The ever-slamming waves of Hallyu
The industry takes a toll on everything and everyone-idols, fans, and surrounding communities-except industry wallets. When will enough be enough?
There was this article I read on Medium yesterday about the corruption, political genocides and suppression that occurred when South Korea was first becoming the developed nation as we know it now in the 50s-70s (which of course the US had a hand in). The takeaway was that the “progress” of advanced, allegedly democratic capitalist first world nations always come at a cost, always hide well an oppressive, darker, more deadly underbelly and face.
Among developed nations with that same trajectory and having been meddled with by the United States, SK isn’t at all unique in this narrative, but there are unique aspects to how that manifests in the country and culture, namely in regards to the Kpop industry & suicide.
Kpop was always such a weird choice of fandom for me because it is the epitome of that bullshit hyper-capitalist consumerist facade slapped over a load of exploitation, suffering, extortion, abuse and oppression. It has to be noted that the industry is first and foremost an economic one that has done wonders for damn near every industry in Korea, tourism & tech, especially smart phones (Samsung IN EVERY VIDEO AND KDRAMA) being probably the most notable, explicitly at the expense of humans in the industry and fandom. The music, art, dance and performance are secondary at best, even if for thousands in the industry that’s the focus, what brought them there & why they do what they do. This reality drives the way the industry is structured and views its art and artists, as secondary commodities meant to reach the bottom line through performance, advertising and keeping to expectations so as to keep fans more than roped in, fucking obsessed, and outside advertising gigs rolling in. So, those commodities must avoid doing anything that might tarnish the facade & get in the way of that bottom line.
Knowing this, I & lots of my friends in the fandom were known for being atypical and rather irreverent fans who challenged these norms. We always talked social crit & politics, tried to listen to the thoughts & narratives of every day Koreans on the industry & its impact culturally, were vocally critical of saesang fans & the industry’s enabling of them by sucking them dry of energy and resources and forcing idols to be open books who catered their fans’ every whim and built their lives around their desires. I never bought any official merch or joined any fanclubs, refrained from engaging in or sharing certain invasive or disrespectful gossip or images, refused to spend the hundreds of dollars I didn’t have anyways for US concerts when artists I liked started coming to the states with more frequency as Kpop’s popularity rose. Most importantly, I tried to get to know and respect who the real people beneath the idol were, what their lives are outside of Kpop, their loves, motivations, desires, wants, dreams, goals and personalities. In short, I did as much fangirling for free and without feeding the machine, with somewhat of a conscience and with care and consideration of the people creating the art & entertainment that I loved, until, given how much I was learning about how awful it all really was, I just couldn’t.
So I wasn’t in the fandom anymore when the news about the death by suicide of Kim Jonghyun of SHINee came earlier this week. And for that I felt immensely guilty.
SHINee had been my first and main kpop group I followed in the fandom, and Jonghyun was my first ever Kpop bias. There was a point in my life where I knew absolutely everything there was to know about the group and the members. I felt like I had thus vanished selfishly the moment the artists I loved and had once consumed so much of my energy and time, who I otherwise tried to really see as people, weren’t churning out the exact music I had wanted from them. Yet I tried to remind myself I dropped that shit for reasons beyond simple superficial consumer whims.
I started to lose interest in the direction that the artists I liked were going for realistic reasons. First off, I was already too old when I got into Kpop at 20 and was only getting older as the target demographic of the music stayed largely the same and the ages of the artists debuting also stayed the same (AKA much too young for me to be consuming in the strangely sexual and fan-servicing way they are marketed even when they’re underage). The fandom was a dumpster fire that only got worse & even at its best, was a time-suck nonetheless that slowly became less of an interest and a priority as my ACTUAL LIFE started taking off. Frankly, trying to keep up was hard. I got into Kpop when I was unemployed, aimless, anxious and deeply depressed living at my parents’ house. And wouldn’t you know, dedicating hours a day to listen to songs and watch new music videos, teasers, appearances and shows, keep up with news and gossip, blog and generate jokes and analysis and content, fight defensive protective-of-their-bias-and-the-industry stans, livestream content from a different time zone & keep up with everything is a bit unsustainable when you start having a social life & full-time work and realizing lots of that actually starting to contribute to your shit mental health when it used to be an escape from it. This industry greatly exploits its fans as well.
And of course, the industry and culture itself just became much too atrocious and indefensible, especially for how it lacked consideration for the mental and physical well-being of its artists and the social contexts we all exists in. I spent my years trying to fangirl while discussing and learning about exploitation, labor violations, consumerism and capitalism, body shaming and fatphobia, colorism, mental health shame and stigma, fetishization, cultural appropriation and anti-Blackness, sexism, forced prostitution and rape culture, Korean politics and military involvement of the US, etc in the industry and fandom to little avail. I couldn’t make excuses for it anymore. I was too old and knew too much of it was fucked up for me to pretend like it was ethical to continue to support.
