Friday, September 13, 2019

SuperM vs BTS: A Study in Contrasts

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth! I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!

-- Nietzche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

To what end, the Superman? To what end, the SuperM?

I was linked to an interesting article by Kate Halliwell in The Ringer titled, “SuperM and the Futility of Trying to Win Over K-Pop Stans”. While I didn’t necessarily agree with her reading of the situation--something I’ll get to in a bit--what I did like about the piece was that Halliwell had a sharp eye on the ridiculous behavior of K-pop and BTS Stans:

Two recent attempts to feed U.S. demand were met with immediate backlash—as is the case any time various K-pop fandoms are pitted against each other. Try to create a K-pop category for the MTV Video Music Awards? How dare you! Combine some of the most popular K-pop idols into a megatalented supergroup that will tour the U.S.? The nerve! It makes you wonder: Can anyone please all K-pop fans, or should everyone just stop trying? After all, hell hath no fury like a K-pop fan with a hashtag.

You can almost hear the clunky gears of the Anglo-sphere Entertainment Brain Trust sputtering into motion in Los Angeles, New York, and London. Frantically asking themselves, what the hell do these god damn K-pop Stans want from us? But what they don't understand is that K-Pop Stans are not a perfect circle Venn Diagram with BTS Stans.

If you’ve listened to my Idol History series episode 4 then you’ll have heard a longer version of this story but the quick version is that Korea emerged from under grim military dictatorship into a shiny new capitalist world with somewhat mixed results (to put it mildly). Following the horrific economic crash in 1997, the Korean government settled on an ingenious strategy, they would goose both their image and their exports through soft power. A small investment in the film, drama, and music industries with a potentially large payoff for the tiny, broke (oh so broke) nation.

And who was right there to take advantage of this golden opportunity?

One Mr. Lee Soo Man and his SM Entertainment.

Lee Soo Man is many things as a businessman but one thing that cannot be denied is that he has a genius for what we can call Cultural Technology. Lee Soo Man has a background in engineering and he applied that same mechanical vision to music and pop art with remarkable skill. Taking the sounds and visuals he saw on American MTV while studying abroad, deconstructing them and then reconstructing them in a Korean context.

He then did the same with the incomprehensibly huge boy group SMAP from Japan--giving us H.O.T. and spurring a flood of imitators. He was poised and ready to begin the project of market domination through culture. Through music and dance, specifically. Choosing and tailoring his groups to suit the markets for which they were intended. Gathering native speaking members to attack the Chinese market. Sending groups to Japan to acclimate to the culture and language for the notoriously insular market there. And it worked. Lee Soo Man is right up there with Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. in the canon of Machiavellian music entrepreneurs.

At least in Asia.

But what about America?

Earlier this week I tweeted that, “K-pop has been able to gain a foothold in America/the West because we've gradually bled all glamor and aesthetic beauty from our own arts culture. Left with a crumbling husk of virtue signaling and personal redemption narrative, many just tuned out or turned elsewhere.” And it’s true but it’s only half the story.

The problem with the American market is that there is no American market. I’ve written about this before but there is no more mass culture in America. Certainly not like there is in countries like Japan. There is no one thing we all watch or all listen to. Enjoyment of art has become a marker of class, a signifier. What you like, what you listen to, has become who you identify as. Are a person who “gets” references to Broadway musical Hamilton? Are you a Game of Thrones fan, Star Wars fan, or Harry Potter fan? Prefer the D.C. or Marvel universe? Team Swift or Team Perry? Or do you like K-pop?

And be careful what you chose because it signals your moral standing. Your values.

Here’s what nobody could have predicted back in the dark days of the 1997 economic collapse: Export K-pop had initially come over to America as sort of an East Asian parallel to the Bollywood Industrial Complex. It was a safe, fun, light alternative to mainstream white culture that recent immigrants from Korea could enjoy as a taste of home and that their children (and children of other East Asian immigrants) could adopt as something that was theirs, that showed the faces of people like them. (Although in both cases there have always a handful of white folk like me who also enjoyed the content, but we were very much in the minority until recently.)

