Breaking K-pop’s Fourth Wall: What idols can tell us about ourselves
It is easy for people to dismiss ‘idol’ culture as irrelevant. Up until recently, cultural critics and music journalists versed in the ‘authentic’ rock canon of the 1960s and 70s paid little attention to the workings of girl group or boy groups deemed too ‘commercial’ and ‘artificial’ for their own good. Norma Coates, in her brilliant article on ‘teenybopper’ culture, argues that this mentality has its roots in the ‘‘low culture as feminine/high culture as masculine’ binary that has dominated Western culture, I would argue even to this day. For male rock music listeners, the label ‘teenybopper’ was a necessary contrast created to justify the superiority of consuming rock music. The fact that these teenyboppers were always portrayed as female then was not because male fans of teen idols didn’t exist but, rather, said something about how heterosexual men during the 1960s were in denial about their own idolatrous behaviour towards other men.
On one level, this of course doesn’t really apply to the case of K-pop. Unlike the Western music world, it appears that Asian men are more comfortable with idol worship and are the target audiences for most girl groups. Nevertheless, regardless of who is watching, there is still a general agreement that idol culture = low culture, and more so, it is this need to disregard the value of ‘low culture’ that pervades across cultures. What this has inevitably meant though is that our knowledge of the process of idol consumption – what it means, how it works, what it does – has been largely unexamined so far. This is a real problem. In denying legitimate spaces where we can talk about the kinds of relationships – sexual, commercial, social – that idol culture is creating between fans and idols, industry and idols, even between fans themselves, we are allowing the idol world and all of its complexities to slip between the cracks.
Norma Coates makes this really interesting claim that the fetishism of male bodies that characterised the worship of teen idol groups such as the Monkees and the Beatles was one of the main factors that led to the sexual revolution of the late 1960s because it allowed women to vocalise and take control of their sexual desires over men like never before. To Coates, ‘groupies’ were really just teenyboppers who grew up:
“By becoming a groupie, Des Barres and others were able to flaunt and act upon their aggressive sexuality, a transgressive act for women even in the mid-1960s. That is, groupies like Des Barres were not seeking redemption or glory from association by having sex with rock stars. They were playing out their own fantasies, using rock stars as sex objects and little more.”
Have we even thought about the implications of this in K-pop fanculture today? You could say that there is definitely a type of personal, often sexual, agency in being a K-pop fanboy or fangirl that South Korean entertainment agencies and corporate media don’t ever want to talk about. And yet shipping, fan service, even on-stage same-sex kisses are performed by idols for fans with little more reflection than, “it’s what the fans want.’ Recently I wrote about my discomfort with this form of objectification in K-pop fan culture, but objectifying or not, the fact of the matter is that relationships are being created here and I think the content of these relationships can tell us a lot about how people are relating to each other in this moment.
What makes pop music interesting to think about is that unlike the professional world of session musicians or the amateur world of D.I.Y. punk bands – pop artists are created to sell us our desires. Idol groups are just one medium by which desire can be performed -sometimes we want solo singers, other times collectivity through viral song. So why is it that idol culture is so effective at this point in time? When the experience of music is becoming mediated through the internet? When people from across the globe are communicating instantly and yet anonymously? When Western popular culture is becoming increasingly introspective and individualised?
The more I think about fan culture this way the clearer it appears to me that even though the K-pop imaginary often appears to us as a finished product, there is something a lot more complex and unstable going on. I think a lot of it has to do with the ‘gaze’ that K-pop fan culture creates – and the power that it has. This gaze is one that is literally fan > idol. Our attention is so effectively streamlined towards consuming idol bodies and identities from our anonymous viewpoint that we have little recourse to consider fan <> idol. The fan gaze is also in many ways a consumer’s gaze, no doubt K-pop prides itself on using the latest fashions and trends to create a gratifying fantasy world grounded in consumerist desire. On top of that, the novelty of this world is perpetuated by its immediacy. There is something fantastically a-historical about K-pop, more so for anyone outside of Korean society. Sets are often futuristic and artificial – mostly an interchangeable combination of color, flashing neon lights and urban architecture (who can forget SM entertainment’s trademark “box” set).
What all of this says to me is that, without the viewer’s gaze, the K-pop world would cease to exist. In fact the only ‘real’ thing about the K-pop world is us, the spectators, and the bodies that are being utilised in the process. Not ‘idols’ but literally people, young people, created to succeed at all those societal pressures – beauty, youth, riches – that we struggle to live up to. Think of this the next time you watch the latest Secret or 4 Minute video and you’ll notice, as all of your supposed desires, affinities and judgments melt away – all that is left is you, some girls and a screen.
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