In a film theater near Seoul, scores of middle-aged South Korean women in matching baby-blue T-shirts, hair bands and face masks inscribed with the word “Hero” are screaming, singing along and taking selfies.
They are some of the 135,000-member fan club of top male South Korean singer Lim Young-woong, gathering to watch Mr. Trot: The Movie, a movie featuring him and other singers who perform the country’s oldest form of popular music, commonly called trot.
Lim’s fan club is called “Age of Hero,” after the singer’s name, which means hero in Korean.
Once ridiculed as music for grannies, trot is making a comeback and many South Koreans, mostly in their 40s and above, are cheering an alternative to K-pop idol music in one of the world’s fastest-aging societies.
K-pop is a multibillion-dollar global music industry with bubbly bands such as BTS and Blackpink enjoying huge fan bases outside South Korea.
Yet at home, trot signers performing old ballads have seen the biggest increase in fans, according to top portal Web site Daum, which analyzes growth rates of fan clubs and their social media activities.
“Our country is aging, but it is hard to find songs that bring emotional empathy for the older population because the music is too idol-oriented, but listening to Lim Young-woong, I find his voice beautiful and comforting,” said Park Woo-jung, 54, an Age of Hero member wearing the blue Hero mask.
Lim’s new single topped online music charts earlier this month.
Although considered uncool by youngsters, trot music has a broad national following with a storied history of success going back before the birth of modern K-pop. The music’s melancholic lyrics of unrequited love or yearning played to a repetitive beat has resonated with baby boomers and retirees, the generation that helped build Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Today, fans of the genre have become an economic force to be reckoned with and many use their unlimited data plans to plug into streaming sites or vote for their favorite stars at awards, embracing the ways of K-pop followers.
“Fandom of the middle-age and elderly is unconditional,” said Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture columnist. “They have time to listen all day. They have money, and think their stars energize their life, then aggressively invest by buying and clicking.”
When Lim became the model for a Ssangyong Motor’s sports utility vehicle this year, sales surged 63 percent in May and 98 percent in June compared with the vehicle’s monthly average sales between January and April this year, the automaker said.
Song Jong-choon is a fan of trot singer Song Ga-in, whose songs, he said, “heal his broken soul,” especially one about lost hometowns that remind him of the countryside home he left.
He does not hesitate a moment to support her career.
“Many of us are in our 50s who have economic power, so normally do not mind the spending, but if you are a [K-pop] idol fan, you have to do a part-time job to buy a concert ticket,” he said.
Trot is unlikely to reach the global success of K-pop, largely because of the language barrier, but fans believe their fandom is something special, treating their stars as if they are their own children.
“BTS has [its fanclub] ARMY but we are mommies,” said Hwang Eun-jeong, a 52-year-old housewife and a Lim fan club member.
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