K-Pop with Alexi Alario

A conversation about Stan Twitter, music globalization, and the international appeal of K-Pop.

Published November 16, 2023

Alexi Alario is a podcastress, fashion theorist, and K-Pop stan based in NYC. She joins the mag for a conversation on idol world-building, Stan Twitter, and how K-Pop became mainstream in the West.

Follow Alexi on Instagram, listen to Nymphet Alumni, or subscribe to their Patreon. You can also listen to the recorded version of our conversation on Spotify.

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USURPATOR: How do I introduce you? A podcastress from Nymphet Alumni, and you're a K-Pop stan.

ALEXI ALARIO: Yes, this is true. I would say since 2018, I've been a pretty dedicated K-Pop stan. It’s come and gone in waves. I definitely had a phase where I was out of control, maybe like a year in. When I was first getting into it, I was obsessed with the information and consuming the media, but then I had a phase where it was actually financially affecting me a lot because it's a pretty big market of physical commodities, collectibles, things like that.

U: Was this with multiple K-Pop groups? I know that you're into Loona.

A: Yeah, all of them have the same system of releasing albums that come with a bunch of shit that you're supposed to collect. So there was that, but also when I was into BTS, they released this iPhone game called BTS World. It was essentially just gambling, where you would draw these cards that had different values. Half of it was this card-based gambling system, and then the other half of it was this parasocial AI boyfriend simulator. I spent a lot of money essentially doing BTS gambling.

U: Gambling on what?

A: I don't know, just drawing cards with photos of them to play this stupid game. If you leveled up, you could have fake Facetime calls with them. It was just pre-recorded videos that they would make.

U: Is it still running?

A: I honestly hope not, it ruined my life.

U: Like… how much money?

A: I really don't want to think about it, a stupid amount of money. They had this really demanding timing system where you had to check in every 2 hours to collect whatever arbitrary money system that they had in there. I just remember hanging out with my friends and them being like, “Who are you texting?” And I was literally texting a fake BTS to get fake money for this game.

I really don't know what was going on at that point, but the system is designed for you to spend money in these micro-transactional ways, and a lot of it is based on chance and luck. Like, the reason why most K-Pop fans will buy so many copies of an album is because you collect these photo cards. Every time an album is released, there will be at least three or four versions of a physical album, and each version has a different theme. So the design, the color scheme will be different, with different stuff inside, and you're supposed to buy them all. Even if you’re only a fan of one member out of like—Loona, for example, has 12 members. I was a pretty big fan of maybe three of them. I would buy multiple albums to try to get all of the cards of one member, but you only get three in each one, right? So if you didn't get the ones you wanted and you just buy another. You're also boosting their album sales while you do that. You want them to perform well on the charts, and it's a hack for that.

U: Okay, yeah, because my main thesis here, I'm trying to do this series on music globalization, how international music became mainstream in America. I guess this is just my assumption, but I feel like it happens largely through the internet. That's how fandoms spread. How did you start getting into it?

A: It doesn't really make sense in regards to my musical journey, because I was always such a hipster and I was really into indie music. That led me into more ambient, electronic, post-rock, all these more obscure genres. I was really obsessed with Last.fm and was very competitive with people about listening to obscure music.

U: Were you on Rateyourmusic? I was big on that.

A: I was actually never on Rateyourmusic or Discogs, just Last.fm. I really prided myself on having obscure music knowledge, but at the same time, I kind of lost my passion for music. I would find myself listening to stuff that was so obscure, very bleep bloop or drone. At the same time, I was also friends with a lot of gay guys—which is just a lifelong theme for me I guess— a lot of gay guys on the internet, especially stan Twitter type of people. They're really funny and quick-witted, and have mastered these mediums of internet communication. All of these gay guys that I followed were suddenly getting into K-Pop, and I couldn't tell if they were being serious because it seemed like they were stanning these random groups as a meme. It wasn't really any of the big groups or BTS fanaticism. It was kind of troll-y, but at the same time, they would post these fancams of girls performing under unrelated tweets. Like, “Just had the worst fucking day ever” and then a K-Pop girl dancing. When you see that every day, it does kind of get to you and you're like, okay, let me see what's going on. I guess I just got into it because I hadn't listened to pop music in a long time and I was like, “Well, this is like high energy, high-concept.”

