This is a long time coming. I’ve been promising this article for a while, as a part of my Cinnamon Bubblegum series. But, with recent developments in the K-Pop industry, I think it’s pertinent that I talk about this video now.
Of course, I’m referring to the deaths of Sulli from f(x) and Goo Hara from KARA. A lot of people are saying that this is casting a light on the pressure K-Pop idols undergo. However, I think that the pressure of idols is common knowledge. The concern for me is how often K-Pop fans are willing to ignore these pressures, in order to be consumers. I think personally, that it is possible to be a healthy consumer of K-Pop. So, that is what I am going to do. I am going to use Twice’s “Likey” to explain to you how to be a healthy consumer of K-Pop.
While “Likey” a solid pop song and extremely catchy, the heart of it is in the lyrics. The song is about social media and how it becomes difficult to draw a line at the high you get from likes online, and how you take care of yourself and your mental health.
For instance, take these lyrics:
카메라에 담아볼까 예쁘게
Put on BB cream, pat pat pat
Put on lipstick, mam mam ma
Shall I make a pretty pose for the camera?
For those of you who don’t know, BB Cream is a type of makeup. It’s a combination of moisturizer and foundation. It’s extremely prevalent in Korea and other Asian countries, but is also common in American makeup.
Basically, the song talks at length about how getting dolled up to look pretty is difficult, but we do it anyway for the sake of our internet audiences. It’s very similar to the point made in the video for Sunmi’s “Noir”, though “Likey” is far more subtle about getting the point to come across.
The thing about “Likey” and Twice’s other music videos is that they don’t necessarily show the point of the video overtly. A lot of the messaging, while powerful, is toned down and made subtle. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, I want to see more overt conversation happening, but at the same time, the subtlety is key to its success. You won’t notice the message the first time around, but you’ll notice it the second time. It means that the more you watch it, the more you’ll be able to get out of it.
This is absolutely a valid approach to filmmaking of any kind. For example, take Train to Busan, the 2016 Korean zombie movie. It’s a movie about zombies, sure, but there is a prevailing amount of class imagery. The main character himself is a successful businessman, accused by characters of being a “leech” – even his own daughter says this about him. Every person who he or his daughter take the time to help, however, ends up helping them in the long term. An old woman, a homeless man, a middle class man and his pregnant wife, some high school students – all are disenfranchised in some capacity by Korean societal classism and attitudes on age and gender. In the end, it’s the people on the train who submit to these ideals on their culture that become the horror of the film, not the zombies.
Comparing a Twice video to a zombie movie is probably a strange comparison, but Korean films and music videos make use of subtlety beautifully. “Likey” is no different. In the video, you see Twice performing everyday tasks, but recording them on handheld cameras. The visuals are even “filtered” at times, which takes the girls from moderately made up and undersaturated to an oversaturated world where they’re in different outfits and playing around. Hearts appear throughout, much like an Instagram post. The album is even named “Twicetagram”.
This is a good way of communicating the ideas of the video because if you like the song and peppy visuals on the surface, you will be more interested in what’s happening underneath. Once again, this is like Train to Busan. If you like zombie movies or thrillers, you will probably enjoy this movie, and if you watch it again – because it’s Train to Busan and you love it – you will see all of the subtle hints at the real message. It’s brilliantly done for this reason. Twice’s videos all tap into this same propensity for subtlety, and because of that, they’re brilliant.
STEPS TO BEING A HEALTHY CONSUMER OF KPOP
For this next part, I’m going to be pulling elements from this video, and presenting different steps for being a good K-Pop stan.
1) LIKE, BUT REALLY, COMMENT
I already mentioned the proliferation of cameras in the video, as well as filters and social media imagery. But one moment stands out to me. The moment where Momo is sitting in a chair while everyone does her hair and smiles around her. She looks visibly uneasy. She doesn’t want to sit in this seat, but she does. This is also the part with the “BB Cream pat pat pat” lyric. She’s posing for a camera but doesn’t want to be there.
There’s a lot of hate towards K-Pop idols on the internet. Some of it is from anti-fans who hate K-Pop in general, sometimes it’s fans trying to start fan wars. Sulli from f(x) was an advocate against this behavior and ultimately, the hate against her likely contributed to her death.
We don’t really think about how the idols feel about this, and it makes sense why. Trainees often have their internet access restricted, so they don’t see the things people say about them online until a great number of people already swing one way or another. Then, they tend to refine their online appearance, the same way normal people do. They tend not to get involved in fan wars because they don’t want to antagonize people. It’s a lose-lose situation, unfortunately. If they respond, they get hate from the people hating on them. If they don’t, then they run the risk of seeming detached, and people turn against them.
So, what can we do? Well, the support on social media helps. But likes only get you so far. It’s a very superficial way of telling someone you appreciate them. Especially on Instagram, where many idols congregate – there is no dislike button or anything, so your only choices are liking or commenting to tell a singer how you feel about them. As a result, there’s a number of people in the comments that do nothing but hate on these people. The things that will catch each idol’s eye more are the comments, since that’s where people are saying how they feel, and if there is too much hate in those comments, they will start to believe the hatred.
