They say that an entertainer’s (actor, actress, model, idol) career has a short shelf life. In an industry that gives premium to looks and youth, it’s akin to carbonated drinks that fizzle out very fast than wine that gets better with time. It takes a certain amount of success and public recognition to achieve longevity, otherwise, they’re just like manufactured products with their best-by dates stamped on them.
And this couldn’t be more obvious than when you look at Korea’s entertainment scene.
The casts of new dramas or films are always littered with new names (mostly idols) I often wonder where are Won Bin, Hyun Bin (who, by the way, is happily getting a second wind in his post-military film career) and Jun Jihyun. But I also realize it is unfair to keep expecting them to take on roles that younger ones are doing. Won Bin aside, older actors and actresses do enjoy a longer career life span and have more options offered to them (case in point, Lee Byunghun who is still thriving despite personal scandals). I guess it’s because their fan base is different from that of idols (used here loosely to cover Kpop stars from groups, bands and solo acts), whose fans are mostly teenagers notorious for being fickle (blame it on growing up).
Until 2013, my brush with Kpop has usually been through OSTs of dramas or films. It was only in that year when I found myself experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be a “Kpop fan.” I have written previously about the culture shock I experienced back then and time has not made me any less desensitized to the fan culture environment.
But I digress.
In the recent Korean year-end shows (gayos), I noticed that none of the Kpop artists I was more familiar with were in the line-ups. Aside from a handful (so handful I can count with one hand), the performers were toddler groups and products of reality shows that “manufacture” new idol models like one would Barbie dolls in a factory. That is not to say they are no less deserving of fan support or don’t deserve to take on jobs, but it only accentuates the nature of the industry and how cruel it can be.
But who’s to blame for this culture?
Kpop fans who constantly shift their attention to the newest big thing (or flash in the pan if you may) in town? Networks who have jumped on the bandwagon of reality shows to “discover” new talents in an already-crowded stage? Agencies who have practically turned into idol factories churning one group after another and neglecting their older groups? Or is it that there are just too many young Koreans (plus some other nationalities) who look at being an idol as an ideal job and aspiration?
If we’re going to think in terms of the job market, the industry is already over-saturated. That is why there is a need to “export” these talents to other countries, not because they are “famous” but because it’s a necessity. In short, glorified overseas workers. But even then, despite what agencies and Korean media would like us to believe, Kpop is still a niche even in a big market like Japan, and how much more the US.
Outside their borders, they are no more than a novelty. So what if they are not able to find their own niche in markets overseas, what happens then?
There have been passionate debates about “Western validation,” which to a certain extent adds up to credibility back home. There is a sense of national pride when a Korean artist gets recognition overseas. This helps them gain more traction in their homebase, which whether we like or not, is important to ensure longevity in the industry. Because guess what? If all else fails, they can still go back home. Even BoA, who is the benchmark of success in Japan (she still gets invited to music show specials like FNS, which is the counterpart of gayos), still has to go back to Korea at the end of the day.
But not everyone gets to that level and years down the line, we find ourselves asking: whatever happened to..?
That was my question when I was reading line-ups for the gayos and it was a sobering reality, if not a reminder that there is indeed a shelf life for Korean idols and it is relatively short compared to Japanese or Taiwanese idols for example. This is by no means saying that they are “ended” in the language of stan Twitter or that they won’t be invited this year or the next either because some do get to enjoy a resurgence, or in keeping with the theme of this post, a product relaunch. Or a comeback, in the realest sense of the word.
It’s no wonder that Korean idols are keen to transition into being an “actor” or “actress” with emphasis on the title almost bordering on the obsessive as if being an “idol” has a certain stigma to it. This could be true though as I wrote previously on the difference between Jpop and Kpop in treating idols and actors. I mean, I don’t say “actor Matsumoto Jun” whenever I refer to him as an actor just to emphasize that hey, he is also an actor, not just an idol; the same goes for the rest of Arashi who are also actors and TV hosts in their own right aside from being members of Japan’s national idol group.
Aside from the stigma of being a Korean idol, the environment has also become very toxic and stressful, fueled by the constant need to top Melon charts, YouTube views, number of downloads, even the amount of hashtags (not to say TV ratings or boxoffice takes do not matter for actors but you get the idea). As if these are the only ones that could validate a Kpop career. For the most part, it has become a meaningless numbers game where fans just click and click without even pausing to appreciate the music just so they could claim some bragging rights.
This obsession over momentary prestige is perhaps the undoing of the entire industry and is making shelf lives even shorter. (A group called WannaOne is supposed to disband this year after coming out of a reality show last year?)
The past year most especially has been witness to one disbandment news after another. Some “groups” are just practically being held together by a fragile thread that their fans are clutching on to so as to say they survived the seven-year curse or lasted 10 years (#legendsonly).
But no problem. There are new ones taking their place on the shelf. For sure, there won’t be a shortage in supply, nevermind if it does not match the demand.
Come to think of it, I shouldn’t have been surprised about the line-up of the 2017 gayos. After all, these annual year-end shows are supposed to showcase the best of the year–who made the hits, who made it big, etc. They’re the equivalent to a fashion collection that changes every season. And given Kpop’s fickle mentality, the shelf will surely be replaced with new products next time.
That’s just how it goes.
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