Welcome to another Roundtable!

While some artists in the Korean music industry can afford the luxury of being candid in their responses to interview questions (we’ve experienced that firsthand in the past with Galaxy Express as well as Epik High), more often than not, and especially in the idol world, it seems that artists are bent on giving the most scripted, generic, and “safe” answers as possible. Why do you think this is? Do you agree with this general policy? Do the benefits of limiting an artist’s freedom of expression in a K-pop context outweigh the drawbacks?

Amy: The simplest response is just that it’s easier to account for accidents if things are scripted beforehand, right? For companies that are already all-controlling of almost every aspect of an artist’s life, down to the minutia, it only makes sense that the words coming out of an idol’s mouth are the ones that are agreed upon by the company beforehand, used to propagate an altogether wholesome image.

And with the way idoldom and Korean companies work, it would seem strange for answers *not* to be scripted. This becomes extremely handy when artists go through scandals or events that they and the companies would not want them to talk about, which is why things are poured over, censored, scripted, and then dispensed. Of course coming from a western perspective, this is tedious to watch and I’m inclined to say that limiting freedom of expression is never good, but how much of K-pop do I like *because* it is propelled by “safe” answers and premeditated adorableness? We’ll never know.

Gaya: In K-pop, almost every minutae of an idol’s life is picked apart and analysed. Thanks to phenomena such as sasaeng fans, paparazzi and shippers (yeah, I went there), idols pretty much have their fill of scrutiny under the public eye. So, I think any idol who doesn’t want any more attention than they can handle will stick to The expected answers.

The recent controversy involving Block B is also an example of the worst case scenario of deviating from the norm in trying to express one’s own individuality. The art of tact, while coming naturally to some people, is something that is best honed with experience, something that ever-younger idols would most likely lack. It would take up too many resources for companies to school their talents in the nuances of communication — so instead they prep rote answers that would pass muster in an interview setting.

Fannie: I agree that within the current idol system in Korea, scripted answers are the safest — and therefore the best — ones. There is generally a lot of attention that is paid to “proper” behavior and manners, and this can be seen in situations that have blown up simply because someone improperly used an honorific, or said something careless about a certain demographic.

Part of it is also because the roles of these “idols” is so much more than that of just musicians: they are also expected to be role models to children as well as cultural ambassadors, so what comes out of their mouths becomes of interest to more people than just their immediate fans. As part of the forefront of the Hallyu wave, they (and therefore their opinions and behaviors) are responsible for representing Korea to international media and fans.

What is interesting is that this model of “safe” and scripted answers does not seem to hold up in the West, which values individuality above all else for artists to stand out and be noticed. I’ve found that the vague manner in which most K-pop idols answer to Western interviews — fluency aside — is more often than not downright awkward and runs the risk of sounding vapid and fake.

Michelle: I agree that the ‘better’ answers are generally the scripted, generic ones. For any group, it would be safest to go with those answers, especially if they’re in a situation where what they say could be misinterpreted. Idols are public figures and like it or not, fair or unfair, they will be scrutinised. While it will be taxing for a fan to watch their biases churn out the most uninteresting sentences, in the long run, it might be a good thing for the group if it kept them away from a scandal. On the other hand, interviews are a means of communication (though second-hand) where fans will get to know their idols, and having scripted or pre-prepared ‘safe’ answers to fall back on isn’t the best way for the exchange to happen, nor is it honest.

For the most part, I’d say that it is in a sense, good, in terms of protecting the artist from unwanted public outrage, but bad if we wanted our artists to have more freedom in what they can say. However, I believe that we actually have a balance of that right now. A lot of people happen to think that the majority of shows are purely scripted, but I happen to take that with some doubt. I really don’t believe that they’re scripted to the extent where all questions and answers are prepared, rather, artists would probably be given some amount of free reign, and of course, the editing team. What’s more, they have the escape option of not answering a question by using their manager’s (management) instructions as an excuse. If we look at it with those factors, the artists in question actually do have some freedom of expression. It then boils down to what they choose to express within their limits.

