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Kpop: Berlin’s hottest ticket?

Noël was a typical teen with a secret: a Kpop obsession. Now the subculture has exploded into the Berlin mainstream, with Kpop merch in every high school, fan fundraisers to promote concerts, even dance academies. We get schooled in the Kpop craze.

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Photo by Lydia Goolia. Noël Flores, 15, says at this point it would be less weird to like Kpop than to not know what it is at all.

Exberliner hangs out with German Kpop fans for a month to explore how the genre has progressed from something for “the freaks among the freaks” to Berlin high schoolers’ hottest ticket.

A newcomer, intrigued by the world of Kpop, should be prepared to go down an internet rabbit hole. Any given group’s MV (music video, in the genre’s parlance) will mesmerise a first-time viewer with its scale of production: the slick computer-generated graphics, the dynamic camera work, the band members dancing in perfect unison as they go through four sets, five CGI environments and six outfits, minimum. Scroll down and the view count, too, will be imposing. Four hundred million people have watched this? Wow. But then, moving on to the next suggested MV, and the next one, and the one after that, it becomes clear that for Kpop, these numbers are par for the course. Soon, the algorithm will suggest non-music videos like “SUGA is eating snack” – a minute-and-a-half clip of BTS band member Suga silently eating crisps. This, too, has a shockingly high number of views for what it is – over 2.4 million at the time of publication. At this point, a non-fan’s reaction may shift from “wow” to “why?” The answer is difficult for outsiders to understand. But for BTS fans, who provide the bulk of the mundane video’s two-million-plus views, the answer is simple. “I love them,” gushes Noël Flores.

Kpop’s ARMY of fans

Stepping into the cosy Prenzlauer Berg bedroom of 15-year-old Noël, two things become immediately apparent: one, this girl is much neater than your average eleventh-grader; and two, she is really into BTS. The Kpop group, whose name in English translates to “Bulletproof Boyscouts”, consists of seven singing, dancing, smouldering South Korean boys, and in her room, they are everywhere: smiling at visitors from photos tacked to the walls, doors and desk. There’s even an ARMY bomb stowed in her bookcase (don’t be alarmed – it’s a lightstick fans wave at concerts). “It’s funny because if someone had told 12-year-old me that at 15 I would have a bunch of posters of boys in my room,” Noël says, “I wouldn’t have believed them.” It’s easy to see her point – this studious, self-reflective girl, who speaks three languages and attends a renowned high school, is hardly a fit for the traditional teenybopper stereotype. She dislikes the word “fangirl”, which reminds her of “a 15-year-old screaming and drooling over boys”, and prefers the term ARMY, a label specific to BTS.

Noël skipped school to stand in line early for their concert at Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena last October, along with 17,000 other fans in a sold-out crowd. And yes, she did scream, she says with an acknowledging smile. The absence was sanctioned by her mum, Simone, who tagged along to chaperone. She didn’t mind Noël playing hooky in pursuit of Kpop, saying she actually appreciates the openmindedness of her daughter’s generation. “In the West, we typically consume things from our own country, or look to America,” she explains. “So I find it rather endearing to see that now young people see there’s cool things coming out of Asia, too.”

I was nervous about what they would think.

And it certainly is a lot of young people. Last October’s Berlin concert sold out in nine minutes, and Noël and her mum were among the lucky few who managed to score tickets for around €150 a piece. “One of my Berlin friends didn’t manage to get a ticket here,” discloses Noël, “so she booked a flight to Paris and saw them there.” No word on how much that trip cost – though it’s hard to imagine it was less than the €500 charged by scalpers. As for her own outlays, Noël estimates at €200 the money she’s spent on BTS merch like clothes, CDs and posters over the years, which of course doesn’t account for concert tickets, and the general fashion and lifestyle purchases her love of the band has inspired, like the pair of earrings popularised by BTS band member Taehyung she’s wearing today. It’s also hard for her to assess how much time she spends per day on BTS. Since she mainly accesses it via social media, it’s easy to underestimate. “I would say not too much time, but then if you added up the time that I look at it during breaks, or on the train, or at home, or before bed, it would probably be a lot,” she reflects.

The Internet is how Noël first discovered BTS, when YouTube’s algorithm had the correct intuition to show her the music video for their breakout hit “DNA”. This was in early 2017, and she spent the following months in the Kpop closet, not bringing it up at school, much less putting it on her walls. “None of my friends were into it,” she shrugs. “I wasn’t ashamed, but I was nervous about what they would think.”

