Monday, October 29, 2012

Bad Girls Do It Well: Policing Korea's Idols, Part I


So, clearly, I suck at keeping this blog updated. Many apologies. Working on a plan for more regular updates. 

Ever since the T-ara fiasco hit this summer, I've been thinking about k-pop's "bad girls" and how the Korean media and populace treats female celebrities that don't fit the sweet, inobtrusive images we expect from them. This post is a mishmash of all my thoughts and related on the issue, so bear with me if it isn't very coherent, and please, share thoughts, corrections, disagreements in the comments section. Part II will look at Seungri of Big Bang's situation in comparison, and the cultural context surrounding all these scandals that may/may not have been addressed yet.

I generally refrained from commenting on the whole T-ara debacle, because I feel like there wasn't enough information for me to make any judgements either way. Save for the very obvious fact that CCM doesn't know how to run an idol group without running them into the ground, all I could surmise was that Hwayoung, as the maknae and newbie, bore the brunt of the stress that the CCM CEO placed on all of T-ara, which was clear from his statements the beginning of the year publicly shaming his main moneymakers by saying they weren't working hard enough - despite them hitting a career sales high at the time with "Roly Poly". The netizen backlash is still going strong months after evidence of bullying in the group first surfaced - Hyomin has recently been outed as a former member of a group of high school delinquents who were involved in "sex parties", for example - and they just won't let it go. It seems that Korea has a real issue issue with girls behaving badly.

The types of things that get idol girls in trouble with the web mob range from looking uninterested in a talk show and getting overly enthusiastic during a competitive game. While the first two may not seem that big of a deal to a lot of us - maybe annoying or mildly irritating, but not necessarily worth a public apology - these sorts of things can cause greater offense in South Korea, where the age and professional hierarchy of the entertainment industry, as well as general standards of public decorum, mean that public figures are held to higher standards. Unfortunately for women, they don't have the advantage of just drafting into the army and spending two years in repentance if the heat gets too much. They generally tend to apologize, and then, if it's really bad, lay low until the incident blows over. Han Ye-seul did that after ditching her drama in the middle of filming, but T-ara, surprisingly, has not. CCM may simply be ignoring how much damage netizens are prepared to do to their public image and the company's bottom line. But it's still an interesting stance to take, regardless of the motivations behind it - it almost demands that we "get over it".

Netizens clearly have no intention of getting over anything, however. It's a huge shame that they are focusing on the girls's bad behavior, and not on the stress that being an idol has placed on them, and how the system itself can cause these sorts of incidents to happen. A concerted effort to change idol management practcies would make much more of a difference, but for now it just seems like a hate parade. Which is why I'm reminded of the various "nyeo" incidents in the Korean media - dubbed "Ladygate" by the writers over at KoreaBANG. Again, you have women behaving badly - drinking, smoking, swearing on the subway, clearly not caring what anyone thinks of them, and people are recording the incidents on their cellphones and uploading them onto the internet, basically setting the women up on the internet firing range. Of course, the men probably behave badly as well, but why the focus on women? KoreaBANG postulated, and a Korean news outlet concurred, that likely the disgruntled netizens out to hate on wayward women are unemployed, single males with a bone to pick with society. They target men who are more successful than them, and women who won't date them (or are simply easy targets). There's enough hate to go around, so why not vent it on the internet?


This explains why Krystal from f(x)'s disinterest on variety shows makes headlines: people apparently actually care about this, or are simply using her as a target for their anger at the world. Interestingly, SM has made no attempts to make sure she behaves properly, or at least that broadcasts get edited to cut out her "I'm so bored" look. And in her most recent "rudeness" incident, unlike the first, there was no official apology. So SM, like CCM, is staging a resistance of sorts against the web mob. Others are also beginning to speak out against netizens in support of the idol girls, such as this university professor, and the producer of Eunji's hit drama, Reply 1997.

