The wrath of 'cancel culture' wanes for K-pop stars
The Korean public has a reputation for holding celebrities to high moral standards. But recent releases in the K-pop scene may suggest Korea’s "cancel culture" is not as absolute as people think it is. Are Korean listeners learning to separate the artist from their content?
In Korea, stars are expected to not only entertain, but also set an example for society. Those who deviate from such standards often fall out of public favor and get “canceled” overnight. After a fall from grace, fully regaining popularity or coming back to the entertainment industry at all can be extremely difficult. This is especially the case for K-pop singers, who rely on a more relatable image than actors.
On April 5, Big Bang released its digital single “Still Life” after a four-year hiatus. The long gap was partially caused by the boy band members’ mandatory military services, but another large reason was that Big Bang’s reputation had been severely damaged after years various legal troubles.
G-Dragon and T.O.P were both caught up in legal drama for using marijuana, with the latter receiving a 10-month suspended prison sentence for repeated use.
Daesung was alleged to have knowingly allowed a prostitution service to operate in a building owned by him. While the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, the accusation that he tacitly approved of the service still follows him.
The biggest blow to Big Bang’s reputation was former member Seungri’s involvement in the 2019 Burning Sun scandal. The infamous scandal of sex crimes, prostitution, drugs and police protection led Seungri to leave the band. He is currently in prison serving an 18-month sentence.
The Korean public has expressed anger toward Big Bang’s extensive track record with the law and the notion that members have evaded adequate punishment. Many expressed disdain when Big Bang’s comeback was announced last month, saying they would refuse to stream the band’s song or music video.
But the calls for a boycott turned out not to be much of a concern. “Still Life” immediately shot to No. 1 on Korean music charts as well as iTunes Top Songs charts in 33 regions.
Boy band Stray Kids is another example of K-pop stars who were seemingly unaffected by an ethics scandal. Early last year when the entire Korean entertainment industry was shaken up by a chain of school bullying allegations, Stray Kids member Hyunjin was swept up in accusations by former schoolmates. Hyunjin admitted to verbal abuse, promptly issued an apology and halted his activities. When he returned four months later, he faced criticism that his suspension was too brief.
However, Stray Kids and Hyunjin’s career afterward went from strength to strength. The band’s subsequent album that summer recorded its highest CD sales as of that time, which was broken again by “Oddinary” in March.
“Oddinary” also made Stray Kids the third K-pop act ever to top the Billboard 200 albums chart, following BTS and SuperM. Hyunjin is still a popular member and a key part of the band’s vocals and dance.
Does this mean the Korean public no longer cares as much about moral fumbles? Most of the aforementioned scandals like marijuana use or school bullying would be deemed as insignificant to non-Koreans. Experts say there are a number of background factors to consider.
“Koreans still tend to require exemplary ethical behavior from celebrities and take unethical conduct quite seriously,” said Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea and the author of "The K-pop Age" (2016). “We may see many bands go on to see commercial success even after a drug or bullying scandal. But we will likely not see them on things, like advertisements, that require favorable views from the wider public.”
Lee added that while the general public may hold an artist in contempt after a moral scandal, they are not as hardline when it comes to completely ‘canceling’ them — but it heavily depends on the star’s response to the backlash.
“I’d say the biggest factor that made Hyunjin and Stray Kids’ quick recovery possible was the fact that he ‘lied down flat,’ as we say in Korean,” Lee said. “He took on a very submissive attitude. Instead of denying or playing games with the public, Hyunjin apologized immediately. He was still criticized for a while, but that was seen as the right attitude to be spared from being completely shunned, as long as it’s not a serious crime. Big Bang’s display of repenting was not as evident, but Seungri did leave and the band took a very long hiatus despite being such a big name in K-pop. Koreans may be strict, but they’re not merciless.”
This may explain why the outcome was so different for other stars who practically lost their careers due to bullying scandals.
Soojin of girl group (G)I-DLE denied bullying accusations despite allegations from multiple past schoolmates. She eventually left the group and lost her contract with her agency. Naeun of girl group April, who was accused of bullying her former groupmate Lee Hyun-joo, also denied the claims but was dropped from all advertisements and TV series.
Pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun also attributes such varying outcomes to diversified fandoms. As fandoms have diversified, so have their expectations for morality. Expectations can vary within one fandom as well because they consist of more and more fans of different cultural backgrounds.
“Nowadays, K-pop singers’ success relies on support from fandoms rather than approval from the general public,” Jeong said. “What the general public thinks matters much less than before. There are still fans that turn their backs if a celebrity violates their moral standards. But even then, the fandom is so diverse that a large chunk of fans — for instance, non-Korean fans who tend to care less about moral scandals — remain unbothered and keep supporting.”
In the past, K-pop singers had mostly domestic fans and relied mainly on conventional media like television to promote themselves. Traditionally, Korean television channels take public sentiment into account and indefinitely ban celebrities who have been involved in moral scandals or legal troubles, rendering them unable to reach the public like before. Early examples of ‘canceled’ K-pop stars in the late 2000s such as Isu of M.C the MAX, who was found to have hired an underage prostitute, and MC Mong, who evaded his mandatory military service, saw their careers crumble.
Today, K-pop acts have developed numerous methods to communicate with fans all over the world, through social media and self-produced YouTube shows without relying much on conventional media. While controversial K-pop stars may not be welcomed on advertisements or TV shows, it’s no longer a critical blow to their careers.
Jeong stressed that continued commercial success does not necessarily mean that the general public has gotten over past misdeeds. In fact, many lament Big Bang’s successful comeback claiming it sends the message that morals do not matter anymore. Hyunjin’s name frequently recurs in articles about school bullying, and the stigma still follows him in the eyes of non-fans. It’s just that the general public’s opinion is less of a priority in today’s fandom-driven K-pop scene.
One case that is currently drawing curiosity for how it will unfold is the upcoming debut of girl group Le Sserafim. Even before debuting, member Kim Ga-ram has faced multiple bullying accusations. Photos of her posing with sexually explicit doodles and obscene hand gestures in middle school were revealed, instantly turning the public’s anticipation into criticism. Since the bullying allegations remain unconfirmed, the controversy surrounding her is largely about the explicit photos, which are not unethical per se but have damaged the morally upright image she is expected to have.
The criticism suggests that Koreans still require stars uphold a strict moral standard, but her agency’s decision to keep Kim in the group and carry on with the debut shows that public sentiment wields less impact than before. Le Sserafim and Kim are receiving enthusiastic support from non-Korean fans, who mostly find the scandal insignificant.
“Compared to the past, it’s hard to say for sure what behavior will lead to being canceled and what won’t,” Jeong said. “Some say those controversial stars shouldn’t come back and that moral expectations shouldn’t become more lax. But we can’t really demand others to shun certain artists. It’s up to each listener to decide what’s ‘too immoral’ in their eyes, or if they should expect morality from artists at all.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]