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Author Topic: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"  (Read 7104 times)

Offline Aftershok

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Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« on: December 24, 2010, 10:47:58 PM »
Hi, all. I've been a lurker on these boards and a frequent visitor of the site for years now. I've always appreciated the editorial articles here, and I want to contribute in my own little way by posting my thoughts on the increasingly pervasive and sometimes disturbing matter that I call the "Idol Culture" of East Asia (specifically Japan and Korea), an issue that I've encountered personally and not just in the context of anime. Keep in mind that this will be somewhat in the form of a rant, so please don't expect the editorial excellence and the nuanced critical viewpoints that are found in the main areas of the site! ;D

I'd like to start out by explaining a bit of my background. I'm a Korean American born in New York City currently living in the suburbs of Metro Atlanta. Culturally, I was raised very "American," I really only related myself to Korean culture through the dated and often quaint viewpoints of my parents. Most of my friends growing up were very "American" in the typical sense, aside from a circle of Korean friends that will come up later. The point is that, growing up, I was very far removed from anything popular in Korea (or Japan, for that matter) and have remained as oblivious until relatively recently.

I started really getting into anime around 2006 (beyond it being a cursory pastime since around 2004). It was around this time that boy groups and girl groups were really starting to get popular in Korea (not that they weren't popular before). Groups like Big Bang and Wonder Girls and Girls' Generation (SNSD) (consider them Korean versions of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, except often female) started to pop up and began dominating the music sales charts. My Korean friends just ate this stuff up. Soon, (and I over-simplify) everyone had their favorite SNSD girl, everyone knew which member of Wonder Girls they thought deserved more screen time, everyone had a favorite group.

I just could not understand what they were on about. Sure, the girls were attractive, the marketing was fancy, the music videos were well-edited. But there was no substance, nothing "there." These idols and their boob jobs and their pretty faces and expensive haircuts and fashionable outfits are simply vehicles to wow people into spending their money. They are ideal images that lend their voices and likenesses that are plastered over songs that are made by a technician on his MacBook. These people never talk about how difficult their bridge was to write. They never considered how different the chords were for this album compared to the last one. They are as involved in the creative process as McDonald's employees are in the cooking process. They stand there, follow instructions, and have someone else deliver the final product. They essentially, boiled-down, are devices, tools to arouse sexual tension and incite desire to buy albums, merchandise, and concert tickets. They are the result of a well-oiled corporate combine that has learned how to efficiently and quickly maximize profit. But they are human. They work insane hours, constantly are under tremendous stress to look good and act cute, and their actual cut of the massive revenue they generate is slim. And I feel awfully bad for them.

Peoples' opinions and attitudes on these groups and individuals became more than just being fans. It began to turn into obsession, idolization. These people become human mad-libs, where fans can fill in their own expectations, craft their own impossibly perfect individual, and then wonder why they themselves can't be as perfect as them. They fashion their own little Gods out of their idols and put them on their own little pedestals and regard the celebrities as some sort of higher being, an artificial and unattainable ideal that that simultaneously sparks envy and awe. They want to have their favorite idol's legs, that other girl's pretty smile, that guy's biceps, his abs. That is, until the next coolest/cutest/prettiest/catchiest thing on the block shows up. These people are cast aside like used tissues. The other day, I was riding with my Korean friend in his car. I scrolled through his iPod which was connected to his car stereo and played a Wonder Girls song, knowing that he had, at one point, enjoyed it. His response:

"Whaaat?! You still like this song? This song is like six months old already!"

Six months? Six months? The expiration date for a good song is measured in months? Not years? Decades? Do good songs ever expire? I plugged in my iPhone and put on some Beatles, Pillows, Led Zeppelin, Michael Brecker, even some rap.

"Man, these songs are so old!"
"Want me to put on Wonder Girls on your iPod again?"
"Nah, Wonder Girls are lame now. Now I like TIARA."

Then it hit me. How warped (or perhaps just different?) some of these peoples' mind-frames of entertainment were. Anything and everything is just fodder for the next thing. Kids of my generation in Korea (and undoubtedly in the West as well) are growing up in a world where stagnation is death. The next thing must be better because it is newer. Where being old-fashioned is being the enemy. Cultural ADD. Appreciation for the past and a well-placed respect for good, proven, time-tested media is "lame," "uncool." Will people still listen to these idols' songs when the listeners turn 30? 40? Will these idols still be popular when they turn old and wrinkly? How can they be when their popularity was mostly sex appeal anyway? These idols, thesepeople, are used like gasoline in the great big internal combustion engine of the Korean/Japanese music industry. (This is exactly why Kogami Akira is so bitter on Lucky Star :P). One spark, a magnificent, beautiful explosion, and then they're gone. Fizzle. That studio just waits for the next injection of gas, the next big thing. Spark. Poof. Gone.

