If Seo Taiji and Boys paved the way for the K-Pop genre, then there is undisputably one group that blazed the way for idols: H.O.T (High-Five of Teenager). In what could be described as scenes out of a drama (oh hey there, Answer Me 1997), the five-member group was a national mania to legions of girls and a national epidemic to the ire of parents and principals. Through these boys, “fandom” was first molded out of fierce passion and zealous devotion. This is the history of how five boys-next-door started a wave that permeates all corners of the world.
Made in Korea
When Seo Taiji and Boys broke past the iron-fist grasp that broadcasting stations had on the music industry, this allowed the creation of entertainment companies. Producers began to see ways to pieces of the pie, and their ambitions grew with the success of Seo Taiji and Boys. One such man was Lee Sooman who founded SM Entertainment with the intention of debuting artists who were not only talented and well-trained in Western influences but obedient as well after wasting much time and resources on his first artist, Hyun Jinyoung.
Lee Sooman learned from his failures and realized that the key to his first success laid among the fickle tendencies of teenagers. In order to better grasp what teenagers wanted, he conducted surveys which yielded quite a simple yet profoundly complicated answer: exceptionally attractive group members that can sing and dance. Armed with these results, he held auditions all over countries like Korea, the United States, and even Japan to scout good-looking contenders. Once someone passed these auditions, they were sent to Korea to undergo Lee Sooman’s extensive training. Trainees underwent strict guidance in all aspects from dancing, singing, even to the way they behaved. They were monitored on how to look and live like a celebrity. If you were going to be a future superstar, you needed to look and act like one as well. Through this process, the term “manufacturing” became associated.
With this impressive attention to detail and controlled environment, success was inevitable for the first-to-debut group of five teenagers hailing from the United States and Korea. Complete with handsome faces, youthful bodies, powerful choreography, and crooning vocals, members Kangta, Jang Woohyuk, Moon Heejun, Tony Ahn, and Lee Jaewon blindsided girls in Korea out of nowhere. And album sales showed it. Within the first 100 days, their debut album We Hate All Kinds of Violence (1996) sold 800,000 copies for a final count of 1.5 million copies. These numbers were unthinkable at the time, and the five fresh-faced youngsters were groomed from the start to do the undoable.
The group went on to release four more albums, two live albums, a greatest hits package, and even a movie. Despite the financial crisis and strained political landscape at the time, the group enjoyed popularity in countries such as Taiwan, China, Japan, and even in Asian communities in America.
When Love Knows No Bounds…
Unsurprisingly, these flower boys sent girls into a tizzy. They needed a way to channel their passion and energy for their oppas, and thus Korea’s first fanclub and fanclub color were formed: Club H.O.T. More commonly known as White Angels, these official fans showed unparalleled support for their group. Whether it was organizing wearing white at music shows or collectively sending messages to the members via slogans at concerts, White Angels were there each step of the way with H.O.T all too literally. H.O.T became such a national phenomenon that the Korean government had to accommodate subway transit times for when H.O.T held concerts. The Korean Department of Education had to implement a ban, forbidding students from leaving school early to attend their concerts. Even the President of Korea at the time had met with the members three times in a row because of the pervasive effect they had on society at this point. If you ever watched tvN’s hit series Answer Me, the 1997 edition really didn’t dramatize any of the fervor.
Merchandise first appeared on the market thanks to the demand of fangirls. H.O.T stationary could be bought at any street corner. Sasaengs also made their first appearances as these “fans” would camp outside of members’ homes, disrupting neighbors. Members Tony Ahn and Jang Woohyuk were even forced to move many times when their fans’ unruly behavior evicted them out of their neighborhood.
Idolizing As We Know It Today
Through H.O.T, Lee Sooman realized the money-making formula. At the height of H.O.T’s popularity, there wasn’t anyone that had not heard of them. Their popularity even made small ripples to neighboring countries China and Japan, an admirable feat considering political tensions at the time. Through H.O.T, Lee Sooman single-handedly created the term “idol.” If it wasn’t for the massive success of the group, rival companies would also not have debuted their own groups like Sechs Kies or 1TYM. Figurative and literal blood has been shed at subsequent fanwars between fandoms. Although this may seem like once upon a time, you’ll see history really hasn’t changed much over the course of the years. Idols are churned out in similar fashion, fandoms continue to fiercely protect their groups, and most importantly, K-Pop culture continues to be the same more or less despite a diversified population.