Hallyu is People!

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happening. Hallyu is PEOPLE! It’s made out of people. You’ve gotta tell ’em!….but you don’t necessarily have to stop them.

TL;DR: Hallyu is addictive because of the interplay of multiple media platforms that are designed to provide a wealth of detailed personal information, fostering a perception of intimacy between the audience and idol(s). Some of the mediums that contribute to this process, such as social media, directly enhance the sense of belonging to a community. Meanwhile, that perceived intimacy motivates and rewards those who consume a broader spectrum of media to glean more details about idols, reinforcing their commitment to Hallyu.

A lot of people have been asking why K-pop is so darn addictive. We lived for years without depending on a steady supply of eye-piercing costumes and catchy choreography (Well, some of us did anyhow. Some people are lifers. This is a judgment-free zone). If you follow K-pop -and the odds are good if you’re reading this- I probably don’t need to explain to you that the music is only the tip of the iceberg. The catchy beats are fun and addictive, don’t get me wrong, but the real product being sold is the idols themselves: their bodies, their characters, their personal lives, and their emotions. Today Ishmael wants to look at why the idol as product is powerful fuel for Hallyu, while also enhancing its influential power and representative roles. I’ll show you how these lives are produces, distributed, and consumed. After that I will re-examine the consequences of this strategy not only for the idols, but also for the future development of Hallyu as a representative nation brand.

It doesn’t actually take much to see that the music itself is not the driving factor behind K-pop’s success. Nor is it purely a matter of good looks. After all, there are dozens of good looking idols and some of those outfits really threaten to undo all the effort put into making idols cool. When you pay attention to what fans say (and really, not enough writers do), it’s clear that what makes K-pop special is the idols themselves. The music is equal to or even less important than the idols’ personas. The constant sharing of private information creates a sense of intimacy. Fans can accumulate so much data that it’s easy to feel one knows the idol as well as a close friend. Seriously, Ahab is my best friend and I know less about her underwear than G-Dragon’s, Jay Park’s, or Junsu’s. Not that I sought out this info; honestly, the things you learn from variety shows … that is my whole point. They’re putting that knowledge right there in easy reach. As such, fans become emotionally invested in a perceived relationship with idols and likewise invested in the artists’ welfare and success which then this fuels financial investment. In order to keep this up, artists must constantly perform their character role and package their daily experiences and emotions for audience consumption.

How They Do It

Everything starts in the training period. Since the early stages of K-pop in the 1990s, major entertainment companies have molded aspiring talents’ public personas, speaking skills, appearance, and language as much as singing and dancing skills. The careful construction of group concepts and dynamics is no secret. Cognitive dissonance allows audiences to accept these personas as genuine, while open acknowledgement of planned characters enables fans to appreciate multiple layers of the “real” self. The search for better/more data can draw fans deeper into the interplay of Hallyu formats and bolster a stronger sense of connection. This is also why you got the “beastly” tough party guy who wants to be cuddly and the flower boy who has a black belt. This duality is a key strategy in appealing to conflicting audience desires simultaneously.

Of course, the music alone cannot convey the rich personal details that really keep fans hooked. That’s where variety shows, social media, and fan meetings come into play. There is a plethora of media formats through which idols can promote themselves.Keep in mind this is absolutely essential because the need for knowledge (and through knowledge, belonging and connection) is the major force that drives this genre. It can’t be over-stressed. Fans constantly need more information to feed the obsession (I mean that in the nicest way). Let’s take a look at how Ishmael’s deep need to procrastinate ended up becoming rather educational in more ways than one:

The first thing is that idols should seem approachable and close. Seoul is a space that we share. That’s why  on “Guerrilla Date” (KBS), the stars arrive at crowded public, even touristy, locations for the interview. This strategy is also used in K-dramas’ trendy locations to invite the audience to physically enter the idols’ world by visiting the same places (giving a convenient boost to tourism as well). Programs can also assist through sets designed to appear casual, seated on the floor of an apartment eating snacks in “Come to Play,” visiting a sauna on “Happy Together,” or driving around Seoul and visiting average restaurants in “Taxi.”

Emotional vulnerability and openness is another crucial technique to secure the hearts and minds of the audience. In interviews, artists share embarrassing stories for humor, often performing a calculated persona such as having a ‘princess syndrome’ (Goo Hara) or playful antagonism between band members. I mean, there’s a special warmth in my heart when I watch Big Bang try to manage their incorrigible maknae, Seungri (that’s it, that’s all the confessions you’ll get from me. I’m a professional, dammit). By carefully removing the façade of perfection, they invite audiences into a perceived intimacy.

