Come January, American audiences will get another taste of Korean entertainment.
“The Masked Singer,” hosted by Nick Cannon, will feature American celebs and an American panel of judges—Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger, Ken Jeong and Robin Thicke—but the concept is based on the South Korean-turned-international music competition series, “King of Masked Singer.”
In the original series, a number of masked individuals perform for a panel of judges who try to guess the identity of mystery singers. Because of the mask, each is judged solely on the merit of their vocal ability rather than appearance.
Although singers can come from any background, K-pop idols often appear among the competitors.
Among them was one of my biases, EXO’s Chen, who did it because he wanted to learn how he measured up on his own merit as Kim Jong-dae, rather than as EXO’s Chen, an established idol. He proved popular as “Guitar Man” in the competition.
? Watch: “King of Masked Singer” Guitar Man
For fans of Korean dramas and films, Chen is often the singer of choice for theme songs.
The American “Masked Singer” will debut on Jan. 2, 2019. The costuming will be much more elaborate than the Korean show, but the Koreans never needed that much gloss. Their media is full of great programming and if this show takes off, you’re likely to see more ideas borrowed and remade for the west.
I thought it was a joke when I saw a clip of comedian Ken Jeong lip-synching to the DJ Steve Aoki and BTS English-language collaboration “Waste it on Me,” which appears on Aoki’s album “Neon Future III.”
But it’s no joke. The comedian appears with an all-Asian cast in the music video directed by Joe Hahn, highlighting the moment that Asians are enjoying a rare time in the spotlight thanks to the supergroup, as well as the box-office hit “Crazy Rich Asians.”
In the video featuring the voices of Jungkook, Jimin and R.M., Jeong plays a lovestruck waiter with unrequited love for a celebrity played by Aoki’s sister Devon. The waiter forgets all about work when she walks into the room.
Among the Asian stars appearing with them are Ben Baller, Ross Butler, Jamie Chung, Jared Eng, Jessica Lu, Tiffany Ma, Leonardo Nam, Vincent Rodriguez III and Jimmy O. Yang.
? Watch: “Waste it on Me”
The long reality for Asians in America has been that as far as celebrity is concerned, there is the feeling that only be one Asian star at a time can register with the mainstream. What may have started with Anna May Wong in the 1920s led to France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and now Jeong and Awkwafina.
BTS’s reception in the United States opened eyes to the possibility that a new generation is more open and accepting of globalism, and people of color who do not speak the same language as ourselves. I welcome the change.
Across social media you’ll find EXO’s fandom, EXO-Ls expressing their hatred for SM entertainment and wonder about the source of all the vitriol.
It would be funny if it were not also a sad demonstration of the brief lifespan of a K-pop band.
EXO has long been one of the brightest stars of the K-pop galaxy. Beyond making great music, the group has been a cultural and travel ambassador for South Korea for years.
EXO-Ls were already miffed that it took more than a year and a half for SM to release an EXO comeback album. (Note: “comeback” doesn’t mean the same thing in South Korea as in the West. It just refers to a group’s new album; not a return following years or decades of inactivity or return after rehabilitation.)
So, EXO-Ls were thrilled to see the group return with “Don’t Mess up my Tempo” earlier this month. That happiness was short-lived when they learned that SM was spending only a week promoting the album. That means, aside from a few music program appearances, there were no accompanying variety shows, concerts and few fansign opportunities scheduled.
I thought that SHINee was short-changed when the company spent only six weeks promoting “The Story of Light” in May this year, but its number of variety shows, live shows, radio shows and performances was an oasis compared to the desert that has accompanied “Tempo’s” release.
I am not an EXO-L although I am a fan of the group and my bias list includes Chen (Kim Jongdae) and sometime member Lay (Zhang Yixing). I also consider Xiumin (Kim Minseok) a bias wrecker.
? Watch: “Don’t Mess Up My Tempo”
Considering my newbie status to the world of K-pop, at seven months, I feel like I just met these guys, even though they debuted seven years ago. I’ve only heard about other bands disbanding or losing popularity over time, but never experienced it firsthand, so this feeling of discovery and potential loss comes at an accelerated pace for me.
The attachment fans feel for various bands come after several years of “togetherness.” For the most part, the fans grow up with the boys into adulthood and the loss if they were to disappear feels as strong as losing a best friend or brother. The time and loyalty fans invest in these “relationships” gives them an intensity that does not usually exist in the West, where stars keep fans at a distance. Western music acts come and go with little impact.
Building collective relationships is encouraged by the Korean companies, and those who are really good at it, like BTS’s Park Jimin, go as far as telling fans, “You don’t need a boyfriend. I’m your boyfriend. Look at me only.”
? Watch: “Growl”
They are some kind of vampires, little changed since this video debuted five years ago!
It seems as though SM is giving up on EXO in favor of supporting one of its newer acts, NCT.
To a certain extent, there’s no need to put money behind EXO. Because of the strength and numbers of EXO-Ls, “Tempo” easily broke sales records with little promotion. EXO-Ls have proven time and again that they will show up to support the boys and all their endeavors, with all the money that brings. This has made the band a cash cow for the company, confirmed in a recent interview with SHINee’s Key, who pointed out that the income earned from EXO’s “Growl” alone, paid for SM’s glossy building in Cheongdam-dong. In comparison, he noted that SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong” might have paid for four elevators at that time.
Another factor in SM’s seeming lack of interest is the fact that members of EXO are reaching military age. The oldest at 28, Xiumin, will have to enlist next year. As more enter mandatory military service that lasts two years, EXO activities will wane. The youngest, Sehun, will have to enlist around 2022, making it 2024 when we can see a full reunion of the group.
