K-pop Live
Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance
Suk-Young Kim



Buried between plump cheeks and frowning eyebrows, the little boy’s twinkly eyes become electrified with joy that runs through every inch of his frame. Spewing warm saliva through pouty lips and shrugging his tiny shoulders up and down, his little body is perfectly in sync with the music. A younger version of myself marvels at my four-month-old son as he bursts into an improvised dance in a baby bouncer.

What enormous joy is packed into his tiny body! The faint sound of chiming bells or a fluttering sight of a butterfly is enough for him to respond with his entire presence. He twists his torso, stretching out chubby fingers into open space, trying to grab anything and everything that there is—just for the fun of it. An intense thrill is emitted when the little man explores the highest pitch of his vocal range. By fully embracing the impulse of the moment, he exists, he thrives.

We might become wiser as we grow older, but at the price of losing such primal joy. Something hardens inside, stiffening the agile mind as we learn to suppress ourselves in the face of social pressures. Only occasional sparks can revive the intuitive intensity of play, but even such momentary flames eventually flicker out in the mundane. Now, at age seven, my little boy still beams with mischievous amusement, but he is more reserved, surely having outgrown his infant self—that pure incarnation of celebrating the energy of existence.

This book is about the paradoxical power of Korean popular music. Despite its highly manufactured nature, K-pop has the vigor to ignite hard-edged minds and imbue them with unadulterated forces of primal joy. Its soundscape creates bridges to bygone eras or spaces never visited. K-pop often becomes the solid rock upon which to build a lively global community, yet its high energy is never free from calculation and excessive commercialization. It has the ability to inspire the world to be a better place, yet its backstage reality is often far from idealistic.

Untangling these complicated strands required many helping hands, and I have been fortunate to encounter the generous support of many people and institutions.

I thank Cha U-jin, Sohn Jie-Ae, Kevin Broderick, Bak Hee-ju, Bak Gwang-won, Johnny Au, and anonymous staff members from CJ E&M, SM Entertainment, and YG Entertainment for their guidance. Global K-pop fans of all walks of life whom I encountered gave me so much inspiration to keep writing. Without fans, there simply is no K-pop.

Choe Youngmin, Ian Condry, Chris Hanscom, David Kang, and those who attended the manuscript review hosted by the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute gave valuable feedback on an earlier version of this work. Roald Maliangkay, in particular, read many drafts of this book and gave detailed comments, which were indispensible for completing the project. Friendships I enjoyed with Leo Cabranes-Grant, Michael Emmerich, Leahkim Gannett, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Andrea Goldman, Todd Henry, Daniel Jaffe, Kimberly Jannarone, Eng Beng Lim, Rachel and Everett Lipman, Sean Metzger, Ariel Osterweis, VK Preston, Rho Hyeon-ju, Bhaska Sarkar, Satoko Shimazaki, Elizabeth Son, Shannon Steen, Alex Wang, and Theodore Jun Yoo kept galvanizing this project. The beauty of working with students is that they always expand the limits of my work: Jaime Gray and Grace Jung keep me abreast of the constantly evolving scholarship in digital media; Yassi Jahanmir and Zachary Price have transformed from advisees to colleagues, which brings me great pride; research by Lee So-Rim and Stephanie Choi will broaden the horizon of K-pop scholarship. Michelle Lipinski at Stanford University Press has been a kind and encouraging editor, helping me find a perfect home for this book, Elisabeth Magnus was indispensable in clearing up my often-murky writing style, Carla Neuss assisted me with proofreading the manuscript, and Tommy Tran provided substantial help with romanization of Korean words. As always, I enjoyed working with my editor Leslie Kriesel; this is the fourth book of mine that carries her imprint.

My parents; my sister, Kim Mee-Young; my brother, Kim Young-Eun; my mother-in-law, Beverly St. John; and my dear friend Diana Salvador deserve huge credit for taking over my responsibilities when I indulged in jet-set K-pop adventures. Michael Berry is always a calm, equalizing force to anchor my tumultuous journey of completing this book. My little Naima kept inspiring me to feel the liveness of music with her love for singing and dancing.

This work was supported by the Laboratory Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2015-LAB-2250002). Additionally, the 2014–15 ACLS/SSRC/NEH International and Area Studies Fellowship gave me the precious opportunity to devote an entire academic year to research and writing, while the University of California, Santa Barbara Regents Faculty Fellowship allowed me to attend KCON Paris in 2016. The Center for Performance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles became my new intellectual home to foster this work, and I am grateful for the nurturing spirit and extensive network this community has provided. I hope that the book will turn out to be worthy of the generous support it received.

Various portions of this book have been presented at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Southern California, the University of Washington, Seattle, Texas A&M University, the University of Maryland College Park, Yonsei University, KCON, the BuzzFeed video series, CNN International, and Radio Lab. Grateful acknowledgment is given to the following publications where portions of this book in their earlier versions were featured: “The Many Faces of K-pop Music Videos: Revues, Motown, and Broadway in ‘Twinkle,’Journal of Popular Culture 49 (February 2016): 136–54; and “Liveness: Performance of Ideology and Technology in the Changing Media Environment,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 29, 2017,

For a long time, this book has been known to our family as the “Wolf Dance Book,” a working title given by my son, who was particularly impressed by EXO’s intricate choreography devised for their song “Wolf.” He has never been shy in asking why his “Wolf Dance Book” is taking such a long time to complete. Finally, here it is.

This one is for you, Miles. The world is your stage to take.