“Strong Heart,” whose premise was a competition among celebrities to tell the most amusing or moving story, rewarded stars who were most articulate and adept at selecting personal material that appeals to viewers’ interest. Some of the stories revealed the trauma of childhood poverty or losing family members to cancer. Sharing these intensely personal hardships may be to forge a connection, but it can also be an opportunity to set straight a scandal. “Healing Camp” on SBS is a show aimed at healing the mind and body of stars who appear to frankly discuss their personal and professional problems.

Performances on both television and concerts are opportunities to manage an idol’s image through powerful emotional displays. (Of course, these emotions can also be sincere. Ishmael isn’t trying to be cynical, but spontaneous or pre-planned, the impact of the display is the same). It is not uncommon for idols, male or female, to publicly break down in tears. In July 2012, I attended one of BEAST’s concerts in Seoul, and Yang Yoseob was so emotionally overcome by the opportunity to perform live after a long hiatus that he had to leave the stage during the band’s farewell speeches until he was sufficiently composed to sing the final song. On another level, the themes of these stories often appeal to Korean cultural values, such as the importance of family and hard work.

Sometimes the premise of a show can blend reality and fantasy by placing “real” stars in imagined scenarios and relationships. “We Got Married” is a popular variety show that depicts celebrities as imaginary couples acting out daily married life. This kind of plot easily allows the audience to imagine the celebrity as their own romantic partner. This format also offers international audiences insight into Korean culture and manners by depicting events like housewarming parties, interactions with parents, and holidays. Additionally, the domestic sphere allows men to portray a variety of masculine roles through participation in housework and childcare. The show has specifically included couples with considerable age and cultural differences. Recently, the show has introduced an international twist, pairing couples from different countries.

Pre-debut documentaries, often with an aspect of audition or elimination, are another broadcast format that aims to create and emotional bond with viewers. YG is the master of this format and he’s been polishing it into an art form of its own. Compared to Big Bang’s pre-debut, the shows “Who Is Next” and “Mix and Match” have been used as an opportunity to connect new bands to their seniors, other companies and shows, and even bring some 90s hits renewed relevance. These are not only important sources of publicity, they relate the dreams and struggles of hopeful young idols and generate a sense of connection often before the audience has had a chance to see them perform or hear their songs. Along with reality shows (another popular format, particularly effective thanks to YouTube) they follow stars through their daily schedules and reveal interactions with other stars and staff, backstage preparation, killing time between photo shoots, their pets, their homes, and their literal dirty laundry. Some of these shows, such as “2NE1 TV,” have social networking complements. Stars purposely expose their labor, exhaustion, frustration, doubts, loneliness for family, and the simplicity of their lifestyle instead of presenting a glamorous or luxurious lifestyle that came easily thanks to innate talent. Some stars have also given tours of their homes complete with dirty laundry and that one room we all have where there’s a system underlying the chaos, we swear. Actually, it’s pretty common to see idols’ dorms. There is a multitude of videos out there on YouTube if you want to see them being reluctantly awakened on camera. You can watch them cook with varying degrees of confidence and success. As if that weren’t enough, the most recent shows have given audiences the vote on who will become a member or which team will debut!

Bulletin boards, blogs, and diaries all serve to make things more personal. Through posting comments or participation in ranking systems and contests, audiences feel that they are able to influence and contribute to the creation or success of the novels they enjoy. K-pop idols similarly use social media to connect with their fans. Thanks to Twitter, followers can share even experiences as mundane as what an idol made for dinner and how it tasted. On Instagram, idols can share images that inspire or appeal to them as well as personal pictures, even childhood photos. Websites such as these allow the public to leave their own messages for stars or to observe the communication between stars. Many K-pop idols also post messages in multiple languages, sometimes double posting, in order to include as wide an audience as possible. These accounts allow fans to constantly check in with what the stars are up to and in the event of any scandal, you can be sure every detail will be scrutinized for possible clues.

Big Bang even wrote a book, “Shouting Out to the World,” on their self-development. Both in the book and its publicity, the members discuss their personal thoughts, dreams, and struggles. G-Dragon can be seen reading the book in his music video “Michigo.” He further emphasized the personal connection between the band and fans by adding “Fans and students have sent me many books. Whenever I had the time, I would read the books. But to say the truth, I feel that my level of writing is not to the level of my lyric writing.”.

Idols frequently mention the influence of fans in their own lives, describing a multi-directional interaction. They share stories about the importance of fans’ comments and support upon their own moods and motivation, and prove that they use gifts from fans. The personal significance of fans to artists is frequently and passionately expressed. The fans also consider their behavior to represent the idol and as such they carry out charity work in the idols name and remind others to act respectfully at performances (but not always. I mean, I was actually literally beaten and cursed by Korean fans at a G-Dragon concert). Perhaps the most direct fan to idol connection is the fan meetings. A limited number of tickets are sold to these meetings where idols will perform and talk. The highlight is the end of the meeting when fans are able to greet, give gifts, take pictures, and sometimes even hug the idols. Such fan meetings are sometimes also held internationally. Ahab does a waaaay better job of explaining this. Ishmael wants the info without the affect, which is an uncomfortable position because those tend to go hand in hand. I’m very sincere when I say it’s hard to follow a band and not come to care about them.

