Op-Ed: What we can learn from Stray Kids and Omega X about K-pop fans

Recent statements made by Stray Kids leader Bang Chan has shed new light on the relationship between idols and fans.

On October 23, K-pop media outlet Koreaboo reported on a recent Chan’s Room broadcast, a TikTok live show hosted by Stray Kids’ leader Bang Chan. In the live, he chatted candidly about his life while answering questions from STAYs. In the live, Chan read a comment that read, “We must protect Stray Kids.” While he expressed gratitude towards the group’s fans, he took the opportunity to constructively call fans out who leave negative comments on posts made by other groups.

“I’m actually really glad that we have STAYs beside us,” Chan said. “We have STAYs watching out for us and stuff, but sometimes after watching the stuff that you guys do, I wanted to say that it’s always good…we’re grateful for you guys trying to protect us, right? But protecting us should be the only thing that you do, but downgrading others is something you should not do.”

K-pop is notorious for having some of the most intense fans on the internet, but examination isn’t often done into why fans feel adamant to defend and occasionally attack on behalf of their idols. There are many factors contributing to this, including but not limited to sasaengs, the highly competitive nature of the industry and the bias Western audiences have historically held against K-pop. These are topics that are well-recorded and discussed, but two often slip under the radar.

Actress Park Min-young portraying a sasaeng, or “stalker fan,” in the Korean Drama “Her Private Life” (Image Source)

The first is the increasingly parasocial relationships fans have with these groups, which Koreaboo outlined directly.

“With the way K-Pop artists can now personally interact with a larger amount of fans globally than ever before through social media and apps such as Bubble and Weverse, there are even more opportunities for fans to foster a deeper connection with their favorite artists,” the site reported.

These apps, among others, offer direct communication between fans and idols through paid memberships and microtransactions. Additionally, platforms like Pocketdols and Rising Star often sell video calls with smaller groups like Vanner, Pink Fantasy and pre-debut group XEED for as little as $31 per two minutes. Special event packages, often priced from $94 to $187, often include personalized video messages and exclusive selfies from the member they bought time with. This can foster a connection with these artists that makes fans feel more like friends, especially for those who buy several minutes or multiple calls.

Platforms like Pocketdols and Rising Star let fans get closer than ever to their favorite idols. (Image Source: Pocketdols)

The second, potentially more important, factor is the mistreatment idols face. It’s not difficult to find hate comments on platforms like Instagram and Twitter, which idols themselves often have access to. Cyberbullying led to the suicides of idols Sulli and Goo Hara in 2019, and volleyball player Cho Jang-mi, known on Twitch as BJ Jammi, in 2022. On February 9, shortly after Jammi’s death, Justin McCurry wrote an article for The Guardian about the level of abuse these public figures can face online.

“The suicide of the singer and actor Sulli sparked anger of the failure of management agencies to protect their stars from ‘toxic fandom and demands for government action against bullying on popular internet portals where users were able to comment anonymously,” McCurry reported.

“She [Sulli] laughed when she wanted to laugh and cried when she wanted to cry. She brazenly spoke out. She didn’t fit the mould. [sic]” (Quote and Image Source)

This isn’t the only kind of abuse they can face, however. On October 23, Koreaboo reported allegations of physical and verbal abuse towards Omega X after the final stop of their Connect: Don’t Give Up world tour in Los Angeles. On 5:48 am EST, Twitter user @hwi_418 posted an audio recording captured while waiting for an Uber home from the event.

“Guys, I was waiting for the Uber that I called outside and I saw the company CEO hitting the members,” @hwi_418 Tweeted. “I really didn’t know what to do since my hands were shaking so much. They were being hit right in front of me but I couldn’t do anything.”

The identity of the person mistreating the group was recently confirmed to be a woman named Kang, the CEO of Spire Entertainment. This was further corroborated by statements made by Kang and Spire Entertainment. Later, For X, Omega X fans, and non-fans alike came out with other stories alleging mistreatment. One incident was originally posted to Twitter October 4 by user @jsmgryu, who alleged their mother had a similar encounter with the group in an airport.

Source: Koreaboo
Source: Koreaboo

This news came at the end of an already tumultuous tour. It was initially managed by Code1 Entertainment before being replaced by MC Entertainment, who were later dropped themselves. Adding to the chaos, the members were stranded in Chile after their Santiago concert, causing the cancellation of the Boston date. Furthermore, it was revealed Omega X’s tickets back to South Korea were unexpectedly cancelled, leading to the members having to buy their own plane tickets home.

Omega X debuted under Spire Entertainment on July 30, 2021 with the mini-album and single Vamos. (Image Source)

Omega X is known as a “second chance group” because all the members are from previously disbanded groups. Specifically, Jaehan was the main vocalist in Spectrum and Sebin was the face of Snuper. Other members of these disbanded groups, Taewoong from Snuper and Donggyu from Spectrum, spoke out in Omega X’s defense on Instagram on October 24. A former staff member of Seven O’Clock, rapper Hangyeom’s former group, expressed his support the same day.

Left to Right: Taewoong’s (Snuper) Instagram story, Donggyu’s (Spectrum) Instagram story

Considering the mistreatment groups can face and the deep connections fans feel with their favorites, it’s no wonder K-pop fans are so dedicated. So, it’s incredibly puzzling when K-pop fans use cyberbullying tactics against other groups or fandoms in the name of their own.

The K-pop industry is no stranger to fan wars, whether fandoms are cattily boasting about their group’s accomplishments online or engaging in physical fights. Especially on Twitter, there’s this feeling that not only is their favorite group The Best, but they have to be The Best. It seems, to validate themselves as fans, they have to prove other groups are The Worst or at least otherwise inferior. This has caused K-pop fans, regardless of fandom, to garner their negative reputation.

Chan’s live brought this up explicitly, saying that leaving negative comments not only hurts the people they’re trying to hurt, but themselves and their favorite group.

“You’re going to ruin your image,” he said. “You’re going to ruin our [Stray Kids] image, too. Let’s keep our Stray Kids and STAY image as nice as it can be.”

He went on to point out the futility of these fan wars and negative comments.

“Defending us is good,” Chan said. “Downgrading others is not good, because that’s not gonna fix anything. That’s not gonna do anything good.”

So, what happens when K-pop fans unite? On June 7, 2020, Kristine Kwak reported for Variety:

“…The BTS ARMY has earned its stripes as a massive global influence and its effort to match the groups $1 million donation was accomplished within a day of the news, hitting $1,026,531 with 35,609 donors,” Velez said.

This accomplishment by ARMY is impressive, but they are just one, admittedly vast, fandom. It’s a different thing altogether for folks to cross fandom lines and work together.

Shortly after the news about Omega X broke, that’s exactly what happened. Fandoms from groups including Ateez, Kingdom, Black Level, EXO, E’Last, Just B, Ikon, BTS and Stray Kids, among others, came together to promote the hashtag #PROTECTOMEGAX on Twitter.

Choice, fans of K-pop boy group A.C.E, even went so far as to suggest the group’s company, Beat Interactive, sign the group themselves to get them away from Spire.

Chan’s live, as well as previous statements from other idols, proves not only they don’t condone bad actors, but they see them and actively want fans to be better. It’s completely understandable for a fandom to celebrate and defend their favorite artists, but there’s a right and a wrong way to utilize that intensity.

It’s beyond obvious what is possible when K-pop fans unite towards a common goal. In the future, one can only hope they can do the same when a group isn’t going through a difficult time.

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