Fairly recently, BTS has been enshrouded in controversy due to the seemingly misogynistic messages they have expressed in their song lyrics and tweets. Since idols are public figures, we often think of them as individuals who must take extra care in their conduct so that their behavior does not negatively influence the impressionable youth that typically make up their fanbase.
With the criticism we often see in relation to idols’ mistakes, there is an implication that the messages idols put out are indeed influential. Thus, it seems that one can safely assume that idols’ positive messages positively influence the rest of society, while the converse is criticized and acknowledged as issues that must be addressed. With the BTS issue, it seems that the voices of the disappointed fans were adequately addressed by BTS’s agency Big Hit Entertainment, and suggests that both BTS and Big Hit will now make sure not to buy into problematic societal perspectives. This makes us wonder: Do you think K-pop can be an avenue for societal change in Korea?
Another interesting thing to consider is that BTS is seemingly a group with considerable artistic freedom because they write their own music and lyrics. However, other groups do not have this luxury. How then do we consider material from the groups whose concepts and music are created for them by their companies? Can we separate the looming figure of the controlling company from the material they put out?
Sydney: I think BTS’s situation is definitely proof of K-pop’s potential to create changes in Korean society — even if not on a large scale. Problems were brought up, acknowledged, and addressed. What I find most interesting is that Big Hit Entertainment seems to acknowledge the presence of social influences on BTS themselves, and also that the messages BTS sends out presents to consumers of their music what is acceptable and what is not. Also, with BTS (mostly) helming their own music, the messages they put out through it seem all the more potent.
On the other hand, I don’t know what to think about the messages companies express through their idols. An example that comes to mind is Sistar, a group whose positive expression of female sexuality is both refreshing but confusing to me. I’m unable to separate what they stand for through their music knowing that everything was decided by a company that’s trying —and succeeding — to make money at the end of the day.
Madi: In some ways, I feel like this is a double-edged sword. In one way, you have freedom of expression and that appeals to the “artistic” view of things. For most, I think that’s the appeal of BTS. They’re able to create songs hitting on issues and the world hears it. But when you tell someone they have “artistic” freedom to create, but then give too many rules about what they can and can’t do, it’s not quite freedom is it? There’s this sense of a too much political correctness where now everything and anything will offend or trigger someone.This outlook isn’t limited to K-pop.
It can definitely serve as a change because I feel the music across the world influence each other. It’s making Korea think about concepts they might have been okay in their culture, but in the reality of things, it may not have been okay at all.
Interestingly enough, I think people forget that not all concepts are endorsed by the artist themselves. For example, BTS’s “Boy in Luv,” which is a part of this issue of how some of the members treated the female in the video, Jin‘s part where he pushes the girl against the locker. It may never be known if one doesn’t watch the behind the scenes, but Jin repeatedly apologized to the girl after they completed that scene.
I think to avoid issues like what BTS seems to constantly become entangled in, that’s why companies decide what songs artist put out. Sure it might not feel too genuine because it makes an idol a robot and just outputting orders thus the personal touch is gone, but in doing so, they can control more so what’s being said to make sure no one is triggered or will be up in arms. But someone, somewhere will be offended anyway.
But it’s good to voice concerns and it’s better when they’re heard, but part of being a good fan is understanding at times you will disagree and may not like what your idol puts out. Friendships, relationships… they all work this way If no one ever had a complaint and everyone got along, the world would be a really scary place.
Gaya: Like other forms of media, K-pop is a tool to be wielded in whichever way by the user. The SK government knows this very well, and is using K-pop as a cultural export in its quest for soft power. That’s one way to use K-pop, and pushing for social change is another. But it’s up to the people in K-pop if they want to enact that or not. There are definitely examples we can point to in K-pop, like Sunny Hill‘s “The Grasshopper Song” and the MV for K.Will‘s “Please Don’t,” and there will be more of those in the future, as well.
