Kill this Boy with Love: How Korean Lit is Mapping the K-pop Gen’s Soul

  • onMarch 14, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byIn A Young

Illustrations Copyright ⓒ Choi Hohyung

When asked about the defining Korean cultural phenomenon of the moment, most people would likely think of K-pop and the “idol” performers who are leading the trend. However, the popularity of K-pop is not just spreading outward; interestingly, its reaches have sunk deep into Korean literature as well. In the past, K-pop and its derivative idol fandom were regarded as a subordinate and offbeat (read: lesser) form of subculture, distinct from that of the dominant mainstream, enjoyed by immature teens for a brief, confusing time in their adolescence. Fans of K-pop stars were often disparaged as ppasuni [fangirls] who spent their time worshipping the oppas they so adored. Recently, however, Korean literature has been paying serious attention to the complicated psyches and proactive voices of such fandom. No longer viewed as a flock of misguided “shippers” blindly running after their favorite idols, the fandom is now recognized as a collection of distinct individuals with their own voices who accept who they are and seek to grow through the love they have for their favorite K-pop stars. Despite the sheer collective size of the idol subculture, the fandom, and the fanfic that have developed since the 1990s, their influence was largely panned and relegated to second-class status. Now, however, Korean literature is actively engaging with this subculture and in the process, broadening its own horizons. This expansion of Korean literature is part of an ongoing process to recognize female and LGBTQ voices and give due value to their narratives and love stories after a long period of societal neglect and exclusion. We will consider three novels in particular: Lee Heejoo’s Phantom Pain (Munhakdongne, 2016), Jo Woori’s Last Love (Changbi, 2019), and Kim Sehee’s Love at the Harbor (Minumsa, 2019).

Lee Heejoo’s Phantom Pain, which received Munhakdongne’s 2016 College Fiction Prize, tells the story of M and Manok, twenty-something women in love with idols, along with a male observer. In this novel, fans drop everything to go to their favorite K-pop star’s concerts, scrape together what little money they can to send them gifts or “tributes,” and do whatever it takes to get a photo of them up close. They are often criticized and labeled as crazy but they don’t care. As long as they can see and worship their idols, they declare that they’re so happy they could die. Phantom Pain delves into philosophical questions as well. For instance, the novel’s protagonist questions whether beauty can be captured and contained, whether there is a difference between recording beauty in image form versus textual form, and how love can even be possible without engaging in a direct physical or sexual relationship with the other person. An interesting passage in the book involves the same protagonist admitting that even as she studied the literary canon it was difficult for her to understand how an older man could desire a young girl or a young girl love an older man as in the case of Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita. This admission is noteworthy because it subverts the established notions in literature that normally objectify the young girl by instead giving honest representation to the feelings of love, desire, and passion she might harbor for a young and beautiful man.

Jo Woori’s Last Love highlights the emotions and lives of female idol group members. Members of the fictitious band Zero Carat—Da-in, Rubina, Jun, and Marin, along with Ji-yu and Jackie who left the band—are about to head into their last concert after the contract they signed with their talent agency has come to an end. Last Love describes the different positions and skills of the members within the band, such as singing, dancing, songwriting, and being the “face” of the group. The novel also traces the girls’ childhoods and shows how they got to be where they are. Rather than dwelling on their glamorous looks or the narrative of success, however, the book explores the members’ inner psychology. For instance, it depicts conflicts within the band, the contractual relationship and eventual falling out with the talent agency, and the pressures of growing old as a celebrity. Female idol bands are an object of widespread consumption and a mainstay in the Korean entertainment industry, but not much attention is given to the pain they suffer as vulnerable minorities. In some cases, society inflicts even more pain on the girls, an issue that Last Love sheds some light on. What is unique about this novel is that each chapter comes with a short fan fiction piece on Zero Carat. The fanfic is not only realistic in its portrayal of contemporary Korean fanfic subculture as it also contains homoerotic, lesbian narratives involving the members of the band, but it reveals how creating fan fiction is a highly proactive and inventive activity on the part of the fans. (One of the joys of reading this book comes from recognizing the lyrics of real songs by actual idol bands such as f(x), TWICE, Taeyeon, Oh My Girl, IU, Gfriend, and Lovelyz in its pages.)

Unlike the other two novels, Kim Sehee’s Love at the Harbor does not focus exclusively on the idol subculture. Instead, it takes note of queer relationships of middle and high school girls in the harbor city of Mokpo in the early 2000s. Although the female protagonist, who is in her thirties, now identifies as a cisgender heterosexual, she attempts to reconstitute and give meaning to her gender identity as she thinks back to her time in high school when she had been madly in love with a girl one year her senior. In reflecting upon the nuanced sexual relationships among teenage girls, the idol subculture and idol fanfic are treated as important themes. Once the same teenagers enter their twenties and become real adults with real jobs, in many cases both themes are often shunned as being fake or shallow or are completely ignored. In the novel, the protagonist reminisces about the time she wrote a long and complicated romance story set in the Middle Ages with the singer Jo Sung-mo as her love interest. She even describes how much of fan fiction is centered on homoerotic, BL (boys’ love) relationships between members of the same idol band and how often fanfic incorporates sadistic violence perpetrated by one character upon another. In doing so, she wonders about her own gender identity. These recollections do not end at merely describing the early 2000s’ Korean culture-scape but go even further, allowing the protagonist to recognize herself for who she is instead of ignoring and denying her identity. And so she comes to the realization that the intense feelings of love she experienced as a teenager do have meaning, and therefore are worth remembering.

One of the reasons idol subculture is gaining currency in contemporary Korean literature is that the authors themselves are part of the generation that grew up experiencing K-pop, idols, fanfic, and the arts. For instance, Jo Woori has stated that she used to fangirl over S.E.S, a first generation pop-idol group, and that the first novel she ever wrote was in the genre of fan fiction. Even excluding the novels mentioned in this essay, there is a constant stream of similar works devoted to K-pop or pop stars written by writers of the same generation. Subsequent reading can be found in such short stories as Park Sang Young’s “How about Hamlet?” (The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, Munhakdongne, 2018) that describes a female idol band that fails to make a debut, or Park Min-jung’s “My Cousin Lisa” (The Quarterly Changbi, 2018 Winter) that deals with the misogyny endured by female J-pop idol bands. These narratives seek not to spin the K-pop and the idol-manufacturing industry in a positive light; in fact, many of them actively criticize the problems suffered by these vulnerable teenagers who must navigate a demanding, labyrinthine industry system. These works show that literature doesn’t always have to be so solemn or offer grand narratives on the current zeitgeist. Rather, they drive at the heart of serious issues, such as existential questions on one’s identity or the gender politics sustained by women and the LGBTQ community within the context of a subculture once considered shallow and meaningless. It is about time we listen to these voices.

In A Young
Literary Critic
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim