As Korean pop music (K-pop)—of which Psy is perhaps the best known example in the U.S.—continues to make inroads with American ears, another popular Asian music-world trend has finally made its way stateside: the “high touch.” The concept is simple enough: Fans, selected via a contest or proof that they purchased an album or random drawings, get to give their K-pop idol a high five. Such events, thought to have originated a few years ago in Japan, can draw tens of thousands of fans.
As part of their “LIVE ON EARTH” U.S. tour, the K-pop sextet known as B.A.P hosted high touch events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C. and New York City, which the tour’s organizers say are the first ever
held in the United States. The events, which took place alongside concerts, were open to 100 lucky contest winners each—and although the events were more modest in attendance numbers than their analogs in Asia, their impact on the fans was anything but.
For one thing, many American K-pop fans were introduced to the concept for the first time. A number of entrants for the May 16 event in New York City—even those who had traveled from as far as Puerto Rico and Canada, hoping to meet B.A.P—had never heard of a high touch before.
Neither had the tour’s organizers: Verizon has sponsored K-pop tours in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage for six years now, but the idea for the high touch came from the members of B.A.P themselves. “We thought hard about how to connect with our US fans who always support us from far away. So we decided to do the high touch to allow for a more personal experience,” said B.A.P’s Bang Yong Guk, in a translated statement to TIME. Verizon spokesperson Esmeralda Diaz Cameron says the band had to teach the concert sponsors what a high touch was, but that the appeal of the idea was clear once it was understood: it’s not just that the band gets high fives, she said, but also that “they feel a high too” from getting that contact with the fans.
Even if the contact is brief and palms-only. A high touch, after all, is a model of efficiency: the event in New York took a long time to organize, but only lasted 15 minutes as the hundred fans, corralled into lines, made their way down the post-Little-League-game-style slap line. No hugging. No photos. No autographs. Instead: skin on skin, lots of eye contact, halting “hellos” from the band members—who, according to a spokesman, do not speak much English—and high quality smiles from six men who fans had previously seen them only in music videos. (I got my six high fives. I can vouch for the smiles and eye contact. Those guys are pros.)
And, of course, screaming. We’re talking about bona fide pop-idols here. The hundred fans may have had little in common beyond their love of B.A.P, but there was no question that the love was true. The diversity in the room in New York was typical of K-pop events, says Ann Lu of Mnet America, the U.S. arm of a South Korean music network that has played a large role in making K-pop accessible to American fans. She’s seen the music explode in popularity—Mnet has only been in the U.S. since 201, but last year’s Mnet’s K-pop convention drew 12,000 people in one day, she says—and has seen the fan base evolve as well. ”We started to cater to Asians in the States, but we quickly realized that most of the fans aren’t Asian,” she says.”This [crowd] is representative of every city.”
At least two of the fans present epitomized both the diversity of K-pop fandom and why the high touch is such a huge thing for bands: Patti Drotar, 52, of Perry, Ohio, and her 14-year-old daughter Rebecca. The Drotars had decided that Rebecca, a straight-A student, could miss two days of school for the event. The whole family—mom, dad and three daughters—drove nine hours, getting in the car right after Patti’s husband (who was exploring the city with his two other daughters) finished his late-night shift at a welding company. Rebecca, who is now thinking of learning Korean and maybe even studying abroad there, discovered K-pop through YouTube and turned her mother into a fan. When B.A.P finally emerged into the room, Rebecca held her hands to her face in the classic fan-girl pose. She literally swooned, knees visibly wobbling and her mother grabbing her elbow, just in case. After the high touch, she cried, overwhelmed and overcome that the group she had only ever seen at a distance, on YouTube, was in the same room.
But perhaps the real high of the high touch, for Rebecca at least, was the realization that the 98 other people in the line-up wanted those high fives just as much as she did. Back home in Perry, a town of about 2,000, K-pop fans are few and far between. On her first day of her first trip to New York City, she had already eaten Korean food and found lots of other people who shared her passion.
“You look around here and there’s all kinds of people. It’s nice to see this, that she doesn’t stick out,” her mother said. “It’s so cool to see her so happy.”
“There are people at my school who are like, ‘Why are you listening to that if you can’t understand it?’ but they’ve never listened to it,” said Rebecca. Her schoolmates like PSY—who Rebecca thinks has done a lot for the genre but has sold out a little—but they think it’s weird to listen to other K-pop bands. Here, however, at least for one day, K-pop fandom was the norm. “People do dedicate their lives to [K-pop] but it’s what they enjoy, so what’s weird about that?”