Partially that’s because queerness is still largely taboo in Korea. But for a while, Soju says, being Asian felt taboo, too. Soju first moved from South Korea to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when she was 9-years-old.
“I remember bringing my Korean lunch. And when I opened it all the other kids were saying ‘It smells! It smells!’ They were just making fun of me,” she says. “And after that I always knew I couldn’t embrace the Korean parts of my identity.”
That began to change in college, Soju says, where she met other Asians and began to reconnect with her love of Korean pop, or K-pop. K-pop has been around since the early ‘90s when the Korean music industry began borrowing sounds from American hip-hop.
To this day, Soju says, if you ask K-pop stars who their biggest influences are, “they’ll tell you Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston … Beyonce.”
But while K-pop has known about American music for many decades, it wasn’t until the last few years that K-pop became a regular fixture on the U.S. charts. Groups like Blackpink and BTS, which some have likened to the Beatles, have accelerated that trend, but K-pop first entered many Americans’ consciousness a few weeks ago when K-pop fans helped reserve tickets for President Trump’s Tulsa rally to make him think more people were attending than actually were.
At the time, many Americans were perplexed. How did K-pop fans wind up at the center of a U.S. political stunt?
The answer, Soju says, has to do with the extreme loyalty between the K-pop stars, known as “idols,” and the fans. In K-pop, Soju says, fans move “as an army” to take action on the part of their idol.
“It’s almost like we think together and act together,” she says.
A collective action like reserving several thousand tickets, she says, is almost too easy because idols can mobilize their fans so quickly.
The idol’s power, in turn, derives from the fact that they are expected to remain perfect fantasies for the fans, Soju explains. Even dating is a fireable offense, she says, because idols are supposed to put their fans first.
“They have to look a certain way, eat certain things, act a certain way….it’s almost inhumane,” she says.
That pressure, combined with the grueling training programs idols go through as teens to learn how to sing, dance, and rap, has led to numerous idol suicides and scrutiny of the industry.
Mental health is a big concern, Soju says, and more people need to realize that idols aren’t “robots — they’re humans.”
Soju is hopeful K-pop can grow to embrace artists in their full complexity, and to that end, has released her own single called “Bang!”
“I always wanted to be a K-pop idol when I was younger, but it didn’t work out for many reasons,” she says.
Through drag, she says, she can keep singing about the issues that are important to her such as the fact that “people don’t see Asians as sexualized beings. I wanted to break that barrier.”
Speaking with Soju, you get the impression it won’t be the last stereotype she shatters.
Soju's K-pop Picks
2NE1, "I AM THE BEST"
Tiffany Young, "Magnetic Moon"
Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast. She also adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on July 10, 2020.