Boy Band Frankenstein

Nancy Lien Duong

K-pop twitter tends to summon the image of a giant writhing mob, a massive hive mind buzzing as one. My experience, at least, has been a bit more like this: I walk down a long, coldly lit hallway stretching for infinity, and there are an infinite number of doors. I open a door and I enter a room. Inside the room are several other people who turn their heads to look at me.

The walls of the room are screens, the wallpaper is tweets: our Twitter timelines looming over us, all-consuming. Some of the screens are playing video, perhaps of the K-pop Dream Boy performing, or reciting the PIN number to his group member’s bank account, or eating string cheese, or feeding his pet rock. Maybe some are playing a fancam (exactly what it sounds like: a video shot from a fan’s camera), or an edited compilation of him interacting with another group member. Others have fanfiction, or an analysis of the K-pop Dream Boy’s style of dance. Perhaps a heartfelt letter addressed to him, or a proclamation that he accidentally killed God in a Wendy’s parking lot at 3AM. Some have fan art, ranging from photo-like hyperrealism to so stylized and cartoon-y that I can only recognize who it portrays by a well-placed beauty mark or the number of eyelashes the drawing has. Some have out-of-context images of the K-pop Dream Boy gripping a plastic spoon.

In the corner, there’s the small glowing red dot of a camera: we are being watched. Everything we say or do in this room is being broadcast into the other rooms, onto the big blue screens of their timelines. We can turn it off, but attention online feels like being seen, so we leave it on.

Pointedly absent from the room, though, is the actual K-pop Dream boy, the flesh and blood and brains of him. That’s because he isn’t really real, at least not in a way that’s accessible to us. In his stead, fans get tasked with deciding who he is. Look at the idol (the same word in Korean as in English: make of that what you will) and tell everyone what you see. But we can’t look at the idol, we can only look at representations of them, then at representations of these representations, their image refracted over and over.

This is a collaborative project: the material that we have to work with depends on the people around us and what they happen to latch onto, what they happen to pass onto us. We might watch the same video 10 times and not notice what’s going on in the background, until one of the walls in our room plays a moment in slow motion, zoomed into a small corner. Different rooms get different things on their screens, or different framings and interpretations of the same thing, as people try to read between the lines.

They collage wildly different pictures, jagged amalgamations with edges that don’t always fit cleanly together. Sometimes another fan describes a K-pop idol we like and we wonder if everyone is even talking about the same person. The spectrum of both tone and content is massive. One room looks at an idol and says, “He would be the type of boyfriend who leaves sweet notes around the house for you to find”. Another room looks at the same idol and says, “He’s funny, but he would definitely get kicked out of an Uber”. Someone says that an idol’s eyes are so full of sparkling wonder that this must be his first life; someone else responds with their theory that actually, this is his second life and he is the reincarnation of Princess Diana.

When I brush up against people I disagree with, their opposing view only polishes my own. There’s a part of my view that’s unshakable, that comes inherently from me, the specificity of my eyes and what I want to see. No one will ever know who is correct, but correctness isn’t the point here. Everyone’s just taking what happens to be in front of them and creating a person they can recognize.

. . .

Julia lives in Seoul and I live in San Jose, but we sit across from each other in this virtual room together, backlit by the blue light of the screens. Because this is the internet, there is no real meeting or introduction, only a creeping, gradual knowing as we slowly fill in the contours of the other. We are both sixteen years old. Both of our families had immigrated to North America, from countries with parallel histories: triumph over a colonizer, U.S. puppet government, civil war. We are both juniors in high school, and we both play volleyball, and we have the same jersey number. In the intimacy of this closed space, all these coincidences feel like fate. Maybe it is fate, to be oceans apart and still end up walking into this same room, a tiny blip on the endless internet.

Over the span of several years, Julia seems to be the only constant in this room. The walls molt and replace themselves with new tweets, new narratives, new petty squabbles, new K-pop Dream Boys and Dream Girls. People enter and people are removed, except for when we decide to keep each other. We find ourselves with a tiny circle of friends, simmered down, concentrated. Nebulous online proximity grows into something solid, with roots that snake out of the screen and cling to real life.

