The Breaking Point
Dedicated fans who speak about their favorite artists as though they are on first-name terms; paparazzi shots that circulate daily; concerts that sell out online within minutes—we’ve seen it all before. These aren’t specific to only one country. This is the norm for the U.S., whose “stans” (a portmanteau of the words “stalker” and “fan”) monitor their favorite artists, devotedly engage in conversations with each other through various social media platforms, and even disagree with other stans on fan forums. Within minutes, stans “like” posts on Facebook, “favorite” images on Instagram, and retweet Twitter posts left by their idols. To an outsider, it borders on obsessive—reminiscent of I Saw You Harvard but lacking the humor and oozing pure creepiness. However, most artists seem to have embraced their fan clubs, even appointing them with endearing names. Nicki Minaj refers to her fans as “Barbs” and “Ken Barbs,” while Justin Bieber has taken to calling his cohort of followers his “Beliebers.”
To a certain extent, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the fandom. Even if an artist desires to create music for the sake of creating something beautiful, without the fans, the artist essentially lacks an audience. Without the consumption of products, there is no funding for the future opportunities to continue producing work. A good artist deserves a respectful fan following so that he or she can gain recognition. But is there a breaking point when fandom edges on insane?
The U.S. has witnessed its share of fans-gone-obsessive, including occasional celebrity stalking cases. However, in the U.S., even the most devoted fans don’t physically interfere with artists’ lives (except for the occasional crazy fan who might make a tabloid headline for trying to steal Britney Spears’ wig). In contrast, there is an entire breed of K-pop fans who have taken fandom to an alarming level.
There are numerous instances of intense fans hiding outside artists’ homes for hours, sometimes even breaking into homes; acquiring and selling telephone numbers, private photos, and identification numbers of celebrities; hiring taxis at exorbitant rates of $300-$500 a day to stalk the vehicles transporting artists; even lying together in streets and blocking traffic until they are able to see their idols. These fans are called “sasaeng fans” (where “sa” means private and “saeng” means life), aptly named because they literally interfere with idols’ lives to the point that some artists are driven insane, or come close to death.
Take, for instance, Yunho of popular group TXVQ, who had to be rushed to the hospital when a crazed fan snuck in backstage and poisoned his beverage with toxic glue, or actor Jang Geun Seuk, whose car was rigged with a GPS tracking device so that sasaeng fans could follow him at any given point of the day. When boy group EXO-K recently arrived at Incheon International Airport enroute to an international awards show, fans descended upon them like a swarm of locusts; videos uploaded to YouTube reveal members of EXO-K being cursed for trying to avoid the flashing glare of fangirls’ cameras.
Stalking and photographing of artists does happen in the States as well, but these behaviors are motivated mostly by commercial ventures— the better the photo, the higher the price of the photo for the tabloids. It’s pure business. Yet with sasaeng fans, there seems to be no ulterior motive or goal behind the crazy actions. The frightening devotion-turned-obsession with their idols is an end in itself. Unlike paparazzi, these fans only desire to get as close to their idols as possible. It’s a paradoxical situation—these fans love the celebrity, but they cause harm and sometimes even psychological terror because they seem to desire complete ownership of their idol.
People have tried to explain away this frightening phenomenon as a difference in cultures between the East and the West. But this explanation not only unfairly generalizes a rich wealth of cultures in the Eastern hemisphere; it is also simply unfounded. The influx of foreign sasaeng fans who visit Korea from other countries to stalk their artists; the instances of K-pop idols being followed and stalked within hotels at concert locations even outside of Seoul; the burgeoning number of foreign fan forums where personal information and sightings of celebrities are shared, and the growing demand for these international concerts all prove otherwise. There is no one definition for who fits the bill of a sasaeng fan.
Of course, not all fans exhibit these terrifying qualities. Fans also engage in community service in their favorite celebrity’s name, even donating tons of rice to hungry communities or thousands of dollars to humanitarian causes. Fans work hard to send homemade meals to feed the entire set and crew of the television program or film shoot in which their favorite celebrities participate. They even band together in guerilla advertising movements to make their favorite celebrities become globally trending topics on Twitter. However, it’s undeniable that the sasaeng fan phenomenon in the world of K-pop seems to not only trample the fine line between devoted loyalty and obsession, but also brings to question who could actually be held responsible for fandom that may have gone “too far.”
—Columnist Soy Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.