Finding new respect for Eat Your Kimchi’s Simon and Martina
Yesterday, while browsing through YouTube I came across a recent interview from The Silk Road with Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi. In case you are not aware of them, Simon and Martina Stawski are a married couple living in Seoul who do a weekly review of a K-pop music video chosen by viewers alongside videos which focus more on Korean culture (but I am sure you knew this already). They have been insanely successful with nearly 80 million views on their main YouTube channel and have recently bought their own studio with money donated by fans.
The interview was particularly interesting for me because it focussed not on the usual questions: growing interest in Hallyu in the west, the impact of online video etc. etc., but rather on their dynamic as a couple and their intentions in their work. It made me gain a lot of respect for them and as a formerly active member of the YouTube community, I even went to the first VidCon in 2010 while on holiday in LA, I found it particularly engaging.
There are a lot of similarities between the YouTube community and the international K-pop fandom. These kinds of online communities often attract people who may feel like outsiders within their group of peers and are looking for somewhere else to belong. The audiences of both are mostly young and female, many of whom view being a YouTuber or K-pop fan as an important part of their identity and there is a hierarchical nature to relationships with communities building up around one personality or small group of personalities. This also encourages parasocial relationships, a term used in sociology to describe one-sided relationships in which one of the parties knows a great deal about the other who is usually not aware of their existence (there is a great documentary called ‘Starsuckers’ about this if you are interested).
However there are also significant differences, the main one being that K-pop groups images are carefully constructed and managed by entertainment companies whereas most vloggers’ content is home-made and they are completely in charge of their own image and creative ‘product’, so to speak. Vloggers are also much more exposed to the feedback of their viewers and directly see the impact the things they produce have on their audience to a much larger extent.
Because of this it seems that many YouTubers take (or at least took) a genuine interest in doing what they felt was best by their viewers, try to engage in a healthy conversation and provide a good example to a young audience. The best example I can think of for this is the Vlogbrothers, two brothers, John and Hank Green, who have created a substantial online community around them called the ‘nerdfighters’. What makes the nerdfighters different from other fandoms in my experience is that, although the central connection between this group of people is the videos created by the Green brothers, their collective identity focussed instead on another ideology which values each member as an individual worthy of respect both from themselves and others. Nerdfighters are, in their own words, ‘made of awesome’. The K-pop fandom (or fandoms) sadly, does not have anything like this and the collective identity of this fandom centres almost solely around the K-pop idols they are fans of.
The K-pop fandom provides many people (especially teenagers) with somewhere to belong and make new friends which is great, obviously, particularly for those who feel out of place in their day-to-day life. While I don’t want to belittle that at all, I also find, from personal experience, that the K-pop fandom can be a very vicious and competitive place with ‘fanwars’ between fandoms over trivial things and fans competing to prove themselves as the ‘better fan’ to their idol of choice. I also think many K-pop fans encourage each other to think about idols in a way that borders on delusion, believing they actually know ‘their’ idol. I don’t think these kind of behaviours are particularly healthy and at their worst can be self-destructive and cause rifts in friendships and lowered self-esteem.
They are, however, in the interests of K-pop entertainment companies. After all, fans who believe they must blindly do anything to support their idol and will compete with others to do so are fans who spend lots of money. Therefore entertainment companies are unlikely to ever try to discourage behaviour like this even if it is harmful to the fans themselves and will often actively manipulate and encourage it.
This is why I was so impressed by this Eat Your Kimchi interview. They made it very clear that they were constantly aware of their young fanbase and that they feel responsible towards them. After talking at length about their marriage, they mentioned that their principle motive behind their videos is to be an example of a healthy, happy relationship something which is, in reality, often at odds with idealised portrayals of romance presented in K-pop (and pretty much all pop music). It was clear how strongly they felt about this, particularly when asked about their video about Teen Top’s ‘No More Perfume On You’. To see them get so visibly angry about the message this song sends out to it’s audience was refreshing and shows that they genuinely care the messages being sent to young K-pop fans in particular. They also talked about the importance of acknowledging the machinery behind K-pop and distinguishing between the performers themselves and the decisions made for them by their management companies. I think, this kind of healthy cynicism is crucial in not allowing ourselves to be manipulated by entertainment companies and it’s nice to see Simon and Martina incorporate it into their work.
While the videos that they make may not be groundbreaking or amazingly insightful, they are engaging and create exactly the kind of popular entertainment that K-pop fans want to see. Because of this they have managed to create a large audience which they have a lot of influence over and I am very glad to see them using this platform to challenge K-pop fans to think a little harder about the music they enjoy while providing them with light-hearted entertainment.
So Simon and Martina, please keep looking out for the K-pop fandom. Goodness knows, someone has to.
If you are interested you can watch part 1 of the 2-part interview here:
[UPDATE] We did an interview with the couple themselves! You can check it out here.