U: The poptimism era. There's a big pop resurgence, hyperpop and shit like that.

A: I feel like a lot of people who were into Charli XCX and PC Music did the transition into K-Pop because sonically, there's a lot of similarity here.

U: So, does this happen mostly through Twitter? I know BTS stans are on Twitter, but I was wondering where it's centralized now. Is it still on Twitter, or is it on Reddit? Was it ever on Tumblr?

A: Tumblr is too early. I think Tumblr was for second-generation groups (2005-2011). BTS is third-generation. Tumblr was when K-Pop was way more fringe. But I think Twitter is what brought it into the forefront because of the way that fandoms can organize to do things at the same time. There's this obsession with quantifying K-Pop statistics, especially with these chart accounts. I just got so into the numbers game, like “Oh my God, this album just came out today. Where is it on the Billboard charts? Where is it on the iTunes charts? How do we push it to the forefront?” It’s all just a game of how we can take up as much real estate on the internet.

U: There's so many things there in regards to what you were saying before; the pretentiousness of being a teenager where you want to listen to stuff that no one else is listening to, in contrast to K-Pop fandoms, who are actively trying to get their favorite group to number one, trying to spread it as much as possible. It's strange because I understand when people like a small artist and they want to support them, but like, these people are already rich. They’re already super famous in Korea.

A: Yeah, it's true. But I think there's a still an underdog narrative, even with groups like BTS, because they came up during the time when there were these big three entertainment conglomerates—that is now a big four with BTS’s company—but they were originally outside of that and no one thought that they would make it. But then they ended up excelling outside of the super formalized K-Pop system to the extent where they became the new system themselves, and eventually tried to buy one of the biggest companies in this hostile takeover move.

U: Are these just record labels?

A: They call them entertainment companies, even though they are record labels, but they also make all of the content around K-Pop. Every K-Pop group has a YouTube show and probably a clothing line.

U: Yeah, that was one of the things that I was going to ask about. It seems like music is just one part of it.

A: That's definitely true. Even though music is how I got into it, right now that’s pretty secondary. I don't really listen to K-Pop as much anymore, but I'll still keep up with new releases and what's happening in Idol World.

U: Yeah, the money doesn't really come from music necessarily, right? Where does it come from… like clothes, or merchandise?

A: Touring. I'm sure they make a lot of money through streaming, especially with the fanaticism that everyone's streaming with. Also with the album sales, there's been a crackdown on it because of this system that I explained with the photo cards, which is the only reason that people buy albums outside of wanting your groups to chart. It became clear that the distribution of photo cards wasn't equal. The companies were putting less cards of the more popular members so people would buy more and more to try to get them. So there was some kind of big class action about that. A lot of entertainment companies have their own proprietary social media where you have to buy a membership as a fan to interact with artists.

U: I wonder why these companies haven't built their own infrastructure for fans within their own apps or whatever. Like, fandoms still exist largely on Twitter, right?

A: Yeah, apps like Weverse are better for parasocial communication. They feel a lot more professional. So I think it causes this separation for people between where I go to actually interact with my artist and community, and this is where I go to clock in to work and promote them.

U: So, what's the goal? They just want more people to like their band? They want more people to listen to them? I don't even think it's that because they know a lot of people are listening.

A: I think because of the underdog narrative, the fans want to have this constant presence to make sure people can't forget about it. Even BTS, there will be these insane campaigns about how the U.S. radio system's racist because they're not playing BTS. Fans will still think that they still have a disadvantage somehow.

U: Like when BTS didn't get the Grammy. All of the fan accounts were posting under the Grammy’s tweets during the ceremony. I was like, what do you think they're going to do? Do you think that they're going to rescind the award and give it to BTS?