However, I wouldn’t say that this limit has really achieved anything significantly positive. It’s part of how the management of an artist works and if we were to try and measure the relative success of such strategies, it’d be through the number of scandals (or lack of) attributed to any comments made by the artist, and possibly, the variety skills of the artist — but even that may be on a different plane of existence.

Gil: Idols are not just people who sing and dance; they have an image constructed about them that goes farther than that. They become public figures and role models and it is integral to keep that image pristine. As it is with the case of any public figure there is an element of decorum that must be kept. With K-pop idols, i feel like it extends beyond that. They’re not selling just music, they’re selling an image to their audience. That’s why there’s this whole business with concepts and labels.

I pretty much agree with what everyone else says here and I just want to add that K-pop idols are basically products for us to consume and if they deviate from an expected reality, we’ll be a bit taken back. That’s why its so integral for them to keep up their pristine image and this facade of perfection because we expect it from them.

Young-ji: One thing to keep in mind is that while idols are often pretty safe in formal interviews, they tend to be somewhat less controlled in variety and talk shows. For instance, we hear a lot about behind the scene stories, my latest favorite being Se7en’s story about how he was able to get his song from JYP on Strong Heart. Or how that loud kid from ZE:A basically reconstructed his face to debut.

Is it just me or is there an apparent inconsistency in how idols conduct themselves in these two types of shows? Yes, the modes are different but if we are going to argue that they are trying to play safe, I think we should also consider how they are in other type of shows.

My general observation is that for some odd reason, interviews are perceived as more formal mode of communication to both the artist and the management company. They often, well almost always, request to see questions before we conduct them and censor not only their answers but the questions as well. However, they seem to be more relaxed on talk shows, maybe because they are able to bring their own material, the competitive environment or the pressure to evoke laughs and/or emotions, or what not. But what’s interesting for me is that these tv show appearances are just as formal in a sense that it’s recorded, circulated and often times documented by reporters. I guess what I’m trying to get at is, while interviews are safe and generic, why are tv show appearances not, when they are both a formal mode of communication that exposes the idols real self to the public?

Amy: Young-ji, I would disagree on how variety/talk shows seem to be less controlled. I think one of the best examples of how just scripted shows can be are through Suzy’s latest mini “scandal” or what-have-you, in which fans/media were criticizing her for bringing up Kim Soo-hyun too much. She sort of passive aggressively told people that it was all because it was scripted, which I fully believe.

It’s also not because I believe that stories told during talk shows like Strong Heart or Radio Star are false per se, it’s just that I think there’s just as much prep that goes into those as there is in interviews. Siwon mentioned on Strong Heart once that Donghae literally prepped for a year on the right sort of stories to tell on these talk show variety programs, and so many idols let slip that they can’t sleep because they were stressing about what kinds of things to show off on shows. I think that games and activities tend to be less scripted because they’re much more spontaneous on the whole, but I don’t think variety shows or talk shows are any less prone to intense preparation beforehand.

Nabeela: I definitely think that the whole “scripted” approach is somewhat necessary for helping idols and the idol world in general maintain the idol image, especially since idols live and work under the scrutiny of the Korean culture. It’s like Gil said: these idols are public figures, role models, but I think most of all they are public products. And because doing interviews and being on TV and conversation are such a huge part of the idol lifestyle, they are major factors in determining an idol’s marketability. So therefore, letting conversations remain scripted and rehearsed is kind of like an insurance for an idol’s value with the public. The more proper they appear and the less daringly brash or spontaneous, the higher the chances are the more people will like them in general.

Michelle brings up a valid point about how making these limits of conversation and personality fail to add anything positive to an idols image. And that’s absolutely true, because in retrospect these limits add virtually nothing good or bad, and that really is their point. By adding nothing worthwhile to what is being converses, there is minimal risk for screwing up and damaging the idol image. Personally, I honestly believe this is a major component of typical idol behavior because idols, while they are young people taking their chances by pursing careers in music, are run by companies taking their chances in pursing business. Thus, while companies enable these young people to break into the idol market, technically these same idols owe some respect their companies business endeavors by maintaining a marketable, profitable image.

