K-pop and Escaping Real Life
CNN published via their Geek Out section an article on K-pop fans and what it means to go too far in terms of fan behavior. The first few paragraphs caught my attention as they mentioned escapism and made me wonder how much of the K-pop world not only determines escapism, but overtly promotes it. Sure, any type of leisure or hobby disconnected from our reality leads at some point to delusion. People gather around illusion sellers or differently put, the biggest illusion is that we need no illusions. But the article focuses on how the existence of this alternative reality blurs the lines for some fans whose conduct makes them look like stalkers. So what happens to K-pop? Undeniably, a big chunk of K-pop lovers prove their devotion and commitment to impressive, albeit scary levels. Is the Korean pop machine somehow encouraging these types of behavior?
To me, it’s half yes, half no. On one side, K-pop answers as much to the Starsuckers argument as any other entertainment industry does. Throughout their life, people notice what kind of behavior is more likely to generate the expected result and they imitate it. From generation to generation, we inherit yet another life pattern that helps us obtain what we want, without having to first-handedly arrive at the same conclusion. And undoubtedly, living in a group has paid off way better than a lonesome existence. Centuries have come to shape these social patterns into norms, manners and interaction models, while we keep assimilating new rules. In the 21st century, celebrities incarnate the definition of social success: the high-end life, the beauty, the love they receive from their followers and so on. The need to take them as role-models, no matter how detrimental that might sound, is natural after all: they embody the demands we have for perfection and they take it up a notch. Talent, personality or value is secondary to their accomplishments.
However, this is a general conclusion of some sort. We emulate the well-off because they have everything society as a whole expects from an individual. But K-pop does more than just that; I’d even say it promotes escapism. This world is shaped differently than other music industries and abides different rules. All fair and simple, different country, different regulations. But what exactly are those rules?
As I was watching Hyuna’s video, one thing passed through my mind: the video made use of popular fetishes — the girl in a leather suit in a bubble bath, the sexy mechanic, the military outfit or the clumsy driver. And she’s not the only one. Hyori’s “U Go Girl” or any Orange Caramel videos look like fetish parties: Lolita, distorted fairy tales, hot teacher, sexy nurse and the list can go on. Videos playing on sexual fantasies (of course, with the common excuse they weren’t aware of it) and fanservice are just a part of what K-pop offers to bring the fans closer to their stars. Variety shows play also a role, as it produces characters fans can relate too. Usually boxed into a few archetypes, these personas are made just for the public: they have quirks that associate them to the average person, but are still held to their star quality, to their flawless beauty and polite answers.
This is one of the most effective ways of promoting parasocial relationships. Variety offers the possibility to discover these person’s so-called personalities, a combo of what the person is really like and what the idol must portray. The non-verbal and verbal communication signs are interpreted by the spectator, who then proceeds to develop an attachment to this person just as in real life, only that there’s no feedback. Here’s the glitch in parasocial interaction: it provides the possibility to bond with someone who doesn’t exist in one’s proximity; disguised in the aspect of a real relationship, the double-edged sword quickly cuts one’s illusion off, as reciprocation is impossible. In this case, without being able to connect at an authentic level with the said celebrity, the public person becomes an intangible mean to deliver satisfaction for this type of fan. What differs though in K-pop is that not only bonding with these stars looks possible, but the fact they’re perfected. On one side, the industry makes use of their humanized personas — the seemingly flawed individuals — while also portraying flawless stars, people who by nature are in the Ivy League of the human system (take for example the obsession with natural beauties).
Escapism comes into play when not only idols, one at a time, are the object of desire, but when the K-pop machine produces a new world. South Korea, being one of the few countries where the use of celebrities in commercials surpasses 50%, inadvertently floods the advertisement industry with idols. Their omnipresence makes it easier for spectators to become attached: they may appear in other people’s videos, in dramas, in variety shows, in commercials, in movies or musicals. And when it’s not one’s bias that’s at the mic, idol groups with similar music take the stage. The existence of music shows where singers appear on a regular basis facilitates the process. You have sex, affection, entertainment and what constitutes everyday life, with people to appreciate or criticize, encapsulated in a surrogate of reality.
The final touch of K-world as a refuge from reality consists in a closed-up world. The material that gets around might be different, but has a common core. No matter how much English is used or how much westernized some fans might perceive K-pop, most of the songs are in Korean; when idols are asked about friends, ideal lovers or people whom they respect, the answer is usually another Korean celebrity. They make you want to check out other people and follow them, even learn Korean. I like Zaz and Zebda, but they never got me into watching more French music or learn French for that matter. In K-dramas, with little exceptions, the overall development is predictable and the moral system they proclaim doesn’t suffer major altercations from one drama to another. While variations of different intensity of the same product look boring, its predictabilities offer safety nets for watchers. Korean entertainment is a distinct, closed-up universe that fans have somehow gained access to. As many other half-imaginary/half-real refuges, K-pop is a second home.
Similarly, it’s easy to find one’s escape in K-pop. I don’t mean to portray it as something bad. I need my alternative universes when I’m bored. I’m an avid TV series watcher, an occasional reader and a K-pop fan. I’m not always satisfied with how things play out in real life. My friends or partner can’t always empathize with me in various situations. It’s only normal to search for different refuges. And as long as the lines between my reality and the one I consume at the expense of my imagination don’t get blurred, I assume I’m just fine. But I think this is a necessary condition. While K-pop serves as an escape, it’s important for me to not get fussed up about my biases. To each his/her own.
But where does this line lie to me is relative, so I’m gonna ask the ones that bore with me through the article: what are the shades you perceive between K-pop as escapism, addiction or obsession? What type of fan are you? How does K-pop relate to your everyday life?