Welcome to another Roundtable!

With the many rumors and half-truths that have abounded from incidents in the past week, it’s needless to say that the K-pop audience at large has been speculating about what to believe about T-ara‘s current circumstances. Although the story seems to be changing every day as new pieces of information emerge, something that can be said concretely about this whole debacle is that there are definitely going to be some long-term consequences of the actions of those involved.

Although Dana has already written up a synopsis on the events that have unfolded (as of earlier this week), I thought it would be a great idea to also get our authors to chime in on their thoughts, as everyone seems to have strong opinions about the events that have unfolded. Therefore this week, we turned to our authors and asked them the big question: What are your thoughts on the T-ara situation? What do you think was the driving force behind the events that have unfolded, and how do you think they will shape T-ara as well as K-pop as a whole in the future?

Nicholas: There’s not too much a doubt that the fault lies with CCM‘s boss, Kim Kwang-soo. This is definitely a case of too many wrongs and none of them making a right. Yes, there was bullying and it’s a action I do not condone, but it could also be the original girls feeling threatened.

And while Hwayoung was not the most talented member and did not do anything the rest could not do, I could see she did improve with time and try to get lines that made her more relevant.

This incident would probably sink T-ara for a long long time. As for other groups, their group dynamic would probably be a fair bit more scrutinised. Whatever it is, it would probably be the worst time to wash dirty linen in public.

Salima: You bring up a good point about it being Kim Kwang-soo’s fault, Nicholas. My friend and I were talking about this last night. She brought up something I thought was pretty spot on. She said that a lot of these idols didn’t grow up with their parents, so the only parents they have are their staff and CEOs. If the girls are pit against each other and treating each other badly, it’s a reflection of how their companies have, in essence, “raised” them.

Amy: For the people who follow T-ara enough, honestly: how much did/does Hwayoung contribute to the group? And then, compared to that, how much does/do the new girls contribute?

Nicholas: I am mixed about Hwayoung. While she was not indispensable, like say Eunjung or SNSD‘s vocalists, she was not exactly there to fill up numbers like, say, some in A Pink or Sistar‘s Dasom. Like, in later albums it was obvious Hwayoung sang a fair amount (at the expense of others, heh).

And Salima, that’s a rather good point. From what I inferred Eunjung/Hyomin/Jiyeon joined CCM when they were rather young, so it could be said the boss did play a big role in their formative years.

Jasper: As a resident T-ara fan, I was so confused about this whole situation. I still am confused to an extent at what to think especially with more and more news coming out, and with some of them being so contradictory. But I definitely agree with Nicholas and Salima that a majority of this mess is CCM and Kim Kwang-soo’s fault.

Honestly if it weren’t for the shady actions attempting to cover up those actions — claiming all of them were simultaneously hacked of all excuses, I wouldn’t have immediately seen the implications, whatever they were, behind those tweets. And all of a sudden releasing these claims of Hwayoung’s bad manners virtually out of no where? While we can never fully know the full story, something smells really fishy there and CCM’s handling of it only makes things worse.

And while I don’t condone bullying either, I’m under the impression that whatever turbulence was going on in T-ara, a major reason for it was due to frustration brought upon to the girls by the company and its demands. Kim Kwang-soo even mentioned himself that the addition of the new members was meant to add competition to the girls, to know their positions weren’t safe. So if the members did end up lashing out at each other, while in now way do I excuse their actions, I can at least guess where they’re coming from. Every story has more than one side after all. And while I can relate to both Hwayoung and the other girls of T-ara, I’ve having trouble understanding Kim Kwang-soo’s logic.

Salima: Smear campaign would be the perfect term to describe this situation. I just don’t believe half the things CCM says. Ree tweeted yesterday, “If Hwayoung threw a tantrum in front of reporters…then why did no one report it?” Fair question.

