Transcription of Fantastic Baby Discussion Panel (Cont’d): Audience Q&A
Has there been any public deterioration, like an all-out meltdown à la Amanda Bynes, in Korea?
Allen Huang: Oh yeah, definitely. We just saw that kind of thing very recently with one of the older stars. He’s one of the guys from g.o.d., Son HoYoung. His girlfriend had just committed suicide because she was having mental problems, and he tried to kill himself in the same way. So, you have the stars who’ve been successful and continue to be successful, and of course, you have others who just sort of fade out, and sometimes that decline can be really rough.
Reese Umbaugh: I think that sort of thing happens a lot more than we know. The record companies do a really good job of keeping that stuff under wraps. For example, some idol might be looking really thin or unhealthy, and all of sudden she’ll be out on a knee injury for six months – you won’t see her making appearances, or promoting with their group, etc. Then, just as suddenly, she’ll reappear looking perfectly fine as if nothing ever happened. All the people in these groups are super young and under so much pressure, with back-to-back non-stop schedules… so I’m sure that they lose it pretty often, but for whatever reason, it all happens in a controlled environment where nobody ever finds about it. As Allen said, they’re living together (in these dorms) under the watch of their record companies. It’s kind of scary actually, but yeah…
Allen Huang: It’s like a really strict boarding school.
Jordan Becke: Allen, weren’t you telling me earlier today that the way the pay structure works for some of these groups is that members actually get a salary, so that all income goes directly to the company and they don’t have to pay their artists royalties on anything?
Allen Huang: Yeah, exactly. They get an allowance, basically. Even if their group is doing really well, these kids don’t generally see any additional money until they sue their company and restructure their contracts, which happens all the time.
Ingmar Carlson: What about somebody like Lee HyoRi? At this point she’s at that level where she’s got to be making something…
Allen Huang: Of course, but when she was in Fin’KL, she definitely wasn’t. It didn’t matter how big of a single “To My Boyfriend” was; she was still making her $400 a month, or whatever.
Ingmar Carlson: It’s really not much different from being any kid anywhere at that age: either you’re in school or you’re doing something else. A lot of these kids are still in school while they’re pursuing these crazy careers. So it’s just an insane schedule, doing that while simultaneously being this international pop star. It’s kinda nuts.
Reese Umbaugh: Some of the companies also don’t let any of them have any social media. If a particular artist was having a rough time, they wouldn’t necessarily have any way of broadcasting that to the public.
Allen Huang: It does vary from agency to agency, though. I guess I’d say the Amanda Bynes of K-Pop groups would have to be T-ara, because they’re basically allow to do whatever they want. They have Twitter; they have everything. They go and say weird things on Twitter, people are like, “What the hell is going on”, then a member leaves, and they go and be friends with Chris Brown.
Reese Umbaugh: I don’t think anyone’s really lost it publicly.
Allen Huang: Oh no, I’m not saying that these girls are Amanda Bynes-ing out and eating tacos in their cars; it’s more dysfunctional from the top down. It’s more the agency’s fault than any member’s fault when things really break down with a group. It’s mismanagement, really. Unrealistic demands lead to weird things happening in the group and the agency just isn’t able to handle it from a PR perspective. Another scandal I know about is the one with 9 Muses. Before their first round they kicked out three of their members. One of them was sleeping with a [Production Designer] and got kicked out. Then they just retooled the group and their debut was awful, because three of the members hadn’t really practiced with the rest of the group at all. Stuff like that happens, and it is talked about. There’s actually a really great documentary about 9 Muses by the BBC that’s just amazing. They were given total, unfiltered access, only that they couldn’t intervene or stop anything. You’ll see things like a manager straight-up berating a girl and making her cry. They’d be able to interview that girl afterwards, but they couldn’t intervene. It’s an amazing window into what’s actually going on behind the scenes, and gives you a great idea of what it’s like to be a trainee. You can find it on YouTube pretty easily. I think it’s got a vague title like “Idol”, or something like that. It’d be easiest if you just typed in “9 Muses documentary” on YouTube, and you’ll find it. (Editor’s Note: We could only find the trailer, which is embedded below.)