Krystal intrigues me as a public figure because she clearly is not into playing the game for the cameras. She can't be bothered, and has no problems being called a bitch. I'm sure if you called her that to her face, she'd probably just smile and say "Yeah, well, I'm not here to be nice to people." I have to say, I have a little respect for that. Not that girls should go about disrespecting people, but that she is one of the few idols who is singlehandedly waging war against those who target girls for misbehaving, simply by not giving a fuck. It's not as interesting or as revolutionary when other idols do it. Take, for example, Super Junior's Heechul - well known for his mean streak, yet people would probably still love him even if he ran over a puppy. Krystal's older sister, Jessica, is often the subject of whispered conversations about diva idols as well, but her "ice queen" persona doesn't get her any netizen hate, and is in fact much cherished by dedicated SNSD stans. For them, and most other "mean" idols, their tendencies towards bitchiness generally don't come out on television broadcasts, and when they do appear in other instances, they only serve to make them more popular. Heechul, is also a guy, so I guess he doesn't get targeted by the woman-hating netizens.

While I may not ever like Krystal as a person, I like that she plays against the general opinion of what appropriate celebrity behavior should be. She reminds me of Kristen Stewart, actually, who also refuses to play the fame game. Her cheating scandal with the director of Snow White and the Hunstman has had people labelling her "trampire" and burning their Twilight books, and like T-ara, people refused to on her, as reports of her boyfriend Robert Pattinson being "heartbroken" keep pouring out into the media. Unfortunately for T-ara though, there's no evidence that Hwayoung's booting from the group was part of an elaborate PR stunt to get them publicity for their latest release while simultaneously severing an artificial relationship.

Bullying is wrong. Rudeness is not behavior that I endorse. But when faced with a misogynistic public which will mercilessly skewer you unless you play by their rules, how should idols  and their management respond? Ignore the problem and keep trucking on, hoping that at least they can stay at the top of the searches and gain notoriety that might translate into sales; or apologize and lay low until the public finds another target? I think working out your issues in public is a bad idea - CCM's CEO should have learned that from Rihanna and Chris Brown. But micro-resistances against a netizenry whose sole purpose is to shame women? That I can get behind.

Lee Hi, "1, 2, 3, 4"

Not having followed K-Pop Star, I had no idea this girl even existed until she did "It's Cold" with Epik High for their new album. So coming into this with no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. Given that I had said earlier that JYP was the entertainment company who had the best chance of delivering a song with some soul, I was not expecting this from YG at all. I was expecting some sort of synthed-up pop track, but instead I have a stripped back soul instrumental - funk guitar, drums, a little electric piano - that allows Lee Hayi's gorgeous voice to shine. Don't expect elaborate vocal gymnastics a la Ailee here - Lee Hayi is all about the low, gravelly, laid-back delivery, and it works for the track. She has a truly unique voice, and that really sets this song apart in the sea of retro-inspired tracks that have come out of k-pop in recent years. Credit goes to Lydia Paek, Choice37 and MastaWu, who are (finally) bringing some new-new to YG's musical repertoire. This song is very clearly in the vein of Duffy's stripped down soul sound, but that's not a bad thing. K-pop desperately needs some soul and sass, and Lee Hi is bringing it... even if her video only gives us a glimpse of that. Besides, Duffy was riffing off of the sound of many black singers before her, so it's not like anyone's reinventing the wheel here.

Even though she has issues emoting (there since her K-Pop Star days, apparently) as the video progresses Hayi gets better, and is actually pretty adorable and engaging in that last scene outside the theatre. While this is not my favorite of director Han Sa-min's work (that'd have to be BIGBANG's "Blue") I do like the gradual transformation she makes from from regular girl to fresh young star. And I LOVE the elevator projection at the first chorus.

She's still a little rough around the edges, but Lee Hi has delivered a solid track that should put her fellow K-Pop Star graduates (Park Ji-min and Baek Ah-yeon) on notice. Dull ballads and short-lived star power aren't going to cut it when you're competing with girls just as vocally talented, as well as older, more established stars for the solo singer spotlight. Sisters better recognize.