Gaya: Very fair question. There are just so many things that don’t add up with this company’s story: first they say that everyone’s twitter accounts were hacked, but in the full press release it states that the tweets were not about Hwayoung at all. So, either someone hacked the accounts of five T-ara members at the same time to leave inflammatory comments against Hwayoung, or those tweets were sent by the members themselves and had nothing to do with Hwayoung. Pick one excuse, CCM, and stick with it–you can’t have it both ways. This flip-flopping about is highly unprofessional, and, going with the parenting theory mentioned earlier, the company seems to have passed it on to their talent as well.

Ambika: Adding to all things bizarre in CCM, I haven’t quite understood why T-ara doesn’t have a fixed leader. Of course I’ve heard the shtick that everyone is getting the valuable experience to lead a team and take it in new directions, but it’s never stuck right with me. If T-ara had a consistent leader, someone who steps in during arguments and was focused on the well-being of the group, many of these issues might have been resolved. But no one seems to want to have that responsibility, despite Soyeon being the “leader” at this point in time. I guess this goes back to how KKS has created that festering environment for T-ara through introduction of competition. Not only are they competing to prove their worth every second of the day, but they have no time to worry about the group, not that that fact condones their bullying towards Hwayoung.

But I’m also curious if there was anything else about Hwayoung or her addition that caused such a vehement reaction in some T-ara members. Ahreum doesn’t seem to be having that problem, though I supposed time and netizens will tell.

Nabeela: Okay, first and foremost, SCREW Kim Kwang-soo and SCREW Core Contents Media.

Well, now that’s off my chest, here are my honest opinions. Nicholas is absolutely right in saying that this is going to put T-ara under by a mile. The impending addition of the two new members Dani and Ahreum already had plenty of people disappointed in CCM, and not to mention people already were well aware of how the members were being overworked to the point of frequent exhaustion and injury. In the past couple months, there’s also been a lot of bad press surrounding T-ara and their company despite the group’s rising prominence. Unfortunately for a while now, it seems as if T-ara has been heading for more of an implosion as their company became more and more involved with the press.

In regard to Amy’s question, I’ve been following T-ara since their Absolute First album, and even after Hwayoung’s addition, I’ve always felt she had little to offer to the group other than another body. I don’t have anything against her, honestly–Gaya’s right in saying that “Day by Day” and some of their other more recent releases features Hwayoung delivering more lines with sharper skills; however her progression seemed long overdue in the grand scheme of T-ara’s music. By the time T-ara had an established name, it seemed as if their sound didn’t really require the likes of a rapper. And in my opinion, I never even really noticed Hwayoung, which leads me to believe her skill set was never properly applied in the first place.

Bethany: I’ve never been a serious fan of T-ara (only occasionally enjoying their songs and Eunjung’s stint on WGM), but this whole debacle is shaping up so that I don’t ever think I’ll be a serious fan of T-ara. Hwayoung deserved in no way to be treated in such a way by the rest of the members, even if it is K-pop and highly competitive between the girls. However, the correct way to create a strong K-pop group isn’t to create tension between the members of a group because they need to support each other, but to compete with other groups. The backlash T-ara is receiving for this is deserved and it’s easy to see that CCM is scrambling to keep their favorite girl group from tumbling any further, but the damage is already done. I’m just sad, like the rest of my fellow staff writers, that Hwayoung won’t be able to go solo a la Jay Park, because she simply doesn’t have the raw talent.

Jasper: I agree with Nabeela in that Hwayoung’s addition ended up a bit useless in the grand scheme of T-ara. Sure, she was able to shine albeit belatedly through “Day by Day,” but she wasn’t ever that essential to the group, or at least not as essential as the likes of the three main vocalists. When she was in T-ara, whatever talents she had were basically being wasted as not only did T-ara have messed up line distributions, but they didn’t have the necessary focus to utilize her either. Furthermore, if T-ara did want to add a short rap, they already had two fairly capable rappers in their original roster. So Hwayoung’s departure wouldn’t really dent T-ara performance-wise, but very much image and reputation-wise. They attracted attention for all the wrong reasons, and while, like my fellow writers, I don’t excuse their actions, I still fear for them. With that disbandment petition and all the unfavorable rumors, I just don’t know what they’re going to do anymore.

Gaya: Jasper, don’t even get me started on Core Contents Media and its CEO: by ousting her the way they did, CCM has pretty much made Hwayoung a martyr, with lots of fans rallying to show their support for her, both internationally and in Korea; and Kim Kwang-soo’s personal smear campaign on Hwayoung, talking about her alleged behaviour at the Music Bank studio last week, seems to only win the ousted member more support. Honestly, I cannot even begin to comprehend the idiotic way in which CCM has handled this whole mess: I would say their PR team was high when they came up with their genius explanation for why they were sacking Hwayoung (didn’t know hairdressers held such power at CCM), but that would be an insult to marijuana.

Hwayoung was one of my more favoured members in T-ara and she’d really won me over with her rap in “Day by Day;” I was overjoyed to hear Hwayoung rapping actual words, and it gave me hope for more equal line distribution for future release–so much for that, now.

Maria: While I have the same feeling, Gaya — that netizens bullying T-ara aren’t any better — CCM is at fault for blurring the line between personal and professional matters. Firing Hwayoung because of an internal situation, that had nothing to do with her role or talent in T-ara, allowed everybody to take their vendetta on the group based on their own personal judgment, which was more or less what Kim Kwang-soo also did. But with both the angry netizens and the overworked members of T-ara, I wouldn’t victimize the bullies. I can understand the girls, but nobody is a social product from head to toe and you can’t put all the blame on their company or environment for the members’ decision to bully their co-worker. It’s saddening, not only because of T-ara, but because this is only a case where things got public. How many other groups aren’t probably suffering from the same matter, only that behind closed doors?

Nicholas: A bigger problem now would probably losing all that money from withdrawn endorsement deals, especially with Eunjung losing all her contracts. Kim Kwang-soo is a master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Gaya: Nicholas, I know you said that T-ara are in it deep, and now their endorsement deals are at risk, too. Would you (and everyone else, too) say that this is the end of T-ara? Or can they still come back? People are comparing this to the 2PM-Jay Park scandal to say that T-ara can come back, but aren’t the two scandals too different from one another for comparisons to be viable?

Nicholas: It might not the end if their new song is stunning. After all, people let the Big Bang and Tablo scandals slide for what they were worth. The music is what mattered most.

However, the issue now is how such a group split has shaken one of the greatest core beliefs in K-pop — that people coming from such diverse backgrounds could work together closer than siblings for success.

Ambika: Gaya, I think the scandals are pretty different. The 2PM-Jay Park incident — perhaps better-named the JYPE-Jay Park incident — involved much less mudslinging (as far as I can recall, correct me if I’m wrong), and though it did cause an outrage, it was left peacefully with both sides not pushing the matter. Jay Park has some formidable talent and he was able to make it solo; 2PM similarly took off on their route.

Here, mud was thrown from the first day Hwayoung entered T-ara. It seems to have continued being thrown (at least from the supposed incidents of bullying and potential misbehavior of Hwayoung) to the point where no one knows what to think but everyone is disgusted that it’s happening. While CCM is trying to show dirt on Hwayoung, popular opinion seems to be working against T-ara, and it wasn’t so for 2PM. In order to come back, enough time has to pass for T-ara to stop being forcefully associated with bullying or scandal and to completely rework their image. But these issues are rather touchy–especially the bullying in Japan–so it’ll be curious to see how they choose to act.

Salima: I’ve also seen the 2PM-T-ara comparison being made. However the difference lies mainly in the structures of how the stories were presented to fans. With T-ara, the narrative (though not terribly clear) is that T-ara bullied Hwayoung and she was kicked out of the group. Of course, things are never that black and white but since fans are able to hold on so strongly to that narrative, it makes it easier to dislike the other members of T-ara. With the 2PM-Jay Park scandal, fans weren’t able to create a narrative because they didn’t know what happened! No one could say for sure why Jay Park left the group. So T-ara has it worse because fans already strongly believe in their own versions of the story.

