From ‘Crazy about K pop’, 10 Dec 2011, various letters in Life! Mailbag, ST
(Stella Hartono): Clearly, Adeline Chia has not studied her topic well enough if she generalises fans showing their support as being part of a ‘cult gathering’. What about fans at World Cup or SuperBowl?
In the case of TVXQ, it was their first fan meet here after a year of hiatus and problems. Is it wrong for fans to show their support by waving lightsticks to create an atmosphere of warmth and encouragement? I pity her for never experiencing such a passion in her life and criticising other people’s passions instead.
(Sharina J):…TVXQ has inspired and encouraged me in times of difficulties. When I felt like giving up on my studies, I found out that TVXQ member Changmin actually came in third for an examination he took, despite his busy schedule. That inspired me to work hard. Listening to their soft, melodic voices calms my heart.
(Noe Muhonen):…K-pop has nothing to do with cults. Where Ms Chia refers to us as cults, we talk about families. We support one another when we are going through difficult times. We cry together and we laugh together. Talking about our fandom as a ‘cult’ is highly offensive. You would not call your own family a cult, would you?
ST staff writer Adeline Chia’s rant on K-pop remains one of the more delightfully honest and scathing reads in the ST in a long time, and with such expected vehemence from the Hallyu wave ‘family’, she has not just proven that K pop fans are wildly deluded and rely on boybands to pass their exams, but have a dismal lack of any sense of humour or self-parody whatsoever, nevermind how much they ‘laugh’ together. Adeline’s ‘cult’ reference is a common figure of speech and was never intended to accuse K-pop fans of engaging in satanic, animal sacrificing rites, so these kids should just ‘lighten’ up already (hurr-hurr). This is a journalist who reviews arthouse performances, so she is bound to have a biased opinion. And, for my reading pleasure, thankfully so. In contrast here’s what she has to say about ‘Kaspar’, from her Facebook page.
Saw Lasalle’s anarchic production of Kaspar and was struck by how fantastic Peter Handke’s language play was. It twists sentences into odd shapes and bombards you with repetition and permutations, demonstrating how language is an organ of control. All this matched by anarchic, high-energy ensemble acting, which was uneven. Special mention goes to the sexy dominatrix “prompter” played by Jean Toh
Which probably gives you some idea already about what to expect from a commentary on K-pop, which is to ‘art’ as what crabsticks are to seafood. Here’s a couple of ripping, dismissive lines off ‘Sick of the K pop cult’ (Dec 8 2011, Life!):
…I am heartily sick of it. Every bit of it. The manufactured sounds, the ersatz emotions, the clone-like stars, the cult- like, weepy fandom.
…Recently, watching a sea of red lightsticks keeping beat to a song made me and my companion grab on to each other. Eyes wide in terror, we communicated wordlessly for fear of persecution. Our faces said this: ‘Are we at a cult gathering?’
Adeline’s mockery of K pop may come across as sour-grapes to the fanbase, the kind of snide cynicism that critics love to deliver at the expense of an adolescent fetish. Anyone who uses the word ‘ersatz’ to describe bubblegum pop probably belongs to the ‘serious, indie musician’ fan camp, and K pop with its addictive but hollow aesthetic of blending Western influences with demigod/goddess appeal and slick dance moves is a phenomenon just waiting to be bashed by music-fans who’d think they have better taste in music. There is no doubt a gratifying sense of achievement in telling a K pop fan that their idols’ ‘original’ song sounds like an estrogen-enhanced, hip hop rip-off of an 80’s New Wave classic. That smugness is only temporary though, up to the point you realise that to your average K Pop worshipper, the timeline of Western pop music begins only at Lady Gaga’s Pokerface, and she would even have trouble recognising household, though now prehistoric, names like Spice Girls or Boyzone (B.G, or Before Gaga)
But haven’t we grown tired bashing the same old wave after wave of synthetic boy/girl band pop? Just as K pop fans bond over a common, irrational love for manufactured sounds, likewise those who relish mocking them bond over a mutual disdain for the ‘K-cult’, to the extent of homophobic insults like rapper Sheikh Haikel’s U-Kiss my Ass. Such polarisation could account for K pop’s ridiculous excess and success; the presence of a common enemy i.e people who profess better taste in music, that the ‘family’ needs to defend themselves against the intelligentsia with their weapon of choice: synchronised lightsticks. People either go giggly and delirious over K-bands, hugging autographed CD covers to sleep, or adopt a ‘cooler-than-thou’ attitude ready to unleash a stream of comparisons against ‘REAL bands’. Either way, you’re still part of a groupie mob, and that’s only, and sadly, human.
I’m actually impartial to the K-pop mainstream, with its catchy, predictable tunes, cutie-pie porcelain girls with dreamy eyes, perfectly synchronised dance moves, forgettable band names that sound like permutations of a bar code serial number, well-produced music videos you can’t take your eyes off etc. It’s like musical Farmville, rich chocolate cake, Mills and Boons erotica or the Hey Macarena! song, guilty pleasures that we all can’t do without, arty-farty literary critics included. In fact, I’m more likely to wince and groan at Train’s ‘Soul Sister’ (a ‘pop-rock’ abomination) than anything off the discography of the Backstreet Boys or TVXQ, for the latter only because I wouldn’t realise it even it they had terrible lyrics like Train has (or non-lyrics, it’s just one ‘hey-ay’ after another). It only becomes a problem when people take K-pop seriously rather than treat it like the disposable fluff that it was always intended to be. In most circles, that would be called ‘entertainment’.
What bugs me is whether K-pop idols are really worth emulating as role models or pursued as a ‘healthy’ obsession as what supporters would tell you. In 2007, hip hop performer MC Mong extracted his own TEETH to dodge conscription into the Korean army. Chae Dong Ha, formerly of ‘SG wannabe’, committed suicide in May this year after the failure of a high-flying career, following in the footsteps of Yuni in 2007, incidents which spark off copycat suicidal tendencies among their fans. G-dragon of BIG BANG, was busted for smoking marijuana. You could say drugs, sex and killing yourself are fair staple of the K-pop universe just like they would be for any international superstar, but followers making important decisions like when to study hard, how to dodge NS or whether to take their own lives, out of blind dedication and imitation of what a celebrity does or says, is, as Adeline rightly observed, borderline cult-like. If Shinee tells their fans a UFO will descend on New Years Eve and take fans on a ride across the galaxy trailing a stray comet to the ecstatic beats of ‘Ring Ding Dong’, after consuming a magical joy-juice which is actually cyanide, I’m sure a faithful handful would oblige. With lightsticks in hand.
Here’s a series of wonky activities which sound exactly like the castigations of a religious cult, though it’s actually what aspiring K pop stars go through in their ‘training’.
..Strictly no boyfriends, no mobile phones and no unsupervised trips – even to the toilet. When in public, the girls can’t ever take off their sunglasses lest their tired peepers are caught on camera. They must speak only Korean and respond to their Korean stage names. They will address their Korean management as their family – the men they will call “appa” (father in Korean) and women “umma” (mother in Korean). For most of their 14-hour days, the use of make-up is prohibited as the Koreans require a bare-faced, natural look. After 7pm, there will be no eating or drinking – even a single drop of water won’t be allowed….Five hours of gym, dance, vocal and Korean language lessons are compulsory daily.There will be no fraternising with other K-pop stars or anyone outside their “family”.
Which makes K-pop and its sinister star-making machine the guiltiest guilty pleasure of all.