An owl perches by a chain-link fence. A beautiful man wearing a Beetlejuice suit and a 15-foot orange wig eye-fucks the camera from a cement throne. A battalion in riot gear assembles to ‘stop music’ and is reproached by people wearing neutral colours and gas masks. Someone throws a Molotov cocktail. The owl nopes out of there. Elsewhere, a second beautiful man thaws out from aesthetic refrigeration, then chair-dances. Then a third beautiful man descends from a picture frame in opulent regimental dress. A fourth beautiful man flexes in chains, then bellows an astounding musical bridge in a scrap yard. Women dressed as cats scratch a fifth beautiful man for asking politely if he can be your lover. There’s lazy lip-syncing. There’s a warehouse rave attended by two huge puppets, whose presence prompts the rebels in neutrals to joyfully remove their gas masks. Our five beautiful heroes are awarded with a throne each. They sit in strategic order—leader in the middle, his right-hand man, his left-hand man, the two least interesting on the outside—and eye-fuck the camera. This is the music video for 2012’s ‘Fantastic Baby’, from K-pop monsters Big Bang. Big Bang are G-Dragon, Taeyang, Daesung, Seungri and T.O.P, and I love them.

I woke one morning in 2014, realised I was in my 30s, purchased a pair of runners and went for a graceless shuffle through the woods. Because I am a music fiend, and because the brain needs distraction while the body’s trying to improve itself, it was imperative I find appropriate jams for my 5ks. They had to be the right rhythm and at the right BPM; with some foreboding I realised they had to be kind of sugary too. Slick, optimistic, viciously capitalist, and bad for me. Someone in the comments of The Guardian running blog suggested K-pop—Korean pop music—and so K-pop became my running partner. K-pop is tightly arranged and beautifully produced. Its songs are delivered by the world’s most indefatigable heartthrobs and are rarely over four minutes long. It makes excellent company.

I keep playlists for particular moods, seasons, genres, and, at last count, ten different kinds of house party I might be called upon to host. K-pop found its way from my running playlist onto my everyday playlist, my summer playlist, my self-empowerment playlist, and the playlist I keep for energetic-but-relatively-sober gatherings. Monsta X alongside St Vincent. Daft Punk to HyunA. I needed to know what I was listening to, so I found English translations for the lyrics. I needed to know who I was listening to, so I read about the idols. I needed context, so I read about Korean pop culture.

All my life I’ve had obsessions I thought said something integral about me: ponies, Raphael the Turtle, Pulp, Steve Buscemi films, Manchester United, Wuthering Heights, Sir Henry’s, Final Fantasy VIII. Some were reflections of values and ambitions, some tracked a burgeoning understanding of the world. Ergo, I thought it must have been that my new love of K-pop was in some way revelatory. I considered it a sort of rebellion from the worthy music I’d been self-prescribing since my early teens, where each song had to have strictly defined artistic merit and each band public stances I could get behind. I used to be in the Radiohead fan club, for God’s sake. Listening to K-pop could, I decided, be an exercise in exquisite pointlessness.

But I was not giving the industry its due, and I was not being fair to its idols.

Hallyu—the Korean Wave—began in the 1990s with K-pop, K-dramas and Korean cinema surging in popularity throughout Asia, then the rest of the world. This was not an organic phenomenon; the rest of us simply didn’t wake up one day, realise we were in our 30s and decide it was time we fell in love with Korea. South Korea has long invested in its own cultural products.

A quota system was enforced in South Korean cinema in 1967, restricting the number of foreign films that could be shown so as to ensure the health of the domestic industry. This didn’t suit Hollywood, so American studios lobbied their government and the American government compelled South Korea to relax the quota, which had a detrimental effect on Korean cinema. In 1995, President Kim Young-sam, a reformer and internationalist, finally enacted policies providing support and subsidies to the Korean film industry, which, revived, didn’t quite go on to flatten the Hollywood bully but did at least give us The Wailing and Train to Busan. Chinese television broadcast a number of K-dramas in the 1990s, and Chinese viewers went cracked for the stuff, leading to further adoption of Korean cultural products and Korean actors becoming household names across Asia. Also in the late ‘90s, South Korea relaxed restrictions on Japanese cultural imports, leading to (reasonable) fears about Korea’s youth drowning in a sea of manga and J-pop, and so the Korean government pumped more money again into domestic entertainment. It worked, and J-pop now looks like a typo.