Nicholas: I still like to say that I will not judge the girls, simply because everybody can be right or wrong, depending on the perspective one looks at things. Also, the narrative is just one of chronic lying from mostly Kim Kwang-soo. Talk about fail PR, Kim Kwang-soo; now you just turned one of the nation’s most watched and beloved groups into the most hated.

Kimberley: I’m with Nabeela on this. I haven’t been a steady fan of the girls and my experience with their music has been pretty superficial — no WGM, minimal music-show appreciation, but I paid slight attention to Hyomin from season one of Invincible Youth. That said, I knew about Hwayoung’s addition to the group but by then it hadn’t made much of an impact on the image I had of T-ara. Despite all this, it came as a bit of a shock to hear of her discrimination and then subsequently, Kim Kwang-soo’s blatant accusations. I’ve seen a bit of the post-debacle revelations and this makes me think that Mr. Boss doesn’t really know what he’s getting at. As much as the people who’re invested in K-pop/entertainment are going to be the ones to please/answer to (since they’re the ones oiling the larger K-pop machines) it’s not going to work. Look at the mess that’s Kristen Stewart.

Considering what could happen in the long-term, this whole episode steeps Korean pop culture even deeper in the invasive nature that living the K-pop dream is now.

Johnelle: I think that anyone who was even a moderate fan of T-ara like myself could see something like this coming. The root of the problem is the poor management of T-ara by CCM and Kim Kwang-soo just being a horrible human being, let alone CEO of a company. Many times it seemed as though CCM really didn’t care about the members of T-ara apart from their worth as their company’s cash cows. The poor treatment of the group was seen through their grueling schedules, which often led to fatigue and fatigue-induced illnesses and injuries.

To answer Amy’s question about Hwayoung and her contributions to the group, I agree with most that her contribution was minimal — only in the last comebacks was her presence even identifiable. That being said, why did CCM even add Hwayoung to T-ara? I think they would have been fine as a six member group. I think CCM and Kim Kwang-soo added Hwayoung to T-ara in part as a punishment to the group for any complaints they had been sharing with their fans regarding their management which led to a seven way split of the share instead of six. Although I don’t condone their actions, it’s understandable that the core girls of T-ara would feel a resentment towards Hwayoung. It’s due to poor management and lack of group leadership that the resentment and bullying (if it did exist, which to some extent I believe it did) wasn’t nipped in the bud and worked out.

This whole T-ara debacle is just a comedy of PR errors on the part of CCM. I also think that the members of T-ara should have known better than to take their internal struggles to the Twitterverse. The only reason that I can think of why they would do such a thing is the age old idol downfall–they began to believe their own hype and thought of themselves and untouchable. It’s hard not to do when you’re constantly being called an idol, but what one must remember is that to their fans they must be kept in that ideal idol echelon. Once you lose that status you’re just as human as everyone else and you’re just as open to ridicule. That’s what is happening with all the netizen induced whiplash that T-ara is now experiencing. Do I believe they deserve it? No, because they are only human and their behavior is probably not much worse than other girl groups’, but those other girl groups didn’t wash all their dirty lingerie in public. So while my opinion of T-ara has slipped a few notches, I’m not going to join the witchhunt and will still continue to be a fan if they are able to weather this storm.

Nicholas: Hear hear, Johnelle. Props to you for not appropriating blame (except on Kim Kwang-soo) unlike most of twitterverse.

Salima: Sorry Johnelle, but I can’t agree that T-ara doesn’t deserve the backlash they’re now getting from fans. If it’s true that they were bullying one of their group members (and if the narrative of the defenseless Hwayoung against her groupmates is also true) then they should absolutely face the consequences. It does not matter if other groups do it. You could say the same about driving drunk. Although other idols might do it once in a while, it didn’t mean that Nichkhun was off the hook.

