Sunday, December 8, 2019

Kpop Kayfabe... (why it's worth knowing something about professional wrestling)

There’s a term in professional wrestling used to refer to the “fake” reality that exists within the ring: kayfabe. Audiences know (well, audiences over 10 years old know) that the outcomes of matches are decided in advance, that heels aren’t necessarily nasty guys and faces good ones, but kayfabe says that we all play along and cheer for the face to win a match as if the outcome was not predetermined.

Ew, why do you like a fake sport? But that’s just it. Professional wrestling isn’t fake; it’s just not a “sport”-- it’s entertainment.

The wrestlers go into those rings and perform dangerous and very physically demanding choreography. Those moves aren’t “fake”; they take an incredible amount of skill to perform safely.

Wrestlers also play out storylines that can be months long, slowly building a feud or rivalry as fans follow along match by match. Or they can make sudden heel turns, sending crowds into a frenzy of boos and shocked outrage as the man they thought was a Good Guy turns out to be a jerk. I’ve been in wrestling audiences on many occasions, both professional and amateur, and there’s nothing fake about the way a good team can craft a drama in the ring, leading the crowd along in a cathartic release of emotion. We aren’t all pretending to boo… we’re booing.

Of course back in the old days, before social media, kayfabe was less of an open secret and there were fans would get furious if you even hinted that professional wrestling wasn’t a “real” sport. As a child I had a treasured T-shirt with the slogan “Who says professional wrestling is fake” over top of an angry wrestler’s face. But audiences became more sophisticated and wrestling has absolutely boomed in this new era.

Why am I bringing this up? Because Kpop has its own kind of kayfabe and I’ve seen a lot of evidence over the past couple of weeks that there are fans acting like the infamous old lady who is so mad at “Hollywood” Hogan’s heel turn that she tries to beat him up.

Hilarious, right? She got carried away with the kayfabe.

Well, so are the people insisting that Kpop awards are 100% absolutely awarded on pure merit when their fave wins one and absolutely 100% fake news attendance awards when they don’t.

I said this on twitter but these awards shows are as “real” as professional wrestling… maybe even less so. There are narratives dictated by behind-the-scenes politics and personalities. Export Kpop is a huge business for Korea and the men with the power and money are the ones drawing up the business plans. Where did the manipulated votes come from in 2017 MAMA? How did a certain group that didn’t make a particular impact on anybody win Best Debut Act over others who very much did? Is it a coincidence that groups who don’t attend happen to not win any awards even if their songs were extremely popular over the year?

There are two explanations: 1) awards are decided according to behind-the-scenes politics and aren’t necessarily a reflection of merit or 2) TXT is more talented, objectively a better group, and more popular than ATEEZ, ONEUS, or WAYV.

But I’ll say it again… just like wrestlers are extremely skilled in what they do, so are all of these idols who get up on stage and perform for us. Does the fact that awards shows follow a script mean that it’s not a lot of fun to see underdogs rewarded or see your favorite group make a victory lap? No, it doesn’t. If we didn’t have awards we would not have seen Jackson’s hilarious reaction at JYP’s plastic pants.

The drag is when the fans don’t understand that it’s all a show and try to, as above, flail around trying to prove, objectively, what cannot be proven and getting angry when reality outside the Kpop kayfabe is brought up.

It’s not like the artists themselves don’t know the reality…. G-Dragon spells it out quite clearly in his kayfabe-breaking rap from 2014.

We can either accept awards for the pomp and nonsense they are or become like the old lady getting carried away trying to beat up Hollywood Hogan. It's fun to boo and cheer but when you let it get too real, let that anger or gloating get too real, that's where the problems come in.

There’s a reason that Johnny’s & Associates never participated in awards shows in Japan for years and years…. the gated Johnny’s world had no place in the broader entertainment business. How can Hey!Say!JUMP compete against a “normal” band like One OK Rock when they are creating two completely different types of art? One is an idol group who makes music, yes, but also personalities and ships, who have fans invested in the idols' career narratives, cheering on drama and stage appearances, and so on. The other is a rock group making music. Is there some overlap? Of course. Arashi has songs that almost any Japanese person could sing for you from start to finish (“百年先も、愛を誓うよー”) but the appeal of these songs exists in the heart and it seems almost profane to evaluate them on the same criteria as you would an artist like Shiina Ringo.