So, what can we learn from this?

The Need to Connect with Something “Real” (but from a Safe Distance)

Whereas previous generations could find self-determination and belonging from the workplace or family (shoutout to Durkheim), it seems that young people are seeking these experiences elsewhere. Gabriela Lukacs argues that the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan demonstrates the ability of a cultural product to provide personal and thereby “authentic” entertainment through the description of private experience. Korean idols strive to create this effect through variety programs and social media. Thus, Hallyu markets idols not only as affect producers (performing labor in which emotions and subjectivity are the raw material), but also as affective products themselves. The sense of connection and intimacy engendered by this “authenticity” is central to K-pop’s appeal. As a need to connect drives consumption of Hallyu, fans may also seek to learn more about Korea’s language, history, and culture in order to better understand their favorite stars. Also, the avid consumption of stars’ personal lives transmits a multitude of social and cultural details (not by accident either).

Can We Depend on Them? After All, They’re Only Human

Although this format may seem well-suited to nation branding’s soft power goals, it carries an inherent weakness: it depends on the idol’s ability to attract and maintain audiences’ interest. As such, the demands of representation limit the range of characteristics through which artists’ personas may be developed. The constant pressure and scrutiny of idols’ behavior — often from the fans themselves — is probably exhausting. I can’t absolutely confirm because I don’t exactly have a lot of personal conversations with idols, but this seems like a pretty safe assumption. Just the thought of sasaeng (stalker) fans leaves me kinda horror-struck. Your past is never really behind you and you may not be able to change your image freely in the future, because an idol is always held accountable by and to the fans, fans which have been encouraged to tear down personal boundaries.

Because Korea currently focuses on a clean image, one misstep can derail an artist and one bad apple can taint all of Hallyu. People under pressure will make mistakes (and oh wow! have there been a lot of mistakes: racism, being flippant about other countries natural disasters, racism, questionable lyrics, and sometimes even racism). Not to mention, a squeaky clean image doesn’t necessarily play well in every market. Even Taeyang has revealed in interviews that his “model student” image may be an obstacle for his career. For example, the US market may find itself questioning exactly what misdeeds CL has committed to warrant her title as the “Baddest Female”. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, but it will require some careful balancing of priorities.

On top of all this, idols’ training includes many things but they’re hardly masters of international relations. They know that they are representing Korea, but I suspect that in most cases there is very little education on the countries they visit (and hip hop aesthetics don’t exactly center around diplomacy). Northeast Asia is a region fraught with political tensions and they’re throwing powerful gendered imagery on top of that. Those aiming at the US can’t escape the complicated history of race relations there, not only because they are Asian, but because they have heavily appropriated hip-hop culture. God knows I’m intimidated by the task and I have an M.A. on the subject. Block B and B.A.P are great examples of why we don’t make teenagers diplomats. From truly awful lyrics (Zico is under fire, rightly so, for his “ignorant” use of the term “faggot bitch” and wearing a confederate flag on his sleeve), to jaw-droppingly racist music video images, K-pop’s rising visibility threatens to expose a side of Korea that could be intensely problematic. Maybe it’s because I’m from Michigan, but I don’t approve of B.A.P in face paint dancing in the smoldering ruins of Detroit while black rioters battle white cops or black people shoot each other in the back after a (drug?) deal. Our prisons are not your props. Actually, I have a lot of issues with B.A.P’s videos which feature robbery, vandalism, gangs, domestic violence, suicide, racism, and oh how the list goes on. That deserves its own post (as a white girl from the Midwest, I’m not in the best position to talk about racism and cultural appropriation in Asia, but if no one else is going to…..). Of course, some bands do have international members or focus on a specific country. When Block B managed to insult Thailand, 2PM was right there at the forefront calling them out on their poor behavior (2PM’s Nichkhun is Thai so the band has a particular connection to Thailand). Also, speaking of 2PM, can we talk about how Hallyu puts bodies and sexuality at the front of Korea’s national image?

By way of closing remarks, I’d like to suggest we all take a moment to consider what it means for Hallyu if the predominant music style and/or production process should change? Audition shows cut training time and include artists from other genres. Hip-hop in Korea — a rapidly growing genre in the mainstream — certainly does not rely on creating a perceived bond between artist and audience. Meanwhile, rookies are being sent overseas within a year of debut. Plus (stay tuned to Ishmael & Ahab) not all K-pop idol are Korean. There are a lot of changes taking place this year that could strongly impact the way that audiences consume Korean music and through it, Korean culture.

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