As an Asian-American, Korean popular music which is widely known as K-pop, was never unknown to me. Like any other form of music, K-pop was always there – so the recent surge of coverage in American media is somewhat odd. It’s as if America is a late bloomer to anything outside of America and now we’re watching the west try to play catch up with the K-pop wave, which has already made its home around the rest of the world. K-pop blew up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and has become better known in recent years for its flashy choreography, vibrant colors, and meticulously put together groups.
And every few months, an examination of K-pop’s “dark side” appears.
The K-pop industry is notorious for its treatment of its stars, referred to as idols. Idols are celebrities who have undergone extensive training (dance, vocal, media, etc.) and are produced by a company. This isn’t actually restricted to just Korea as China and Japan also have idols, but a lot of the whispers about the K-pop industry are more popularized. Rigorous years of training, strict dating rules, lack of autonomy – the infamous “factory manufactured idol” is common knowledge. The discussion that “idols are like robots” is had every time a K-pop act blows up and it’s unavoidable, especially considering how prevalent it is in the industry. Scandals from prostitution to abuse fill the crevices of the industry.
But the strangest thing to me, is why there is such a fixation on the salaciousness of the K-pop industry.
Now don’t get me wrong – that’s not to defend the industry. As a matter of fact, I actually don’t even really like K-pop. In the same way I can name maybe Shania Twain as the only country singer I ever listened to actively, I can name maybe two K-pop groups I listen to regularly. But there’s something uncomfortable about the American media pushing that K-pop idols are nothing more than puppets and robots and then Hollywood shoe horning Asians into roles where they are unfeeling robotic entities who have no autonomy in their lives.
The stereotype of Asians being docile isn’t anything new as Asian women are often touted as submissive and obedient in media and Asian men are often shown as undesirable because they’re not as “masculine” as other races. So it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Americans are looking at K-pop idols as something with no autonomy or voice.
Therein lies an inherent problem with American reporting on the K-pop industry and it’s the tendency to other Asians based on racist stereotypes. Because of these caricatures of Asians, American media is having a difficult time acknowledging the boom of the K-pop industry and is incapable of separating K-pop from the racist lens they have of Asians. They can’t help but look for negatives because that is what supports their preferred narrative.
Often people look at the K-pop industry scandals and comment “wow how can Koreans let that happen!” and “I don’t understand that culture”. The most popular arguments fall under the notion that the same scandals just don’t happen in the American music industry.
I’m here to tell you that it does – you’re just not paying attention because it’s American.
The recent Britney Spears documentary, Framing Britney Spears, has sparked a conversation online about the safety of American musicians. People are flooding to Spears’ support (and rightfully so), but the most commonly asked question is “how could anyone let this happen?” Unfortunately, Spears’ struggle against her family for independence isn’t private knowledge. It’s been public knowledge since 2008, when her father received control over her financial assets. For over 10 years Spears’ situation has been reported time and time again, but only now is it finally being acknowledged. It isn’t rare for injustices in the American music industry to be glossed over.
Michael Jackson, a legendary music icon, will forever be associated with Leaving Neverland, a documentary following the stories of the survivors of his sexual abuse toward minors. But that doesn’t stop anyone from playing his music at family events or his media presence even after death. Surviving R.Kelly is a documentary that details the decades of sexual abuse R.Kelly got away with in the music industry – and he did it all in plain sight. R.Kelly’s infamous sex tape depicted him engaging in sexual acts with a minor and instead of reprimanding him for it, it was turned into a part of culture. From Dave Chapelle’s skits to homages in other songs, R.Kelly’s sexual abuse was well-known, especially among those in the music industry. And in the year of 2021, he still hasn’t answered for his crimes.
Pop singer Ke$ha suffered emotional abuse and gender discrimination at the hands of her music producer, Dr. Luke and still hasn’t won her lawsuits. Dr. Luke continues to make music for acts like Doja Cat, Kim Petras, and more.
Simon Cowell, known for acts like One Direction and Fifth Harmony, has a reputation of taking away the creative freedom (overall freedom really) from his artists and setting up “slave contracts”. A contract leak showed that One Direction were not allowed to speak poorly of him, and two members suffered from anxiety while in the group. A recording from a member of Fifth Harmony was leaked where one of the members states “They are making decisions on a regular basis to fuck us over, to make us literal slaves, like literally slaves” while being comforted by another member. None of this seems to impact Cowell’s career as he continues to land gigs as a judge on music shows and creating new bands.
The list goes on from P. Diddy’s alleged slave contracts to Megan Thee Stallion suing her record label in order to release new music.
So why don’t Americans spotlight these issues in the same way? In the same way that Koreans might say “well that’s how it is in the industry”, Americans turn a blind eye to the injustices in the American music industry as well. It is a well known fact that the American music industry is predatory, but it is chalked up to a “dog eat dog world” – if you want success you have to suffer for it. If American musicians are being controlled and media manufactured, it is because that’s the price they must pay for fame.
But it’s much easier to be critical of something in another country than it is to be critical of something in your own country. It’s easier to look at another country and say “that’s wrong and something should change” because you’re not expected to act with that knowledge. When looking at your own country and saying “that’s wrong something and should change” that responsibility falls on the people in that country. By writing narratives about docile Asians who must be controlled and pairing that with the rise of the K-pop industry, while also ignoring that the same plights are had in the American music industry, it becomes xenophobic.
While there’s nothing wrong with exploring the negative intricacies of the K-pop industry, it is xenophobic when the lens is directed at it only because it is an “other”. I wish American media would focus less on the problems in another country’s music industry and more on the problems in our own music industry, but that also asks for American reporters to step back and reexamine their biases. That will probably take another ten years or so. In reality all I can ask is that anyone reading this understands that when being critical of another country, first think about whether or not you are critical of the same thing in your country. If you struggle with this thought, then that should give you the answer.