Export Kpop is also a walled entertainment sphere. Things like voting for music shows, streaming, watching the sales charts… this is part of the kayfabe. It’s real but also not real. Nobody outside the export Kpop subculture cares which group won the award on Music Bank this week because the awards don’t mean anything. Or, rather, what they mean is not something that can be measured in an objective way. Sometimes it means the acknowledgement of years of hard work from the group and of love from the fans--Nu’est and Astro both getting their first wins this year fall into that category--sometimes it’s flexing from a fanbase to sweep every single award. But the award itself is just plastic.

Much like winning the WWE championship doesn’t objectively prove anything except favored status, neither do Kpop awards. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to watch and discuss and cheer and boo… just remember what it is that you’re cheering and booing. And that claiming a group or artist is better or worse for winning or lack thereof makes you look as silly as child me in my wrestling T-shirt. Let's just have fun instead...

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Melon Music Awards 2019, what does it all mean?

Two days ago I had a very strained exchange via Twitter DM with an Army who was convinced that BTS’s streaming numbers and sales for Map of the Soul: Persona meant that 1) Persona was a high quality album and 2) proved that the group was hugely popular in South Korea and this Army was offended that I would dare imply otherwise.

Yesterday the Melon Music Awards were held and BTS swept all the major categories. Doesn’t that prove this Army’s case?

Here is what I want to say, as a long time fan:

Awards, streaming numbers, sales numbers… these things don’t matter in the long run. Hell, they don’t even matter in the short run.

The only time that knowing who won which award in what year matters is if some sadist decides “Kpop Awards Winners” is the theme of your bar trivia night.

Sales and streaming numbers only matter as far as they can push your favorite group or artist onto the radar of the types of people who book drama OSTs and variety show appearances… as well as hooking a few new listeners.

Awards, sales, and streaming numbers are not objective measures of how liked a group or artist is, the quality of that group or artist’s music, the moral character of fans, or, indeed, of anything else. They are a transitory measurement of popularity filtered through whatever industry politics are happening that day.

Let’s take the Melon Music Awards as an example. Let me give you a more rounded picture of what was happening on the Melon Charts during the past year. I trawled the Melon charts that mapped the top 100 songs on Melon by month and tracked the top 20 songs from November 2018 to October 2019.

There were 106 individual songs in the Top 20 in those months from 69 individual artists/groups (excluding 4 foreigners and combining the Show Me the Money rappers and producers who were mostly a jumble of credits I didn’t bother untangling).

Here are the artists with at least 3 tracks in the Top 20 Melon monthly charts over that time period:

1. Paul Kim, 5 songs

2. Heize, 4 songs

3. Ben, 4 songs

4. Beom June Jang, 3 songs

5. BOL4, 3 songs

6. Kassy, 3 songs

7. Twice, 3 songs

8. Punch, 3 songs

Here are the songs that spent 5 or more months in the Top 20:

1. “2002” by Anne Marie, 6 months

2. “Your Regards” by Song Ha Yea, 5 months

3. “If There Was Practice in Love” by Lim Jae Hyun, 5 months

4. “Every Day, Every Moment” by Paul Kim, 5 months

5. “Me After You” by Paul Kim, 5 months

6. “The Day Was Beautiful” by Kassy, 5 months

The highest ranking idol groups (and idol soloists) are all below these ballad singers: ITZY, WINNER, EXO, Sunmi, Taeyeon, and, yes, BTS all had 2 songs in the Top 20. (Although if you include D.O. and Chen's solo songs then that's 4 for EXO... and with Mino's solo that makes 3 for WINNER.)

ITZY, Twice, Jennie, and BTS all had a song that spent 4 months in the Top 20.

