How K-Pop Helped Me Connect With My Daughter

It started with BlackPink. One day my daughter happened to listen to the K-pop group’s “Kill This Love” and the next thing I knew, courtesy of a portable Bluetooth speaker, BlackPink became the soundtrack to our home. Hot on its heels came other K-pop girl groups: Twice, Itzy, Red Velvet, Everglow.

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This was a shift from the music that had filled the house until that point, the days when all my daughter listened to was the Beatles—every album, every B-side, every BBC recording—over and over again. I loved the Beatles, partly because I had grown up listening to them. When my father first came to the United States from Panama he was captivated by their songs, and when I was young he used to play their albums on repeat, mostly on Sundays after church. So when my daughter, at age 11, fell under the spell of the Beatles as well, it was easy enough for me to sing along to “She’s Leaving Home” and “Dear Prudence” and all the rest of it.

K-pop was a different matter. Not only was it completely new to me, but the majority of the time groups were singing in Korean, which meant that I couldn’t understand the words. The language barrier, however, did not deter my daughter. In no time at all she was singing lyrics in Korean and teaching herself how to write out the Korean characters one by one. Suddenly, we were ordering elaborately packaged albums that shipped from overseas. For Christmas my daughter asked for something called a lightstick (it is exactly as it sounds: a stick that lights up; it is meant to be taken to concerts and held aloft during performances). When I said something that she deemed strange or unbelievable, she had started answering, “Jin-jja-yo?” (in Korean: 진짜요, English translation: Really?).

She was also spending much of her free time holed up in her room, which is normal enough for a teenager, but what she was doing in there, I realized, was learning the choreography for the K-pop songs she loved. When she emerged for dinner, she was cheerfully referencing people I had never heard of before, talking about Ryujin and Sana as I smiled and tried not to appear utterly bewildered, not only by her enthusiasm but by my own exile from it.

She was 15 by then, which, as most parents will attest, is around the age when it becomes increasingly difficult to talk to your child. Gone were the days when my daughter was eager to cuddle up and watch a movie with me or sit at the kitchen table and draw together or talk to me in the car. Now, simple questions (Do you have homework? How did you sleep?) were met with a shrug. Gestures toward affection (I like your outfit; I got you your favorite juice) were met with, “K.” Other attempts at conversation were met with a blank stare brought on by the fact that the teenager in question once again had her headphones in and hadn’t heard a single word I had said.

K-pop, though, seemed to be the one topic that animated her, the one thing she actually wanted to talk about. It was not the style of music I typically gravitated toward, yet the option before me seemed clear. If I wanted to connect with my daughter, I had to start listening to K-pop.

At first, I tried to pay more attention to the girl groups—which now included Aespa, Loona, and (G)i-dle—that were already in rotation. When my daughter half-jokingly asked if I wanted to learn the choreo to Dun Dun by Everglow, I gave it a try. I danced alongside her as the two of us followed a practice video on YouTube slowed to .5x speed. Actually, dancing may be too generous a word for what I was doing. My daughter danced while I moved like a wooden puppet coming undone. Still, we were doing it together, laughing and catching our breath and looking at each other in stupefaction when it came time to do Mia’s solo sequence.

The real breakthrough, however, came with the K-pop boy band Stray Kids.

They are eight members—Bang Chan, Lee Know, Hyunjin, Changbin, I.N., Han, Seungmin, and Felix—and the first time my daughter showed me one of their videos, it caught me off-guard. Stray Kids are part of what is known as the fourth generation of boy groups, and they were making what my daughter termed “noise music,” which was decidedly more aggressive and hard-hitting than the ebullient sound of many of the girl groups I was used to by then. Critically, though, according to my daughter, they were making it. Various members of the group were, unusually for K-pop, creating and producing their own songs. They were coming up with the sounds, they were writing the lyrics, they were in the studio directing the other members when it came time to record. I found myself interested in them, if only for that.

Read More: Stray Kids Found Global Success by Embracing a New Sound

Quickly I discovered that in addition to their many music and dance practice videos, Stray Kids had a seemingly endless stream of content online—interviews, concert footage, live streams, videos of them eating and playing games and hanging out backstage. Sitting next to each other on the couch and in front of phone screens, my daughter and I started watching it all. Before I knew it, I was in deep—an official, middle-aged, mom-core Stay (the term for a Stray Kids fan).

I learned that Hyunjin hates eggplant, that Changbin has his own bowling ball, the names of Lee Know’s three cats. For Mother’s Day, I announced that the only thing I wanted was an SKZ hoodie. In addition to a cup of coffee and Spelling Bee, checking YouTube for new Stray Kids content became part of my morning routine. At breakfast, my daughter would say, “Did you see?” And I would grin. “I know. Let’s watch it as soon as you get home from school.” I started listening to the Stray Kids channel on the SiriusXM app even when it was just me in the car. At the sound of my laughter from another room, my husband would walk over and be baffled to find me watching some new SKZ short or a fan compilation video called “Stray Kids being chaotic for almost 8 minutes.” It was a beautiful turn of events. I had spent the last 16 years trying to introduce my daughter to all manner of things, and now she had introduced me to something instead.

Part of the appeal of Stray Kids was watching the way the members interacted with one another. They were charming and boisterous and warm, and I found myself liking their music more because I liked them. Unlike many K-pop groups that are assembled by their labels, everyone in Stray Kids was chosen by their leader, Bang Chan, and they have a genuine chemistry that’s impossible to ignore. Or, as my daughter said once, “I want a group of friends like that.” I put my arm around her and thought, “Don’t we all?”

We did have each other, though. As soon as anything happened in Stayville—a new post, Hyunjin cutting his hair, Han doing a birthday live stream—my daughter and I would rush to tell each other about it. When we watched videos together, it prompted conversations about creativity and about the glare of criticism that accompanies fame and about the meaning of the lyrics, which are largely about growing up or about finding strength in being different. Stray Kids gave us a new context in which to relate to each other. When we marveled over Bang Chan doggedly making music on his laptop day after day, it gave me the opportunity to explain why I seem so consumed by my own work at times. When she told me that she gets emotional each time she hears “Levanter,” a song about being oneself, it gave me the opportunity to ask her to tell me more about that.

In October 2022, Stray Kids released a new mini-album called Maxident. The day it came out I baked a cake in the shape of the Heart Monster that had appeared at the end of the album trailer. Because of the time difference between the United States and South Korea, it would be 11pm when the video for the lead single dropped. At 10:55pm, my daughter and I eagerly settled next to each other on the couch. We had been swooning over teasers for weeks, and we were ready finally for the big reveal. When it started, we both watched, transfixed. The video was not even four minutes long, but the bond that my daughter and I had forged by then, I knew, would endure.

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