It is, however, a matter that makes K-pop look rather dismal. The fact that idols cannot express their individuality to the fullest extent for the sake of business almost undermines the idea and intent of a music industry. I think it creates a lot of false images about good people, and vice versa. It cheats fans of music from truly understanding the artists they listen to, while also allowing the rigidity of the idol image to become so commonplace that when an idol acts, lets say, more human (nodding off for a moment, looking a certain way, slouching), that idol is harshly scrutinized and looked down upon. While limitations and archetype behavior have kept K-pop professional, it has done so by sacrificing a lot of an idol’s human expressive freedom and by forcing idols to constantly live up to ideal standards virtually all the time.

Dana: For anyone who has an interest in K-pop that even slightly extends beyond the superficial, that the idol world is horrifically and completely scripted is maddening. But I can’t say that I don’t understand why it is so.

In a way, the idol system (specifically the group system) operates on the assumption that the members of each group will have different charms and appeals to attract a broader audience. In other words, because there is something for everybody, essentially everybody can like, enjoy, and (more importantly) consume the products of a particular group. However, the irony here is that liking one idol group member more than you like or prefer the others must not come at the expense of the likability of the other members. Hence, all idols must maintain a base likability, upon which they add their own individual charms and quirks (all of which must be positive). Holding extreme opinions (or really, holding any opinions) can jeopardize this base likability by limiting the number of people for whom a specific idol holds any appeal. In this system, safe is good; scripted is better.

I agree with Fannie that idols are perceived, however unfairly, as role models and cultural ambassadors; however, it saddens me that idols more often cannot use their celebrity to promote things that are important to them. Aside from Lee Hyori‘s animal campaign (which is generally safe and, in a broad sense, politically disconnected), idols do not and cannot have the opportunity to engage in activism for issues that they believe in simply because admission of a preference for anything can mean a reduction in the fan base. Suppose that SNSD came out in support of abortion rights and greater sex education in South Korea; their celebrity and influence among young women would lend huge credence to the campaign, but at what price for SNSD and their management?

The construction of idols and the essential scripting of their personalities and opinions may present a likable, polished front to both the Korean and the international public, but I think the general cost outweighs the benefits.

Natalie: Like the other writers, I believe scripted answers are the best. I sincerely believe that if idols were entirely allowed to be themselves and express their opinions, they’d be less popular. Because people have a tendency to dislike others based on their political or social views, and especially considering how conservative Korean society is in contrast to Western societies, any honest opinion could lead to an enormous drop in popularity or outcry. Bland, safe, unopinionated, unbiased idols are easily liked by everyone. There’s nothing about them to lead you to think they’re unpleasant in any way.

For K-pop, this works, because K-pop often tries to give off an appearance of perfection. Hey, these idols are beautiful, can sing, dance, and rap, and they’re funny, friendly, and everything you would ever want in a person! Your dream come true, right? What’s not to like? That’s part of K-pop’s appeal. Level-headed K-pop fans know otherwise but even they can admit that it’s difficult to find a legitimate reason to dislike an idol. Like, Yoona from SNSD. Yoona is every bit an idol: she’s beautiful, friendly, can dance pretty well, and has acceptable lip-syncing skills that get her throuhg live performances. For the life of me, I really can’t figure out why people would dislike Yoona. True, she’s in front of everything, overshadowing the other members, and not a good singer by any means, but she’s a perfectly friendly, charming girl. In fact, she’s many guys’ dream girl. Likewise with all other idols: they’re everything you could want or ever hope to be.

But this has serious drawbacks for the idols. Added to the fact that few idols have any control over songs, choreography, or concepts, they don’t even get to be who they are. They’re not like other people, they can’t freely express their opinions or even date without fear of serious repercussions. They can’t be themselves entirely or live their lives the way they’d wish to, and you’d be insane to think this doesn’t bother them.