For those of you who can’t find the Straits Times article/are curious about it, here’s the full article!
(cr: Straits Times, of course)
This is the article:
“In David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, there is a futuristic segment set in Korea where a corpocracy rules the land. Advances in bioengineering have allowed human creatures called fabricants to be bred as workers. Physically, they are perfect specimens – with identical, beautiful faces but without any higher consciousness. When they run out the course of their productive lives, they are destroyed.
I found this section of the book particularly disturbing. It is a chilling study of how a capitalist totalitarian society exploits the weak and turns humans into robots for money. Everything looks happy on the surface but beneath, it’s maggots and rotten meat.
Recently, I got a taste of Mitchell’s dystopian view – at a K-pop fan meet of super-band TVXQ.
What’s a fan meet? It is a shrunken version of a concert, with only a handful of live performances. Interspersed with the song-and-dance numbers are screenings of music videos and sanitised Q&A sessions.
To any disinterested observer, it was a blatant rip-off. To the fans, it was like communing with the gods. It was a uniquely depressing experience but during the show, I couldn not put my finger on the reason.
Could it have been the dead-eyed way the pop princes answered questions from stuttering fans about their favourite Singaporean food? Or the well-choreographed dance moves they executed, without a glitch, to songs scientifically engineered to stick onto your brain like a leech?
Then, it dawned on me. They are fabricants. Singing, dancing fabricants.
But I am being unfair on TVXQ. They are not the only K-pop group to have infiltrated the consciousness and fantasies of teenagers in Asia and beyond.
A lot has been made about the Hallyu Wave, the unstoppable South Korean pop culture tsunami that has washed up on the shores of the world, conquering music charts, television ratings and the wall space of adolescents’ rooms.
I am heartily sick of it. Every bit of it. The manufactured sounds, the ersatz emotions, the clone-like stars, the cult-like, weepy fandom.
My more moderate friends point out that teen idols from the East and the West were never the vanguard of musical experimentation. Neither did they inspire devotion from level-headed people.
Before your Super Juniors of 2AMs, there were cheesy boybands such as Backstreet Boys in the noughties and the Partridge Family from the 1970s.
But of all the decades of cashing in on teenagers’ hormonal urges, the K-pop phenomenon seems the most coldly cynical and formulaic. Compared to the uniformity of the Korean stars, Backstreet Boys seem like veritable bastions of individuality.
Part of the reason is because the Korean record labels have gotten their star-making formula down to a T.
This seems to be the drill: Train some nice-looking kids in a star factory. Assemble a group of them. Give them a name that is an abbreviation for something or just a random collection of letters and numbers.
The girls must have stick-thin arms and legs and the boys must look a bit like girls. Next, produce a song that is the demon child of lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas. Throw in Autotune, hip-hop beat and strong synth lines. Make a video that is a mini movie, featuring the stars doing synchronised dance moves while the back-up dancers gurn at the sides.
Voila! You have a viral hit.
For the record, I have nothing against pre-packaged happy, shiny music. In fact, I think there is something heroic and wonderful about the wilfully plasticky and fake.
But my quarrel with K-pop is not only with the aesthetic aridity of its products but with how nasty it can get. For one thing, the Mafia-like way the record companies exploit their stars and audience is chilling.
The industry has long been stalked by controversy around ‘slave’ contracts that tie trainee stars to long exclusive deals with poor pay and little control.
Incidentally, three of TVXQ’s five members took their record label to court because their 13-year contract was too long, restrictive and gave them little profit. The boys won and left to form their own group, JYJ.
Admittedly, it is hard to feel sorry for pop stars (‘It’s sad to hear that being adored by millions prevents you from taking public transport’), but in my rare maternal moments, I worry about these starlets who are worked to the bone and whose careers last as long as their good looks. Then they are discarded like rag dolls.
Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry.
Recently, watching a sea of red lightsticks keeping beat to a song made me and my companion grab on to each other. Eyes wide in terror, we communicated wordlessly for fear of persecution. Our faces said this: ‘Are we at a cult gathering?’
K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate.
Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals. Yun Ho from TVXQ famously had an anti-fan spike his drink with super glue and had to have his stomach pumped.
Those are just the haters. There are those who profess love by cutting themselves and writing letters in blood, before sending their bloody epistolary packages to their idols.
Admittedly, these are the extreme cases. But I also wonder if anti-fan behaviour is encouraged by the record label to generate more publicity for their artists.
Who knows? Still, it is undeniable that K-pop exerts a hypnotic pull. It is unstoppable. It is a virus that spreads like fire over the radio, on television and in ringtones.
I know this because I had to do research for this article and listen to a lot of fabricants perform their music. Before I know it, the melodies have wormed their way into the folds of my grey matter, made my synapses misfire, caused me to lose control of my wrist on the computer mouse – till I am clicking on the same video in YouTube again and again, staring glassy-eyed at my screen, alone, at four in the morning.
‘Resist!’ the sentient part of my brain cried softly. To which Super Junior cheerily replied: ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…’
1) Corpocracy = where a corporation or a company is the governing body of a country.
2) Cult = a religion of fervent worship of something
Fun challenge! Pick one or do both, up to you.
1) Amongst her profound sentences with astounding vocabulary are typo errors. Spot them.
2) Name all the bands that she insults, whether blatantly or subtly.
Thanks to @_oppalovesyou for typing it out