South Korean politicians know the value of soft power. The rapid modernisation and growth of the South Korean economy in the second half of the 20th century is known as the Miracle on the Han River, with the arts an integral component, not a happy side effect to industrial wealth. Indeed, President Park Geun-hye said in her 2013 inauguration speech, ‘In the 21st century, culture is power.’ (This is tempered by the fact that Park Geun-hye is currently serving a 32-year prison sentence for being crooked as a dog’s back leg.) As a result of the Korean wave, there’s been a massive increase worldwide in people wishing to learn the Korean language, classified as a language isolate, and notoriously difficult to master for an English speaker: in 1998, something like 163 US students were studying Korean; in 2018 that number had risen to around 14,000. It turns out that it’s difficult not to like the country that gives you 10-step skincare routines, Bong Joon-ho and BTS.

BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan, or Bangtan Boys, is the most successful Korean cultural product, a boy band estimated to be worth trillions of won to the South Korean economy. My teenager’s peers never showed interest in second-wave K-pop stalwarts like Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, Shinhwa, TVXQ, Wonder Girls, 2NE1 or Big Bang, but now you can’t cast an eye at a school desk without spotting a smitten three-letter carving on the Formica. BTS finally moved K-pop into the international mainstream. Built around the rapping prowess and undeniable charisma of Kim Nam-joon, or Rap Monster, or Rap-Mon, or now just RM (if BTS had strategically ordered thrones, his would be the one in the middle), the band was debuted in 2012, the year we were blessed with ‘Fantastic Baby’.

I say ‘was debuted’ because, like the wider hallyu movement, nothing about K-pop is organic. K-pop’s ‘idols’ are managed by the entertainment companies that run K-pop with a by-the-numbers iron fist. A Korean entertainment company is a record label; a talent agency for musicians, dancers and actors; a music production and publishing house; and an event management company. On top of all that, it will often produce its own merchandise; YG Entertainment, Big Bang’s company, even has its own beauty and clothing lines.

Developing new talent is integral. Not only does everyone want the Next Big Thing in perpetuity, but K-pop bands—specifically boy bands—have a shelf life dictated by compulsory military service. Every able-bodied Korean man is bound to service of between eighteen months to three years, depending on military branch. That’s a long time in pop music. While there have been calls to reduce the length of compulsory service, make it voluntary or make more exemptions available, the Korean people generally consider enlistment something a young man should be proud to do. Responding to calls for their exemption, the members of BTS said that they are happy to enlist. And these mandatory two-year breaks, during which the idol will retire from public life entirely, means that the K-pop machine is in need of constant refuelling.

Wannabe idols begin as trainees in the system, often before they’ve hit their teens. They balance school with dance, voice and language lessons for however long it takes for their entertainment company to decide they’re ready for debut or dumping. Because of this training period, K-pop idols are more Ginger Rogers than Fred Astaire: they do everything that a great pop star should do, but in multiple languages across multiple platforms (backwards, and in heels!). But performing music is only one part of the full-time job; idols are also required to participate regularly in television entertainment shows, be brand ambassadors for some of Korea’s biggest exports, create incessant social media content, and cultivate meaningful relationships with fans. It is very much a 24/7 appointment, as the fans certainly demand.

The video for ‘Fantastic Baby’ may work as evidence that South Korea loves its anti-authoritarian imagery; what’s odd is that South Korea also takes great pride in its regimented customs, whether it’s military service or the competition encouraged in Korean education and business. Don’t strive to be great, strive to be the greatest. In some cases, K-pop trainees endure years of straining to reach impossible standards, years of restrictions on their personal lives and free time, before being told they’re cut. They put themselves through this because there is no reward without effort, and because duty is more than a concept in South Korea. BTS’s RM, clever at school, reportedly only convinced his parents to allow him to try a career in music by asking if they’d rather their son be the best rapper in the country or the 5,000th best student. Rebellion is an important idea, especially when it pertains to personal strength and self-actualisation, but for the most part it remains as imagery to be played with, aesthetics to be flirted with. Almost as if it’s just a sort of fetish on the whole country’s part.