But she would soon find out. BTS burst onto the mainstream only a few months after she discovered it. Noël, in fact, can name the exact day: November 19th, when they performed that same song – “DNA” – at the American Music Awards. Ever since then, she has noticed BTS popping up more and more: people wearing merch, playing songs and even tagging its name on school buildings. Now, even if Kpop is still (incorrectly) characterised as exclusively bubblegum pop, at least everyone can name its most successful export – BTS. “I think at this point it would be less weird to like Kpop,” Noël says, “than to not know what it is at all.”

The freaks among the freaks

It’s a far cry from the German Kpop scene of 10 years ago. Near Cologne, in 2009, 13-year-old Kira Baumgarth was like Noël, taking her first steps into the genre via YouTube clips of bands like DBSK and Super Junior. “When I first started to get into Kpop, I searched the Internet desperately looking for someone who liked the same stuff I did,” remembers the now 23-year-old Asian studies graduate. “Anime fans and stuff were known quantities, but people into Korean music were still like, the freaks among the freaks.” But the genre “slowly grew” online, thanks in part to people like Kira. After her favourite band, Got7, debuted in 2014, she founded Gotcha, the “1st German Got7 Fanpage” on Facebook, providing its followers (now numbering 1400) with the same sense of community she sought in her early years. She credits Psy’s 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style” with first bringing Korean music to Europe’s attention, then the slow proliferation of bands with international fanbases, like Got7, with shepherding the genre off the Internet and into real life. For example, her fanpage raised €485 to erect two billboards near Mercedes Benz Arena and Potsdamer Platz to advertise the fans’ love for the Got7 ahead of the band’s concert in Berlin on October 13. As a veteran of Germany’s Kpop scene, Kira notes that it has become larger, younger and more visible within the past few years, which she credits to mega-popular groups like BTS.

Noël thinks BTS was such an effective introduction for German teens because the band “writes songs about important stuff ”, such as self-love and toxic relationships, unlike the bubblegum pop that had predominantly come out of Korea until then. She cites Got7’s “Just right”, where the band appears in miniature to reassure a girl she’s pretty, and TXT’s “Cat and Dog”, where the boys sing about wishing they were pets, as examples of Kpop’s more juvenile content. She found BTS mature and far more engaging – than both these bands and Western music.

“I feel like Western music videos are like a scene from a movie, but Kpop music can be quite confusing.” Trying to puzzle meaning out of the slick, hyper-produced videos was a challenge Noël enjoyed. “All of their music videos are kind of telling a story,” she explains, and she loves trying to figure out what they mean – both metaphorically and literally. Inspired by her love of the music, she has recently started learning Korean.

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Photo by Lydia Goolia. The Korean Cultural Centre offers a free dance class for Kpop fans to learn the moves of their idols.

Kpop Academy

With the rise of Kpop online, there are also more chances to pursue it in real life. On a cloudy September evening in Kreuzberg, a small team of well-dressed Korean women enter the lobby of Flying Steps Dance Academy to unfurl banners announcing the arrival of ‘KPOP ACADEMY’, a dance class offered for free through the Korean Cultural Centre. Around them, 15 or so girls and women congregate, chatting in German. Judging from their conversation, following one Kpop band breeds familiarity with all of them. “I like Blackpink but hate Twice,” says a tall 22-year-old blonde. “You hate Twice? I love them!” a petite 13-year-old Korean-German exclaims, and everyone invariably knows whatever band is brought up. The girls’ ages range from 13 to 22, concentrated on the younger side, and they all live in Berlin. Besides that – and the fact their T-shirts are emblazoned with ‘KPOP ACADEMY’ across the front – it would be difficult to nail down a single uniting factor. There’s a 19 year-old black woman with glamorously manicured nails, a tiny 14 year-old Bulgarian with huge brown eyes and braces, and the tall blonde who is probably twice the height of the idols she adores. There are also several Korean-Germans, who scoff when asked how long they’ve been into Kpop. “I don’t know,” says the 13 year old with perfect lipstick. “Since I was two?” Fair enough. Everyone else reports getting into Kpop around the same age – 12 to 14 – either via a friend, the Internet, or a friend on the Internet. Most are girls, though there is one Korean boy who arrives late, and one 44-year-old white dude accompanying his 13-year-old son, who discovered Kpop on Twitter in May. They’re all here to learn the choreography to the song “Adios” by the girl group Everglow, with the class led by famed performance director Kim Hwa Yeong. At one point, the tall blonde continues to dance from memory after the choreographer stops teaching, and all the others applaud, impressed. There’s a real sense of solidarity in the room that can only come from loving something that, for a long time, was deeply uncool. However, that’s starting to change and shows no sign of stopping. “The other day at school, I saw this popular girl in a jacket with ‘J Hope’ printed on it,” says Noël, referring to a member of BTS, deeply impressed.