Celebrities, being often looked up to, have always influenced pop culture. Pop culture in Korea is a particularly interesting case. Being such a small country with a unique native language, there are far fewer people involved compared to pop culture in the West. Trends therefore spread and circulate very quickly, especially when they sweep across the youth culture. Fashion trends, for one, are an obvious example. “Long padding”, for instance, has become an essential Korean winter outfit thanks to K-pop idols and actors often being seen wrapped up in these wearable sleeping bags behind the scenes. Celebrities not only affect existing trends, but also create new traditions.
The fandom culture in Korea is huge, and I’ve always found it a little scary, even. Fans won’t stop developing new ways to express their love and devotion. In particular, they have evolved in the ways in which they spend money on their favored celebrities. Simply buying products, visiting relevant locations, and going to concerts are now only the basics. Young Korean band members are called “idols”, and you would immediately understand why just by walking into any metro station in Seoul. Fans started advertising birthdays and debut anniversaries of celebrities through metro station display ads. These consist of a massive photograph, usually zoomed in to only show the shoulders and above. (They are, at times, a little too big to pass without them giving you anxiety, since their nostrils are half the size of your palm). Flashy colors are preferred, as they must suit the words of encouragement and blessing written across the ad. This form of celebration spread across fandoms as celebrities started acknowledging them through social media posts. It was further kindled by JYP Entertainment, one of the major entertainment companies, which started rejecting any form of materialistic gifts for their artists. Other fascinating forms of gifts involve sending sumptuous meals to movie sets and studios, enough to feed all related members of staff — the same way your mom would send you to school with Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins on your birthday to dish out to your classmates. Fandom culture has not only physically decorated major cities, but also created a new tradition for those in the broadcasting or film industry.
Many Korean adolescents, however, wish not only to be devoted to their celebrities, but to become one as well. Speaking of which, it seems that the word celebrity now includes a much-expanded category of people. “Celebrity”, which by definition means “famous person”, brings to mind mostly singers, actors, comedians, and athletes. But I honestly didn’t know that “Youtuber” actually counted as a formal occupation — until it became the fifth most aspired job by Korean elementary school students, according to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2018. Despite being the first time it made it to the top ten, the fact that it ranked as high as fifth shows how quick media trends can influence the youth culture. Starting with Super Star K, first aired in 2009, survival audition programs gained popularity. But as popular as the contestants were, witnessing how difficult it is to become a successful television personality may have discouraged teenagers. “Celebrity” used to be the third most aspired-to job in 2007 by elementary school students, whereas it didn’t make it to the charts 10 years later. The closest thing was “singer”, which only came seventh. Nowadays, Youtube appears to be a much more approachable platform. No training or competition is needed to make yourself seen by the world. This seems like an easy road to fame, as some people become popular just by being funny or by vlogging their everyday lives.
Celebrities, as we have seen, influence pop culture in many ways, both when people want to support them, and when people want to become like them. Youth culture is built around the way they dress, the things they do, or the way they carry themselves. For those who are more devoted, participating as a member of a fan club or making videos like Youtubers do, may become a hobby that can then affect one’s livelihood more directly. Pop culture, then, is ultimately formed around popularity being both envied and admired.