‘Fantastic Baby’ is an electropop bop about bopping-as-revolution, written by producer Teddy Park (Park Hong-jun) and Big Bang members G-Dragon (Kwon Ji-yong) and T.O.P (Choi Seung-hyun), and it is incontestably one of K-pop’s megahits, with about 7 million unit sales across Asia. Its music video, in which the five members of Big Bang deal sexily with various symbols of oppression—shackles, shards of ice, women dressed as cats—is an explosion of colour, mangled metal and power-to-the-people imagery. It’s got artfully smudged kohl eyeliner. It’s got lustrous shoulder armour. It’s got T.O.P in a 19th-century red velvet military coat and breeches.

Big Bang was formed by YG Entertainment and debuted in 2006, pacesetters for the second generation of K-pop idols. Its ‘leader’, for K-pop boy and girl bands must have a leader, is G-Dragon, or Kwon Ji-yong. For those about to roll their eyes, ‘yong’ is translated as ‘dragon’, so Ji-dragon is actually G-Dragon’s name. He’s a singer, rapper, fashion designer and androgynous dandy, the man in the 15-foot orange wig, in the centre throne, a genuine Korean superstar. Taeyang (Dong Young-bae) is known for his smooth vocals, his Christian tattoos and generally for being the glue that holds every Big Bang banger together. He’s the one that thaws out in the ‘Fantastic Baby’ video. Daesung (Kang Dae-sung) is another nice Christian boy with a rare pair of lungs; he’s the beefcake in chains. Seungri (Lee Seung-hyun), the youngest of the group, is the one scratched by the cat ladies. This is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to Seungri. And T.O.P (Choi Seung-hyun) is Big Bang’s surprisingly deep-voiced rapper, the one in the velvet military coat. He is the oldest of the group, an award-winning actor, an art collector and furniture designer, and a bit of a mess by K-pop standards. He is definitely my favourite.

I’m cautious about watching music videos, because they can play havoc with my interpretation of a song. A great music video manipulates me into liking a song I’d otherwise think mediocre; a bad music video puts me off a song I should adore. I am not sorry I watched the video for ‘Fantastic Baby’. And the moment I realised that Big Bang’s deep-voiced rapper was in actual fact the fop in the breeches is the moment I decided T.O.P was my favourite.

T.O.P should be everyone’s favourite. Of the K-pop genre, he says things like, ‘We don’t say “white pop” when white people make music.’ He wears Mondrian print suits on stage. The music video for his solo track ‘Doom Dada’ was inspired by Stanley Kubrick, Antoni Gaudí and Salvador Dalí. He’s into Pink Floyd. He raps lyrics like, ‘Francis Bacon in my kitchen.’ He was initially rejected by YG Entertainment because he was chubby, so he reportedly lost 20 kilos in forty days before auditioning again; he’s since said, of filming a topless scene for his lead role in the action movie Tazza: The Hidden Card, ‘I was so embarrassed that I screamed.’ His Instagram account was a parade of surreal, Technicolor non-sequiturs, before he deleted all of his photographs. He admitted to smoking cannabis in 2017 and was sentenced to 10 months in prison, which was suspended. He begged the Korean public for forgiveness: ‘I have no excuses,’ he wrote, ‘and deserve any kind of punishment.’ The day after being indicted on these charges, he was found unconscious after an overdose of benzodiazepine and was hospitalised.

Oh. Did that get a bit dark?

This is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to Big Bang.

