On/Off – Does Idol Culture Dehumanize KPOP Stars?

Idol culture is KPOP culture. It’s funny how societal trends are reflected in music culture. America’s individualistic nature is reflected in the sheer amount of solo artists we have in comparison to our groups. On the flip side, idol groups are hugely popular in Asian nations, where the power of community and family is strong. Groups offer more security than trying to make it solo, and the security of working under a company gives many artists needed experience in the industry. Yet, the pedestal of an idol begs the question: what happens when we turn men into gods?

Life as a KPOP fan is never stable. You’ll be stanning your bias group one day, and critiquing some rookies the next. Forums and blogs, amino and Kakao, group messages and tumblr posts: the fandom doesn’t lack for communication. That’s kind of the point of the industry: to create a network of people who are all interested in the same general idea, and diversify based on specific ideas. To break that down, KPOP culture has created a kind of “package deal”: you go in, select the type of music/style you want, and you’ll find a group that fits. 

ONF

For a system that works so well, it’s awfully subtle. Compartmentalizing groups based on their company, style, or feel is commonplace. Groups are constantly mixing things up with each subsequent comeback in order to feel fresh, and yet familiar. Before you know it, you’re a Blackjack arguing with a SONE over who’s group is better.

(as a quick aside, Blackjack and SONE are the names for fans of the groups 2NE1 and Girl’s Generation, respectively)

 As trivial as this sounds (it’s all music, after all), I find myself wondering if this approach to music is really the best. After all, music isn’t a commodity as much as it is a service, one provided by people. People who are willing to provide it for a price, sure, but those people themselves aren’t a commodity. Yet it’s so easy to think of them that way.

ONF is a newly minted boy group. Labeled under WM Entertainment, the 7-man unit debuted on August 2, 2017, with their mini-album titled “On/Off”. I stumbled across them on YouTube just yesterday, and while watching the music video for their song On/Off, I couldn’t help but think I’d seen it before. The main concept is linking up with a girl from space. Okay, nice idea, but the space/Earth/communication angle is one we’ve seen before. Their choreography, while tight and fluid, was nothing special. Certainly not Seungri levels of extravagant. None of their members seemed to stand out, and unlike GOT7 or B.A.P, I didn’t feel interested in getting to know who these guys were. Songwise, the beat was nice and catchy, but yet again not something that hasn’t been done (better) before. I could tell where the chord changes, chorus, and rap parts would happen before they happened.

SONAMOO

This phenomenon reminded me of when I first listened to SONAMOO, and their song “Déjà vu”. I remember predicting exactly each shift and change in the music pattern as I listened. “Wow”, I remarked to myself. “Girls groups sure are getting predictable”. Thing is, this isn’t limited to any one type or genre of group. This phenomenon has swept the system.

Or at least, this mindset has swept the fandom.

Arguments about the merits of mass-produced music aside, we can’t as a fandom deny that we’ve become used to evaluating artists and groups solely on their presentation on stage.  We love their appearances, we love their style, but we’ve become accustomed to judging them as the product of their accomplishments. It’s an interesting double-standard: we crave understanding and acceptance in our daily lives, but when it comes to celebrities we see their merit and their talent as one and the same. Like a switch, our opinion of them can turn on or off, depending on whether their actions line up with our mental expectations.

Now, I’m not saying that identifying groups by the skill of their members is entirely evil or morally wrong. Recognizing the gifts of others and praising them is a good thing. What I’m concerned about is the mindset of treating people like objects, a perspective that idol culture tends to reinforce.

Park Bom

What happens when a famous K-Idol falls from grace? The community lashes out, hard. Look at Park Bom: delayed at the airport for carrying prescribed amphetamines, Korean netizens created an entire drug scandal with her in the center. A woman simply trying to live her life had her career ruined, simply because she didn’t appear for one moment to live up to the expectations the community had for her. It’s like an accelerated form of tribalism: if you don’t follow the values of the tribe, you get kicked out mercilessly. Keeping celebrities accountable for their actions is one thing, but treating them like trash if they don’t meet your personal ideas of them is entirely different.

So who’s the culprit here? Rabid fans? Greedy corporations? Know-it-all bloggers?

No. Kinda.

Music as a culture depends on all three sectors: the artists, the corporations, and the fans. For the relationship to be imbalanced along any of these puts undue pressure on the other two. Artists need to be kept accountable, yes, but fans and corporations have a responsibility to remember that music is made by people. People who have their own personalities and interests. People who have to go home and the end of the day, take off the makeup and the props, and be themselves as much as we do. For all the love we claim to have for them, let’s try to remember that they’re just as human as we are. Still prone to mistakes and slipups, laughter and embarrassment, love and loss as well. Not gods. Not products. People.

Sam

I'm a student who loves God and manages to balance school, games, books, anime, and Asian culture while staying slightly sane.