Those who observe the Korean pop-music phenomenon from a distance may have ideas about who listens to the music. PSY, the YouTube star whose hit “Gangnam Style” help popularize so called K-pop in the U.S. and elsewhere, is big enough to have fans across all age groups. But the boy bands and girl groups who otherwise dominate the K-pop scene target a young teenaged audience in the same way teen pop stars on these shores—from David Cassidy to Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez—play to middle- and high-school students, particularly the girls.
So it may come as a surprise that in the audience at a many a K-pop show are older males. They’ve become such a presence they’ve earned their own nickname: “uncle fans.”
Uncle fans—also called by the Korean word for “uncle,” commonly written in English as “ahjussi” or “ahjusshi”—are defined as male K-pop fans who are 30 or older. One of those fans is Stephen Knight, a 47-year-old Nashville lawyer who runs the website kpopularity.com and was recently chosen to participate in a show about the wide array of K-pop fans out there:
Knight’s love of K-pop came about by accident: he had long made an effort to find interesting music to play in the car when he drove his children, now 10 and 13, to school. Time spent in Japan after college had left him with an appreciation for Japanese pop; looking for such music kept turning up Korean music instead—when PSY made it big last year, Knight took the plunge. Soon enough, he was a serious K-pop fan. A few months ago, he came across the term “uncle fan” and realized that that described him—which left him with mixed feelings.
For one thing, he knows that some people think it sounds weird—or worse.
“It worries me a little bit because I know that some people look at ‘uncle fans’ as something creepy, but in a way it is a pretty good description of the relationship between the performer and the fan, right?” Knight says. “You could look at it as the way an uncle might look at a niece, interested in what she’s doing and a supporter, but it implies that there’s not any sort of romantic aspect to it.”
On the other hand, as K-pop bloggers have pointed out, the pop-music industry isn’t exactly a world that sells modesty. The girl idols of K-pop are often presented as scantily clad, winking adolescents—some wonder if “uncles” are freed by a wholesome label to gaze however they choose.
But Knight insists that the only reason for those fans are labeled is that they don’t fit a stereotype, and that such examination will turn up that there’s nothing automatically amiss about being an “uncle.” Just like any piece of pop culture, a world where people are more likely to feature younger, attractive people, K-pop has all sorts of fans. Yes, the K-pop fan industry is structured on a teen-heartthrob model, but that’s a factor of marketing rather than music appreciation, Knight believes. “There’s this thing in K-pop about your ‘bias,’ who’s your favorite group and who’s your favorite boy or girl in that group that you’d want to marry,” he says, pointing out the difference between the way a teen is a fan and the way someone looking for music to listen to with his kids is a fan. “To some extent, there’s projection. This kind of obsessive attraction to the idols that a younger teenager might have, some people maybe assume that older fans feel the same way about groups they might follow.”
Though Knight says there were some negative comments on his video for the K-pop fan show, suggesting that it’s creepy to see a grown man confess his love of K-pop, many other comments are from fellow fans who commend him for being brave enough to admit that he listens to and loves K-pop (and in Nashville, of all places).
Plus, he adds, he’s personally seen more of an “uncle” fan culture for the K-pop groups that tend to project fun rather than extreme sexuality. In addition to catchy music, he says, they offer listeners a carefree moment; the groups that are meant to be super sexy tend to keep straight faces rather than smiling. One group he singles out as an example is Crayon Pop, the quintet whose song “Bar Bar Bar” has been shooting up the K-pop charts; Crayon Pop has, according to Knight, one of the most visible “uncle” fandoms.
But just because there are lots of “uncles” who are fans doesn’t mean that older men are likely to become K-pop idols themselves any time soon…at least not these guys.