The least interesting role in the ‘Fantastic Baby’ music video is Seungri’s. He stands still, surrounded by models in latex and cat ears, and growls five unchallenging lines, cast as the mature, sexy one in a bid to combat the fact of his being the baby of the group. This is something I’ve never given much of a shit about, but something that is apparently noteworthy. Seungri is the youngest of the group, and so Seungri will never be as accomplished as his colleagues.

Seungri’s distinct ‘thing’ became his business ventures: ‘Business was the one area that I could try without overlapping with the other members [of Big Bang],’ he said. He successfully launched a dance academy, a ramen franchise and a record label, among other projects. In the summer of 2018, as his older band mates enlisted and withdrew from public life, he released his debut solo album, The Great Seungri. Its title riffed off his growing reputation as the Great Gatsby of South Korea, his love of the party lifestyle, his extravagant spending. In 2018 he became one of seven directors for a luxury Gangnam venue called Club Burning Sun.

In 2019, police investigating the alleged assault of a 29-year-old clubber at Club Burning Sun uncovered evidence of sexual harassment, date rape, and illegal drug use. There was immediate and significant media attention due to Seungri’s role as director, and in February text messages purporting to show that he had not only been aware of the illicit activities taking place on the premises, but had directed staff to secure prostitutes for foreign investors, were submitted anonymously to the Korean Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. On the 10th of March 2019, Seungri was booked as a suspect. He announced his retirement from entertainment the next day.

As I write, the investigation is ongoing. Seungri has begun his military service, and his case will now most likely be heard at a military court. He has been indicted without detention on charges including procuring sexual services for investors, distribution of illegally filmed sexual content (known as molka) on social platforms, and overseas gambling (gambling is illegal for all Korean citizens, regardless of where in the world they partake). It’s difficult to say what will happen next, as the Korean courts do not agree with the Korean police on which charges are valid; Seungri maintains his innocence.

It’s ridiculous what can pass for scandal in K-pop fandom—google any idol and the word ‘controversy’ and you’ll find specious nonsense—but Burning Sun is a real catastrophe, one that’s had a profound effect on the finances and reputation of YG Entertainment and its competitors. Tourist numbers in Gangnam fell. For Korean women, Burning Sun proved that misogyny and corruption are as rampant in K-pop as they are elsewhere in Korea’s patriarchal society. As for Seungri, he’s found himself out of a job, his image scrubbed even from Big Bang’s merchandise. Some fans have made statements of support. Big Bang will always be five! Seungri, you are not alone! More again have scorned him on social media, picketed YG Entertainment’s offices demanding an explanation for his behaviour, and issued death threats.

Amber Liu of girl group f(x) noted of K-pop fan communities, ‘For girls, you have to go for the general public popularity. For boys, you need a fandom. Like a big, passionate fandom.’ You fuck with that fandom at your peril.

We must assume Seungri hasn’t read the book. It didn’t work out great for Jay Gatsby either.

The various fandoms across K-pop have their own names: Army for BTS, EXO-L for EXO, Shawol for SHINee, Kamilia for Kara, MeU for f(x), VIP for Big Bang. A person who’s obsessed with Korean pop culture in general is known as a ‘koreaboo’—a twist on the derogatory term ‘weeaboo’, referring to a fellow Westerner infatuated with Japanese pop culture and stereotypes—and obsessive fandom, not specific to K-pop, but in any sphere, is called ‘stanning’.