How exactly are these groups put together? Are they discovered or are they just assembled?
Allen Huang: They’re assembled, but there are auditions that happen. These kids basically go through a boot camp, and the best of them out of any run are assembled into a group. Some of the groups are organically grown, though. Sunny Hill, I think, started as an indie group. At first, it was just the guy who writes all their music and the two original girls, then they added two more girls when they got bigger. Most of the successful groups are assembled though, via audition process and vetting.
Reese Umbaugh: Sometimes they don’t even audition. I think when T-ara was just about ready to debut, they added a member who was fourteen or fifteen. The agency CEO just saw her walking to school and pulled over in his limousine, and wanted to make her a star. So that happens, too. Some of them get scouted.
Ingmar Carlson: Who was it from Girls’ Generation who got scouted like that? Was it Tiffany?
Allen Huang: No, I think Tiffany won a contest or something. Jessica was scouted.
Ingmar Carlson: Oh right, sorry.
Is there a Korean version of the Mickey Mouse Club?
Allen Huang: I mean, I guess it’s a lot of Mickey Mouse Clubs…
Ingmar Carlson: Yeah. I don’t think there’s a specific show that’s really equivalent to that, or anything. But basically the point is that K-Pop itself, as far as the construction of these boy and girl groups goes, is like one big Mickey Mouse Club… all these idols being trained from a very young age.
Allen Huang: I would say a lot of the variety shows bring on young talent like that. A lot of the singing competitions are go-to places for talent scouts to go and find new stars. Also, a lot of younger entertainers are sons and daughters of other entertainers, or people already in the industry, so there’s lots of nepotism going on as well. It’s not just one concentrated farm system that’s televised, or anything, but you can definitely see tomorrow’s stars today on Korean television.
Ingmar Carlson: Each of the agencies is essentially its own farm system, more or less different from the others. It’s also difficult to stress just how big music is on TV there, especially compared to what we have here now. We used to have music on MTV, but now it’s all reality shows or whatever. And it’s not just music videos over there, but live music as well. On these shows, you’ll see your favorite groups actually perform in front of a soundstage audience. This stuff is playing all the time, whether it’s their American Idol-style vocal competitions or weekly live music variety shows.
Can you tell us a little bit about what the typical K-Pop fanis like? It seems like in the States most fans of boy bands or girl groups are generally young girls, but most of the K-Pop fans I know personally are guys.
Ingmar Carlson: In Korea, specifically, I think the bulk of the fan base are teenage girls.
Vivian Hua: Yeah, they are young girls, a lot of them.
Allen Huang: I’ve heard arguments that most of the people who actually like K-Pop are middle-aged housewives.
Ingmar Carlson: Ah, well that’s also true! In general, though, I’d say the target audience that this stuff is being crafted for, the real impetus behind it, is definitely teenage girls. Which is perhaps why we’re seeing this sort of dimorphism I was talking about, between these pretty boy groups and tough girl groups. I think that might have something to do with it. On the one hand, you have these ridiculously pretty boys – who teenage girls love, of course – and on the other, you have these tough girls who are appealing to them as role models, where there’s almost a message of empowerment being expressed – like, “I’m cool” or “I’m the best.” The 2NE1 video we were showing clips of in our montage is for that hit single called “I AM THE BEST.” Those are actually the lyrics in the chorus.
Reese Umbaugh: I went to this big showcase concert in LA last May where all the artists there were on the SM Entertainment label – like Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, EXO, and a bunch of others — and I’ve never seen a more diverse crowd at a concert, ever. I went thinking I was gonna be the oldest one there, but it was all over the place. It’s crazy; as soon as the show started everyone got up and started screaming, waving these glow sticks around. In my experience, anyway, I can’t really say there’s a typical K-Pop fan.
Allen Huang: I don’t even think the agencies know who their fans really are. At this point they’re just trying to throw anything and everything they can at the wall and see what sticks.