What happened is what I alluded to in that tweet. As the grim march of personal narrative and virtue signaling and adherence to canon and the all might property took over American mass culture (what was left of it anyway), K-pop revealed itself as a shiny, fun new toy. It was full of beautiful people, catchy songs and dances, unashamedly interested in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure above all else. Unlike so much of the product offered by the American mainstream entertainment industry, K-pop was just… enjoyable.

But this being America that wasn’t enough, we had to make it our identity too. You couldn’t just enjoy the nonsense lyrics and peppy tune of songs like Bingle Bangle like those old first generation immigrants had done or nor was it part of a shared (and secret) pop culture code among other Asian-Americans. Enter the K-pop Stan. And their mission: to protect their subculture through use of annoying fancams, online voting, and attacking anybody remotely critical of the genre.

(Obviously not everybody takes it this seriously--before I get indignant comments, I mean, I count myself as somebody who enjoys Bingle Bangle export K-pop too--but enough act like K-Pop Stans that it’s a thing big enough to be noticed by pop culture writers like Halliwell in her piece.)

And this reputation has only gotten worse since BTS has come to America because BTS is K-pop in that they are part of the export Korean music industry but BTS is not K-pop in that they are no longer considered part of the K-pop identity held on to by K-pop Stans. BTS has become a boy band in the West and their fans exist in a circle of hell far below your stereotypical K-Pop Stan on hand to troll you with fancams of Rose.

If you listen to my Episode 10 on the Rise of Bangtan then you’ll also know where I’m going with this--when One Direction imploded it left a huge opening in the market for entertainment for the horny teen girls and their horny moms demographic. And for whatever reason, many ex-directioners straggled over to the BTS fandom. Directioners took the template of boy band fandom that they had developed and shoved BTS right into it. Voting? No problem. Directioners knew all about that. They were experienced in getting their boys wins in all sorts of fan driven awards. In it just for Larry Stylinson conspiracy theories? No problem. Take your pick--TaeKook or JiKook. Fanfiction? There are currently twice as many BTS fanfics on AO3 as there are 1D fics. And new fans had the added bonus of getting to layer all sorts of trendy social justice lingo to justify their new boy band obsession. BTS are Asian so obviously that’s points over fans of white groups. BTS talk about “mental health” and… stuff. It’s about loving yourself (myself).

With lyrics in Korean and a cultural gap as wide as the Pacific Ocean, new BTS fans from outside the old export K-pop circles saw whatever it is they wanted to see in the group. And what they wanted to see was their own identity as special, woke, very special people reflected right back at them.

Bangtan didn’t understand this at first, if they even really grasp it now. But Big Hit Chief Bang saw his chance and grabbed it. What happened was not Lee Soo Man with his Cultural Technology but more like something on one of the lesser episodes of Star Trek. Big Hit picked up on the surge of interest from these boy band fans and, by god, they would give them a boy band in exchange for 1) sweet, sweet cash and 2) accolades at home for cracking the American market.

Notice what I haven’t mentioned: art and music.

That’s not a mistake. These boy band fans don’t care. It’s not about that. It’s about the fandom. The personal connection. The ships. The fic. It’s about ARMY.

And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But it does mean that both the group and their fans are seen as Not Serious by everybody else. Hypothetically speaking, obviously, but you can’t gloat that your group is changing the world and then spam human rights organizations with fancams when they try to bring attention to a concert that your group is performing at the special request of one of the worst human rights abusers on the planet.

If you move like boy band fans, behave badly like boy band fans, shriek on the street outside hotels like boy band fans, create elaborate Charlie from It’s Always Sunny charts with ACTUAL REAL PROOF of your ship like boy band fans… then you are going to be seen as boy band fans no matter how much you insist otherwise.