This comes from Eminem’s song ‘Stan’, Ireland’s Christmas No. 1 for the year 2000; the titular character is so obsessed with Eminem that he murders his pregnant girlfriend when the rapper fails to answer his correspondence in a timely fashion. Rather than have a good, hard look at themselves when accused of Stan-like behaviour, fandoms tend to celebrate the overzealous. Stanning is not exclusive to screaming teenage girls and hysterical Marshall Mathers enthusiasts. We stan a fierce queen, cry the fans of Rupaul’s Drag Race; queens insufficiently fierce get racist abuse and death threats. Then there’s the case of DJ and presenter Zane Lowe, who found himself besieged by furious netizens for daring to laugh at Lauren Laverne’s breathless canonisation of Beyoncé during live coverage of Glastonbury 2011, because oh my God we stan Beyoncé. Rihanna, Frank Ocean and Grimes are three musicians who endured pressure campaigns on social media when new work wasn’t produced according to what their stans felt was a reasonable schedule. Star Wars stans, livid at some perceived feminist agenda in their favourite movie franchise, organised to manipulate the Rotten Tomatoes score for 2017’s The Last Jedi and harassed its star, Kelly Marie Tran, till she deleted her social media accounts. After making Leaving Neverland, a documentary about two men who allege they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson, director/producer Dan Reed received death threats. Of Jackson’s stans, Reed said, ‘You can’t challenge them with facts because it’s an article of faith for them and any challenges to that belief are blasphemy.’ Then you have football hooliganism, religious cults, US politics . . . surely the feverish devotion to raving liar Donald Trump is stanning of the most omnicidal sort. This is a time of trial by social media, cancel culture, and poisonous hyperbole. Stans expect, stans demand, and stans can be brutal when storylines or album release dates or critics’ responses don’t develop the way they believe they should.

It makes sense for the entertainment companies of K-pop to pander to their bands’ stans. Devoted fandoms promote for free and spend like there’s no tomorrow. Devoted fandoms are worldwide movements. They are also largely anonymous, certainly without hierarchy, and utterly unmanageable.

We are EXO-L and we stan EXO. Three members of the Korean-Chinese supergroup—Lu Han, Kris Wu (Wu Yi Fan) and Tao (Huang Zitao), all Chinese —filed lawsuits against SM Entertainment in a bid to terminate their contracts, citing overwork, mistreatment leading to serious illness and injury, and ethnic discrimination.

We are Shawol and we stan SHINee. Kim Jong-hyun of SHINee was recruited by SM Entertainment at the age of 15 and took his own life in 2017, aged 27. He had suffered from depression and had struggled with the enormous demands the industry made of him as an idol. In his suicide note he said he felt broken from the inside.

We are MeU and we stan f(x). Amber Liu’s bandmate Choi Jin-ri, known by her stage name Sulli, joined SM Entertainment at the age of 11 and took her own life in 2019, at the age of 25. An outspoken feminist, Sulli was criticised and ridiculed by Korea’s deeply conservative media and harassed by social media users. Before her death, she had repeatedly asked SM Entertainment for help managing the hatred directed at her.

We are Kamilia and we stan Kara. Goo Hara joined SM Entertainment’s girl group Kara in 2008, at the age of 17, and took her own life in 2019, at the age of 28. Her ex-boyfriend, Choi Jong-bum, secretly filmed as the couple had sex, then threatened to upload the video to the internet. Hara took him to court. Though the court agreed the sex tape was filmed without her consent, Choi Jong-bum was acquitted because Hara had stayed in a relationship with him. Mercilessly slut-shamed and harassed on social media, Hara died by suicide just weeks after her close friend Sulli. It was not her first attempt.

Tailor-made for young girls with disposable income and social circles driven by the need to find a place and fit into it, the ultimate pop product might look something like a cute, slim, straight, cisgender boy with big eyes, nice hair and a balladeer’s larynx. Or perhaps a cute, slim, straight, cisgender girl with big eyes, nice hair and a message of empowerment. Ostensibly this is the kind of idol Korea’s entertainment companies churn out: girls so polished you can use them as filter templates on camera apps and lads who wouldn’t look out of place on the front cover of Lisa Simpson’s Non-Threatening Boys magazine. Ostensibly, then, the fandom come to expect this kind of product, rely on this kind of product, and respond appropriately when the product meets or doesn’t meet these expectations.

Idols are supposed to be non-threatening in that they’re meant to be beautifully groomed and perpetually amiable, but they are not supposed to be sexless. K-pop music videos may surprise those expecting bubblegum East Asian kawaii shit; they’re high-octane, expensive, and raunchy. Those assuming that female K-pop idols will lean in to Western ideas about Asian women’s submissiveness will be dispossessed of such creepy notions by the music videos for Ga In’s ‘Fuck You’, Blackpink’s ‘Boombayah’ or CL’s ‘Hello Bitches’. Those assuming male icons will neuter themselves for tween appetites will be scandalised by the videos for BTS’s ‘Boy in Luv’, in which the boys, dressed in school uniforms, manhandle a terrified classmate into a room they’ve just thrashed because they think she sure is pretty, or G-Dragon and T.O.P’s ‘Zutter’, in which the rapping duo partake in various extremely illegal activities and then literally piss all over one another. All of this immodesty and immorality is, of course, flawlessly performed.