These girls are human, yes, but they’re also grown enough to know how to treat their fellow human beings. The excuse “they’re only human” can’t be used when its something that’s been going on for years. And if they get off with neither the backlash nor a thorough discussion about their actions, then they’ve learned nothing.

Maryse: I agree with Salima on this; I can’t agree that T-ara doesn’t deserve the backlash too. Even if Hwayoung has done something wrong against the members, or as Johnelle has said, that their behaviours’ attributed by KKS and CCM, it still doesn’t entitle them the right to bully or outcast her, be it privately or out in the public. Bullying is a social issue that cannot be condoned.

Anyway, it seems like this T-ara saga has come full circle, with Hwayoung apologising and looking like she’ll rejoin the girls. Just why oh why did you choose to walk back into the Lion’s den, Hwayoung?

Johnelle: Let me clarify my previous statement. I agree that they should be getting some backlash for their actions because frankly they were acting like a bunch of spoiled brats. I also do not condone bullying their new member because whether or not they wanted her in their group it wasn’t their choice–she was in, so they should’ve helped her out. If they had good management or a good group leader they should have made the transition for Hwayoung into the group smoother, but alas this must not have been the case.

I do not believe however, that they should be getting calls to get kicked off their solo activities (like Eunjung being asked to leave We Got Married) or that their careers should be over because of this. It’s a bit much for their largest fan cafe to have closed down, etc., but again that was that person’s choice to do so. To have netizens search for every little bit of dirt that they can about T-ara: past pics of them with old boyfriends, supposed pics of them bullying Hwayoung, etc. is just another case of a cyber witch hunt. No one knows the truth of what happened other than those involved so who are we to make judgments that would ruin their careers over hearsay? Do they really deserve to have their careers over because of squabbles within the group? If that were true, shouldn’t every girl group and boy group in K-pop be disbanded then? There’s been tons of rumors of bullying within K-pop groups for YEARS — I’m not saying it’s right, but it happens. T-ara’s major fault was that they were foolish enough (or arrogant enough to think it wouldn’t hurt them) to let their internal conflict become public.

Jasper: I’m gonna have to agree with Johnelle in this. While I agree that having some backlash is necessary as bullying is such a serious matter that really should never be condoned, some of the things being thrown out there is just going too far. Losing endorsements, having activities halted, losing some fans, or having a project tank; those punishments I would have seen as justified and would have served as good enough warnings for T-ara to re-evaluate themselves and see the consequences of their bullying. But threatening physical or emotional violence or wishing for the end of their career as I see some doing is just going way, way too far. I don’t know it it’s just me, but I consider those acts as bullying towards T-ara. I acknowledge that the people doing these acts may just be a select few and that not everyone wishing for a punishment supports this mentality, but I just see all the collective-hate as counterproductive. They’re putting T-ara in the same hateful environment as they supposedly put Hwayoung, and at the end of the day, it’s not going to do much but spread more hate and ruin even more individuals’ careers.

Dana: To answer Amy’s initial question, I never thought that Hwayoung brought anything to the group. At all. As I’ve stated many times, I’ve always thought T-ara would be just fine if there were only four members; if I was sitting across from Qri on the subway, I’d probably have no idea who she was. Similarly, I don’t think the two new members add anything, either. Dani can’t even speak Korean properly, and the addition of another main/sub-vocalist is unnecessary because Eunjung, Hyomin, and Soyeon already render Ahreum superfluous.

Can the girls recover? I honestly don’t know. At first, I wondered if this wouldn’t turn out to be similar to the KARA scandal that broke some time ago. I never thought that KARA would recover from that, but to say that they’re not thriving would be a mistake. However, the public airing-out of T-ara’s dirty laundry really hasn’t done them any favors. Whether or not the initial tweets were malicious indicators of bullying is almost irrelevant at this point, because the damage has been done. Nobody wants to believe that their idols are catty bullies, and even the slightest association with such an identifier is enough (in the K-popiverse) to justify the backlash. Personal threats are never warranted, but I do understand why T-ara are suddenly being dropped left and right from all of their endorsements.

