As 2014 comes to a close, moonROK editorialist Katie Evans takes a look back on the year in K-pop, and forward to what the future of the industry might bring.
For those of us who avidly follow celebrity culture, there are certain patterns to the news cycle. In the K-Pop industry, it’s safe to assume that every year, group lineups will shift, at least one couple will go public, and YG Entertainment will delay a few comebacks. Drug busts and male celebrities evading military service are somewhat less common, but still part of a fan’s vocabulary. The surprises aren’t the news itself—it’s who makes the news.
The average K-Pop fan knows that, like clockwork, an entertainment company will face a lawsuit each year. But who would have guessed, in 2014, that B.A.P. would sue TS Entertainment, or that not one, but two members would leave EXO? At large, this was the story of 2014 in K-Pop—the names changed, but the headlines stayed the same. The year continued to show us that reform in the Korean music industry and its fandom needs to happen, whether the CEOs are ready for it or not.
2014 saw several group shakeups, from the departure of Lee Joon and Thunder from MBLAQ to the whirlwind contract re-negotiations between Star Empire and ZE:A. The lineup changes in K-Pop’s girl groups were the least surprising. KARA survived a near-implosion in 2011, coming back as strong as ever, but it was clear that their “Damaged Lady” promotions in late 2013 were akin to a farewell tour. Equally unsurprising was DSP Media’s decision to keep KARA around with new members after Nicole and Jiyoung left the agency. It was after former member Sunghee left, after all, that Jiyoung and Goo Hara joined the group in its infancy. Likewise, Nine Muses has a constantly changing lineup, and the departures of Sera, Eunji, and Lee Sem were upsetting, but not unusual.
When Girls’ Generation passed their fifth anniversary intact, breaking the so-called “five-year curse” of idol groups, fans relaxed, and the same happened when all nine members renewed their contracts over the summer. Jessica’s abrupt dismissal at the end of September brought that contentment to an end. As more information surfaced, depicting her alleged boyfriend as a “stage dad”-type figure and demands by the group that Jessica maintain her commitment to Girls’ Generation alongside the launch of BLANC&ECLARE, fans questioned and worried about the tight-knit group dynamic that drew many into the fandom. The emotion shown at the group’s fan party in Shenzhen days later only fanned the flames, even as Jessica remains on SM Entertainment’s payroll.
Girls’ Generation’s shakeup was undeniably shocking, but not unprecedented. Of the girl groups that debuted in 2007, they were the only group with their original lineup intact in 2014. As idol groups age and, ideally, gain more cultural power, members are more eager to pursue independent projects and more lucrative contracts, regardless of their relationship with the rest of the group. SS501, for example, split peacefully in 2010 to begin solo careers at new companies, but they have reunited since for special performances. It is a regular, maybe even natural, occurrence for older groups to fade.
The ugly dismantling of younger groups, however, is a much newer trend. In May, Kris filed a lawsuit to terminate his contract with SM and leave EXO just weeks before their comeback and first solo concerts, and Luhan filed a similar lawsuit in October. After canceling part of their World Tour, all six members of B.A.P. filed a lawsuit against TS in late November. All of them cited unfair working conditions and lack of concern for their health among other, more specific complaints.
Looking back at the hectic schedules both groups have had since their debuts in 2012, it’s definitely possible that the overworking claims are valid. B.A.P. has worked almost nonstop since their debut, going through four extensive promotion cycles in 2012 alone (Debut years are often a group’s most hectic, but even this schedule is excessive by those standards). In addition to their world tour and individual projects, they have had two solo concerts domestically, and released four singles in Japan. Compare this to their labelmates, Secret, who have yet to hold a domestic concert despite debuting in 2009. EXO has had just five promotion cycles in two years, but SM padded that schedule with countless international appearances, endorsements, an Asian tour, and participation in the global SMTOWN concerts. I happened to see EXO-K record for a program just a month after their debut, and between takes, Kai would lie on the stage in pain. The rest of the group, save for Suho, seemed equally exhausted. I knew that Kai sustained an injury closer to their debut, and wondered if he’d been given enough time to heal. Kris’s odd disappearance in the beginning of 2013 has also been linked to a previous attempt to leave the group.
The K-Pop industry is rife with overworked performers and idols that fight their working conditions (See: Han Geng, ZE:A), but what makes EXO and B.A.P exceptional is their relative newness and fame compared to other groups. Both debuted two years ago, making them four years younger than ZE:A and four years less experienced than Han Geng when he left Super Junior. Block B left Stardom Entertainment together less than two years after their 2011 debut, but had a significantly lower profile. Such high-profile groups challenging their environment so early into their career demonstrates the unwillingness of this generation’s idols to work under the current conditions. Whether you consider these lawsuits justified or not, their very existence continues to pressure the K-Pop industry to change or be changed.