The flawless performance of sexual energy means that the idols’ sexuality is also a product for fan consumption. Management companies do not permit their teenage idols to date at all; adult idols’ relationships must be kept secret too, because fans need to believe the idols are theirs till they’re ready to move on. When asked about marriage in a live interview, Big Bang’s Daesung confirmed he would like to get married some day, only to be booed by aghast fans. ‘I’m human too!’ was his indignant response. ‘Are you going to remain single forever? No? That’s strange . . . You can get married and I can’t get married.’ The idols are there to serve; every facet of their lives is packaged for fans to pore over, every moment choreographed to enchant. The ability to create personal narratives around these polished characters is a significant draw for fans. There are almost 113,000 fan-written stories about BTS on fanfiction site Archive of Our Own (Big Bang trail with a miserable 2,362).

In her column for The Guardian in January 2020, Hadley Freeman examines the 21st-century propensity for imposing our own morals and sensibilities on pre-existing characters. ‘This tendency to overrelate to any fictional character, whether it’s Jo [March] or Fleabag,’ she writes, ‘is less about art and more about narcissism.’ This is undoubtedly a facet of K-pop fandom; in the same way I used to assume my fleeting obsessions said something about me, stans like their idols to function as an extension of their selves. And so it is quite possible that the bile directed towards Big Bang’s Seungri was generated because he broke this contract between idol and stan; in his very adult indiscretions, he brought real life into the K-pop fantasy.

It strikes me as the most unpleasant incongruity that if an idol is suffering from depression, or suicidal ideation, or injuries they’re not permitted to rest enough to heal, or social media harassment, their fandoms seem entirely impotent. There was mourning, of course, for Hara and Sulli and Jong-hyun. Fans still celebrate their birthdays and politicians and management companies talk about necessary challenges to the online behaviour of gossip sites, fans and anti-fans (the stans of an idol or group’s perceived rivals. A BTS stan, for example, might think it her right to harass members of EXO or their fandom). But in general, idols dying by suicide is seen as a personal tragedy rather than emblematic of a punishing system reliant on feverish fan engagement. It’s more perfectly beautiful that way. It’s easier. Burning Sun, on the other hand, was grubby. Unlike Hara, Sulli and Jong-hyun, Seungri was not suffering from too much attention. He was greedily looking for more. And so here we have a fandom eagerly taking on a punitive role; Seungri, awaiting trial, is asking for it.

With guerrillas in gas marks defeating their similarly faceless oppressors, the ‘Fantastic Baby’ music video is heavy with anti-authoritarian imagery. This is not unique to ‘Fantastic Baby’, nor is it unexpected. The South Korea of the 20th century was marked by political and social oppression. President Rhee’s One-People Principle read as egalitarian but proved closer to fascism. President Park Chung-hee (father of our old pal Park Geun-hye, the one serving the 32-year prison sentence) presided over the Miracle on the Han River but declared martial law when his people proved ungrateful. He was assassinated by his friend, Kim Jae-gyu, paving the way to power for an even worse despot, Chun Doo-hwan, whose brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising led to his being sentenced to death and then pardoned by President Kim Young-sam, and Kim Young-sam’s successor, President-elect Kim Dae-jung. Chun had, in the course of his career, sentenced Kim Young-sam to house arrest and Kim Dae-jung to death; South Korean history is wild. We don’t have time to get into the division of Korea, the Korean War, the armistice and the Sunshine Policy, but you can take it as a given that the whole thing remains fraught and wounding and disruptive. The point being: the South Korea of hallyu is relatively new, but K-pop has a long memory.