Is it really the industry's fault? Am I saying they sit around like the board members of the Yotsuba Corp from Death Note and then plan how to most efficiently victimize their next idol? No. The studios have been backed into an economic corner by the pervasive piracy in Korea and Japan (among other things) and simply have seized the most profitable and popular course of action. Am I saying that this is some kind of uncontrollable epidemic that's corrupting the minds of all the young ones in Korea and Japan? No. To say that would be reactionary and too reminiscent of Glen Beck. Am I saying that this may be an issue worth thinking about? Something that we should keep an eye out for? Yes.

And consider the implications and similarities behind this trend to the moe craze in Japan, if you will.

And that's that. Thanks for reading. I'd be extra thankful for your responses and ideas regarding this. General critiques to my style and writing are very welcome as well! Please expect and forgive typos and  forgetting entire verbs ;D. Thanks.

Offline zzeroparticle

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #1 on: December 25, 2010, 12:02:05 AM »
You're not alone. I've ranted about this before in the past.

There really isn't much else to add beyond the soullessness of this whole idol creation process.  Everything feels manufactured to the point that the genuine expression seems absent entirely, which is why my interest in vocal music on the whole has slowly dwindled.  I think I only bother to keep track of a few Japanese artists; most others have fallen off my radar.

On another note, I must really be an uncool person since most of the music I listen to outside of video game and anime music is made by white men who've been dead for over hundreds of years =p

Offline The Big Guy

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #2 on: December 25, 2010, 01:07:02 AM »
Just a few random thoughts:

Though I don't truly understand the situation in Japan and Korea, I can say that this is a world wide phenomenon, not just an East Asian one. You even mention it in your post, the idols in Korea are very similar to our idols in the U.S. Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Wham, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittany Spears, The Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, and most recently Justin Bieber were, and  are all pop idols from their respective eras. It's a different target audience of course, men in Japan/Korea, teenage girls here, but the idea is the same. Sex sells everywhere, so the idea of idolization exists mostly everywhere.

You ask in your post why do pop idol's songs get old so quickly, and then you answered your own question. The problem is that most idols only have sex appeal, no actual talent. The only idols that are remembered are the ones that actually are talented, particularly the ones who write their own songs. The best example of this is Michael Jackson. He was a pop idol all of his career, why do we remember his music while so many others have been forgotten? Here's the thing, he was a genius. He wrote his own music, he was an amazing dancer, he still will always be the king of pop. Same thing with the Beatles, they were originally writing songs like Love Me Do and I Want To Hold Your Hand. They should have been forgotten like the rest of the British Pop era, but they were so talented that when they matured musically, they became the greatest music group to walk this earth. Can most idols claim this? The answer is no, you mention it yourself with your analogy. And so, they are unfortunately forced to languish in obscurity. They should have chosen a different business.

This was an excellent post, by the way, keep it up.
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Offline Aftershok

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #3 on: December 25, 2010, 11:15:02 AM »

First of all, I'm flattered you took the time to respond and glad you think similarly. I enjoy your posts on Anime Instrumentality and here on NHRV and appreciate what you do here. I must have missed that particular post you linked to, and I must say that you make some excellent points, although I don't entirely agree with your insinuation that the seiyuu involved in those sorts of endeavors are inherently and unilaterally talentless. It's just that any semblance of talent they may have is saddled with an atrocious expiration date and is exploited until they're squeezed dry. And I don't think your tastes are uncool at all! Classical music (which I assume you mean when you say songs written by old white men that have been dead for hundreds of years) is full of harmonic and melodic nuances and careful layering of textures that merits multiples of multiples of relistenings (even if the harmonic progressions are a bit dated and conventional by today's standards, they were the pioneers for many of the sounds we hear today). I don't have any qualms with classical music and don't think anyone should.

Big Guy, I generally agree with you, and you make some good points, but I'd like to clear up some things that you may have not have noticed that are different between the "western idols" you named and the current wave of idols in the East. Please note I'm typing this on my iPhone in the car so excuse mistakes! Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were undoubtedly idols of their time. People copied Ringo's haircut, Michael's dance moves, and girls swooned over Elvis like nobody's business. But their music, their lifestyles, their works endured. Their physical appearances were exceeded by their talent and creative passion. Everybody else you mention I entirely agree with, though. We will have to to see whether or not Justin Bieber will stand the test of time. Will he still steal the hearts of girls nationwide when his voice deepens and his balls drop? It remains to be seen.

I had written a bit more, but being on my iPhone and all I lost the little section at the bottom after my session timed out. Shuffling back and forth between windows on mobile safari while writing this in the car wasn't fun haha. The gist of the rest of it was that I agreed with you so no worries ;).

