Shattering dreams, when reality hit K-pop

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The New Year officially started with a bang in the Korean entertainment industry. Of course 2012 had its fair share of drama; it seemed to be the precursor of what was to come in 2013. No longer was the world of entertainment a fantasy land, the real world came crashing in.

We all like to think that when artists all over the world strive to make the best music for us, something that can either help or soothe us. This is the mantra of the music industry: create something that people can relate to and sell sell sell! In essence music is a commodity, a product to be consumed by everyone. Music is purely a business with shady dealings going on behind the smokescreen of lights and perfectly coiffured singers.

Of course many people have talked about the world of K-pop as being a manufacturer of people’s hopes and dreams. Creating ‘idols’ to be worshipped that inhabit realms that we mere mortals can only dream of. I argue that this is relevant only within an international context.
Korean fans know the downsides of the industry that has been seen to represent a whole country. Those netizens are brutal and realistic when criticising the questionable practises carried out in the name of ‘more sales’.

However international fans of this ‘phenomena’ (although K-pop has been around since the 1990’s) seem to recognise the hard work and dedication of their stars but view the world as being a perfect entity (even better than their home countries music scene). Many international fans always state that unlike their home music industry K-pop acts work hard to make fans happy and show a more respectable image than what their familiar with. Common thoughts being ‘American music is all about sex whilst K-pop is all about love and romance’, they show respect to their fellow man and seem to be better people and more moral’. So in this fantasized world, idols can do no wrong right?

Wrong.

As the events at the beginning of the year highlighted, it isn’t always so rosy. Case in point Rain’s subsequent fall from grace via the Korean army.

As we all know healthy men in South Korea aged 18-35 are required to do two years of military service for their country. Celebrities are no exception although there is a question about their level of involvement and special treatment. Most have worked in the less demanding side of the army e.g. the PR department whilst others have taken it upon themselves to take an active part in the army e.g. Hyun Bin’s time with the navy seals.

Rain, the perfectly coiffured king of K-pop (pre military buzz cut) had been caught seeing the darling of the entertainment industry Kim Tae Hee during his vacation time from the army. Many people questioned just how much vacation time he had been allowed as regular citizens are subjected to tough controls. The backlash came from many people who felt that this was making a mockery of his service and a snub to the ordinary men who couldn’t contact their families.

As an outsider looking into Korean culture it is very clear that the issue of the military is a hot topic. With the dangerous neighbours in the North sending threats every five minutes, safety is a paramount concern.

What did this episode show? It allowed international fans to truly understand the harsh reality that many men in Korea have to face. Although this wouldn’t be ground-breaking to a girl obsessed with Rain, it shone a light to life behind the stage curtains. Here was a man so loved by many being deviant and acting on his human nature. There were no press or choreographed speeches or dance moves to hide behind and he had to face the music (although the severity of his punishment is up for debate).

Furthermore it highlighted the delicate balance these stars need to tread. With the saturation of artists/actors entering the entertainment market on a weekly basis they must stay relevant. Two years away from the limelight is essentially a lifetime away from the limelight. The hard work that these men have put into their careers to get to the top levels of the industry can be forgotten once they are away. No doubt Rain will not struggle to regain publicity but just how positive that will be remains to be seen.

Another incident that lifted the lid of the industry was that of the curious case of Block B. Block B, who I profiled as a talented group here found themselves in the limelight again for the wrong reasons. Not only did they undergo much scrutiny and shame from their Thailand incident, they struggled to come back and make a name for themselves. They fought back with passion and good music. These talented boys had something that some new groups hadn’t got: talent.

However all was not well in the B house. It seems their label Stardom entertainment failed to pay them since April of last year and a lawsuit has been set into motion. The boys didn’t appear on TV that much (the main cash cow for K-pop) nor did they achieve any large endorsement deals. They had a few bits and pieces and their load was steady with money coming in.

Hints of this can be deciphered through some of their interviews, where they talked about having to pay for their own clothes or having their parents help them to pay for certain items they needed. What was curious however where the whereabouts respected hip hop producer Cho PD owner of the label. How does a record label not pay its artists but yet have the money to launch a brand new girl group? Surely the new group (like a new business) requires a large amount of investment in order to get things running.

The fantasy of a happy and harmonious label has been shattered raising questions about how many other groups were facing the same thing. Could this be the revolution of K-pop groups? I wouldn’t think so. After working for years and years trying to become a perfect product, no one can give it up all in vain. Granted it took Block B a long time to make the decision to go public with the dissatisfaction they were feeling.

Lesson to international fans: although the label presents itself as the perfect place to be with love and happiness this is not always the case. The artist is the puppet with the label being the puppet master.

Other scandals have highlighted the dangerous side of the business and just how predatory some people can be. What young person doesn’t feel a sense of joy when they hear that they have found someone that can help them reach their dream? Only this dream involves doing things they wouldn’t want to in order to get to the front of the long stardom queue.

How naïve can international fans be when they have this perfect image of what they think an industry is like? With so many people auditioning for SM and YG when they announce global auditions I always wonder what they think they will be in for.

Reality is clouded through press releases and images presented in the media. It is important to note that the biggest English Korean pop news websites work hand in hand with the record companies in order to increase their international reach. The latest story on a new picture on twitter or a new single or even an interview on a TV show is not based on research. They come through the record company who wants to project a perfect image of their products (their idols).

Even in global concerts labels will endeavour to take photos showcasing the large amount of foreign fans so that they can project an image of impact. In essence, they are utilising the international space to increase their profits at home.

So where does this all leave international K-pop fans? Sceptical yet accepting. Some are blinded by the lights whilst others go along with the show feeling slightly sceptical of what they are presented with.

It has never been about the music. Only when a band or a singer is highly successful can they begin to experiment and challenge traditional notions of what it means to give their fans music. Every artist has had to pay their dues and do something they didn’t want to at some point in their career in the name of selling records. All fans are just pawns in the entertainment game and companies see them as mere cash cows.

Music is music; we listen to gain pleasure. Music is also a business where assets are maximised in order to gain profits. Creating fantasy worlds and ideas is the lynchpin of all marketing.

The problem only arises when international fans takes these worlds and ideas as the basis of all truths about the industry and to some extent the society as a whole.

No matter where you are in the world, it is a universal truth that the entertainment industry is a shady place. There are essentially the same practises but from within different cultural discourses. Placing one industry over another is not only problematic but foolish.

Real life isn’t pretty but neither is pretending an ‘idol’ and an industry are perfect.

‘What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment or get in touch via twitter @theonemimi’

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