The flicker of tiny lighter flames once illuminated dimmed concert arenas during heart-wrenching numbers. Then it was phone flashlights waving brightly for all to see. But now K-pop fandoms have invented something much more high-tech to demonstrate their love for their idols: lightsticks.
These bright, beautiful lights are an essential part of any K-Pop concert-going experience. But why would fans pay top dollar for a glorified glow stick they’ll only use once in a blue moon?
K-Pop fans at an NCT 127 show in Coral Gables, Florida.
Image: Johnny Louis / Getty Images
To be honest, I didn’t quite understand it, being relatively new to the K-Pop wave myself. Until I saw BTS’ “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” tour earlier this year. For the first time, I got to experience up close and personal an extraordinary phenomenon — what fans call “the ocean.” A sea of concert attendees, switching their lights on in the dark, bathing the arena in a blanket of color and light. Magical. Mesmerizing. Memorable.
I felt that shit in my soul. So I bought one.
But then I asked myself how did we get here? As it turns out, the history of why these are such a a thing in modern K-pop is a lot deeper than just having cool concert souvenir to take home at the end of the night.
This is the story of the humble lightstick.
What are lightsticks?
Looking like a cross between a magical girl anime wand and a souped-up flashlight, these LED sticks are powered by AAA batteries, include Bluetooth capability, and have captured the burning hearts (and wallets) of thousands of adoring fans. Not only do they define the idols’ group identity, they define the community behind them.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a group right now (especially belonging to the “big three” as they’re called — SM, YG, and JYP Entertainment) that doesn’t have a lightstick. Their designs are like miniature works of art, some neutral and elegant, some insanely intricate.
EXO fans showing off their lightsticks in 2016.
Image: JEAN CHUNG / Getty Images
Many groups try to personally customize the shape. They sometimes base the design on their logo or another easily recognizable symbolic fandom reference. There are weapons (BLACKPINK), animals (GOT7), plants (Highlight), and even vegetables (MAMAMOO). That uniqueness easily lends itself to lightsticks becoming collector’s items. Before 2016, VIXX fans could buy six of the Version 1 lightsticks to form the full shape of a star.
Much like how fan groups have their own moniker, each group’s lightstick also has its own name — EXO has the “Pharynx,” TWICE has the “Candy Bong” (bong means “stick,” ya stoners), and BTS has the “ARMY Bomb” (which we don’t recommend saying near any kind of security or police).
Perfect for whacking your enemies.
Forget snow globes, look at this little beauty.
The higher the concert production value, and the more popular the group becomes, the more involved the lightsticks can be. You might get a sea of one singular color, or you might get an entire rainbow of color-changing lights. But flashy or simple, they’re ultimately all collaborative tools for good — a visual representation of millions of fans worldwide coming together to show their idols just how much they mean to them.
But lightsticks have come a long way, and their designs and capabilities have only gotten better and better as each new generation of groups have emerged.
The brightest oceans: A K-Pop lightstick history
Across the “generations” of K-Pop, there have always been ways to express communal hype. To get an idea of where the specific tradition of lightsticks originated, Mashable spoke to Jayu (she declined to provide her last name for professional reasons), who has been deeply invested in K-Pop fandoms for more than 10 years and has participated in many fan projects.
Jayu explained, “In every generation of fandom, there are different tactics to demonstrate solidarity and strength [of fan groups]. First generation [early to late ’90s groups, such as SHINHWA, SEO TAIJI & BOYS, H.O.T, g.o.d, S.E.S.] used colored raincoats, balloons, and paper.”
She noted that this trend traces back to having a fandom color as a distinguishable group signifier, which applied to things like the logo and merch — but also to the earliest lightsticks.
“Fandoms were, and still are to a lesser extent, very serious about that. I’m talking official Pantone codes, fan wars that started when rookie artists picked colors too close to their seniors, etc. Newer groups started to have to chose multiple colors — for example TWICE is two-toned, and Ha Sungwoon is three-toned.”
But lightsticks, as we know them today, didn’t really come into play until the second generation of idols (which include TVXQ, SS501, and Super Junior). Back then, they were essentially just slightly fancier glow sticks. There were two primary purposes for their creation — it doesn’t feel like it needs saying, but obviously the first was just to have fun. The second was to more effectively demonstrate that solidarity and distinguish yourself from other fandoms.
