Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A few thoughts on idols, SHINee's Kim Jong-Hyun, A.B.C-Z, and BTS


It’s been just over two weeks since SHINee’s Kim Jong-Hyun (Jonghyun) passed away. He was only 27 years old. According to news reports, he appears to have committed suicide by carbon dioxide poisoning. Police found burned charcoal briquettes in his room. SHINee may not be worldwide household names but news sites know Korean pop generates clicks and Jonghyun’s death was grist for every #content mill for a few days as all the usual suspects--BBC, CNN, New York Times, Yahoo! News, etc.--had explainers on Korean pop or pieces on Korea’s high suicide rate and crazy fans and then the news cycle moved on.

But I didn’t move on.


Jonghyun’s death hit me far harder than I expected. And I saw my sadness and unease echoed in the words and messages of my idol-loving friends around the world.

While never in the SHINee fandom (or a Shawol) I really enjoy their music and have eagerly awaited each new release since I stumbled upon the video for “Lucifer” seven or so years ago. Their speciality is bright, vivid R&B-tinged pop music. Each professionally crafted track overlaid with the warm, distinctive blend of their voices. I hadn’t liked their most recent album 1 of 1 as much as I’d enjoyed the one that came before it, Odd, but I’d still enjoyed it and bopped out to it whenever it popped up on my iPod.


(The retro theme is on purpose, not indicative of Korean pop’s current sound.)

But I was never a Shawol. I knew the individual members’ faces and names but I didn’t know their personalities. I didn’t watch the concerts. I didn’t watch them on variety shows. I liked their music but hadn’t felt compelled to become a fan. Which is why I was unprepared for how hard Jonghyun’s death hit me.

Despite what was written across the Western media #content farms, SHINee are more than just a “boy band” with “a string of number one hits”. SHINee are idols and that implies so much more than “boy band” can possibly convey.

To the Western eye, a “boy band” is a group of young men making music for horny girls and desperate married women to get off to while some old geezer on a yacht rakes in the cash. It’s an exploitative relationship for the “boys” and--after years of watching male Asian idol groups who prioritize the female gaze--it’s pretty clear that Western boy bands, like almost everything else in Western pop culture, tend to prioritize the male gaze and male point of view. On top of everything else the tension of existing as a product for female consumption in a culture where male superiority and the appearance of authenticity is prized eventually poisons every modern era boy band and it ends up being an ultimately unsatisfying relationship for both the fans and the boys.

Idol groups are different. Sure, there are the horny teen girl fans with cash to spend but they aren’t the only audience. My idol-loving friends are a diverse group of women across the globe in all sorts of life circumstances. I know more than a handful of idol fans with doctorates and other advanced degrees. I know fans with prestigious careers and fans who are just getting by the best they can. I know happily single women, women with long term partners of the same sex, and married women with kids. Some of us have taught ourselves second and third languages in order to learn more about our favorite groups or gone on adventures to meet up with other fans from far flung places. While in Japan I’ve met up with A.B.C-Z fans from places like France and Mexico, amazing, kind, and intelligent women I’d never have otherwise met, all brought together by our love of idol groups.

So, if we aren’t horny teen girls what do idol groups offer us? Why did it bother me so much to see SHINee dismissed as a boy band with “a string of number 1 hits”? This is something I’ve thought about it over and over for the last couple of weeks. Idol groups put out physical products for us to consume but that stuff is almost incidental. Things like album sales and number one hits aren’t an appropriate measurement for the love of a fanbase for their group.

Yes, I said love. Because we do love these groups.

Life in our post-modern, post-capitalist society is isolating and spiritually empty. There’s very little beauty or pleasure in our culture and even fewer things aimed at a purely female gaze. Where can women go to escape the pressures of having to exist as a woman in a society set up to meet the needs of men? Ironically, perhaps, that is exactly what male idol groups provide. For the majority of idol fans, the pleasure we take from these groups isn’t the fantasy of marrying one of them (or all of them) but in watching their interactions in the fantasy bubble world that exists free of the male-female power dynamics.