And rather than attempt to change the fan culture in any way what Big Hit did was double down on the boy band thing. Instead of taking the more adult direction the group was moving in with songs like Blood Sweat and Tears (October 2016) and Spring Day (February 2017) they began a long downward march towards Boy With Luv feat. Halsey (April 2019), their biggest hit in the American market is a boy band song. The bland western songwriters, the cotton candy visuals, the inoffensive lyrics, the simple dance moves, the token “girl” that we can all self-insert ourselves as…

Bang took his group and insisted they fit into that boy band audience’s demands. But guess what? Their demands are exactly what I said in my tweet that the American culture in general is full of--lack of aesthetic beauty, virtue signaling, personal redemption stories. And the thing about personal redemption stories is that they rely on the person and a large dose of sincerity. No surprise then that Bang’s second attempt at a boy group--the cute young kids of TXT who have no virtue signals or redemption arcs but do have a months long case of pink eye--have completely fallen off the radar. The otome game based on BTS? A flop. Although from the way Bang spoke at his State of the Union address on the State of Big Hit, he is convinced that these boy band fans will follow him to the Extended Bangtan Universe--just like the extended Marvel Universe!!--where he is planning on recasting the members with younger actors and re-telling the angsty youth storyline from The Most Beautiful Moment In Life. (An unintentionally ironic title since the “fleeting” moment of youth appears to be dragging on well into the members’ mid to late 20s.)

Enter the SuperM.

Lee Soo Man is not here to play around with “boy bands” or faff about with Halsey and an ongoing series of terrible suit fits. Lee Soo Man introduced SuperM right off the bat as the Avengers of K-Pop. It’s a masculine image. Powerful. The focus is on everything that Big Hit threw in the garbage in an attempt to chase the former Directioners: TALENT, ART, BEAUTY.

The trailers for SuperM don’t show talking head footage of what their fans mean to them or “relatable” dorky moments. These men are idols. They have glamour. It’s exactly what the American culture industry has forgotten how to provide.

Watch the most recent trailer for SuperM member Lucas:

He’s mysterious. Beautiful. Adult. Not of this world.

And here’s Ten. Artistic. Talented. Also Beautiful. And adult.

It’s not like the members of Bangtan can’t provide content on this level. Compare those to the comeback trailer for “Boy Meets Evil” (September 2016):

Imagine this with SM Entertainment money behind it.

It’s not a matter of talent or ability from the idols. It’s about whether the company and the company’s management are leaders or followers.

SM Entertainment is leading fans into a deliberately crafted and self-contained Marvel Universe type situation built specifically for the type of K-pop Stans that exist in America. The kind who like to bicker over who is better and enjoy slick visuals, catchy songs, and the type of glamor American entertainment no longer provides.

Big Hit followed fans off the deep end with no plan in place other than to grab as much cash as possible in the moment. Turning Bangtan into whatever he thought we wanted them to be and in the process crushing their health, their souls, their group bond.

SuperM has positioned itself in such a way that it’s accessible to both the long time K-Pop Stans who know SHINee, EXO, NCT, etc. but is also open to discovery from curious non-Stans. No hug boxes or virtue signaling. No complicated backstory. There is only the cool gloss of professional glamour and talent. There are English subtitles on marketing materials. And, most importantly, there is no stink of ex-Directioner keeping potential fans away.

I don’t know whether SuperM will gain inroads into the American mainstream but it’s a smart gamble and one that I have a feeling with pay off. The problem with boy band fans is that they tend to lose interest after a brief romance. Chasing them is like chasing a puff of smoke. K-Pop Stans are a potentially growing market. Why not try to win over as big of a piece of the pie as possible...