The older generation fandoms were excited to have lightsticks because it reduced the complications that could arise at concerts where multiple idol groups performed at once (including solo or non-idol artists, who could apparently also have their own fandom colors). This included the annual Dream Concert, which is the largest joint concert of K-Pop groups that has been held since 1995.
Jayu said that the most accurate description of the sentiment felt at those events was “‘the purpose of me going is not for ME to see THEM, but for THEM to see US.'”
The first lightsticks were almost exclusively sold at concerts. As Jayu explained, “Each concert would a have slightly different print or design. The sticks would look the same when lit up, but when you turn it off you can see it had ‘1st concert’ and ‘2nd concert’ ED-print. At that point, some other agencies had already started using [these types of] lightsticks, but it’s not as prevalent as it is today.”
However BIGBANG is most often credited with creating the first “official” lightstick (sometimes referred to more as a “fanlight”): the Bang Bong. Their lightstick strategy was to set themselves apart from other fandoms using the shape of the design, rather than just color.
After BIGBANG, for the purpose of better identification, Jayu said, “There were multiple ideas fans put forth to make their ‘ocean’ stand out. For example, TVXQ fans mass-ordered connectors so their T-shaped lightsticks could bind together to look like this.”
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Another tactic was to make the lightstick much brighter than other fan lights. The trend originated when SHINee released an official lightstick that unintentionally happened to be super bright. (Fans joked that they could be used as “blackout” or “emergency” flashlights.) This soon evolved into fans creating their own fan-designed super lightsticks called the “Shabat.”
But ultimately other fandoms started adopting BIGBANG’s idea of lightsticks because, as Jayu said, “It became infinitely more difficult to distinguish fandoms just by color alone with 200 groups debuting each year (and I mean literally 200.)”
It was really with the fourth generation groups (among them Seventeen, BTS, and GOT7) that lightsticks became super widespread. These groups probably never even had the simple version of a lightstick (especially those from smaller agencies). According to Jayu, “SM was the last big agency (or agency period) to adopt official lightsticks in 2018, and by the time SM did it, virtually every group had a lightstick.”
The lightstick industry — selling, knock-offs, and customization
These days, if you have a hankering to join the “wave,” you can buy your very own lightstick at most every concert venue, as well as from official online shops and third-party online vendors.
But they won’t come cheap. Most official lightsticks retail for between $40 and 60. (Some groups do offer budget options, such as lightstick keychains and rings.) However, they can easily become collectors items, as groups often come out with multiple versions of their lightstick as they advance in the industry.
“Old lightsticks that are specific to a certain concert locations, as well as old versions that are no longer produced are traded as VERY rare items,” Jayu told Mashable. “Although any official lightstick available for sale at concerts is always a little less rare than gift lightsticks, which only come with the ticket in certain Japanese events.”
Even fan-made, unofficial lightsticks aren’t really knockoffs, so much as they are meant to show off your “bias” (or you favorite member, for you locals). Those who buy official lightsticks might buy one of these too just to flex their love for their favorite member.
There’s also a whole mini industry on Etsy, Twitter, and fansites around customizable aspects for lightsticks now, too — decals, charms, stickers, etc.
This includes fans taking customization into their own hands as well, by literally painting and bedazzling their sticks. After all, if you’ve thrown down that much cash, you might as well put some glitter on that baby.
Another important aspect of custom lightstick merchandising are unofficial fan slings, or the straps. Much like how Nintendo practically screams at you to put on a strap before you play any game using a Wii remote, straps are deemed necessary for lightsticks. There’s the implication that you could always grip your stick without one (like a commoner, or a local) — but there’s always the danger of flinging your precious baby away while you’re waving it around wildly.
But despite the personalized elements, the core values of lightstick use still boil down to creating a group experience and an atmosphere for the performing groups.
How exactly do fans use lightsticks at concerts?
Waving around a stick of colored light with reckless abandon is fun. But you know what’s even more fun? Color coordination that’s synched to the music via Bluetooth!
The price tag of lightsticks is pretty directly proportional to how much tech is packed in every one. While older lightsticks mostly had one color and one light function, now the possibilities are endless.