A: It's a totally delusional style of interacting with the world. I think it's mostly about taking up space, but they do have very strong organizational principles and will use things like boycotting or hashtags.

U: I also wanted to get into the lore building that I assume the company is scheming and creating through the Internet.

A: Yeah, that's accurate. A lot of K-Pop groups or entertainment companies are trying to prey on this Marvel-style fandom through creating multiverses or fictional universes that actually have nothing to do with the music and have nothing to do with the members themselves to inspire this conspiracy type of consumption. It’s mostly fan-constructed schizo-theory surrounding conspiracy narratives. It inspired a kind of QAnon consumption in me, but the more it became apparent that there was no deeper meaning, it was just meant to inspire this mindset of obsession so they can get more money from replaying the video over and over, trying to figure out what it all means.

U: Yeah, it makes me think of Taylor Swift with her Easter eggs.

A: It's a lot of self-mythologizing; referencing stuff from a previous part of their career. It makes the fans happy, but I think that's all it really does. It's not going to reveal some metaphysical truths about society.

U: Okay, so when did K-Pop become really big in America?

A: I would say the year that I was super into it, it was a crazy year. 2018 seemed like a big time. There were a lot of tracks that had crazy Western appeal. That's when BTS released a song called Boy With Luv, and they did a pretty big campaign with American late night shows; a lot of those performances went super viral. They were still in this really platonic ideal K-Pop image where they had pink hair and were super cute; the song had a somewhat retro Bruno Mars feel to it.

There's this group called TWICE who's a really popular girl group in Korea, and they released a song called Fancy that was historically significant because they were one of these groups that had a J-pop influence—super girly school uniform, high-pitched, bubblegum pop. But then they switched to a more mature concept, which just meant that they were wearing sparkly mini dresses instead of the school uniform. That song performed really well internationally. And then there's this group Red Velvet, who released a song called Psycho that sounded like it could be an Ariana Grande song. People always reference this trifecta of music as the best in K-Pop history.

U: Do you think that the crossover into the American mainstream was something that fans created, or was that something that the companies were intentionally trying to do?

A: I think it's a mix of both. As a fan, you have an awareness of what's going to perform well. If I'm showing someone K-Pop for the first time, I'm not going to show them my personal favorite songs. I'm going to show them what I think they would be able to understand and not freak them out. I think 2018 was a good year because it was just good pop music, but it wasn't so cringe. 2020 was when BTS went super, super viral with songs like Dynamite, which was actually one of the worst songs of all time. It sounded so much like music for children, but kids do love K-Pop, I think because it's so colorful. It's visually overstimulating in a way that I think Western pop music doesn't do anymore. We don't really do music videos in that way in the West either. Music videos are the backbone of K-Pop; a music video is a worldwide event because they're just so over the top. It's always a hundred background dancers and a million sets. That's often how people get inducted.

U: How do they find these stars?

A: It's kind of the same way that Disney would recruit kids on the street or at a mall or at a talent show. They are starting to debut idols younger and younger, like NewJeans, who seemingly came out of nowhere. They have a strategy of just letting the content speak for itself.

U: Which is very American. It seems like such a production, but I understand why it's so popular because there's so much to consume.

A: It's enough to fill up all of your time, keeping up with the content. Especially if you stan multiple groups, that becomes your calendar. They do this system of having a “comeback” every time they release a new single or an album, that's their era of promotion. While they're doing comebacks, they will almost every day be going to a live broadcast and doing a new performance.

U: How often are they doing the comebacks?

A: It depends. Blackpink, who's the most popular girl group, they comeback once a year. TWICE, who's the second biggest girl group, will do four or five comebacks a year, but everyone's really concerned about them being overworked. In the interim periods, if you're a K-Pop stan, you always have something to look forward to, and you know exactly when this release schedule will come out. So it's fun to have other friends that are invested in K-Pop for that reason.

U: I'm assuming that's where the Twitter-base fandom comes in. How do people meet other fans through these platforms? What kinds of groups are they forming? What are those friendships?