DontTouchMyCorn said...

no hug boxes or virtue signaling lol. but that seems to be the main thing most western fans seem to like about bts. no kidding as a relatively long time sm "fan" one of the things i always "liked" about them is the straightforwardness. my annoyance for yg and their "better, more real than idols" narrative is one of the things that kept me away from bts till boy with luv was all the time on the radios here in argentina these months and the concept lowered my guard enough to check them out (and got literally mindblown, my corneas were shocked cause they're just too cool). sm have artistic crises but they always seem to catch up, and being so straightforward in the fact that they're awful to their artists could be what makes them outlive their idols. dbsk being a extreme case of huge idols whose fall would've meant the fall of any other company. but exo is other good example of sm being almost immune, many people and even exo fans didn't really care about the three members leaving (some were even like "well that's what they signed up for") even when they were the most popular boyband at the time, then lay now promoting separatedly from exo, then d.o having rumours of wanting to leave sm (right when his acting career was /seriously/ taking off) and then enlisting before time not without disappearing from public eye for months. like i personally don't see it being very discussed which is very kpop. like the pink eye thing. bh reminds me so much of sm and yg but maybe they're more subtle about some things. i have no idea what will happen with super m. specially bc they're intended for the western market and the western market is different about idols. like this may sound random but i personally believe no team that has baekhyun in it could really flop, not bc of his popularity or pop iconess bc that's taemin, but bc of how he subtly carries group dynamics with his personality and how he subtly steadies performances. plus the other members, taeyong, kai, lucas, mark, ten, i know it will be a good team. but who knows sm sometimes makes very good teasers but then the release is not that good.

Filmi Girl said...

You touched on a lot of good stuff!! I agree about the way Bang seems to be following the YG model to an extent (the "family") and the danger with that is that when it backfires (because it will backfire) it backfires spectacularly. I am really very worried about that for BTS to be honest. The same way it was so painful what happened to Big Bang.

With SuperM I agree that definitely we need to wait and see if the music lives up to the hype but I also agree that no team with Baekhyun (or Taemin!!!!) is going to flop. These are all very talented men who can make a wet noodle look and sound like a hit song.

Somehow I think the SM straightforward approach will work better long term for mainstream success in America because America is missing that glamor right now and while BTS is currently very trendy I think Army seriously underestimates how off putting that hug box rhetoric and the boy band fan antics can be to normal music and pop culture fans. Plus, the problem with boy bands is their fan base tends to lose interest very quickly. With a concept like SuperM, Lee Soo Man could bring over a fresh team every year to dazzle us. Only choosing the best and brightest. And Americans do love a winner.

I suspect LSM is trying to draw in some of the more casual fans, like those 1st gen aunties, who aren't going to wade into a pit to fight for barricade but they like watching variety shows and dramas and know a few of the names of the members already.

Anyways, thank you again for such a thoughtful comment!! I always hope to hear different points of view. It's interesting.

Unknown said...

So yeah, I don't think you actually know that much about BTS, or pay attention to them, or know them. I suspect this won't get posted, but I've seen you in the film and music scene for years and respected a lot of your work, but this is next left WTH?!ery.

You're moving, in short, like an SM fan trying to will the company's former legitimacy back into being.

Turning Bangtan into whatever he thought we wanted them to be and in the process crushing their health, their souls, their group bond. Where is this COMING FROM? Are the happy, extremely rich, well-rested, top-of-the-world dudes that seem closer like not what you see? Where are you pulling these crazy claims from? Do you have insider news on the truth that we don't see? Like, *receipts*? Because your claims have no grounding in reality.

Your post truly is a fascinating study in ignoring observable facts to try to paint a new one - you make all these claims that are patently untrue. And Horny moms and their horny daughters? That's astoundingly insulting and old-fashioned and just like the many confused pundits trying to make sense of the Bangtan phenomenon. Also, if you're a woman, why do you feel a need to dismiss your own gender so?

I don't know where to begin. This is baffling.

The BU has been kicking for almost five years, and fans *love it*. we have followed him down the hole already, bought the book, read the webcomic, discussed it to death. It's here, it's established, it's successful. Have you really dove into it? You're acting like it just started and isn't a huge, running, beloved thing.