And thank you for the kind words! On Christmas no less. I'll expand this response when I get to a real computer :)
« Last Edit: December 25, 2010, 12:33:38 PM by Aftershok »

Offline C0MPL3X

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #4 on: December 26, 2010, 01:14:24 AM »
I don't know about Japanese music industry but what you say about current Korean music industry is absolutely true Aftershok.

The trend I see is kinda 'hit and run' strategy. Groups would release quick and easy mini albums or digital singles, which would be mass hyped by various variety shows and mainstream music programmes, and also played 24/7 around even in shops and cafes. And I mean 24/7. Last time I went to Korea, literally everywhere I go there were trendy idol songs playing around me it almost drove me crazy. And people do eat those stuff up.

There are genuine artists that are composing by themselves, injecting their own things, and making money off albums and not through selling themselves on comedy shows, etc. Like Drunken Tiger, whose controversial and daring move to release double album at a time like this, earned people's respect and it sold considerable amounts of copies. BUT, it couldn't have been possible without his appearance on a very famous comedy program, where he produced a single track with the host, which promoted his image and music.

It's not fair to say this is a world phenomenon, because at least in places like US there are opportunities for genuine bands like Maroon5 to just concentrate on albums and tours, and their fans of the world can more than support them. In Korea, it's EXTREMELY hard for real musical artists to survive with just albums and performances. There's just not enough people who can appreciate music like that AND spend money on something they can get it for free. I hate to say this but our Korean mentality is very CHEAP, and if we can get it free then most of us will get it free, and being one of the most wired and technologically savvy country in the world, we will abuse it.

The truth is that most idols you see right now aren't even trying to become real artists. What they really want is just stardom, and they're using this opportunity as a launching platform. Look at Daesung from Bigbang or Taekyun from 2pm, what they really want is proving their wit and humour, and ability to lead, so that they can act as MCs in a number of variety programs, where more money is coming from. Even the well respected Yoon Jong-shik has turned more into a comedian (the always running gag is how he's ditched his music to earn more money). To survive as a real artist, even the most recognised need some support from the media and variety programs.

It's not that I hate SNSD or Tiara, I find them cute and delicious myself (o those legs *drools) but yea they aren't really MUSIC, if music, they're not organic music, but machinic, artificially manufactured for the masses.

edit: <--random live version

another thing I found interesting was someone's observation that, idol groups look more like elite trained troops. Competition to get selected into one of these bands is insanely fierce, so these girls you see here are the scary survivors who risen to the top out of many trainees through vigorous training under watchful eyes of the producers. And as you've mentioned, they get very little pay, the agencies get vast majority of the profit. What lies behind those innocent eyes it's better not to know maybe.
« Last Edit: December 26, 2010, 01:34:04 AM by C0MPL3X »

Offline DrIdiot

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #5 on: December 26, 2010, 03:13:13 PM »
I think there are good musicians that end up coming out of Japan though.  For example, Shiina Ringo/Tokyo Jihen are pretty good in my book -- I can't think of a Western band like them.  I think Japanese rock has also moved past being derivative; it definitely has its own character, in a sense (e.g. The Pillows, Asian Kung-Fu Generation).  The jazz scene in Japan is also significant (relative to jazz, I mean) -- you have semipopular jazz bands like Pimp&Soil and also internationally acclaimed musicians like Hiromi Uehara and Junko Onishi.  A friend of mine with similar tastes tells me there are also good artists (not jazz -- I think Japan might be the only Asian country that likes jazz) coming out of Korea, but I don't know.  I'm going to leave Korea out of the rest of my post (sorry) because I don't know anything about Korea.

I think it's interesting that China wasn't mentioned (maybe people are only comfortable ragging on their own cultures).  I think the situation in China (closely followed by Taiwan) is actually worse.  I've heard very little original music come out of China.  It's basically all pop, and while it's not the same kind of sex-driven pop like in Japan/Korea (because Chinese culture is still more conservative, I guess), it's still not musically interesting.  There are a few rock bands in Taiwan that are mostly derivative and don't offer anything I can't get from Japan or even America, and there are some "indie" artists that have a more folksy approach (Cao Fang, Cheer Chen) I guess.  But so far, the only band I can call (subjectively, of course) both original and good is Carrchy (卡奇社), which is a blend between traditional Chinese music and electronica that's sits oddly well with me.