A: I think that the K-Pop stans I'm friends with are mostly normal people with jobs. And we're able to talk shit a little bit, whereas there have been some group chats where you can't even suggest anything critical or they'll kick you out and accuse you of not being a real fan. This happened with Loona, their past three or four comebacks were absolutely trash. And I was just like, you know what? I'll buy copies of the album even though I'm not going to listen to them. But if anyone suggested that it was bad, other stans would be like “You hate the girls and you want them to suffer and you want their music to flop.” I just want it to be good, it’s not that serious. But they will literally be playing it on mute while they sleep overnight.

U: I remember when Justin Bieber asked his fans to do that, there was major blowback. I feel like that strategy is not appreciated in America.

A: Yeah, especially with the chart stuff, K-Pop Stans are the only people who care about iTunes charts even though no one has bought a song on iTunes in years. But K-Pop groups are number one because these are the only people going out of their way to purchase on iTunes. I think Apple is probably still making a fair amount of money from K-Pop. I kept seeing all these fans posting the iTunes charts, commanding people to get songs to number one in every country. Belize was on there and my dad lives in Belize, so I called him and I was like, “Do you still have an iTunes account? I need you to go on your computer and log in and buy this song for $1.29.” It's stupid, but the culture makes it feel really important. I was refreshing, refreshing, telling my dad to buy it, he finally did and it went number one in Belize and broke the record. They break it every time just through these same annoying gimmicks. That's kind of what hit me. Like, this is so pointless. What are these records?

U: I mean, that's what my question was going to be. You want your favorite band to go number one, but why? Is it just because you want to have some agency, or it's something that you feel partly responsible for?

A: No, definitely. With Loona, for example, they are a less popular group. So every time they did a comeback, there would be these goals to make it bigger than the last one. You're also competing with whatever other groups are putting out songs at that time, so it becomes a thing about outselling another group. It kind of has a sports feel to it.

U: It's like how men always refer to their sports teams as “we.”

A: So, if everyone's buying albums, they're like, “Guys, we did it!” I try not to participate in stuff like that anymore. Also, if you look at the organic charts that truly show what people are listening to, it's going to be Morgan Wallen or Imagine Dragons, whose fans aren't putting in any of this effort. People are just listening to them because they like the music.

U: I'm thinking about the overrepresentation. Like on Tumblr back in the day…

A: You would think that Sherlock is the most popular show in the world.

U: Exactly, but people who were listening to Lana Del Rey and the 1975, they thought that this music was really fringe, which maybe they were at the time, I don't know.

A: Yeah, Born To Die went number one but people still think that she's an underdog.

U: And Lana thinks that she's an underdog. Her and Taylor Swift both have sore winner energy.

A: I think she really loves her fans but she hates the system, she’s very anti-establishment.

U: When she first came out, everyone was like “Industry plant!” Which is another good contrast from K-Pop.

A: In K-Pop, everyone’s an industry plant.

U: Exactly, and no one cares. That's just part and parcel with the whole schtick. But when Billie Eilish comes out in America, everyone's like, “She's an industry plant, she's not authentic.” I guess that sparks an interesting conversation of authenticity in K-Pop culture—to what degree are these people just playing roles or characters that have been prescribed to them?

A: That's so real. Especially with Loona, it became super obvious. Pretty uniquely, each member had a solo project before they became a full group where they definitely had these characters that were prescribed to them, as you said. It's still not clear how much of that is real or based on their identity, or if the company was just like “You’re gonna be the cute member, and then we're going to cut your hair and you’ll be the tomboy member.”

An interesting thing about K-Pop as opposed to the West, Billie Eilish is a really good example because people are so interested in her family and where she came from, but I think K-Pop levels the playing field. Especially with this trainee system, once you enter the system and you work hard, that is the only thing that matters. But there's also a lot of mystery that shrouds artists pre-debut. I think the company tries to erase any evidence of who these girls were before they became their final K-Pop form.

U: Is that by design?