Ingmar Carlson: At this point they don’t, especially as the fan base is getting more and more international.
Reese Umbaugh: Also, you know, there are people who specifically like the music, or follow a particular performer, or a certain show that they’re on. So I think, in that way, K-Pop blankets over a lot of different kinds of media.
Ingmar Carlson: I think it is true, though, that as far as Korean fans go, middle-aged women are definitely a big demographic. There’s really something to that stereotype. If you watch any of these music shows, like InkiGayo or the vocal competitions, when the cameras pan to the audience, you’ll see tons of moms there with their kids. They’re singing along and loving it, too, not just chaperoning their kids and wishing they were somewhere else.
Allen Huang: Go moms!
Ingmar Carlson: Yeah, go moms. That’s the point.
In regards to group size – and this is going to shift things from K-Pop to J-pop a little bit – I was wondering what you’d have to say about a really big group like AKB48?
Allen Huang: Too many people!
Reese Umbaugh: Actually, it’s really funny you ask that, because that really huge boy band Apeace completely tanked in Korea but found great success in Japan. Just like AKB48, they have their own theatre there, in Japan, where they perform multiple times a week. Personally I don’t like it, but…
Allen Huang: The thing about these giant groups like AKB48 and Apeace is that they ascribe to a completely different kind of production model. Their whole marketing ploy is that there are so many members that pretty much anybody can have a chance of running into one of them somewhere, shake their hand, have a drink with them, and tell them how much you love their music, because literally half the country is in this group. They’ll have their own theatre, as well, so you don’t have to wait for them to tour. So it’s kind of this weird model you don’t see anywhere else. I often bring up the analogy of convenience stores when I talk about Asian pop music. K-Pop groups are like convenience stores: the guys and gals on stage and on TV are the people working behind the counter; the music is the stuff they’re selling in the freezers and out on the shelves. AKB48 is like a Costco where there’s many people working, and they’re all asking if you need any help. You might not like anything that’s in there, but whatever; it’s so huge that it’s got everything, and you want some free samples anyway.
Reese Umbaugh: It’s a forty-eight-member girl group. (Editor’s Note: As of 2013, AKB48 actually clocks in at eighty-six members, but did begin as a forty-eight member group.)
Ingmar Carlson: And their target consumers are middle-aged Japanese men, I think.
I’m not actually sure if I can pronounce this right, but could you tell us a bit about “sasaeing” fans?
Allen Huang: Sasaeing? Those are the really crazy fans. “Sasaeing” isn’t really a flattering term. Nobody wants to be a sasaeing fan. There’s the fan who buys the music; there’s the fan who has a poster on the wall and buys the music; then there’s the sasaeing fan who has all the posters, buys all the music in triplicate, and goes to the house of an idol and creeps around in the bushes. It’s bordering on illegal, the stuff that some of those fans are doing. They’re also the ones who are really vocal online, writing all sorts of awful stuff about other groups. They’re like the unhinged troll of K-Pop, who love one thing and hate everything else, and everyone else is wrong, and they’re right. There’s probably some diagnosis that a psychologist could coin about what they’re doing.
Reese Umbaugh: If you wanna talk to some of them, just look at the comments for K-pop videos on YouTube…
Allen Huang: Oh yeah, they love YouTube, and forums. Netizens.
When’s the next K-Pop dance party?
Reese Umbaugh: JK POP! Is in Seattle every first Thursday, at Barboza.
What about in Portland?
Gina Altamura: Well yeah, we’ll book a “Happy Life Solution” at Holocene soon so keep your eye out on our calendar.
Allen Huang: We’re also playing the Capitol Hill Block Party if you’re underage and you wanna come up to Seattle and party with us. It’ll be a lot of fun. That’ll be outdoors, all day on Saturday [July 27th].
Vivian Hua: Cool! That’s it, thanks for coming. If you want to see a transcription you can got to redefinemag.com, and we’ll have links to the music videos that we played and all that. (Editor’s Note: This is that transcription.)