light sticks, balloons. While Korean fans follow along with the songs via fan chants, Western fans like to stand and dance to the music as well, which Korean fans don't do as much," she says.

        The growing popularity of K-pop in Melbourne has also opened up the market for local entrepreneurs.

        Julia Kim, director of Happy Town, the only permanent K-pop merchandise store in Melbourne, had no idea how popular K-pop was in Melbourne.

        "A lot of the K-pop fans coming to our store, they just know [about it] mouth to mouth, so it was really good and we were so surprised … it was so quick," she says.

        Kim, who also has a medical skincare clinic, noticed a trend in her clients and saw another business opportunity.

        "I realised that a lot of Asian girls coming to me for the skincare, they love K-pop music. So we supply the Korean skincare product, also we supply the K-pop stars' albums and merchandise," she says.

        Alongside buying merchandise, another way K-pop fans show their love for the culture is through dance.

        Will TK a dancer, choreographer and director of Melbourne-based dance crew, AO Crew, says dance is an important facet of K-pop culture.

        "Most of the K-pop music in recent years, groups or solos, will incorporate a package of the music itself; the dance routine and the fashion that goes with the music, put together into a concept," he says.

        Fans learn the dances of K-pop songs and upload dance covers to websites such as YouTube.

        Some take their passion even further, like AO Crew, who won the right to represent Australia/Oceania in the 2013 K-pop Festival in South Korea. But one of the most important things about K-pop culture is the strong sense of community within the fandom.

        "I think it is a product of the K-pop culture that the community is so supportive and dedicated. I feel like K-pop brings people together," Will says.

        Sara Lui feels the same. While she was in France on exchange, she met a K-pop fan and they became instant friends.

        "As soon as we both heard that we both listened to K-pop, we hugged and everything. It was really bizarre, but I felt like there was this underlying connection between us," she says.

        While Sara and Susan do listen to various music genres, they feel a stronger link within the K-pop community. "You feel more connected so you're more likely to talk about stuff you're worried about.

        "Even if you don't know them, you feel comfortable to share because they're all so nice and welcoming as a community," Susan says.

        Julia Kim, a big music fan herself, hopes to foster a greater sense of community between fans at HappyTown too.

        "I just want [HappyTown] to be your place, whenever you come to the city. Especially the young generation … they don't have enough money to go some cafeteria all the time. They just come and have fun together," she says.

        But for many fans, their appreciation doesn't stop at K-pop. Lim says K-pop opened her up to South Korean culture as a whole.

        "I think as well as K-Pop, I started liking Korean food as well, or Korean culture, not just the music itself, but also the culture behind it," she says.

        Kim has seen this change. After arriving in Australia from South Korea 24 years ago, she says many Australians had no idea where her country was.

        So she is glad now that through K-pop, people have a greater understanding of her culture.

        "I'm really proud … Australian people love K-pop music and are interested in Korean language and culture as well," she says.

        Yet, K-pop hasn't just made people appreciate South Korean culture, it's also helped them connect with their own culture and identity.

        Will TK says K-pop is a way to make sense of who he is. Of Chinese heritage, the dancer moved to New Zealand when he was young and then moved to Melbourne in 2013. But South Korea, his birthplace, has always been home.

        "Living away from home for so long, t's like a way to connect with my family. K-pop has really helped me establish my identity, not just as an artist but as a kid who grew up overseas and away from home," he says.

        For Asian-Australian Lui, K-pop helped her accept and appreciate her Asian identity. "I really didn't like myself for doing this, but when I was younger, I tried to like reject my Asian-ness because obviously it was different to all the white people," she says.

        She remembers being ashamed to bring her Asian lunches to school. "I almost completely forgot my first language, which was Cantonese, because I was trying to reject it so much," she says.

        But she started to change in high school. After seeing her favourite K-pop idols eating weird but typically Asian foods "like it's normal", helped her embrace her Asian identity.

        So while on the surface, K-pop comes across as just this flashy style of pop music, to fans it means so much more than that. 

        "You're seeing someone that you adore, doing the same things, eating the same things that you're doing or doing traditional Asian things that you usually do with your family … you just feel more acceptance with your Asian self," she says. "It's pretty cool."

        Got7 perform at the Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Sunday, April 23.