A: I think so. There might be PR issues, like Kim Garam from Le Sserafim. For some reason, school bullying in Korea is the greatest crime known to man, if someone finds out that you threw a pencil at a kid's head in middle school, your career is fucking over. It's so weird, they take it so seriously. So, bullying rumors came out about this girl who was 16 or 17 when she debuted. There was this one photo that everyone kept posting where she was standing in front of a chalkboard, doing a peace sign with random shit scribbled on the chalkboard that read fuck BTS or something; trash-talking other groups in a silly way. It became a huge legal thing that she was releasing statements back and forth. Her career was ruined, but this girl was obviously just a bit of a troll.

I think it's in the interest of these companies to just wipe the slate clean, because you don't want anything being dragged back up. Sometimes you'll see photos of idols pre-debut where they look completely different. It's the before and after because they all get so much work done.

U: Do people not have a problem with the inauthenticity of these characters?

A: I think people enjoy the moments where it slips out, especially with English speaking idols. They love to hear a K-Pop idol say deadass or something.

U: With the rise of K-Pop in mainstream America, are most of these groups trying to become more Americanized? I know that Blackpink did the Selena Gomez song.

A: Over the past few years there have been a lot more collaborations with Western artists, which honestly are always so strange because they pick the weirdest people like Selena Gomez. Or Jungkook from BTS just did a song with Jack Harlow.

U: Is it the same in other countries, or is stan Twitter mostly American?

A: One of the biggest markets in the world for K-Pop stuff is Southeast Asia. So a lot of Indonesian, Filipino, Thai people, but English is still kind of the lingua franca. But I still have K-Pop mutuals that are posting in Tagalog or something.

Weirdly, the Middle East is a pretty big market, but I think that might be because K-Pop is so sanitized relative to Western pop music, it’s quite chaste. Obviously there are things that are sexy about it and beauty is a huge part of it, but content-wise, it's not racy. A lot of earlier K-Pop stuff is very school-uniform, but I think that's largely disappeared. NewJeans, for example, is this newer group and they did the school uniform thing, but instead of doing the sexualized school uniform, it was a knee-length skirt, kind of conservative. They didn't really wear that much makeup and all had long black hair, so it seemed like a huge separation from the pink hair and school uniform, e-girl type of thing.

U: Is there a hierarchy of fandoms, as they pertain to groups? Who's the strongest, who's the biggest, are some more respected than others?

A: BTS is definitely the strongest and the biggest, but also objectively the least cool.

U: Probably because it is the biggest.

A: Yeah, and because the music has gotten so bad. I was such a BTS stan, I bought their albums and I had a friend group of other BTS girls that I would hang out with and we would go do BTS related stuff together. None of these girls stan BTS anymore and I don't think it's because we aged out of it. We're all still K-Pop stans, but it's because their music has become markedly worse. It's also just about wanting to associate yourself publicly with something. I think that BTS sacrificed quality for popularity. They started making music in English more and more and that kind of reeks of desperation, you know?

U: But then isn't this whole culture reeking desperation?

A: I guess that's true. But stanning true K-Pop, especially when it comes to an underdog group, it still does scratch my indie instincts. The desperation though, when it's in Korean it still feels like it's on the outside of culture.

U: Do you think that's mostly the only reason why? Just because it's in a different language and comes from a different culture, so in America people feel like it's under-represented.

A: There is still a distinctive K-Pop sound. When BTS started making music in English, it was like “What about this is K-Pop?” You know, they're Korean artists, but now they're just making music that's designed to go Top 40 viral. If I wanted to listen to normal pop, I would just do that,  but I don't want to.

U: I've been noticing that the international music that's becoming predominant in America, they're very explicitly paying a little bit of lip service to their American success. Obviously, Blackpink is doing it, BTS is doing it.

Again, going back to the overarching goal, is it for more people to listen to it and genuinely like it, or to keep it within this insular community?

