He Loves You, He Loves You Not
Esther Yi’s debut novel “Y/N” hinges on a K-pop star loving you even though he’s never met you
When I was 15, my family moved to a new city, and I transferred to a new high school. It was our second move in three years, and I was not handling the change well. Depressed, anxious, and terribly lonely, I did what most emotionally unstable teenagers do: devoted myself to a niche of pop culture that only a select few could ever truly understand. In my case, the niche interest was a genre of pop music from South Korea, a country I had no familial or cultural heritage to, yet was entranced by nonetheless. Fans of this music lovingly called it K-pop.
This was in 2012, a year before the global K-pop stars BTS debuted and still a few years before they’d achieve worldwide recognition. At the time, the genre was mainly seen as a cultural oddity in the west, a kind of pop music that could never achieve global popularity because it was too perfect in its performances, too feminine in its dress and makeup style, too foreign because of its Korean lyrics. Yet these were the aspects I loved about K-pop: its drive for perfection in performance and image portrayed a sense of realness to me, knowing how hard idol singers were working to bring sharp, synchronized choreography and well-timed smiles to my eager eyes. When I read English translations along with the music I was listening to, it seemed as though my soul was being filled with true understanding.
That these gorgeous, impeccably made up humans could be so friendly, sweet, and humble to their fan bases was a balm for my stinging loneliness in a new city. With my favorite artists, I sometimes felt like I knew their deepest thoughts and desires solely through the way they spoke on reality programs, or the interactions they had with their fans both online and off. I often felt comforted by the fact that I lived so far away from them—it meant that before I went to sleep in the US, I could imagine them out and about in their busy lives in South Korea. There was something comforting in knowing how alive we were at the same time, how close we felt in our shared love for not only music, but each other.
It might seem like an invasive sort of idea: the belief that a famous person loves you despite having never met you. But in K-pop, this belief is central to the genre’s success. In Y/N, the debut literary novel by Esther Yi about a woman obsessed with a K-pop star, this belief propels both fan and artist toward a disturbing climax.
Yi’s unnamed narrator starts the novel as a bored copywriter in Berlin, uninterested in communal worship and content with serious self-reflection: “What I feared most wasn’t death or global cataclysm but the everyday capitulations that chipped away at the monument of seriousness that was a soul,” she says. However, at the urging of her roommate, the narrator reluctantly attends a concert for a massively popular K-pop band (humorously referred to as “the pack of boys”), curious as to whether she would be able to find love for them. As soon as the concert begins, she finds herself captivated by the boys’ youngest member and best dancer, Moon. At first, she seems to resist the surge of affection that comes over her, describing Moon as a bother with a “disturbing neck.” But after seeing him dance with such magical precision and fluidity on stage, her heart is made up: “Confronted by the tetanic twitching of his individuality under the smooth skin of teamwork, I saw all the more clearly what was different about him, and I knew I loved him because I liked him better than the others.”
The narrator’s love, in this case, starts deceptively simple. But when you love someone who, in K-pop parlance, is called an “idol singer,” that love can so quickly turn into utter devotion. Yi mentioned this in an interview with Publishers Weekly last year: “K-pop is a symbol that, in my opinion, traffics in displaced spirituality…That’s how I view [my narrator’s] obsession. It’s not just a delusional exercise. To me, it’s a natural consequence of the sort of conditions under which she’s living.” Watching Moon perform, Yi’s lonely and disinterested narrator realizes she can find meaning through devoting herself to the movement of his body: “I could never predict his next move, but once it came along I experienced it as an absolute necessity.” After the concert, Yi’s narrator loops recordings of Moon’s voice. She admonishes her boyfriend, claiming that Moon is a better partner than he’ll ever be. And when her boyfriend breaks things off, she starts writing and sending him chapters of a genre of fan-fiction called “Y/N.”
“Y/N” stories are a type of reader insert—the letters stand for “your / name,” and are placed in the story rather than the name of an original protagonist. Instead of reading the letters “Y” and “N,” you’re meant to put in your own name as you read. This type of fan-fiction “can be a way for fans to see themselves and their experiences in scenarios that they don’t have access to in their online lives,” as noted by fandom analyst Stitch. I remember encountering my first Y/N story about a K-pop group I loved on Tumblr when I was a teenager. The story was short, poorly written, but intimate and romantic; I remember feeling disgusted after I finished it, not because the content of the story was bad, but because I had been so excited by it.
However grossed out you or I might feel about this type of fanfiction, the truth is that we still find ways to insert ourselves in our made-up projections of the lives of celebrities that we love. K-pop fans perform dance covers of their favorite groups and organize streaming campaigns for an upcoming album—they may even work on behalf of an artist in the name of social justice. Ultimately, whatever form of fandom one engages in is largely in service to the artist they love, and who they’ve convinced themselves loves them back. Early in Yi’s novel, her narrator attends a celebration for the pack of boys and is asked by the local fandom president to dress up as Moon and sign autographs; the fans have no problem ignoring the fakeness of the narrator’s Moon: “‘I love you,’ everyone said. ‘I love you more,’ I said, meaning it. I had to if I wanted to believe that Moon would say the same to me.”