TxT's numbers keep going up, and they've already won three rookie awards. It's been 7 months since their CB; if you don't think that their next comeback won't make an impact, you're not really paying attention. Bangtan took 6 years to take over the world, you don't think BH isn't willing to take their sweet time with TxT? They're in it for the long game.

And speaking of the long game, SuperM isn't even pretending to make a stab at it. Exo is coming back right after, and NCT is still going/it will need its top talent back. This is a cynical, speedy money grab, nothing more.

Also, not about the music is such a funny, alternate reality claim to make. BTS is literally kicking everyone's butt - 10x the sales of Twice, the closest competitor. Let that sink in, Ten times - because their music is far and away better, more diverse, more interesting, more resonant, and has more depth than anyone else in the kpop industry. You can speak to your own taste, but that doesn't change the fact that people buy the albums, including 1.3 million pre-2019 albums this year alone, because they love the music so much. Your downward march to Boy with Luv isn't how most fans see it, or the GP; you've missed the point of the song completely. What girl? They aren't really talking to one, it's about how small moments are what makes the whole of strong relationship and subsequently a whole, healthy person. (cont)

Unknown said...

BigHit has more money than SM, and spends more. Also, you're acting like SM isn't considered by all observers. 1. Old-fashioned, and 2. Struggling for many reasons.  Where are you getting this hilarious SM money and savvy narrative? Have you talked to EXO and NCT and RedVelvet fans lately? SM just got caught funneling investor money to a secret side company and these people are enraged and he needs money and prestige, fast. It has not had a great year. This is desperation, not artistry or strategy.

Sure, there are some One Directioners in the BTS fandom. There are just as many if not more people who have never stanned a boy group in their life, but I think you're making the mistake most kpoppers do, as SM has done, as YG has done: You're forgetting the power and draw of their music.

What kpop has been trying and *failing* to sell to the world is what you list: 'Talent', 'Art' 'Beauty' 'Glamour' 'Idol!! (whatever that means)' You do understand that isn't what the global music market wants, yes, and why they see kpop as plastic and artificial. We don't want shiny machines, we want authenticity. You dismiss it, which is really funny, because that's what kpop has been trying to do for years and then wandering around, confused, at why they can't make BTS numbers. And it keeps failing them, somehow. Wonder why?

Kpop is not doing that well *in Korea* at the moment, so that should give you a hint about what the average opinion on the music is. SM has a sound, and it has not sold globally, and it is not selling, and SuperM would have to do something incredibly different to change that.

The ARMY is powerful, and it is winning the media game. You can claim that the BTS stan is in a new 'circle of hell' below kpop fans, but honestly, who are you quoting, trolls, football stans, and kpoppers on Twitter? According to articles, major outlets, and many many famous people, they are 'dedicated', 'organized', 'philanthropic', 'passionate', 'get things done', and 'the nicest fandom ever'. UberTroll666 and his bros can complain about them all they want - it doesn't change the fact that ARMY is respected, catered to, and pursued by advertisers, companies, writers, and influencers alike.

Why? We put our money and our time where our mouths are, and we're engaged at multiple points. You can claim that's a flash in the pan, but let's talk in five, ten years at what fandom's still kicking. I suspect your odd, un-substantiated claims (wishes?) will go the same way of the claims that BTS wouldn't last past their rookie stage, or that their upward trajectory would come crashing down: a delightful chuckle for BTS fans to scribble 'karma' on.

Ten. Times. The sales. Of the next biggest group in Korea, Filmigirl, soloists as well. NCT has been trying desperately to break into the US and has failed, and SuperM is miscalculated in every way. Until you can show with proof - in real numbers and graphs and even articles - that even one of your outlandish claims is true and BTS is a 7 year constantly rising flash in the pan (that coincidentally continues to glow up both in Korea and abroad - their home country is throwing festivals on their birthdays and running endless programs on them, and their streaming followers continues it's climb. Oh, yes, have I mentioned sales?) then we can talk and have an actual discussion based on facts.