Thus, South Korea’s experience with, if not proclivity towards, authoritarian systems is perhaps evident in the way its K-pop idols engage with anti-authoritarian imagery while being beholden to disciplinarian entertainment companies and a judgemental public. It’s hard to know whether the music video for ‘Fantastic Baby’ reflects on Big Bang’s power and instrumentality or is simply selling glossy imagery that appeals very naturally to young adults; industry observers would confidently claim it’s the latter. K-pop idols get into trouble a lot, though. For ostensible ciphers.

The great K-pop contradiction is how such a profoundly moralistic and conservative industry—which demands its idols conform to particular physical ideals: sexy, but not too sexy; lively, but not too spirited—gives us so many insubordinate characters. BTS’s RM blurbs challenging novels; his endorsement of Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, a bestseller slamming the South Korean patriarchy, sits proudly on the cover, right under a quote by the New York Review of Books. His band-mate Suga is brazenly ambiguous about his sexuality, a massive statement in South Korea. Soloist Ailee has been brutally honest about the pressure to be thin in an industry dependent on the pass-remarkable, and the effect her diet had on her voice. And if Big Bang’s G-Dragon is famously androgynous, f(x)’s Amber Liu has from her debut exuded gloriously queer energy. Having left SM Entertainment in the autumn of 2019, she’s been candid about the stresses and strains imposed on idols. In an interview with American news show CBS Good Morning in January 2020, she said, ‘My skin was too dark . . . and I had to brighten [it]. I lost a lot of weight. I developed a lot of really bad eating disorders.’ It is an incongruity indeed to hear a gamine idol like Amber Liu disclose that she too had been subject to draconian beauty specifications. That K-pop can have such punishing standards and still gift us characters like Amber, Psy (of ‘Gangnam Style’ über-fame), BTS’s RM and Suga, 2NE1’s CL, Super Junior’s Shindong, and Big Bang’s G-Dragon and T.O.P is a fact almost too disconcerting to admit: the system will hurt you, but the system works.

I re-watched the ‘Fantastic Baby’ music video probably a dozen times as I wrote this essay and I’m still not sick of it. I think that’s important. There’s a lot going on, but all of it’s dashing. The choreographed insurrection. The five distinct stunners. The velvet military coat. As I was putting this piece together I sent a link to the video to a friend and, at a loss as to how to succinctly describe how I felt about it, I just said, ‘It’s like all of my migraines having an orgy.’ And even after being commissioned to think seriously about what ‘Fantastic Baby’ does so right, or how K-pop manages to sell itself off the beautiful backs of its idols even while being so unashamedly exploitative, or what the fuck fandom means in this day and age, I haven’t been able to come to any useful conclusions. In its anti-authoritarian imagery, is ‘Fantastic Baby’ a celebration of defiance, or by sanitising and monetising the concept of revolution is ‘Fantastic Baby’ actually a clever exercise in compliance? Are G-Dragon, Taeyang, Daesung, Seungri and T.O.P in on the joke? We could assume that they are, having taken control of their musical direction early on in their careers, writing and producing much of their own work, and easily being in a position now to tell entertainment companies, Korean conservatives or the most demanding elements of their fandoms to fuck away off for themselves. But then didn’t Seungri, who in his transgressions almost sank an entertainment giant, prove that idols have more fates than their own in their hands? Take a closer look at T.O.P—so astute and talented and brittle—and wonder if his lackadaisical lip-syncing and dancing hide very poorly his fear of the hand that feeds him. I don’t know. Post-Sulli and Hara and Jong-hyun, post-Burning Sun, post drug convictions and disclosures of eating disorders and BTS on The Tonight Show, ‘Fantastic Baby’ feels like a moment in K-pop we’re never going to get back. My running times have improved, and tech-trance is the current soundtrack for more graceful shuffling through the woods. I google T.O.P from time to time, just in case. It’s not easy to be a non-stan K-pop fan. The further it travels, the more idols suffer, the harder it is to ignore that it’s not the most ethical of my obsessions. I hope it says nothing about me at all.