SINGAPORE: These have been a miserable past few months for K-pop fans.
A startling number of K-pop artistes have gotten entangled in scandal, ranging from drugs and sex to violence and corruption.
TOP from the renowned group BIGBANG was charged with taking illegal drugs and later almost died from an overdose. The “maknae” (Korean for youngest member) of BIGBANG, Seungri, was in March slapped with allegations of sex bribery. That case would later snowball into the big “molka” (illegal capturing of explicit footage) scandal that has paralysed the South Korean media industry.
Attention is no longer focused on the latest acts to debut or who is appearing on a variety show.
Instead, fans have been watching with disbelief as one by one, their beloved artistes - so far from at least four different groups other than BIGBANG - admit to exchanging sex videos and announce their exit from the industry.
The star of this real-life Korean drama is Seungri.
Banking on the success of BIGBANG and its management YG Entertainment, the 28-year-old had launched a chain of ramen restaurants and several exclusive nightclubs, and had even gone on what would have been a successful concert tour - all without his “hyungs” (older members). But at the tail-end of the tour, news of physical abuse, embezzlement and prostitution at one of his clubs Burning Sun broke. His arrest could come any time now.
Most shocking of all was the news of Yang Hyun-suk, Seungri’s boss at YG and arguably the most influential man in K-pop for many years, stepping down after he too was implicated in the Burning Sun saga.
“MY WORLD HAS FALLEN”
You might ask, “So what? Artistes get caught up in all sorts of scandals, all the time.”
Not in South Korea, at least not to K-pop fans around the world.
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Unless you live in the country and are privy to the underground gossip, the only drama you see is on the TV screen. It was not until the Samsung heir was jailed, the Korean Air nut rage saga and Park Geun-hye was impeached that it started to dawn on fans how all the episodes they stayed up watching about chaebols (large, family-owned conglomerates) and corrupted ministers might have been inspired by real-life.
The stories just seem so sensational, especially when, as international fans, you hardly ever see Korean stars anywhere but on TV, stage or the red carpet. They are notoriously private.
Korean stars would be married before you even suspected they were dating, like BIGBANG’s Taeyang and Descendants of the Sun couple Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo. Even if they did announce they were dating, there wouldn’t be pictures of them shopping for groceries or walking their dog, like in Hollywood.
You could say the Korean entertainment industry was trying to avoid the scandalised reputation of Hollywood. It has worked hard to project a clean image, with K-pop artistes typically subjected to a clause in their contract that forbids them from dating in the years following their debut.
For many years, it worked.
Today, even after artistes like Seungri, iKON’s BI, singer and variety show star Jung Joon-young, and Choi Jong-hoon of FT Island have admitted to or been implicated in vile crimes, there are fans who are aggressively protecting them, accusing messengers of ruining idols’ careers.
In March, the reporter who broke the news about Burning Sun posted a message on Instagram suggesting he was receiving threats and could be in danger. A Twitter fansite, which has amassed more than 100,000 followers for its work translating Korean entertainment reports, wrote last week that it had been receiving profanity-laden messages accusing it of fake news.
“Did you know that because of you my world has fallen? F*** you, you fame w**** bitch,” was one message that was screenshotted and posted on Twitter.
DON’T LOOK PAST THEIR CRIMES
I’m a BIGBANG fan, who are called VIPs, in my thirties. Before my ears can no longer put up with the loud music and pyrotechnics, I would like, at least once, to see the five of them onstage again.
This sort of longing applies to just about any fandom.
Your favourite group in your youth will always be your favourite group, which explains why The Backstreet “Men” perform in Singapore to packed crowds almost every year and why many of my friends have flown to London to watch the Spice Girls (even without Victoria).
When the group goes on indefinite hiatus or splits, you’re heartbroken - that’s not hyperbole because it’s a fact that music touches hearts.
BIGBANG co-produced their music and wrote their own lyrics, turning out a fresh experimental sound that was part K-pop, and part hip hop and R&B. They pushed the boundaries of the Korean and English languages, which made for stunning rap. In an arena of hyper-synchronised, lip-syncing and uniformed 10-member groups, they stood out.
Among the top-shelf groups, BIGBANG was also the least active in non-music activities, including those laugh-a-minute variety programmes that regularly feature stars in seemingly candid situations.
It is an indication, that unlike the likes of Super Junior and Girl’s Generation, BIGBANG just wanted to be known for their music.
And that is the whole point. Fandom can only be about the performance.
Thanks to modern technology, the best of BIGBANG, and really any other performer out there, has been immortalised on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. As a fan, and more so as a woman, I can’t ask for much else and certainly not for the artistes to be acquitted and be allowed to go back to regular programming, as if nothing happened.
The fact remains that if Seungri is proven to be guilty of all or any of the vile crimes he is suspected of, he is complicit in the molka epidemic and not the cute, misunderstood maknae.
I can’t look past that. Neither should anybody.
YG Entertainment named a new CEO on Thursday and Hwang Bo-kyung is probably the first woman ever to head a large K-pop agency. In light of the guts of the Korean entertainment scene being ripped out and put to dry, the Korean media landscape appears to be changing.
So should fans.
Hidayah Salamat is an editor at CNA Digital News.