Nicholas: Dana, I believe the context was different in the Kara case. In their case it was some bad advice by some inept lawyers to split with DSP against their wishes. The public stopped blaming them — at least, after DSP and lawyers specializing in entertainment law intervened.

Nabeela: I’d have to disagree with Johnelle–I love T-ara, but they, and CCM, got what was coming. If CCM thinks they can pull Hwayoung’s contract and career out from under her feet based on Hwayoung’s poor performance behind the scenes, base off the testimony of her staff, why shouldn’t endorsement deals and other outside contracts withdraw their commitments in the face of CCM and T-ara’s brazen unprofessionalism? It may be cruel, but an eye for an eye.

Johnelle: I think it’s ridiculous to try and pass judgement on T-ara when we all do not know what truly happened. There’s all this outcry over T-ara’s bullying, but aren’t those protesting about their behavior bullying T-ara now? I don’t believe in “an eye for an eye” because it never solves anything–it just makes everyone blind to the root of the problem. I believe more so in the saying, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Hopefully T-ara will have the opportunity to learn from this and become a better group.

Gaya: I completely agree with you, Johnelle. Barring any explicit statements made by any of the parties involved in this mess, I’m reserving my judgement. Sponsors and endorsers are going to sever ties with T-ara, but they’re only doing this because of fans in Korea demanding that they do so. And really, it’s all CCM’s fault: if they had issued the press release sooner rather than waiting for the weekend to be over, then fans wouldn’t have had all that waiting time to spend collecting “evidence” of T-ara’s alleged bullying based on T-ara’s reality TV appearances and work themselves up enough to completely explode from outrage when Kim Kwang-soo announced Hwayoung’s departure on Monday.

What irks me most about this whole affair is that the CEO is spending more time giving out exclusive interviews than he is doing damage control on the careers of the T-ara members who are still signed to his company. From the perspective of what’s best for his company, Kim Kwang-soo should be spending more time meeting and trying to smooth things over with advertisers and less time publicly slandering Hwayoung and contradicting himself at the same time. If anyone deserves scorn in this drama, it has to be Kim Kwang-sso and his company’s gross mismanagement of this whole affair (and the company itself, really).

Ambika: I agree with both Johnelle and Gaya. It’s appalling how horribly CCM has been handling the issue, so it’s no surprise that there’s bad sentiment built up. And T-ara’s fault is that they were unprofessional and let internal conflicts become external.

But a note on the “evidence:” it’s presented in an awfully convincing manner–screencaps of variety shows, fanaccounts, just information compiled from since Hwayoung joined T-ara. But it’s important to remember that everything is not only taken out of context, it’s also been edited to show specific content. We can look at a variety show like Hello Baby and see an hour’s worth of interactions, but that’s a specifically chosen amount of material that isn’t representative of everything that happens behind the scenes. And also, with shows like these, idols are putting on an image — whether it’s the bad guy, the immature one and so forth. In MBLAQ‘s season of Hello Baby, it’s probably possible to point out a multitude of instances in which Lee Joon could have been perceived as being bullied, that doesn’t come up. SHINee‘s Onew isn’t following fellow member Jonghyun and vice versa on Twitter. Should we assume they aren’t on good terms? I’m sure every idol group, after isolating certain incidents, could be seen as having internal struggles, even overly targeting members, but that isn’t always the case. It’s a bit hasty to jump to conclusions about what is actually happening with anything that can truly be called evidence, especially some “proof” like fanaccounts are lacking solid identities behind their creations. For all we know, Kim Kwang-soo could be releasing Hwayoung from T-ara so she can be successful in CCM’s subsidiary with all this newly-found support. We just don’t know.

(Images via Newsen, Yonhap News, ds3fan@Daum, Star News, Core Contents Media)