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I have been a K-pop fan since the second generation of the Korean Wave. This was in 2004 when groups like TVXQ were starting out, and I have been in the circle of K-pop ever since. When I started university, everyone else was listening to their own favorite genres, and we were all learning jazz as part of the curriculum. At that time, K-pop had not yet exploded so I had very few friends with whom I could exchange adorations about K-pop. A handful were from high school, most were acquaintances I met on the internet, and we have never met in person to talk about our common interest. When TVXQ halted activities as a quintet in 2010, it felt like the end. I started to distance myself from listening to newer groups, although I still kept myself updated with the happenings in K-pop. Upon graduation, I started to build my career in higher education. The distraction away from K-pop was good, and long.
When I joined the higher education workforce, I felt ashamed to disclose that I was a K-pop fan. The word itself gave first impressions that K-pop targeted mostly teenage girls who fawned over guys who wore makeup, squealing “oppa” in high octave voices. K-pop was also viewed as manufactured groups and non-intellectual because many think it is a bunch of young wannabes put together in groups, trained in dancing and singing, groomed by their companies to appeal to unassuming teenage consumers. And here I am in academia where there were serious discussions on music education, student and program development. Although my interest in K-pop is known by a few colleagues, it was something I thought was an embarrassment because why would a lecturer in music be interested in K-pop when she is surrounded by people who mainly discuss Western art music and jazz studies? So, I continued to lay low because my interest is never going to fit in.
It was the year 2018 when there was buzz about a K-pop group giving a speech at the UN General Assembly. A colleague came by to ask if I knew what this fuss was about. I shrugged my shoulders and nonchalantly said that it’s probably another over-hyped group getting the spotlight. Mind you, I was still catching up with the latest stories in K-pop, but just did not give any thought of the buzz that was going on, and who this group was that was getting all the attention.
But, K-pop began to gain momentum in academia. Senior students were writing it as a topic for their term papers in a music and popular culture class as part of the course requirement. I knew the facts that they were presenting, and I could articulate discussions with them as a way to guide them in improving their papers. But I still would not openly claim that I’m a fan of K-pop, simply because my lack of exposure to its possibilities in the various fields of discourse, and that most people in music academia still viewed K-pop as trivial. It was when I read the draft of one of the students of that class who wrote about BTS that made me want to find out more about the group. And that’s how I started to build my curiosity around BTS and a future research paper. Such is the irony that BTS would appear at a time where I seemed to be going nowhere with my career. Approaching my 10th year in higher education, I had been in a cycle of teaching and administrative work, and there was never a topic that I found any interest in to build my path in research. One thing led to another and it brought me to London.
BTS Interdisciplinary Conference
It was mid-August of 2019 when a colleague received a call for papers for an interdisciplinary conference with BTS as its focus. I was apprehensive at first, but that student’s term paper (who, by the way, is an ARMY herself) made me curious about why the majority of the fandom made claims that BTS’s music healed them, and even saved them. So, the topic discussing mental health and the musical healing properties of “Epiphany” was submitted. I did not have any hopes of getting accepted because I did not think that my writing was good enough for a conference of international standards. About a month later, I received an email saying that the abstract was accepted. I was shocked because I had no expectations at all. Naturally, I freaked out. Flights, accommodations, conference fees, finishing writing the paper itself; there was just too much to do. I had administrative duties and participating in the conference meant I would need to be away in the first week of the new semester of January 2020. Who will take care of the freshmen of my programs who are coming in for orientation? There will be so much administrative work to catch up on when I return. My anxiety levels shot a few notches higher. I didn’t think that leaving my responsibilities would be a good idea. It scared me to a point that I almost decided on withdrawing completely. But something nudged me to go ahead with it. And thinking back, it was “Epiphany” itself.
I went ahead with participating in the conference because as I analyzed “Epiphany,” the words stood out; about loving myself. The more I analyzed the music and its lyrics, the more I understood that if I did not do this for myself, nobody else will. This was the one chance given to me; to start growing a career in research and get out of my comfort zone. Throughout the preparations, I faced different sets of challenges, both in managing my teaching and administrative load, and learning about my writing proficiencies (or lack thereof) in research. In my mind, I told myself that I was about to address a song that resonated strongly in the fandom, which meant that I cannot mess up information and facts about BTS. I kept reminding myself: “all of them are ARMYs and they are going to know what you’re talking about.” Additionally, I was attending as a representative of the university. Again, I cannot mess up the image and name that I’m representing in that capacity. Anxiety was at an all-time high. So, I drowned myself in getting the paper done, preparations to attend the conference, as well as my daily responsibilities as an academic. There were nights where I could not sleep, and days where I just functioned on autopilot. And on New Year’s Day, I was on a flight to London with my mom to attend possibly the most intellectual gathering of a fandom.