The Y/N story Yi’s narrator writes is indeed a fantastical scenario: Y/N meets Moon—not a K-pop star, but a best-selling philosopher—at a bus stop. They instantly fall in love. Moon leaves his longtime girlfriend. They move to Seoul where Moon begins taking dance lessons, moving in a way that Y/N describes as a “rapidly expanding vocabulary of his body.” Dance—and the stardom that Moon will eventually follow with it—is key to this narrative, and it’s here that Yi’s protagonist takes a view that moves past devotion and into projection. Writing this fictional story, she weaves alongside it another tale that is rooted in pure faith, a knowledge that only she knows the real Moon and what he is capable of. When Moon mysteriously drops out of the pack of boys and from the entertainment industry at large, she books a one-way flight to Seoul in search of him, believing she alone can coax him out of retirement.
There’s no doubt that these are obsessive, unhealthy behaviors. Yet in my time as a K-pop fan, I’ve caught myself falling into those exact thought patterns, in part because of how reciprocal fan/idol relationships are. Fandom names in K-pop often reference love or adoration; the full name of the BTS ARMY is “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.” The group I loved most as a teenager, B1A4, has a fandom name which translates to “we have fallen for each other.” Y/N’s pack of boys has a darkly humorous fandom name that highlights this reciprocity quite well: “The pack of boys called their fans ‘livers’ because we weren’t just ‘expensive handbags’ they carried around. We kept them alive, like critical organs.’”
Idols will write songs dedicated to their fans, profusely thank their fans whenever they win an award, and communicate constantly with fans through social media, message boards, and live-streaming apps. They are in awe of fandom to an almost distressing degree; in the K-pop documentary K-pop Evolution, idol singer Kino from the group Pentagon paints them as if they are a close family member or lover: “Even if you want to quit, you end up getting back on your feet because you know they’re waiting for you. You don’t want to show them your weak side. That’s how they motivate you.” The idol/fan relationship is one of reciprocity—fans worship the idol’s dedication to work, and the idol responds with the divine gift of attention and devotion, not only to their fans, but to the labor that is exerted for them.
Even when idols work past their physical limits on stage, there is an unspoken expectation—from themselves, from fans, and from their company—that they continue to portray themselves as unstoppable performers. In the BTS documentary Burn the Stage, which follows the group on a 2017 world tour, lead vocalist and main dancer Jungkook suffers from extreme fatigue near the end of their second day of shows in Chile. Collapsed backstage, visible exhaustion on his face, he chooses to walk back on stage and sing with his bandmates as if nothing is wrong with him. At the end of the concert, he’s saddled with ice bags, a fan in his face and breathing through a respirator, drunkenly mumbling to staff members not to take his socks off.
“We only had two days of shows,” Jungkook reflected in an interview. “So I worked myself until my body couldn’t take it anymore… I knew my body wasn’t in a good shape before we started. My body knew it and I knew it. But I sang with only this thought in my mind: that I won’t be able to see [our fans] again for a long time.” On the YouTube page where this episode aired, fan comments are littered with words and phrases like “motivation,” “hard work,” and “effort.” One fan praises how BTS “work themselves to the bone and put everything into their job, into living to our expectation in order to not disappoint us.”
In Y/N, the narrator says this of watching Moon in concert for the first time: “he was a gift forever in the moment of being handed over.” But what happens when that gift wants to be recognized not as an object, but a human being? If working until one’s body can’t keep up with itself isn’t enough to stop, then what is?
Maybe it involves changing the companies that enforce this system. In Seoul, through a number of fortuitous encounters, Yi’s narrator ends up at the doors of Polygon Plaza, the entertainment company that once housed Moon. There, she meets Sun, who leads the pack of boys, and learns more about the philosophy that the company instilled in them by its CEO, the Music Professor. “She liked to compare Polygon Plaza to a monastery: a place where the dissolution of the self produced moments of astonishing self-expression,” Sun explains. The value that is instilled in him and the other boys is an extreme form of self-erosion, but one that is apparently necessary to achieve the devotion needed from a fanbase: “He took the dense yet limited substance of his lived experience and charged it—through sacrifice, through discipline—with breathless latitude. His work was thus capable of setting the souls of others on fire.”
The Music Professor champions how Polygon Plaza is apparently cordoned away from capitalist exploitation by allowing the artist to focus solely on himself. Yet it’s that intense focus on the self that causes both Moon’s retirement and his fan’s infatuation with him. Y/N’s narrator can only love Moon if he gives up control of his body entirely. In her eyes, Moon’s craft is God-given, and thus his labor is everflowing. If she receives anything less than that, even from Moon himself—when the climax of the novel puts the two together face to face—she is still inclined to believe it is not the real Moon.
I’m reminded of when two members of my favorite K-pop group left their entertainment company a few years ago. I was 21, and fulfilled in enough real life relationships to not be devastated by the news of a K-pop band splitting up. But in the coming weeks, years even, I found myself deleting my cell phone wallpaper—a photo of the group. I stopped putting up the posters I had collected over the years. And whenever their music came up on shuffle, I felt a pang in my chest; I’d immediately skip to another song to prevent that pang from opening into a cavity of loss.
The three remaining members eventually released their own album a few years later, and I willingly devoted myself to that release, eager to love the boys that had soundtracked much of my teenage life. But even now, I skip over their older, five-member songs. I suppose, like Y/N’s narrator, I’m living in my own world of a Y/N fanfiction, one where I know the members so well that I venture to Seoul and convince them not to break up, to stay together and work hard for my own sake. Until that story is realized, maybe I’m better off not remembering their past.