K-Pop's Moment Of Truth
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 11, 2019
South Korea’s squeaky clean export is reckoning with an unprecedented scandal
Matthew Campbell and Sohee Kim
If K-pop has a spiritual home, it’s probably SMTown. Operated by SM Entertainment Co., the six-story complex in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district is a high-tech shrine to South Korea’s most successful cultural export. The lobby walls are covered with framed black-and-white headshots of SM’s “idols,” as K-pop stars are known. By the elevators are hundreds of Polaroid-style portraits of the same artists in a more candid light, albeit with skin so touched up it appears carved from marzipan.

The centerpiece of SMTown is a museum honoring the label’s most prominent groups. There’s an extensive section for Super Junior, a 13-member boy band that was one of K-pop’s first big-ticket acts, and another for Girls’ Generation, a syrup-sweet ensemble that flirted with global stardom thanks to mixed-language tracks such as I Got a Boy. (“I got a boy/ Cool!/ I got a boy/ Nice!/ I got a boy handsome boy!”) There are also several displays for SHINee, a five-member male group. Or rather, a formerly five-member male group. In December 2017, lead singer Kim Jong-hyun died by suicide in a Seoul apartment. “The depression slowly chipped away at me, finally devouring me,” he wrote in a final note. “It wasn’t my path to become world-famous. … It’s a miracle that I endured all this time.” Kim was 27; had he been revered in the West, he might have been remembered in the same breath as other megastars, such as Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse, who died at that age. But at SMTown, Kim’s death never happened. An otherwise detailed chronology of the band makes no mention of it; on one side of the relevant date he’s in the photos, and on the other he isn’t.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to call this a metaphor for K-pop’s core bargain with its audience, but it wouldn’t be completely wrong, either. K-pop depends on a highly controlled relationship with fans. The idol, the genre’s base unit of stardom, is gestated from adolescence through years of grueling training. When he’s ready to meet his public, his labels place him in a group, flowing his image and voice into the music, video, and social media streams of fans across East Asia. The ideal idol has a moral record as unblemished as his pores, eschewing drugs, gambling, and public misbehavior of any kind. While female groups employ the usual male-gaze clichés—the flirty schoolgirl, the doe-eyed ingénue—the frank sexuality of a Rihanna or a Lady Gaga would be unthinkable. And even though many, many K-pop songs are about relationships and breakups, labels often discourage dating. What the music loses in edge, it more than gains in marketability. Korea and Japan are conservative societies in many ways, and China, a nascent market, often bans foreign acts it deems negative influences.

But the wall of virtue collapsed this year, thanks to a scandal that continues to grip the industry. It began in January, after a man said he’d been beaten by guards for trying to stop a sexual assault at Burning Sun, a Seoul nightclub partly owned by Seungri, one of K-pop’s most bankable stars. The claims spiraled into a series of overlapping allegations related to sex trafficking, date rape, spy-camera recordings, and bribery. Seungri and several other idols are under criminal investigation, while the founder of YG Entertainment Inc., the label responsible for K-pop’s first global crossover hit, Gangnam Style, resigned as a result of the turmoil. Prosecutors, meanwhile, opened an inquiry into whether police had been running interference for stars, ignoring reports of sexual assault and allowing venues such as Burning Sun to function as hubs of predatory behavior.

The scandal shone an unflattering light on the idol system, which elevates artists from tightly regimented training schools to stardom in their early 20s with money and fame to burn. It’s also triggered a larger debate about the treatment of women in South Korea, huge numbers of whom face harassment, assault, or surveillance by molka, or spycams, which are routinely discovered in hotel rooms and public bathrooms.

Given K-pop’s titanic cultural and economic significance—the revenue of the four largest K-pop companies in 2018 was about $1.1 billion, according to music export agency DFSB Kollective—a real change in how it operates could shift attitudes in South Korea as a whole. But in a country where social progress often lags behind technological and material advancement, no one is getting their hopes up. For women in South Korea, “it’s a desperate situation,” says Sim Sang-jeung, a lawmaker and former presidential candidate who’s pushed for stronger protections against assault. At Burning Sun, “police and the authorities tried to protect those who have power and conceal crimes,” she says. “In women’s daily lives, nowhere feels safe.”

For most of his career, Seungri, whose real name is Lee Seung-hyun, stayed within K-pop’s guardrails. Born in the southern city of Gwangju, he made his debut at 15 as part of Big Bang, YG’s first attempt at an international idol act. Reception was initially mixed, but the group eventually became one of K-pop’s biggest names. Seungri, who has a square jaw, thick hair, and prominent dimples, began releasing solo work and became one of the most recognizable Korean celebrities—staying popular even after a 2012 “sex scandal” sparked by a Japanese magazine’s report that while spending time in the country he’d … had sex. He appeared in Korean and Japanese movies and variety shows, and in 2018 embarked on his first solo tour, to support his album The Great Seungri, whose cover depicted him in a Gatsby-esque tuxedo.

Even as he reached the heights of Korean entertainment, Seungri faced a looming challenge. All South Korean men must serve in the military for up to two years—understandable, in a country still formally at war with its northern neighbor. K-pop stars tend to defer service for as long as they can, but they must, almost without exception, enter the military by 28. Tastes shift quickly, and once an idol has disappeared from the public eye he may never regain prominence. This deadline pushes many male stars to diversify their income by investing in restaurants, bars, fashion labels, and real estate. Seungri, who was due to enlist this year, took a more energetic approach than most, starting a ramen chain and taking a stake in a cosmetics company. He also invested in Burning Sun, a nightclub in the basement of Gangnam’s Le Méridien hotel, serving as the face of its marketing efforts and making periodic appearances as a DJ.

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