Last week, my colleague Bethany offered a detailed exposition of the fluid relationship that currently exists between the K-pop and K-drama industries.  Indeed, it is getting progressively more difficult to locate a drama that doesn’t prominently feature a K-pop idol somewhere in the main billing; Sooyoung‘s recent casting in an upcoming medical drama ensures that nearly half of SNSD will have made appearances in dramas in 2012, an almost unheard-of figure even in the Korean entertainment industry.  But as Bethany rightly pointed out, casting idols — especially idols as popular as are the lovely ladies from SNSD — is a surefire way to ensure that a drama will attract healthy viewership, even if the idols themselves wind up tanking in the acting department.  Because, hey, the whole point is to attract an audience, and the best way to do that is relying on big names that will sell regardless of their actual performance, right?  Right?

Well, yes — to a certain extent, that is right.  But here’s the rub: it isn’t just limited to dramas anymore.  Idols are absolutely everywhere you look, and to be honest, it’s starting to concern me a little.

Let’s face it — these days, idols really do participate in just about every form of entertainment that the industry has got to offer.  Idols make pop music; idols film dramas; idols produce songs for the OSTs that accompany these dramas; idols star in musicals; idols do commercial endorsements.  Some idols even wind up making acting debuts on the big screen.  And truly, I have to wonder if this over-saturation of idols with their fingers in dozens of different pies will prove detrimental not only to the quality of Korea’s domestic entertainment industry, but also to the Korean Wave in general.

Idols are designed to be the whole package — entertainers who excel at singing, dancing, and acting — but trying to create the perfect entertainer often comes at the expense of any sort of specialization.  In other words, idols usually wind up being kind of mediocre at just about everything they do.  Instead of being phenomenal singers who really don’t do much else but sing, they wind up being kind-of-okay singers and kind-of-okay actors.  This becomes less and less consequential as the idols in question develop substantial domestic fan bases; even if the material that they put out is sub-par and weak (coughSuperJunior’sMrSimplecough), loyal fans will buy it up without question.  Along this vein, fans will also buy up the tickets to a musical starring a weak idol singer, even if the actual performance leaves a lot to be desired; similarly, fans will drive up the ratings of any drama in which their favorite stars appear.  The result is a vicious cycle that not only minimizes the need for idols to actually perfect their craft, but also forces deserving and talented artists out of the limelight.  The over-reliance on the idol name in order to pull in an audience may bring in the numbers, but it cheapens the quality of the product.

To elaborate, it’s been said before, but it bears repeating that idols promoting abroad are at a greater disadvantage in that they don’t have the cushion of variety shows, quiz shows, and commercial endorsements to help boost their fame and recognition.  When placed outside of the context of the Korean entertainment industry, they must rely not on the power of their own name or brand (however deserved or undeserved this recognition may be), but on the quality of the material that they’ve released, be it music, a drama, or what have you.  The South Korean entertainment industry insulates idols by allowing fans myriad opportunities to fall in love with the stars, as well as myriad channels for the idols to promote themselves outside of their specific craft, but this is simply not so in the United States or in many other countries in which Hallyu is beginning to take root.  Focusing on the means by which idols can gain domestic popularity will certainly make companies a lot of money in the short term, but it could serve as a severe limit in terms of how far the idol industry can expand abroad.

Moreover, as mentioned, filling spots in dramas and musicals with idols who don’t necessarily deserve to be there is just plain unfair to people that really should be there — the sorts of people whose talent and ability can and will carry Korean cultural products to recognition abroad.  Why, for example, is SNSD’s Seohyun recording a song for the Fashion King OST?  She’s got an okay-ish singing voice, but I mean, I can think of at least seven other singers off the top of my head alone who really are more deserving of being included in an OST (Lim Jeong-hee, 8eight’s JooHee, Younha, etc).  It’s no question that Seohyun’s name will automatically garner more downloads, but what of the truly vocally talented singers who have spent years and years perfecting their vocals?  What does this say about fans of K-pop?  Are we not willing to demand a higher quality product?  Are we satisfied by mediocrity?  Will non-K-pop fans be so similarly appeased?

This is not to say that all idols that appear in dramas, musicals, and OSTs are undeserving; Davichi‘s Lee Hae-ri was practically born for the musical, and I’m pleased that she can gain the recognition and accolades that she deserves by using her voice and talent in this way.  But one can fairly say that many idols don’t belong where they’re put, and are in fact only put there because of their name and fame.

The lack of specialization in Korean entertainment might prove to be a bust for the Korean Wave.  The truth hurts, but most of the current pop acts that are dominating the idol industry are in no way extraordinary talents, and audiences abroad really ought not be terribly impressed with them.  Rather than attempting to create a veritable army of Jacks-of-all-trades, the entertainment industry really ought to focus on cultivating masters.  Ultimately, it is talent and not personality that will win fans for Korean entertainment abroad, and the infiltration of idols into every possible aspect of the entertainment field is serving as an obstacle for any actual specialized talent to get in.  I hope that it won’t totally destroy Korea’s chances of surviving in the Western hemisphere, but I’m not optimistic.

(Asian Popcorn, HanCinema)