Everyone has secrets, and I’m no exception. My particular dirty little secret is known only to my family and good friends. It tends to come out when I'm with a group of people listening to music, usually your typical mainstream pop. You know, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, etc. Sometimes a comment will be made along the lines of “This song is so addictive” or “I know I shouldn’t like this stuff, but it’s fun to dance to.” And, if my companions do not seem to be music snobs, this is precisely when I often choose to reveal my secret.
I’ll take a deep breath and duck my head down to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.
“I was a huge Backstreet Boys fan in eighth grade.”
I’m not proud of my past. But my excuse is that I was young, only 14 or so, very much interested in cute boys as a general rule, just discovering radio beyond my parents’ oldies station and highly susceptible to the musical tastes of my peers. Put it all together, and you’ve got a raging, obsessing, teeny-bopping BSB fangirl. I’ve come over time to accept my musical history as simply a part of my past; to not be so ashamed of my secret. Many girls my age were the same as I, whether the object of their obsessions were the Backstreet Boys, NSync, or even Hanson. I was young. I didn’t know any better.
Now, at 23 years of age, I should know better. And I thought I did know better.
My love of K-pop began with an earnest desire to connect with my students. I was frequently asked, “Teacher do you know blahblahblah?” And truthfully, I almost never knew blahblahblah. Faced with disappointed expressions, I knew that I had to become familiar at least with the popular groups if I wanted to truly bond with these teenagers. My host sister and our television set exposed me to FT Island, Wondergirls, and Super Junior. Then Big Bang and their song “Lies” entered my life.
Big Bang's "Lies" with English subtitles (Be warned, the video is kind of ridiculous.)
With an insanely addictive chorus, “Lies” became the first K-pop song that I downloaded to my computer, and it wasn't long before I could sing the entire chorus in Korean, even if I didn't fully understand what I was saying. In school my students and I talked about how good the song was and debated which Big Bang member was cuter, G-Dragon or T.O.P. (since he was older, I voted for T.O.P.). Enjoying this new level in my relationship with my students, I began reading a couple Korean pop culture blogs and became curious about one group who was particularly popular with my female students: TVXQ or Dong Bang Shin Ki. I watched a performance of their new song “Purple Line” on the internet. Good dancers, decent singers, I thought. I watched the music video. Entertaining, I thought. Still, with their over-the-top costumes and hairstyles, I mentally classified them, along with Big Bang, under “boy band” and then turned on the Beatles (who are, ironically, the original boy band).
Dong Bang Shin Ki's "Purple Line" (Korean version) with English subtitles (Be warned, the English is kind of ridiculous.)
The only problem was that I couldn't for the life of me get these Korean pop songs out of my head.
I searched online for various music videos and performances by my new favorite groups, especially Dong Bang Shin Ki. I watched subtitled interviews and variety shows and learned to identify individual members of each group, their personalities and their histories. I played their songs on repeat on my iPod, dancing and singing along the whole time. Thus, after eight years, I became a teeny-bopper all over again. For a bunch of singers who weren't much older than my students.
At first I felt embarrassed about my growing obsession. I thought I had long ago outgrown manufactured pop bands. Nevertheless, being a committed K-pop fan has definite benefits. Anything that helps my students feel more comfortable speaking to me is definitely a good thing. And at the end of a long day at school, there's nothing like turning on and dancing along to a song that's just fun, pure and simple. Plus, K-pop has actually helped me improve my vocabulary. After exploring some of Dong Bang Shin Ki's older songs, I now know how to say “I believe” in Korean, and I probably still wouldn't know “lie” - an important word in any language – if it wasn't for Big Bang.
Maybe I'm just trying to justify my changing musical tastes to myself. In any case, once I go back to America my love affair with K-pop will probably fade as a result of being out of direct contact with the culture in which it's embedded. So for now I'm putting away my guilt, warranted or unwarranted, and embracing K-pop, over-the-top fashion, and 21-year-old boys with frosted flat-ironed hair. I'm a 23-year-old American K-pop teeny-bopper, and I'm having a blast.