When I’m feeling stressed out, I’ll click over to, for example, A.B.C-Z performing “Summer 上々” and forget my troubles for a few minutes. Seeing their smiling faces and the ridiculous choreography immediately brings up other good memories of concerts and friends and hours and hours spent happily watching A.B.C-Z entertain on stage and television. Following the same idol group for years, we fans develop deep emotional relationships that extend far beyond just aesthetic appreciation of good dance moves or pretty faces. We support our idols through their thick and thin, celebrating successes but also worrying when members appear unwell or upset. We’ll watch their terrible acting and support ill-advised art projects with the unconditional love of a family member. Idol fans have a lot of love to give and we will do things like continue to support our favorite’s former co-stars for years after a project ends or, like me, spend months learning about contemporary Japanese theater by translating essays by Totsuka Shota (of A.B.C-Z) into English. (Would I have known about the great playwright Tsuka Kouhei without Totsuka? No.)

And maybe that’s where the unease creeps in. These idols give us so much and we, as fans, try to give back in our own way but perhaps there’s a tipping point where fan love turns from supportive to demanding and if a group and their management isn’t careful of the members’ mental health, the pressures of that love can begin to eat them up from inside. Are we killing our beloved idols with every click on a video or comment on twitter? I don’t want to think that but we need to be careful, especially with the Korean groups.

Japanese idol fandom, especially for Johnny’s & Associates groups (of which my beloved A.B.C-Z is one), is well regulated and fan interactions are tightly controlled. Fan behavior is policed very carefully by other fans and the agency itself and although there are crazy fans they are very much outliers. Stories are traded in whispers and rumors of things like negative or gross messages on uchiwa at concerts or the stalking of the backing dancing "Junior" idol trainees after a concert but groups don’t have twitter or instagram or anything like that which makes it easier for the idols to avoid the gaping, howling maw of anonymous online netizens.

Korean idol fandom is not so tightly regulated or self-policed. I can’t speak as well to the specifics but the horror stories I’ve heard about things that have happened to Korean idols far outweighs anything I’ve heard out of Japanese fandom. The impression I get is of an industry that trained up a generation or two of idols in singing, dancing, rapping, and variety show skills for export but these Korean talent agencies have not properly prepared their idols for the mental strain of handling the demands and love of the fans nor did they have any sort of plan in place to control fan behavior so fans essentially just run wild, doing things like breaking into trainee dorms.

Maybe that’s unfair of me but it’s impression I’ve gotten over 10+ years on the Asian idol fandom scene.

I’ve tried before to put the feeling of pure love and happiness that A.B.C-Z gives me into words. Standing in the concert hall in Nagoya this summer, surrounded by hundreds of my fellow fangirls, our penlights blinking brightly in time to the music, getting a smile and high-five from my favorite group member, the high was like nothing I’ve experienced before. It was an ecstatic experience, as close to a transcendental as you can get in our po-mo age, and that is powerful magic to wield without being mentally prepared.

How ethical is this relationship that gives us fans so much pleasure? What responsibilities do we have as fans? Both to the group we love and to other fans? Is it enough for those of us who are older (cough) to set a good example or should we international fans be more active in policing our younger horny teen sisters? What more has to happen for both idol management and fans to get the message that our idols are human beings? That this relationship we have is fragile and both sides need to respect the boundaries?

Since Jonghyun’s passing, I found myself turning to solace in an unexpected group--BTS. This Christmas season was extremely stressful for a number of reasons I don’t need to get into here but being able to come home and escape into BTS’s delightfully silly and earnest antics in their variety shows was one of the few things that could make me smile and forget my troubles. And learning their personalities gave their albums--which, like SHINee, I’d enjoyed over the last few years as a casual listener but without diving further--a new gloss. BTS are an extremely talented and very earnest group. And while I find that earnestness is appealing, the more I learned about the fandom, the more I started worrying about how well they were protected from the mental strain of everything. 

Honestly, I'd rather see BTS make the pivot to the Japanese market with its (relatively) saner fan culture and let the crazier international fans move on to something else. I have plenty to say on the entitlement of international/Western/American fans over cultural material from Asia but I’ll leave this here for now. 

The search for answers for all of us idol fans is still ongoing and I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic.

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