Safety, particularly in transportation, was a critical issue in South Korea in 2014 following the Sewol incident. A September car accident that killed RiSe and EunB of Ladies’ Code and an accident at an outdoor concert in October that killed at least 16 audience members reignited the debate while connecting it explicitly to K-Pop. Ladies’ Code’s manager, Park Mo, was found to have been driving 34mph over the speed limit, and the killed concertgoers, seeking a better view, had climbed onto a ventilation grate, which then collapsed, calling into question the quality of the venue’s infrastructure. The Korean entertainment industry is no stranger to such safety concerns—the live-shoot system for television dramas often results in sleep deprivation, malnutrition, and even hospitalization, and car accidents and resulting injuries are distressingly common. The temporary nature of broadcast sets, weather conditions at outdoor concerts, and crowd control have also resulted in dangerous situations, most famously when a man attempted to drag Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon off a stage in 2011. Before 2014, however, death on the job or in the audience was nearly unheard of (the suicide rate of celebrities, however, is a different, darker story).
Even without the Sewol tragedy happening months earlier, these tragedies would have received significant domestic attention and ignited important debates about traffic safety and conditions at public venues. But the Sewol context exacerbated these incidents while bringing unflattering global attention to the Korean entertainment industry. American gossip site Gawker ran the Ladies’ Code story, as did BBC News, who also reported on the October accident. Many of these international reports mentioned the Sewol tragedy, and publications that usually paid little attention to Korean issues suddenly published discussions and criticism of the country’s transportation system and infrastructure. Safety in K-Pop evolved from a consistent concern to a deadly, highly visible problem. To regain their public’s trust, the Korean government—and entertainment companies—must find a way to ensure everyone’s protection.
Lawsuits may have dominated the headlines at the end of 2014, but a steady stream of dating news marked the beginning of the year. In rapid succession, Yoona and Lee Seung Gi, Sooyoung and Jung Kyung Ho, and Tiffany and 2PM’s Nichkhun confirmed their relationships publicly to some fanfare. Gain of Brown Eyed Girls and Joo Jihoon also went public, and have since made joint appearances and liberally discussed one another on variety shows. Girls’ Day’s Minah and soccer player Son Heungmin announced their relationship and then quietly split a few months later. It was the news of Taeyeon and EXO’s Baekhyun’s relationship, however, which prompted enormous controversy. The outpouring of anger and disgust from fans prompted both to apologize on social media, and even now they refrain from discussing their relationship or acknowledging their relationship publicly (Taeyeon even recently unfollowed Baekhyun on Instagram, prompting breakup rumors).
Relationship news slowed down in the latter half of 2014, but was no less controversial. After years of speculation, Dynamic Duo’s Choiza and f(x)’s Sulli confirmed their relationship. The age difference (Choiza is 34 and Sulli is 20) quickly made the two infamous, and SM announced that Sulli was “taking a break” from the public eye. If SM wasn’t having enough fun this year, Super Junior’s Sungmin married musical actress Kim Saeun in December, prompting his fans to call him out on social media for rubbing the relationship in their faces (Among the complaints were photos of Saeun wearing gifts given to Sungmin by fans, and his inclusion of her name in his autograph).
Despite all these controversies, public news of celebrity relationships hasn’t slowed down—if anything, more idols than ever are coming forward about their personal lives. For every Baekhyun and Taeyeon, there are a handful of other couples that fly under the radar and even get support from fans. The more couples that come forward, the less scandalous each one will become. I can’t say I support a 34-year-old dating someone who likely wasn’t an adult when they met, but relationships, for most people, are a part of life no matter how famous your face is. Celebrity couples will always exist, and as they become bolder, it will be up to fans to keep up.
All of these issues are intertwined. The lack of strict adherence to safety regulations (and maybe not strict enough safety regulations) creates a hostile, sometimes life-threatening environment for entertainment industry members, which is only heightened by their lack of privacy. Combine that with the lack of compensation and overworking taking place at every agency (TS, Star Empire, and SM may be the most high-profile workers’ rights offenders, but they’re definitely not the only ones), and it’s no wonder that many idols switch companies or leave the industry altogether. With the industry facing both financial and human losses for these conditions sooner and sooner, the events of 2014 should be a wake-up call for K-Pop.
Tags: B.A.P Block B Dynamic Duo EXO f(x) Girls' Generation KARA Katie Evans Ladies' Code MBLAQ Nine Muses Super Junior ZE:A