Instead of liking a post, comment on it. Words are a far less superficial form of validation and while there is a parasocial nature to any interaction with a celebrity, the fact of the matter is it’s a good way to show that you care. It might take a little longer, and a little more effort, but when they see how much love they’re getting in place of the hate, it does something positive. It shows them that they do matter to us, collectively.
2) SPEND RESPONSIBLY
There’s a lot of consumerism in this video. Jeongyeon ogles clothes she sees in a store window, store sign imagery is rampant – even the outfits push an air of consumerism. They often look too polished for the environments these girls are in. It feels off-putting, overtly glamorous, likely on purpose.
K-Pop is ultimately an industry, which makes money off of digital sales, concert tickets, and merchandise. I’m not knocking it for that – I’m in the film industry, which makes its money off of production, movie tickets, and merchandise. I do not claim superiority over the idol industry in any way. But what film production has taught me is that I should be careful about which creators and filmmakers I should support.
I strongly dislike Stanley Kubrick’s films in great part because he as a filmmaker was a terrible person. It took me forever to watch The Shining, and when I did, it left a sour taste in my mouth anyway because I knew he was abusive to the lead female actor. The one Kubrick movie I do like, Full Metal Jacket, still leaves a sour taste because he would shoot a single shot thirty times. In his mind, the first twenty-nine times, it wasn’t perfect, but he wouldn’t give any criticism to his actors to improve it.
In my book, a director who manipulates everything to the point of being his definition of perfection to the point of mistreating his actors is not a director, but a dictator. That said, despite my misgivings, I have to acknowledge the contributions he made to filmmaking. I won’t sit on my high horse about it and negate such contributions. But I’d rather watch something like Baby Driver than sit through A Clockwork Orange.
Apply the same principle to K-Pop. Some record companies are known for mistreating their singers; some are less severe. Some idols are cruel or arrogant; some are not. I don’t believe in cancel culture, but what I do believe is thinking about why you’re spending money on something. Merch is fun and all, but I don’t know if I necessarily would’ve bought any of SeungRi’s music if I knew Burning Sun would happen.
I absolutely am willing to spend money on Twice because I think their message is incredibly positive. Songs like “Feel Special” are incredibly important in an industry that has long since relied on songs that don’t have as much dimension, and are meant to make you feel good on the surface. I feel the same about Twice as I do about ITZY and Stray Kids. So, I’ve gladly bought their music.
If you truly admire your favorite bands, no matter what record company they are from, then you should absolutely spend money on them if you want. Support the idols you most believe in, but also hold them accountable. If something doesn’t sit right with you, focus your attention somewhere more positive. Because fueling a fire of negativity won’t do any good.
It intrigues me that “Likey” depicts these K-Pop idols doing normal activities – getting ice cream, dancing in a school gym, and riding a skateboard. These singers would likely get mobbed in public if they did any of these things. But that’s the point of the video. These girls are human beings. They eat ice cream, they go to school, they do all sorts of activities we do.
There’s a lot of discussion online about whether or not K-Pop fans support an industry that is exploitative of “woke” culture when it historically treats women and minorities badly. I personally think the debate lacks perspective on both sides. On the one hand, some K-Pop fans would like to assume everything is okay and that there are no issues. On the other hand, shamelessly bashing the industry is not going to get us anywhere. Many people exist in the middle of this debate, thinking that yes the industry needs to be fixed, but that doesn’t mean we should stop listening to it. However, many of those fans tend to be quiet during these debates on the internet.
I personally exist somewhere in the middle, but I think my opinion can best be expressed this way: “Idols are people too.” To take any establishment, be it a company or industry, and say that it’s all bad because of the policies or people in power – that removes any level of nuance from the debate. More harmfully, this takes empathy away from the people directly affected – in this case, the idols. When we rope the entire industry together and say that it’s all terrible and we should steer clear of it however we can, we forget that there are people caught in this system.
Imagine that every act you did was suddenly televised. What would it do to your psyche? We all think we want success, but when we get it, we always wish we could go back. But that doesn’t make you any less of a person. I think the issue with the current debate over K-Pop is we assume that the K-Pop idols are a part of the industry and that’s where their own agency and thoughts end. Much of the debate is “The industry is bad, therefore all idols are fake,” and “My favorite idols aren’t fake, therefore the industry isn’t bad.” The issue is not black and white.
What we need to do, collectively, as fans, is this: we need to remember these idols are human beings before anything else. The industry can be cruel but we can’t forget that there are humans caught in it. We can hate on bands or companies until we’re blue in the face, but in doing so, we forget to have perspective. We can’t allow ourselves to do that.
The industry is rapidly changing, always, every day. New bands keep appearing, new record companies, new songs. Every time I go to bookstores in Koreatown, I see a new album for a younger group that I haven’t even listened to once. But the principles I’ve addressed here will likely not change. The fact that social media affects the psyche, the fact that we should spend on the singers we truly believe in, and the fact that these are people with real feelings we should be empathetic towards – these are all important things we need to keep in mind in the future.
Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara were not the first. They will probably not be the last. But it’s on us to prevent what happened to them from happening again. Where you put your likes, your comments, your money, and your love – it matters, in the end. Your voice matters as much as their music.
Let’s get to work now.