Sometimes, I’d peek back into that shining glittering fantasy & my jaw dropped. I looked and the landscape I once knew so well had changed so much so quickly, I didn’t recognize it at all. Each time a new batch of rookies debuted I was worried & mad as opposed to happy. Newbies are put under immense pressure to succeed among all the other new groups and tried-and-true established ones. What’s more, them starting their careers means they were at the beginning of grueling, underpaying (you’d be surprised given how much money idols generate how comparatively little of that they actually keep, most of their money comes from doing solo ads, shows, appearances, kdramas etc ASIDE from being music idols 24/7, so you can easily have groups with more popular members who make way more than the others) slave contracts with their company that often last 7–10 years, even despite pressure both in Korea & internationally & I believe legislation passing to prevent that. And older groups feel the pressure to compete with the new, younger, hipper kids (which is of course hardest on women, as kids debut as young as 13 or 14, and we all know how the world prefers women, as virginal, unwrinkled, unmarried, underage or barely legal, all hard to keep to the older you get), both keep to what their OG fans know & love while trying new things to stay on top, remain relevant & appealing as they age and all that comes with it-animosities and bitterness, exhaustion, desires to be more autonomous and independent artistically and in their personal and social lives-mounts.
Many of us non-saesang fans, especially older foreign fans, like to think we aren’t part of that pressure, that we are better than others, more supportive, with less expectations, less demanding or exacting, less fucking weird, but that’s just not true. All we are to our faves is judgement, impossibly tough expectations and pressure. Millions of millions of people all with the same potential to be disappointed.
Sure, lots of idols love & appreciate us, or at least the say they do. But let’s be real, at best we’re probably both the best and worst things about their job, & for many we’re just the latter. More often than we’d like to admit we just fucking suck. We’re demanding, obsessive and invasive, even if we try hard not to be, and those are the non-stalking/assaulting/suicidal/homicidal fans (yes you read that right. Saesang are fucking terrifying). And even if we aren’t that bad, there’s dozens of fans who are for each one that can keep it casual and not do shit like melt down if their bias was caught within a one mile radius of a attractive person of another gender or yell their OTP fan theories at anyone who will listen. We’re part of what makes our biases’, faves’, oppas’ and eunnies’ lives & careers so fucking difficult. And Jonghyun struggled with this.
To be sure, Jonghyun first and foremost had severe depression. He was vocal about his mental health struggles. Aside from the impact trauma might have had on this, that isn’t the individual fault of anyone, that’s brain-wiring, experiences and chemistry. He was getting treatment, but he still suffered and struggled for years. But more and more is coming out to reveal the inability of those around him to truly see how deep the problem was and how the pressure of fans and the industry were a big part of what caused him so much deep and abiding sadness, unrest and stress along with cultural stigma and pressure. Knowing this, we can’t just chalk it up to just brain wiring, if we ever could regardless. It wasn’t just that Jonghyun “lost” a struggle, it’s that outside forces added to it and didn’t help him when he was down. We failed him. Yet all that is happening is that the industry and fandom are taking his death as a loss in the family as opposed to something that was aided and abetted by them collectively and could have been prevented, likely, by any number of structural and cultural changes to the ruthless churn of their ways and public expectations, mores and demand.
This happens every single time some shit goes down with an idol. There are attempts at life, drug problems, self-medicating, breakdowns, personal life incidents (like idols daring to date or have personal struggles and lives), and industry and group tension and drama all the time in the Kpop world, and it is absorbed in a way that prevents any real accountability or reflection that might reveal the industry as unhealthy, caustic, and unsustainable. Idols are forced to keep these life things, called “scandals”, private, and if revealed, behave like they did something wrong. “Oh, sorry I was caught in a ‘scandal’ because you found out I smoke weed to help my anxiety and having sex because I’m a good-looking globe-trotting well-dressed 20 something year old, forgive me.” The opposite of that is when idols are guilty of doing or saying some really fucked up shit, it is again just seen as a minor slip up, a scandal, and we must just forget it and go back to loving and worshiping the idol and their group like nothing happened. That’s wild and unimaginable to many but it is really common in that industry. Idols don’t belong to themselves, they belong to their label, social perception, fans, and whomever else is hiring them at the moment. Their life and personal wants and desires must never get in the way.
I can’t say I ever really knew any of the idols I liked, especially the SHINee boys, despite how much of their life is put on display for us fans. But Jonghyun was known for being very open, loving and honest, really wanting to step it up beyond merely being a performer or idol and actually show his skill as a musician, artist, creator and performer. He was a light in that industry. Last night came upon a blog I wrote six years ago which was an analysis of an interview with Jonghyun in which, exasperated after reading all his words about how much he loves creating and writing and truly wants to be seen as an artist, I pondered when his breaking point with the industry would be. When he would finally get tired of being treated as a commodity instead of the crooning, guitar-playing, ballad-loving, crybaby softie with a sensual side artist he always was. I knew the time would come. He’d grab his things and go. I honestly awaited the day he’d get embroiled in what would later become legendary fight with infamous and evil SM Entertainment to end his contract and go solo. I never imagined it would actually look like him dying.
Ultimately no amount of blaming, feeling bad, analysis and theorizing will change what happened, bring Jonghyun back or take away the pain of his loss. But being honest as a former international kpop fan with a bit of insight and someone who tries to hold herself and the world accountable to one another is necessary to me at this moment so it isn’t merely absorbed into the industry and machine as another sad instance that will be forgotten soon enough. This is indicative of some deeper shit that many refuse to reckon with. If we all thought more critically and spoke frankly about these realities, we could really challenge the way the industry acts unethically towards all involved parties aside from its own bottom line and prevent further tragedies like this, and in some small ways bring honor to the life and sacrifice of Jonghyun & so many others in the industry.