Almost a year ago I first encountered ‘K pop’ (and that was before Gangnam Style I might add) and my musical taste has never quite recovered. I should have known it was too good to be true that these extremely high quality production music videos could be getting made without someone paying the piper.
It all seems like harmless fun: the K pop idols come across as being more hard-working and modest than many of their North American counterparts. The whole phenomenon seemed to be emblematic of a newly confident 21st Century Asia. Still does.
Then as I was walking through Sydney’s World Square I noticed a familiar face in a shop that sells beauty products: Yoona from the group Girls’ Generation. Curious, I wondered what other products the group has endorsed.
Well, it turns out that Girls Generation, collectively, are rated as Korea’s single most influential product pushers. Their list of endorsements is so extensive it has its own Wikipedia page and includes Samsung, Hyundai and Philips Van Heusen, all of whom have current labour and/or environmental controversies.
These nine sirens work very, very hard at persuading people to buy stuff, without asking too many questions about where it comes from or how it is made. They, or at least their label, SMTown, are getting paid a lot to do so.
K pop stars, you see, aren’t struggling artists trying to break through the clutter. They are employees, completely owned by their record labels who find, package and then promote them relentlessly. They sign on in their teens to fifteen-year contracts. The music is all written by other people and put in front of them to sing. Their employer has the power to decide everything from what they eat to who they can date (typically no one! … sorry fellas) I’m sure they get no say over their brand endorsements either. Faust-like, they barter away their right to object when they signed on with the label. Korea has such a culture of conformity that it’s difficult to imagine a lone objector anyway.
The performers are themselves in need of better protection of their rights. Four members of another girl group, KARA, recently tried to sue their label, asserting that their contract was unfair. Essentially it made them carry the risk of poor sales and in one year each of the performers were paid just $10,000.
South Korea’s corporate hegemony could be the closest thing we can see in real life to Huxley’s Brave New World, a place where everyone cheerfully keeps the wheels of production turning without daring to ask questions. Just keep buying those cellphones and televisions thanks very much.
So when you want to point the finger, who is it that is responsible? Does the buck really stop with a handful of charming but ethically undiscriminating young ladies? Not really. The K pop idols are only so popular because of dupes who are suckered in by all the colour and movement, and all I can say is “Touchez”.
We have met the enemy, and he is us ~Walt Kelly
* Al Jazeera also looked at this issue of ‘Who’s to blame?’ only a week ago. Here is the segment: