Disclaimer: This is just my opinion based purely on my personal observations and nothing more. I do not claim any academic or professional merit to this piece. I am only commenting on the larger societal trends I have noted in Korea’s idol culture, and it is not my intent to target or bash any particular idol. The sole object of this piece is to critique arguments and logic, not the people who have espoused them.
Korea’s Insatiable Idol Worship: A Postmodern Tragicomedy
By: Jimmie of TheJYJFiles
For a country that purports to be at once the most atheistic—a little more than half the population claims to believe nothing—and the most monotheist—four of the world’s 10 largest churches (by congregation) are located here—Korea sure does love its idols. Young, pretty and dressed to the nines in flashy clothes and the ideal personality, they come in sets of four, five, nine and even thirteen. They are capable of attracting an army of fanatical followers. Their songs are played ad nauseam in every corner of the country. Their faces fill up the four corners of our television sets. In fact, there is hardly a television show or radio corner that is not dedicated to or run by some idol or other.
Is it perhaps because this nation, sandwiched all its life between two powerful empires and constantly under threat of attack, has always needed and sought heroes? Could this be why Koreans are so prone to making heroes and to hero worship?
And more or less, the Zeitgeist has been gracious enough to provide Korea with unexpected heroes at exactly the right time. Kim Yushin, Lee Soonshin, the more controversial Park Junghee and Kim Daejoong have all entered the national scene exactly when such personalities were needed most, in spite of circumstances that should have made their existence and entrance impossible. But now, in this day and age, even with the looming threat up North, the Korean public has little need for those kinds of heroes, yet the insatiable desire for hero-worship remains. And so a significant portion of the public turns to ‘idols’, investing in them all the their hopes, dreams, ideals and expectations…essentially moulding them into surrogates of perfection. The adoration and fervour that the public showers on idols is enough to convince anyone that these idols are indeed immortals. It appears that many of the idols themselves believe themselves to be immortals.
Yet, the recent dramarama on Twitter involving Kim Junsu of JYJ and several big-name SM idols show otherwise. What the self-righteous replies of these idols—replies that never failed to reference the necessity for “gratefulness” to the Powers-that-Be—exposed is not an unquestionable connection to the self-sustaining Divine but an inability to escape this ephemeral, No Guarantee humanity. It is both unfortunate and amusing, much like something out of the Theatre of the Absurd, that these idols don’t understand who their true Masters are. Just as the OBS producer stated with sharp precision, the Power that idols truly owe their allegiance to is not their management company or CEO but their fans and, through their fans, the larger Korean public.
Just as the Korean public makes heroes, it just as easily destroys them the minute said heroes make a mistake or disappoint unstated expectations. Not even the greats, like General Lee Soonshin, have been able to escape this fate. The followers of yesterday become the executioners of today. Offend the right expectations, dash the right fantasies, and fans turn into antis in under an hour. Whether they are conscious of it or not, whether they want it or not, idols are nothing more than empty vessels without a voice into which the public pours its unattainable desires. Although the public worships them like gods, at the end of the day, idols exist at the convenience of the public and to satiate its whims and fancies. When and if the public finds it no longer convenient to worship a certain idol, it throws the idol away without a moment’s hesitation only to replace it with a new one. At such moments, it becomes clear who is really in control.
Several high-profile idols have objected in recent months to being referred to as “slave” or to having people speculate whether or not they are under “slave contracts”. Departing from the question whether or not these idols are under “slave contracts” (not likely, thanks to the efforts of JYJ and their fans and the Fair Trade Commission of Korea), idols are not allowed to be free-thinking individuals either. Just ask Jay Park. The Korean public did not hesitate to remind him, ‘We will love you and worship you if you be and do as we say. You are not supposed to be anything else. If you disappoint our expectations and the moral standards set by us without your knowledge or input, we will not hesitate to rise up against you and bury you into oblivion.’ For all the adoration, fame, money, cars and houses an idol may have, his life and person are controlled by others. In other words, the idol and idol worship in Korea is a lesson in objectification. The projected configuration of the idol culture—the variety programmes, the ubiquitous stage performances, the radio talk shows, special events just for them, even down to the CD packaging—communicate that idols are little more than objects for the public’s use, howsoever the public may decide to use them. Yes, *cough*Heechul*cough*, it is possible to buy a house or cars or go out for drinks and still be a slave.
A slavery that appears to be anything but…
It all amounts to little more than a postmodern tragicomedy, really. One I’m sure the members of JYJ are well familiar with.
I personally was not around to witness the societal reaction to the lawsuit filed by DBSK members Hero Jaejoong, Xiah Junsu and Micky Yoochun, and I can only imagine its effects. I can only imagine the angry red tide of fans turning into antis and flooding unrelated forums on and offline with fabricated rumours in exercise of a mistaken right to revenge. I can only imagine the accusations of greed, disloyalty and treachery leveled against the three by the larger public based on standards the three have no control over. And I imagine that on some level this is why Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu put up with the ridiculous terms of their unfair contract for so long—they would rather be slaves by contract than face the consequences of declining to play the public’s slave in this postmodern tragicomedy. More than a year after the lawsuit was first filed, the consequences of this fallout remain, even in the international fandom: ‘Dong Bang Shin Ki were supposed to be five immortal talents who sing and dance for us forever…they were supposed to laugh and smile so we too could laugh and smile and forget our troubles…they were supposed to make us proud to be part of the world’s largest fandom and give us the ability to boast about how perfect they are. How could they disappoint us like this??? Ugh! I’m leaving!!!! >.<~~~ !’ The members of DBSK occupied the roles of ‘gods of the East’ for so long that even their own fans forgot, when push came to shove, that all of them are 100% flesh and blood.
For all the connotations of immortality attached to the term, the lifespan of an “idol” is on average very short. After filing a lawsuit against the biggest idol factory in all of Korea and in a way that exposed the behind-the-set stage effects that make it the Wizard of Oz, JYJ have pretty much ensured that their own lifespan as idols were over and they would never be allowed to re-occupy their former positions again. If they were to stay relevant in the Korean mainstream, they would have no other choice but to become something more.
The only chance an idol anywhere has of surviving beyond his expiry date is to undergo a legendary transformation (even if he was already considered a legend as an idol). He must transform into and be recognised as an artist as well. It is a difficult feat anywhere in any music industry, but in Kpop it might as well be impossible. A rare exception that comes to mind is Seo Taiji…but he started out as an artist and intentionally pulled out the minute Korean society tried to impose on him the label of idol. Furthermore, as many are aware by now, the Kpop system and the mentality of the industry’s biggest players make this transformation all the more impossible.
But perhaps the trusty old Zeitgeist is moving again.
Slowly but surely, JYJ are emerging from behind the curtain as artists. The level of experimentation, boldness and maturity displayed by the music in Their Rooms leaves little room for doubt on this. The process has been anything but smooth, and along the way they have made plenty of errors (both artistic and managerial), as several ill-advised tracks on The Beginning attest. But that’s okay. The life goal of an artist is not to embody perfection but to bring forth a masterpiece. The artist is judged not by his ability to conform to social expectations or standards of morality but by the expression of his art. Whereas idols are intentionally produced and marketed to be passive reflections of society, artists have a long and proud tradition of challenging society, pushing it to reflect upon itself. If it is the lot of the idol to be used, it is the prerogative of the artist to be respected. Because, even if he is brought down, even if he goes through life penniless and unnoticed, he will go down free and with no regrets.
Now, forces that would rather that JYJ remain as idols and that find it more convenient that the members of JYJ be remembered as idols, are trying to incite the Korean public, the real makers and destroyers of heroes and idols, with nationalistic rhetoric. Their general strategy is to manipulate the public’s growing patriotic attachment to the Korean Wave by propagating the following logic: ‘The Korean Wave is at the height it is today thanks to a surge of popularity in Kpop. Kpop is in turn able to be so popular because of the business practices and policies of big entertainment management companies. JYJ and their lawsuit are threatening the business practices and policies of these companies. Thus, they are threatening the Korean Wave.’ In reality, this is one of the most unpatriotic arguments ever fabricated, not least because its proponents are really out to secure their own private interests in the name of public ones. For eons, nations have made idols, but it is Art that makes and defines the nation.
If the Korean government is serious about sustaining the Korean Wave, especially the global appeal of the Korean music market, it will start devising policies and systems to support artists and not simply idols. A recommended first step would be to remove all existing obstacles that stand in the way of Korean artists producing Art that will have longevity and represent well Korean culture. For the music industry, this would mean revoking the licenses of and effectively dismantling shady associations that are little more than cartels, such as the Korean Entertainment Producers Association (KEPA) and the Korean Federation of Pop Culture and Arts Industry (KFPCAI). Thus far, these cartels have contributed nothing but nonsense and vitriol to the debate and are seeking to manipulate the allegiance of the Korean public for their personal gains.
But, in my opinion, the biggest assignment lies with the fans of JYJ. Very little mental strain is required to be the fan of an idol—it mostly consists of projecting one’s fantasies on to a surrogate—but to be the follower of an artist is to turn one’s habits upside-down. Just as the members of JYJ are transforming from idols into artists, will their fans be able to make the challenging transition from idol worshippers to artist followers? Will they be able to genuinely respect JYJ even whilst knowing full well that these three men are simply that, men and not gods? Spazzing is fine—and psychologically necessary, of course—but will JYJ fans be able to honestly appreciate the value of JYJ’s output as much as they do the trio’s bodies? Will the fans be able to support—and fight for if necessary—their artists’ quest to realise that elusive masterpiece and to claim what is their right—to die free and without regrets?
As they say at Intermission, ‘To be continued…’
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