For the BTS ARMY Bomb, there’s an app that pairs to your seat during a concert, and a lighting team at the venue controls which color ocean appears in which sections during certain numbers. On your own though, you can use Bluetooth to connect to your lightstick at any time, and then you can change the colors or strobe the lights to your heart’s desire.
Fans care so deeply about their idols seeing the colored ocean that they’ll go to great lengths to make that happen, with or without the idol company’s support. For example, Jayu was part of a fan project when SHINee came to Canada in 2017. “The concert organizer was very shitty, did not arrange for any sales of lightsticks, and didn’t confirm that [they wouldn’t sell them] until super late,” she told Mashable.
“Early Japanese concert lightsticks were free gifts that come with a ticket. So Japanese SHINee fans ended up having a LOT of spare lightsticks. They sent three moving boxes full of lightsticks from Japan to Canada, and me and my group [SHINee World Japan for SHINee World Vancouver] helped hand those out to local fans that didn’t have a chance to purchase a lightstick beforehand.”
She says this was important because you couldn’t just buy a glow stick that “looked like” pearl aqua green (the fandom color). “It had to be accurate! The Japanese fans paid for shipping too, and they attached cute messages of support to each lightstick. They first mailed them from their individual homes all over Japan to a person, that person then collected everything and shipped them over to Canada, packed everything in bubble wrap, it was a feat.”
At that concert, the ocean was almost entirely powered by mailed lightsticks. Above all else, the sense of unity and pride that flows through projects like these shows that lightsticks are more than just flashy souvenirs. They’re a movement.
The power of lightsticks for good (and evil)
As with any group movement, there is power in numbers. Lightstick oceans can show incredible support — but also incredible disrespect.
Fandom disputes over things such as color similarity, copyright claims, and overall mutual hatred can spark a “black ocean” at any time. “Black oceans” are exactly what they sound like — the action of boycotting one or more groups by purposefully turning off your lightsticks, en masse, when the idols start performing on stage.
The most infamous “black ocean” incident occurred during the Dream Concert in 2008 to then-rookie group SNSD aka Girls’ Generation. According to Channel Korea, when the girls began performing, they received a 10-minute “black ocean.” For reasons which remain unclear, every fandom except their own turned off their lightsticks and plunged the whole stadium into darkness. Two group members reportedly held back tears during the number.
Believe it or not, even BTS, the now world-famous darlings of K-Pop, have been the recipients of a “black ocean.” At the Melon Music Awards in 2016, Channel Korea reports that BTS received one from EXO fans because…BTS fans had done it to EXO fans once? As you can see by now, these fanwars are often extremely petty.
But when fans come together for good, there can be some incredibly powerful moments. There are lightstick oceans that have gone down in K-Pop history for what the fans did for their idols. Most notably in 2015, during EXO’s “EXO Planet #2 – The EXO’luXion” tour at the Tokyo Dome. The group had recently lost three of its members. To show strength and solidarity, during the song “Promise” thousands of fans coordinated their lightsticks to spell “EXO – WE ARE ONE” across the stadium.
More importantly, lightsticks can effect fans on a personal level too. One BTS fan named Chanté told Mashable that while she originally would only use her ARMY Bomb for concerts, “now I also use it for when I’m in a depressive state. BTS’s music has helped me tackle a lot of mental health issues so sometimes, as a way to try and enjoy myself a bit, I will bring out the lightstick, connect it to my phone and make it into my favorite colors, and then just dance around listening to music with it.”
Fans unpack the ARMY Bombs they bought prior to a BTS concert at the Stade-de-France stadium near Paris.
Image: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images
The truth is, though, that unless you’re the K-Pop equivalent of a Deadhead, following your idol group around to every stop on their tour, you may only use a lightstick a handful of times in your life. And that’s okay.
It may just be worth it to splurge on that one special moment, the ability to be a part of something larger than yourself, something that represents a collective love beyond your own personal affinity.
If people can spend $300 on a tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant for that once-in-a-lifetime experience, than it can be worth it to be, for just one night, a single spark of light in an ocean of color. If anything, just to see the look in those idols’ eyes when the wave rises.