Arriving at the destination, I knew no one, which meant I had to bring my introvert-self out and socialize. To my surprise, everyone was inclusive and so welcoming. The conference saw participants and presenters of diverse cultures and fields of study. All of us with one commonality: BTS. The warmth shared by all conference delegates in wintry January was felt throughout the week. The conference showed me new perspectives. It opened my mind to endless possibilities in research of various disciplines. It gave me new lessons and approaches for both my career and in life. It gave me confidence to pursue this as something worthwhile. It introduced me to new people and my new self.
Coming back with new motivations, I was determined to make BTS the center of future discussions. But I was still unable to grasp the idea of research in popular music studies. I was still skeptical that K-pop can be a research topic, let alone in music. Deep down it was still surreal that this is actually a thing. The devil in me kept saying “BTS is just another K-pop group. What else can you say?” There were many variables for me to have such thoughts too. Perhaps it is due to the fear of being ridiculed for researching something trivial (“It’s just a trending style”), or the anxiety of not being able to live up to the expectations of others (“So, that one song has some kind of healing properties. Wouldn’t that represent all of their songs?”). Those were the made-up perceptions in my mind. I was so self-conscious of not being able to find my stance in this supposedly newfound place. I’ve already analyzed the song and discussed how it has helped fans to heal emotionally and mentally. What else is there to discuss?
The pandemic happened not long after. Academia got more demanding, and I was also working on accreditation of two programs in the faculty. Now, sleepless nights were not because of anxiety but sleep paralysis. I was overwhelmed and had no one to turn to because I did not want to bother others as everyone had their own challenges and demons to deal with in such a turbulent period. So, apart from prayers, I turned to the place where I could find solace: in books and music. I bought the book recommended by Jin titled Miracles of the Namiya General Store. I began to read the book, at the same time I found out that “Magic Shop” had references to the storyline in its song. This gave me the inspiration to discuss BTS’s music written for ARMY. So, I chose to start working on analyzing “Magic Shop” for the next conference. I was given another opportunity to share my interest in BTS to the popular music studies community. I had to remind myself that the audience at this conference were not ARMYs. Worst, they could be K-pop skeptics. But I was determined to make this work to prove that my involvement in research is not a one-time fluke.
There were days when demands at work were overwhelming and sometimes, I lost the balance of work and self that I was desperately holding on to. My research on “Magic Shop” during the pandemic gave me a new understanding of the song. Once again, the lyrics helped me get through the toughest moments in my career. It gave me energy to try to be in control and kept my focus on writing that paper. I wanted to understand the relation and connection between BTS and ARMY. As I worked on the paper, it was clearer that the words that BTS sings are the strings that bind them and ARMY. The music has its creative merits too, but it is the lyrics and the inflections of the melody that draw its listeners in aurally. The conference scheduled in July did not take place until December. After my presentation, those who attended shared that it gave them a little bit more understanding of why BTS is as popular as they are now. They were fascinated by how BTS and ARMY have such a stronghold with one another through their fan songs. And once again, I found another community that was engaging and encouraging, appreciative of what I was contributing to the field. They made me feel that I finally belong somewhere.
I learned about the term aca-fan through this experience. I was never aware of this identity until I participated in these conferences. There were so many professors and senior colleagues, all coming from different backgrounds and professions. But we all had a commonality: being researchers in the field of popular music, being an ARMY, or both. Coming into the new year, I am comforted that I do not need to struggle with identifying myself as an academic fan. Among the many lessons I learned is that it is important to be confident when you have identified an area that you want to grow and develop in. It is also important to realize the worth of your work and commit to seeing it to fruition. For now, I have decided to make BTS the central topic of my future research. There is still so much to learn about their music and their contributions to the field of popular music studies. Their philanthropic actions have made them an inspiration, not only to me but millions of ARMYs around the world.
Now, I am no longer ashamed to identify myself as an academic fan. Even though the journey has been a positive one, I am sure I will meet new challenges along the way. One of the challenges that would always be present is that I will continue to struggle to find the balance between being an academic, and also being a fan. But I know that these challenges are presented to me to improve myself to become better. Nonetheless I now can proudly say that I am an academic. I am a fan of K-pop. I am a fan of BTS. I am an ARMY.
Everyone whom I’ve met along this journey into ARMY via academia.
Nur Lina Anuar
Illustration By: Kit @thisiskeets (Twitter) / @jellyfishcakes (Instagram)
Anuar, N. L. (2021). My journey into ARMY via academia. The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , (2). https://ther3journal.com/issue-2/my-journey-into-army-via-academia
Anuar, Nur Lina. “My Journey into ARMY via Academia.” The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , no. 2, 2021, https://ther3journal.com/issue-2/my-journey-into-army-via-academia.
My Journey into ARMY via Academia by Nur Lina Anuar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
© Nur Lina Anuar 2021