They are the first people I come out to, and Julia will follow suit in a few years. Everyone else in our little internet room is also queer: a safe bubble to sit with truths that had once been uncomfortable. We’re close in the way that only online friends can be, after carrying each other around in our pockets for years. The internet disembodies and disarms, making vulnerability feel less real. I clack my emotions into my phone in real time and send them off across the globe, but I would die before ever voicing any of them out loud.

The me that exists in my head, the me that exists in the physical world, and the me that exists online feel like three separate beings. I try on parts of these different selves, keeping the parts that feel right and discarding those that don’t. Years later, I will look up from the screen and suddenly realize that I feel like a whole person, and that I know who that person is. I will take stock of my parts and realize how many of them have been given to me by my friends: the words I use, the way I think about God (he’s a friend of a friend now), the soft forgiveness that I’m more willing to extend. I will look at my friends and find parts of myself: the hard, glinting bits sharpened into something useful, the gentle sarcasm, the words they use.

. . .

When Julia and I were sixteen, we had been enamored with a K-pop boy band that had just begun exploring youth and its pitfalls, all moody angst and melancholic existentialism. At that specific point in our lives, it felt revelatory. We latched our hearts onto them with a solemn devotion. Is there anything more intense than the love of a teenage girl, still scrabbling for a hold on herself? That kind of love that feels like it has swallowed you whole, that kind of love that is so heavy it feels like a tether?

We made separate Twitter accounts that were solely dedicated to picking and gathering all the pretty words for them. We posted pictures of the members, captioned with poetry and prose like an offering on an altar. The object of our affections already seemed to mark us as vapid, and so we felt like we had to dress our affection up with an affectation of intellectualism.

16-year-old me would have insisted it was about the music, above all. The music was so good! She would have tapped her fingers maniacally on the members’ names in the composition and production credits, waved her arms at their time in Korea’s underground rap scene. They’re artists, they have substance and depth. They’re not the manufactured boy band you think all boy bands are, they’re real, they’re real, they’re real.

But now? I could talk about the music, sure, because I did love it, so much. I still do. I could talk about craft and musicality, stage presence and precision, the hours upon hours of practice and synthesis and labor.

I won’t, though. If it was just about all that, the band would have only lived in my Spotify playlists, instead of carving out a little closet in my brain, where they resided for seven years. Something else has always been at the core. K-pop is the paragon of parasociality, after all. It’s an industry that’s perfected the ability to make people feel as if they know performers intimately, as if these performers know them back. (Incidentally, it turns out that people love to buy things related to people they care about.) There’s a constant churn of content that’s meant to cultivate this kind of relationship to idols, livestreams and videos where idols speak and gaze softly at you, like they’re your friend or partner picking up a call.

The truth is that the profession of being an idol is a little more like being a court jester than simply a musician. Idols are entertainers, above all. Half the job requirement is good-naturedly humiliating yourself to amuse an audience, whether that’s on TV network variety shows or content produced in house. Sing and dance, and do it well, but if you don’t have a personality, this job is not for you. Dial it up if you need to, whether it’s goofy charm, volume, dry wit, or quiet weirdness, until everyone’s laughing and having a good time. Put on the silly headband that a fan hands you. Give people something, so that they feel like they could know you, like the parts of you have slotted into place and clicked for them. Oh, I get it now. So this is who they are.

It’s a skill that can be learned and practiced: reading the room, knowing which parts of yourself to wrest from your chest and present to the camera, and which parts to tuck safely under your ribcage, protected and away from view.

An undercurrent of self-aware artifice runs through the K-pop industry. An idol’s career is oriented around the camera’s gaze, resulting in a hyper awareness of where the camera is pointed, a constant knowledge of that little red light. Idols will be commended on their ability to find the right camera out of many moving ones, and look straight into it when they’re on stage, locking eyes with whoever’s watching the video. Sometimes an idol will gently spin one of their group members around: “Don’t have your back to the camera,” they’ll chide. We’re shown panoramic shots of the entire set that expose all of the filming equipment and staff, or a cameraperson trailing a specific member.