(And Jennie’s “SOLO” spent 3 of those 4 months in the top 5!)

Winner’s Mino, Mamamoo’s Hwasa, Taeyeon, and N.Flying all had songs that spent 3 months in the Top 20.

So, where was Paul Kim when the performances were announced? Where were the ballad artists?

Well, maybe they don’t command the type of media coverage and ratings the idol acts do. Fair enough, but then where was Twice? Winner’s Mino? EXO? Blackpink's Jennie to sing what was one of the most popular songs of the year by any measure?

To dig into this (and to understand why BTS essentially had the BTS Awards yesterday) you have to wade into the muck of Korean music industry politics and be prepared to color in shades of gray.

Melon remains the most popular streaming service but there are competitors but there’s also services like Genie etc..

The Big 3 export Kpop companies--SM Entertainment (EXO), YG Entertainment (Winner’s Mino), and JYP Entertainment (Twice)--don’t like Melon as a company very much. In fact, they went as far as to launch their own rival streaming service called FLO… so why would they lend their talent to promote a rival?

The answer is: they didn’t.

And is Melon going to assign awards based on strict objective criteria, deliberately not looking to see who is going to be in attendance and who has a large fanbase that will generate streams and media coverage?

If you truly believe that, well, I just may be in possession of a bridge crossing the Han River that you might be interested in purchasing but the reality is... no. They gave awards to the artists who were going to attend.

Does that mean the acts who attended and won awards at the Melon Music Awards were bad? No, of course not. But attendance and awards don’t represent an objective measure of quality nor of popularity among the Korean general listening public either.

Because let’s really get into it: Export Kpop is not a perfect Venn Diagram circle with the music Koreans listen to in Korea.

Is there some overlap, of course. But your average Korean music consumer is not leaving their computer on all night to stream with the sound off to help their favorites in the chart rankings nor are they voting for their favorite ballad singers to win the top prize at a music show. The idol export market is a different world than the one Ben, Paul Kim, Kassy, and artists like that operate in. Neither is better or worse or more or less authentic but if you really want to “prove” things using the Melon streaming charts or award wins, you have to understand what it is these things are measuring and the varied audiences they pull from.

It is fact that fans of export Kpop living abroad can and do stream competitively to get their favorite groups to rank into the Korean charts. I personally know people who have done this for groups like MonstaX and have seen the screenshots from the Baidu bar for BTS (with well over 100k members) giving explicit instructions on how to stream most effectively to get songs to chart.

Is this cheating? It depends on what you think the game is. Does 1 stream represent 1 person who listens to a song all the way through 1 time because of the objective “goodness” of the song? No, of course not. Charting is a game like anything else. Groups with large but niche audiences can get their favorites to chart alongside the mainstream Paul Kims and BOL4s and congratulate themselves on their flex of mass power. But does it mean anything more than that? No.

And how can I be so confident that BTS is in the former category and not the latter? Because I’ve seen the tweets, the screenshots, the discussions of fans who organize things like mass streaming and voting. That’s how. When you have a fandom as large as BTS’s Army--especially in China--then you will see the evidence reflected in the charts.

I got ratioed to hell when I said this on Twitter but you have to understand that in Korea, BTS are just one more idol group. Their birthday signs and advertisements blend into the many, many others that appear around Korea. Idols are like wallpaper to most of the population unless you are part of the idol subculture. That shouldn’t make your enjoyment of your favorites any less valid to you. I started listening to Winner because Mino’s song “Fiance” dominated the charts last winter. That is what the charts can do: help highlight things you might not have otherwise listened to and document what people were listening to in a moment in time.

When it comes to these types of awards, accept them for what they are--a sign of recognition from the industry and/or of hard work from the fanbase--and simply be happy as a fan when your favorites win one without needing to use it as a hammer against other artists and fandoms because there will come a year when your favorites do not win. Will you like them less then?

When GOT7 won their first Daesung at the Asia Artist Awards after years of ranking in behind bigger groups, it was extremely touching. That is what these award shows are good for. Appreciate the moment for what it is and then let it go.

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