A: Yeah, at this point, if someone wanted to be a K-Pop fan, they would be one by now. So maybe it's about trying to get fans from other factions to crossover, but I think it's more on the grand scale of culture at large—just making sure that these groups have lasting power. Like, BTS will go down in history. There is this very weird understanding of history, which is the reason for the emphasis on charting; like, we’re the first group in history to do this. Breaking records and selling out arenas, these very concrete measures of success mean a lot more than how many people's lives it's touching or whatever.

U: Do you find fan culture as a whole to be a misdirection of ambition and energy?

A: Yeah, definitely. Thankfully for me, my stanning days were pretty social. I love my K-Pop friends and they're so integrated into my life that they're just my real friends now. But yeah, I have had permanent fangirl brain for a lot of my life where I just get obsessed with stuff. I think K-Pop was the first time where it felt like it was in service of something. I don't know if it's the mission of spreading Korean culture around the world, but it is because of the nationalistic implications. Being a K-Pop stan has made me super into Korean culture in general. I started eating Korean food all the time and I’m getting pretty good at Korean language. It's inevitable that you get a taste of what their vibes are like and what the cultural norms are.

U: Do you think that there's any kind of underlying—I don't say psyop, but is it the mission of these companies or is the government involved?

A: Oh, definitely, there are a lot of these diplomatic agencies that acknowledge K-Pop as a major factor in the global reputation of Korea. Even the question of BTS’ military enlistment was so contentious that it was put to a public vote.

U: Really?

A: Yeah. People were super divided. If BTS essentially goes on hiatus for a year to do their military service—which they would all have to do at different times cause they're different ages—it would actually affect our economy. 1 or 2% of Korea's whole GDP just comes from BTS. So, I can't even imagine how much is from K-Pop as a whole. So when it comes to them as a nation, it was a big decision.

U: Do most of them do it at this point, or do they get excused?

A: No one really gets excused. It's really, really hard to get excused. The oldest member I think is still in it right now, and that's why Jungkook, the youngest member, is doing solo activities. So they’re allowed to do solo stuff, but as a group, I don't know when the next time we're going to see them all together will be. As soon as this one gets out, the next one will go in.

U: What do you think is going to be the next group idea to pop off? Do you have any opinions on how NewJeans came out?

A: Oh yeah. The hype has died down a little bit and they genuinely did change the game and reinvigorated my love for K-Pop. They remind me of Loona a lot and that they have this high concept, visual universe that looks very considered and cinematographic, it has a Rookie mag type of feel to it.

What's next? I mean, a lot of agencies are trying unsuccessfully to do an American K-Pop group, because a lot of young K-Pop stans are delusional and want to do the idol training thing. I’ve been to K-Pop dance classes and there are people who are doing it super seriously.

U: Are they Korean?

A: No, but they can still audition for these big agencies like Hybe, the group that does BTS and NewJeans, they hold auditions in American cities all the time for people born after like, 2003. There's this show called A2K that's produced by JYP, the group that did TWICE. It's a survival show, which is also how TWICE was created where they get a bunch of girls to compete and vote them out American Idol style except it’s 12 people at the end. I was really big into Korean survival shows.

U: It reminds me of Spice Girls, because that was an audition process as well. I doubt it was open casting, but they were doing the boot camp situation.

A: I really don't think that girl groups are possible in the West anymore.

U: That's what I was going to ask, I guess there was One Direction in recent history.

A: Fifth Harmony were made through X Factor as well, and they were all really, really good powerhouse singers. But that made it so they were all outperforming each other. I don't know if it's an American cultural attitude, it's hard for us to accept a team where everyone is equal. I think the Korean groups are designed in a certain way—Blackpink, for example, has four members and each of them has a strength. The girls who are doing this K-Pop idol project in America, you can tell that they have this preconceived idea about how to act and how to be cute. I just don't really understand where they're coming from at all.

U: They just mimic what is valued in K-Pop culture. I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground, thank you for coming on and being the resident K-Pop expert.

A: I’m so happy, I love talking about K-Pop.

U: Where can people find you?

A: I'm on Instagram @alexineutron. Nymphet Alumni is our podcast, we have episodes on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, also on Patreon. Thank you for having me!

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