I consider BTS to be a group that focuses on social messages, in which case I see no problem in fans critiquing that aspect. Ideally, there would be a fluid conversation with room for nuance, like Jonghyun‘s conversation with Nine, and later, a fan on Twitter, but that is not always the reality. Hashtag campaigns may feel blunt, but they can be an effective way to amplify voices, so that companies may hear them. And with some things, like the N word, a conversation may not be as needed as a simple “STOP.”
Companies cashing in on social movements is a cynical move that can sometimes be a reality — JYPE wants Miss A to tell you that they don’t need a man to buy them things, but it’s OK if they’re peeping toms. But ultimately it is up to us, how we deal with that inconsistency. We can petition our faves to change, so that we can continue them guilt-free, remain fans of our ‘problematic biases,’ simply drop them until they get a clue, or something else. I agree with Madi in that we can’t make people to change their views merely for the sake of it; but that doesn’t mean we have to silently accept the status quo, either.
Qing: Going off what Gaya said, I feel that it’s difficult for K-pop to really enact social change or change that is enduring, and not just because we can’t make people change their views. Social issues and prejudices are extremely pervasive and run so deep that it’s hard to get to the root of the system and erase the hegemonic forces driving them. The most K-pop can do, and what I hope it will continue to, is to raise public awareness and spark discussions.
The case of Jonghyun, Nine, and his Twitter fan that Gaya mentioned is an example of how enduring change is difficult to enact or sustain. The conversation was nuanced and mature, and Jonghyun was receptive towards what his fan explained about the pedestalisation of women as a form of benevolent sexism, in his case, by treating them as muses. However, while I was working on the Mid Year Review on albums, I couldn’t help noticing that many songs off She Is continue to express their female subjects as muses. I appreciated the artistry of the album, but the lyrics make me wonder if that conversation with his fan was really able to change Jonghyun’s perspective.
Madi: Women don’t usually run into a lot of controversy with lyrics or if we do, we rarely hear about them right? At least personally, it seemed males get in trouble for lyrics, but not women.
Qing: I was just thinking about this disparity between the genders in terms of the ability to promote social change. It seems that the voices of female artists often do not register, or when they do, they are delegitimised by the prejudiced view of women as “too emotional”. For instance, Lee Michelle‘s debut MV, “Without You“, took the issue of race head-on with powerful, poignant images of a little girl powdering her face white, capturing her desire to mask her skin colour and fit in. But there wasn’t really a sense that her voice registered, and a few years down the road, we continue seeing instances of blackface and other racially insensitive behaviour and speech in the Korean entertainment industry.
I also think of a recent example, Younha‘s “Get It“. As Chelsea mentioned in her review, the MV is a critique of the double standard that plagues women who show their frustration. The song and video takes a stronger tone and image than most of Younha’s earlier music. But she was flooded with malicious comments attacking her for departing from the “former Younha” and ultimately shut down her Twitter.
Gaya: I didn’t know that happened to Younha, that’s terrible! I guess that’s the flip side of voicing our opinions, especially when we are in disagreement with an idol’s work — taking the criticism too far. I remember Ga-in copping similar flak after the shower teaser for her single “fxxk u.” Up until then she had been showered with praise for ‘not being like other girls’ and using sex to sell her music. But that has since passed, and I hope it’s the same for this sentiment about ‘former Younha.’
There have definitely been times where a female act’s lyrics have caused controversy (like Twice‘s “Cheer Up” and IU‘s “Zeze“), but I think Qing has a point about their voices being drowned out. More often than not, girl groups get into controversies over more visual elements like dance moves and outfits. But whatever it is, I think there is a different reaction when it is a female idol involved.
We accept that men perpetuate sexism because they benefit from it; but when a woman, who does not benefit from sexism, is seen as perpetrating it, we’re sometimes not sure how to explain it. Maybe it’s the men who wrote the lyrics, created the choreography, directed the MV, using these women and girls for their own ends. Or, the female idols have full agency and have chosen to go down this path. It’s this dichotomy that The Entertainment Pascal seems to capitalise on with Stellar, the girl group that caters to the male gaze but is empowered by doing so.
That’s all from us. Any thoughts or comments you want to add? Sound out below!
(Images via JYP Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, Loen Entertainment, C9.)