Eli from U-KISS got married and respectful K-pop consumption
In unexpected news, Eli Kim of UKISS made the announcement on Friday 4th December that he is both married, and has a baby on the way. Obviously, the utmost congratulations go to him and his wife, and hope goes towards a healthy pregnancy and a healthy mother and baby.
In yet more unexpected news, the fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Reactions to idols going public about their relationships has never typically been a positive experience for them. Despite the positive sentiment so far, Eli’s announcement has once again made it clear that K-pop fans have always felt a certain level of entitlement towards the lives of their favourite idols.
When Super Junior’s Sungmin got married – and even before, when he first announced his engagement – fans were disappointed in him, and they were very vocal about the fact that they felt betrayed by his actions. Whilst Eli’s fans haven’t, as of yet, expressed betrayal at his actions, Eli himself stated that he would understand if fans felt betrayed and no longer wished to follow UKISS. The fact that that he himself is expecting this kind of backlash speaks volumes. The statement released by UKISS’ leader Soohyun echoes this.
Fans aren’t necessarily to be blamed for being so heavily invested in K-Pop idols; they’re marketed in such an emotive way, and this attachment is encouraged. Idols are quick to do things like throw hearts at fans and declare that they love their fanbases. Some even refer to fanmeets as ‘dates’ – VIXX’s Ken does this frequently, and it’s part of what makes him the darling of VIXX’s fanclub, the ‘Starlights’. But, in the end, this is a part idols play. In sociology, we use the terms ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ – the front stage is the part someone plays to create a certain identity in order to have others respond to them in a particular way. This is much more overt for K-pop marketing, and it is utilised to full effect. The ‘back stage’ is the private life, where a person doesn’t have to play a role. But in K-Pop, idols’ ‘private’ lives are also marketed – through diary programs where fans can see inside their dorms and watch them go about their daily schedules or even on low-key schedules such as the relaxed environment of a live radio show. So when an idol’s REAL private life is revealed, fans feel betrayed because they feel like the intimate parts of an idol’s life they knew weren’t real, and they feel upset about this.
Good marketing makes someone feel like they’re participating in some kind of exchange relationship, and K-Pop fandom is built on a deliberately unfair one. More than a simple exchange of money for goods, K-Pop fans end up exchanging their honest love and affection for idols – as well as their time and money – in order to receive some pretty words back from them. You could say that nobody is to blame in this, but the truth is that entertainment labels actively encourage this in order to make money. As a business practice, it makes a lot of sense – but it’s not exactly morally clear. Record companies exploit this behaviour, and fans convince themselves that it’s perfectly healthy to act in this way.
But of course, you cannot base an emotional connection on something you don’t really receive. Sure, an idol might tell the fans they love them and mean it, but they don’t individually mean you, as a fan. Modern consumption is such that people can afford to ‘buy’ a lifestyle, and get emotional fulfilment for a short period of time from buying conspicuously. Consumption in K-pop often translates to fans.
But of course this isn’t real, no matter how much a fan wants it to be. What instead is bought is the experience of being
part of an idol’s life for five minutes, until the next time it can happen. So a fan ends up with an exchange relationship that doesn’t satisfy them, and the emotional attachment to an idol grows in response, so fans can feel as though they are satisfied by this exchange through minimal contact.
You cannot buy your idol’s love, no matter how much you may want to. You cannot stop them from actually falling in love, or stop them from having a truly private life. Idols give up a lot for their jobs, sure – but this is still a job to them. They encourage fans’ behaviour as much as anyone else, and while they might be under contract they are still autonomous human beings who make choices about how they act. It’s no wonder fans react to idols so emotionally, when idols react to fans so emotionally. Idols play the game, even if they didn’t make the rules.
Idols are not pure, magical beings – and fans are not demons who want to hurt their idols, for the most part. But K-Pop marketing is a big machine, and it’s easy for everybody to play their part and pretend that this behaviour – from idols and fans – is normal.