It’s almost a break of the fourth wall, but you can’t break the fourth wall in a room that only ever had three. We’re constantly reminded, often by the idols themselves, that what we’re seeing is mediated and produced. “We have to keep talking to fill up airtime,” idols will say to each other, only half joking. “Please edit this out,” they’ll beg the production staff, after doing something embarrassing.

Spectacle structures K-pop. When I tell the uninitiated that a K-pop group is having a comeback, they usually reply with something like “Oh, did they break up?” “Where did they go?” The K-pop industry doesn’t have object permanence; to not be seen is to not exist at all. Idols release music, spend some time in the public eye promoting it, then retreat until they “come back” with their next album.

The process of a comeback is a distinctly visual one, marked by a gradual unveiling of concept photos, teaser clips, tracklist medleys, and new hair colors. The concept (a loanword, used to mean themed and/or staged) is the sum of these parts, the idea that drives the music video aesthetically. A comeback entails a new concept, whether it’s a slight tweak from the last, a complete overhaul of image and sound, or something in between. Idols get asked about what concept they’d like to try next, what concept they enjoyed embodying.

A concept is a character that can be slipped on and off like a spare skin. You can take it off, hold it up to the light, this you that isn’t you. Like a lot of things in K-pop, it’s blatantly contrived, a blazing neon sign that screams that none of this is real. (Sometimes it’s easier to look away and pretend the sign isn’t there.) All these years deep, my eyes have adjusted to the brightness, and I can pick out where that, too, is a lie.

I can detach myself, step back and appreciate the theater of it all, the sincerity of the performance and the amount of effort that goes into building it. I can admire my K-pop Dream Boy for how well he plays the role of Dream Boy. I can take the small piece of himself that he gives to me and run with it, so that the rest of him can go home. He’s had a long day at work, and he’s tired.

. . .

As we’ve settled into adulthood, Julia’s fallen down the rabbithole of another K-pop boy band, and she’s dragged me down with her. The group is misleadingly named Seventeen: they actually have 13 members, a veritable clown car of boys. When they all stand in a straight line they look more like a recreational soccer team than a band. They spent all their gawky teenage years noodling around together in a basement practice room with bright green walls.

Julia’s favorite word lately is “silly”, and so it’s become mine as well. “They’re so silly!” we say to each other constantly.

We have abandoned the pursuit of weighty, beautiful words in favor of absurd ones. “I think Wonwoo is a black or gray cat,” Julia said to me once. “Some people think he’s a white cat, but I think that’s ridiculous.” Another time we watched a Seventeen member wander around with his buddies for twenty minutes while clutching a big stick that he picked up off the ground, like a toddler clinging onto a warm soggy potato chip. “God, he is such a guy-holding-a-stick,” Julia told me. He so is, I agreed.

The music is good. No, better than good: fun. The cardinal sin is no longer being bad; now it’s being boring, and Seventeen is never boring. Julia and I can sit together, connected by a video call, and watch them perform or engage in shenanigans for hours. They love each other and they love what they do. We watch these grown men our age, heading into work and clocking in to play kickball in dinosaur suits and swim flippers, or pretending to be bowling pins on stage with their friends. What a silly thing. What a simple thing, to sit with your best friend and bask in all this excitement. I don’t feel the need to adorn it with anything else.

Welcome, I chirp, as you walk into our room. The little red dot and its lens have been covered with a sticker, like a lock on a door. When I scribble a love letter to a K-pop boy on the wall, it's really a love letter to my best friend. But don't look at what's written on the walls. Look at our sweet boy, who stands between me and Julia, incomplete. He towers almost a foot above the two of us. We are wrist-deep in glue as we tenderly papier-mâché him together, layers of pixels and text and sound and projections and movement and cardboard, each one handpicked. He’s our special dude, our fucking guy. Our reverse Wildean portrait, growing instead of decaying: the most lovable monstrosity. One of us takes his mushy little hand and wiggles it in a simulacrum of a wave. Say hi to him! Isn’t he so silly? He is ours and we’ve built him together. We call him Hoshi, and we take him everywhere: he lives in the warmth of our brains and in the cool blue light of our phones. If we love him enough, he will turn into something real, come to life and dance around the room. I see him tapping a beat with his foot already.