On Dec 18, K-pop boy band Shinee’s lead singer Jonghyun took his own life, leaving behind a suicide note.
Two days later, a memorial was held for the 27-year-old at Hong Lim Park by his Singaporean fans. By all accounts, the memorial, which involved pre-event registration, bag checks and more than 1,000 fans, went smoothly.
When news of the memorial broke, I was impressed by the efficiency of the organisers and fans, who came prepared with notes, flowers and light sticks.
The comment sections of some news outlets, however, were rather unkind. The fans, mostly teenage girls, were dismissed and mocked for their grief.
They were chided for not spending their time on “better things” and reacting with such fervour for someone who did not know them.
I am not a fan of K-pop but as a fangirl who spent a good part of her adolescent years obsessed with a different boy band – Japanese five-man group Arashi – I feel compelled to defend these girls.
As much as we hear stories of crazy fans acting out, being part of a fandom is fairly normal and can be healthy.
Clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet told The New Paper: “As teens grow and form individual identities that are not bound to their families, they begin looking for a sense of belonging and community elsewhere. It can be anything from sports to celebrities.”
Being part of something bigger than yourself can be meaningful and comforting for people.
Dr Daniel L. Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University in the US, has published books on the psychology of sports fans. He found that fans who are more passionate about their team form stronger bonds with people in general, and the camaraderie they enjoy with fellow fans plays a significant and positive role in their lives.
Having a common interest with a group of people builds connections and bonds that satisfies emotional needs.
For Shinee fans, being part of the fandom and loving Jonghyun, whose real name is Kim Jong Hyun, brought happiness and friends. That makes him deeply significant to them.
Even if they have experienced Shinee only through a computer screen, their grief is real and their yearning to give him a proper goodbye is understandable.
As psychologist Daniel Koh from Insights Mind Centre puts it: “We must treat this as a real thing instead of dismissing or mocking their grief.”
The grief is personal as well.
Dr Balhetchet said: “When these fans grieve the loss of their idol, it is almost like they are grieving themselves because it was such an intimate relationship.”
I can attest to that. I can mark the events of my life – my A Levels, my first break up – by the albums Arashi put out. I learnt a new language because of them. They are a part of me.
It will also do us good to remember that there are different fandoms. I am aware of how differently the way my love for boy bands and Game Of Thrones is perceived.
Fans of football, the Marvel universe, rap music and prestige dramas are judged less harshly for their fervour. But boy band fans are subjected to particular vitriol. Perhaps this is in part due to how boy bands are often maligned as groups that ride on looks and have little talent.
Those who like them are categorically dismissed as dumb, impressionable teens. Maybe some of them are, but most of them are not.
Fans of Shinee know they belong to a company dedicated to making profits. They are fine with that because that does not make the sense of belonging they get out of being in a fandom any less real or the happiness they feel from watching a Shinee video any less powerful.
So they willingly consume Shinee’s products, similar to how football fans buy merchandise even when their team loses.
As the year of 2017 comes to an end in an increasingly uncertain world, this is a timely reminder for us to be a little kinder, especially to those whose interests are different from our own.