My (not well-thought-out and probably incorrect) theory is that the creativity of music coming out of a region has to do with its prosperity, size, and openness.  Eastern Asia, up until fairly recently (compared to say, America or Britain) has seen its share of hard times.  Specifically, we all know China didn't really open up until Deng Xiaoping (I think) in late 70s (and went through things like Cultural Revolution/Great Leap Forward), and martial law in Taiwan was not lifted until the late 80s (though, there was definitely Western contact going on before then -- but Taiwan is only a small island).  By contrast, reconstruction in Japan started pretty much immediately after WWII.  I don't know about Korea -- maybe that's a counterexample.  It's interesting also because if you think about it, the blues were pretty much was born out of suffering, and pretty much all American popular music is rooted in the blues.  Thoughts?

Offline Aftershok

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Re: Thoughts on the East Asian "Idol Culture"
« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2010, 04:47:25 PM »
COMPL3X, thanks for your input, and I agree that it's a real shame that the survival rate for indie groups is so low in Korea. I am aware of the critical role the variety shows play in the dynamics of the music industry in Korea, and, suffice to say, it doesn't exactly encourage sophisticated songwriting. It's rather interesting how pivotal an appearance on those shows is, I hear that's many idols' main source of income and a huge boon for groups/individuals that are on the rise. Nailing an appearance on the shows often results in record deals, I hear. I like your idea of a 'hit and run' strategy, and, yes, those songs are played constantly,everywhere. Watching the weekly popularity concerts they hold to see which group gets the most votes is quickly becoming a weekly ritual for many of my friends, and almost for me, too, considering how often they're played on the TV's of Korean restaurants.

I don't think it's become a world phenomenon quite yet, but the seeds have been sowed for something similar happening in the US (read: Bieber, Cyrus, Jonas), and it seems to me the trends have shifted towards quick profit over enduring quality. Just curious to ask why you think it's not as much an issue elsewhere?

And I wasn't aware that many idols want to give up music entirely, but it doesn't surprise me. MC's (like the big guy with the buzz cut, forget his name, he's on like EVERYTHING) do seem to have a lot of the limelight. And you're absolutely right about artists not being able to live off their talent for music alone, they have to be charismatic, good-looking, funny... and witty on variety shows. And, yes, some of those SNSD girls are... yes... very attractive...

And I wouldn't be surprised if many of them are a stone's throw from being like Akira Kogami  ;).

DrIdiot, thanks for your insight on Japan, and I'm glad you brought these points up. I'm sorry if it came across as if I thought that nothing good was coming out of these nations. I was trying to convey how the quality was being suffocated by mass-market drivel (albeit starring very good-looking people). Let me just say that I'm a HUGE jazz nerd and a HUGE Pillows fan. I've played saxophone for a solid 10 years now, and the training I received regarding advanced harmony/melody relationships and music theory that went hand-in-hand with an education in jazz and improvisation had a lot to do with the shallowness and unsophistication I feel in these songs. I'm the sort of huge music nerd that cannot be satisfied with a song I really like until I've analyzed it harmonically and memorized the chords and melody on piano (thankfully, not too many songs tickle my fancy to that extent  ;)).

Also, let me assure you that there's a robust Jazz community in Korea (Danny Jung, enough said) and was subsequently enthralled with Cowboy Bebop's soundtrack (I've analyzed "Tank!" to death). I'm aware of the excellent jazz and rock content coming out of both these countries (like I mentioned, I love the Pillows to death), but cannot help but feel that all these genres are influenced at least in one way or another by idol pop.

I don't know a thing about the modern Chinese music scene, but (if you'll allow me to insert a totally uninformed, ignorant opinion) I can't help but feel it's being held back (if not actively censored to an extent) by the government. I feel much music is created from a spirit of rebellion, while in China, any rebellious or anti-government sentiment is stamped out like a smolder in a haystack. I shouldn't judge, because I don't know anything  ;D.

I think it's very interesting how countries that were influenced by America musically during the 20th century never quite let go of their own heritages in regard to musical style. Pop and rock music in Mexico and other South American countries still have a certain Latin tinge around the edges, Indian popular music has a certain ethnic edge, and now you bring up the point about China and their music exhibiting a similar trait. You make an excellent point that seems to go hand-in-hand with this, that a land's history has a huge impact on the music it produces today. Korea, after that little snafu called the Korean War, had a cultural and economic explosion that's been dubbed the "Miracle on the Han River" due to Korea's meteoric rise on the world stage from being basically nothing to a serious player (read: Samsung, Hyundai) in the span of 50 or so years. Similar in vein to Japan's Meiji Restoration, but without all the... earth-shattering social upheavals haha. I regard to the music they make today, I believes it shows Korea's desire to surge on ahead and entirely embrace modernity and contemporary culture with only as much as a passing acknowledgement of the past, which wasn't pretty, by the way, large thanks to the terrible atrocities committed by Japan).

I'm thrilled you bring up the blues, as the history and development of which is a specialty of mine. And yes, nearly all popular music today has some ancestor in the blues era (and ragtime too, but w/e).

Thanks for your input!
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