For anyone who thinks that today’s K-pop fandom is like Beatlemania, it is absolutely not like Beatlemania. One massive difference? Technology.
The unstoppable energy generated by today’s fans, especially those of K-pop, is inextricably linked to our handheld tech, enabling deeply individual relationships (or rather deepfaked ones) with the objects of our affection. Are you watching a handsome, expertly trained K-pop star in a livestream beaming to millions? Or are you FaceTiming with your boyfriend? Both can look and feel the same on your phone.
The tightly orchestrated world of K-pop is continually perfecting how we manufacture closeness in a digital era. This tension between public versus private life is explored in three recent novels, Y/N, XOXO and The Comeback.
In author Esther Yi’s surreal new novel Y/N, the blurry lines between what is and isn’t real in modern-day fandom come to life.
The story starts with a woman in Berlin who goes to a K-pop concert by a band described as “the boys.” Immediately evangelized, she seeks a closer relationship with one of them, named Moon.
When Moon drops off the public’s radar, the main character books a flight to Seoul and goes on an unmoored wild-goose chase, driven by a compulsion to find him and bring to life her imagined relationship with him. The character writes Y/N fan fiction (Y/N is a prompt to insert “your name”), and very quickly, it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction (or the fiction within the fiction). Yes, things get weird.
From the very start, Yi flips the script on what is real and what isn’t, what is silly and what is serious. The day after her life-changing concert experience, the main character, who remains unnamed throughout, has a tough time paying attention at work.
“I worked from home as an English copywriter for an Australian expat’s business in canned artichoke hearts,” the narrator says. “My job required me to credibly infuse the vegetable with the ability to feel romantic love for its consumer.” Yes, I think you’re supposed to laugh. “I avoided my boss’s calls altogether, nauseated by the prospect of speaking seriously about such unserious work.” I hear you, girl.
This is a book about having a tough time with reality. And let’s be real, don’t we all sometimes? That’s what fandom is about: escape. Fiction, too, reflects our real world while giving us an out.
I loved reading XOXO by Axie Oh, published by HarperTeen in 2021. This YA novel, a frothy page-flipper about a youthful romance, is the tonal opposite of Y/N, although it also features a young, male K-pop star who disappears and a young woman in the Korean diaspora who flies to Seoul.
If Y/N is a book I’m reading as an adult, XOXO is the book I would have devoured under the covers at night as a kid. Books about K-pop stars didn’t exist back then. But it seems inevitable that they must exist now. While legacy media struggles, K-pop’s digital dominance keeps growing. It’s a multibillion dollar industry, with 90 per cent of K-pop listeners living outside South Korea. Tapping into this audience makes real business sense.
The Comeback, a rom-com that features a K-pop star and storyline, is the second in a three-book deal for Toronto romance writer Lily Chu. The book was published this month by Sourcebooks, but the audio version was released last July as an Audible Original voiced by Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. When Audible dropped The Comeback, it immediately shot to No. 1 on the Amazon-owned platform, not just in the romance category but for all offerings on the membership-only Audible Plus.
The author’s hybrid deal (one for audio, one for print) is a result of multiple offers of interest for her first book, The Stand-In, which also featured Asian celebrities being plunked into a woman’s humdrum life.
I finished reading Y/N on a flight back from Chicago, where I’d gone to see a stadium concert by Min Yoongi, a member of the Korean boy band BTS. He performed for 22,000 screaming fans at the sold-out show. Beatlemania? It kind of looked like it.
Back home, I looked up some Y/N fiction, which you can find easily on Wattpad, Reddit or YouTube, and landed on a creepy fan-made video that prompted me to imagine Min Yoongi as my boyfriend. Created by a fan who stitched together old livestreams and backstage concert footage to tell a fictional, sophomoric love story, it felt deeply uncomfortable to watch.
Just how disrespectful is it to manipulate reality when the avatars of our love are real people? The main character in Y/N didn’t seem to consider this question. That’s fine – she isn’t real. But we are.
We all need somebody to love in a lonely world. But real love is reciprocated and shared. Fandom, by definition, can never be a two-way street.