Few bands survive such a hiatus, a time when hundreds of newer bands emerge to take their place with a new generation of fans.
Another factor behind SM’s decision may have been the rise of BTS in the west, which has every company looking toward the United States as the next viable territory to conquer.
Xiumin will be the first member to enter military service the end of the year. I hate to see him go. He’s often called the fake maknae of the group, the oldest who looks and acts as if he might be the youngest.
While many K-pop bands have at least one member fluent in English to communicate abroad, EXO has none. Its best English speaker is Chinese member Lay, who spends little time with the group, opting to promote his solo efforts in China—and with recent collaborations and the debut of his Mandarin- and English-language “Namanana”—the U.S.
Meanwhile, SM sent NCT127—the English-speaking subunit of NCT— to the American Music Awards on Oct. 9, and to make the talk-show rounds in L.A.
Also, EXO’s contract may be nearing its end. I’m not sure of the term of their contract, but it could be next year, or in 2022, the year that contractual obligations end for the three Chinese members—Kris Wu, Luhan and Tao—who sued to be liberated from their original contract from SM. (They must continue to pay a percentage of their income to SM through 2022.)
I actually see no reason for SM not to renew contracts because EXO is still one of the best groups in the business, with great voices and particularly sharp dancing. They have shown that they can still bring in sales without promotion thanks to their loyal fandom, but it hurts to know that they know they are being slighted by the company they have sacrificed their personal lives to enrich.
While watching the BTS Wings Tour 2017 documentary “Burn the Stage,” I couldn’t help but wonder who it was made for.
It wasn’t meant for anyone unfamiliar with the band. There were no subtitles with names of the members, so there was an assumption of familiarity. Brief footage of the group’s younger years came at the end, so even though the film tried to explain the band’s phenomenal rise to success in the west last year, the new follower would not have had a clue about the extent of the group’s real struggles and the animosity BTS faced when they debuted in South Korea five years ago as an entity too raw for K-pop’s “factory-made” culture, too glossy and soft for the music underground, for whom R.M. and Suga were viewed as sell-outs.
For a concert tour movie, there was a lot of general stage footage, but nothing particularly visceral that gave a true sense of BTS’s dynamism, exacting choreography and power on stage. The casual observer would get a better sense of that from watching any fan-made phone vid on YouTube.
Certainly, it was made for the entertainment of fans eager to see (and spend to view) their idols larger than life, especially those who live in the hinterlands, like me here in Honolulu, far from centers of music life. Yet, the film offers no new information or revelations for avid followers of the group.
I would say that the film was made by Big Hit Entertainment for BTS itself, to document a particular time when they are on fire and too caught up in the moment themselves to make sense of it in the present. In interviews toward the end of the movie, BTS members talk about their success with surprise and disbelief. They aren’t quite sure it’s real, though the audience knows that it was just the beginning of even greater accomplishments and record-breaking hits that came this year.
All the way through, there is a sense of gratitude and their desire to work harder and do their best for their fans, a particularly Korean mindset for most of the idols in a culture that values hard work and keeping promises. It is admirable and just one of many reasons why fans love their Korean idols so much. The degree to which they devote time, energy and demonstrate their respect and appreciation for fans is unprecedented in the west and does not go unnoticed by fans who give them their allegiance in return.
It’s a refreshing break from the “wham bam thank you ma’am” attitude of western artists in general, who are willing to take fans money and offer little of themselves in return. In contrast, Korean artists give their fans access to their lives through variety shows, music shows, TV series, social media, selfcams and livestreams. All this constancy gives fans a sense of a mutual relationship—if not ownership—of the band and its individual members, and all the loyalty such a relationship commands on behalf of fans.
The sacrifice of their personal lives is immense for the members and the film conveys a little sense of the loneliness and isolation of the road and being an idol. At one point, Big Hit Entertainment founder and CEO Bang Shihyuk, who formed BTS, tells them that one thing is missing from the group, which is the happiness of individual members. He tells them they should find their happiness.
That was eye-opening to those who usually see the boys clowning around on stage, and provided evidence that the image of carefree, easy-going performers is part of the act that makes fans happy. The part generally hidden is the aches and pains they feel, the longing for a personal life, love, friendships and fulfillment of personal goals and dreams outside of their bubble of a world.
The film glosses over the most painful parts of what started as a YouTube Red series about the tour, such as the extent of Jungkook’s exhaustion and collapse in Chile and V’s (Kim Taehyung) need to perform at 100 percent though he had been crying after a fight with Jin moments before hitting the stage.
Nadine Kam photo
Park Jimin basks in the moment during a rehearsal in “Burn the Stage.”
The film would have been all the more powerful, and probably won over more antis, if it had showed more of the real pain and struggle instead of focusing on the afterglow. It would be interesting to see a documentary every year that would shed more light on the industry and fate of idols who are generally seen as short-term commodities. BTS is somewhat of an exception because it is Big Hit’s inaugural, and most valuable asset.
Even so, Taehyung alludes to the brief longevity of K-pop phenomenons during his interview segment, when he notes that BTS is entering it’s sixth year as an idol, a time when he’s been told that people start burning out and their popularity begins to wane. There are a few bands survive more than five years.
Like Big Bang, Girls Generation and SHINee before them, BTS seems to be among the exceptions. But one thing the film gets across in poetic style is that the band has survived the desert and crossing of oceans to be where they are, bridging the chasm between Western and Korean culture. And although they cannot see, nor imagine the end of the road, they are willing to endure the struggle and go as far as their legs and voices will take them.