As it is, this article reads like an SM sponsored, written-in-2015 AU. Claiming it won't make any of it so.

Filmi Girl said...

Anon, you may not believe this is sincere but really I do appreciate you leaving the epic 2-parter comment on this post to express your dissatisfaction with my reading of the recent past. It's certainly a far more productive starting place for discussion than the comments I received calling me big words that I'm not sure the young women sending them knew the actual meanings of.

You say you've seen me around for years and enjoyed some of my writing. Really, thank you. That's nice to hear. Then you must know that I think very little of American entertainment business in general and even less of their ability to handle foreign content. Since BTS first caught my interest outside of just making catchy songs (I enjoyed Wings quite a bit just as music) I have been concerned at the effect that the American market would have on them. The American market likes a bit of exotic gloss but at heart it really is only surface deep. That's why we remake everything. Idol groups are complex things with a lot of moving pieces many of which are culturally specific. When Bangtan crossed into this market their idol group context did not come with them. They have been ingested as a boy band and boy bands, for better or worse, are aimed at the horny teens and horny mom demographic which is a very real thing and notorious for their shameful behavior.

Remember the Twilight Moms, for example and how about Niall and Harry talking about the horny moms flirting with them in concert?

I've seen enough evidence lurking around Reddit and other places that a significant number of ex-1D fans have joined Army and they've brought all their bad habits with them. I'm not dismissing my sex (or my age since I'm an auntie like those moms) but rather calling them out for bad behavior. If I can't criticize them then who can? Nobody? Are we supposed to let bad behavior from women slide because "feminism"? If you think Bangtan aren't talking like this behind the scenes I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you:

I've been trying to ring the alarm bells for some time that this bubble is unsustainable. What is it about sales that proves something to you? Would you not have been a fan if they did not sell so much? Is their success yours? Do you not care about the downward trajectory of their art? The crappy quality of tour merchandise that falls apart in one wash? The lack of time they were given to really prepare for a Dome tour? The way certain members have been not-so-subtly pushed off the albums being told they no longer "fit the sound"? The way they continually beg us to put down our phones at concerts? Namjoon admitting he didn't even read the book Persona was supposed to be based on? The poor physical quality of the CD packages themselves? The use of clout chasing mediocre Western songwriters to produce bland songs for the western palate? The way members solo work (such as it is) is not really promoted? The lack of official English subtitles? None of that concerns you? Does "sales" mean so much when most of the new fans can't even understand what they're saying?

This post did not come out of nowhere, I've been saying this stuff for some time:

The disaster of the IHeartRadio interview was no mistake that is Bangtan's audience here. Deaf to the men onstage, phones held high. And if anything, the outpouring of hatred and venom I received for a post asking for more on behalf of both BTS AND ARMY proves everything I said and more so.

Filmi Girl said...

I'm closing comments for the time being because the pile on I received for this post was more than I could handle. This is a small blog that I write for fun. My blog generally gets about 100ish views per post. For example, my post about how much I liked Taehyung's Winter Bear, as of today, has 99 views :

This one, which has apparently struck a nerve with some army, is already well on its way to 1500.

Look, I stay in my lane. I didn't @ anybody to find this or call anybody out by name or even promote it outside posting it to my small following on Twitter. I have no connections in the industry, make no money from this, have zero interest in pursuing Kpop journalism as a career, nor do I get any other benefit other than having a place to post my thoughts. I am quite literally no threat to anybody, especially not to a major idol group.

But thanks to some butthurt armys my words have traveled well and far... I do hope some have read them and sat back and thought a little. Asian idol fans see themselves as the "face" of their idols. That's why they do the charity projects and so on. Asian idol fans are also not afraid to speak up when they think their favorites are being harmed. 120,000 Cassies filed a petition with the Seoul High Court at the height of their fame affirming that TVXQ were being mistreated. Were they all antis?

Namjoon said "Speak Yourself' but I can see for myself how army seems to have ignored the message in those words.

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