You may have recently seen K-pop trending worldwide on Twitter, especially hashtags such as #FightForWonho. Wonho, whose real name is Lee Ho-Seok, was the lead singer for Monsta X, a Korean pop or K-pop group.
Monsta X debuted as a seven-member group piece in 2015. Just days after the release of Follow: Find You on Oct. 28, the group's most recent album, unverified allegations of past "transgressions" emerged about Wonho. These forced Wonho to resign from the group a few days after the release.
K-pop fans, who are known to be passionate, refused to take the news lying down.
2019 was a banner year of success for Wonho's group. Monsta X released collaborations with artists such as French Montana and Steve Aoki and appeared on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Ellen Show.
But in the K-pop industry, mistakes and rumours can steal an idol's livelihood.
The allegations against Wonho include owing a friend money, attending a juvenile detention centre in his youth and smoking weed six years ago. Under South Korea's strict drug laws, people can be sentenced to five years in jail for smoking cannabis.
The case of Wonho brings old concerns about K-pop back into the spotlight.
Since the explosion of K-pop in the late 2000s, dozens of popular girl and boy groups have debuted. K-pop fans, including "Monbebe," (the name of Monsta X fans), are often maligned. But through the recent troubles of Monsta X and the resultant Twitter campaign, Monbebe have shown their potential to be active consumers even within a strictly monitored capitalist system.
Monsta X fans and their recent campaign to keep member Wonho in the group reveals the explosive power of young fandoms. Instead of needing adult protection from the boy bands they love, these fans exercise agency to protect their favourite bands against the very capitalist systems of production that exploit and dehumanize them.
Western articles discussing the K-pop industry often approach it as a cruel and exoticized novelty incomprehensible to western audiences. Global mainstream audiences don't always feel the K-pop love. Pro-government news outlets in Turkey have been warning families of the threat of K-pop and their androgynous, makeup-wearing boy groups indoctrinating Turkish youth into non-heteronormative lifestyles.
State support of K-pop
Implicit within these fears is the assumption that fans of boy bands are easily seduced by the charming pop products of a cunning music industry. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, cultural theorists who criticized the capitalist rise of mass-produced commodities in the 1940s, might have called these fans "cultural dupes" if they were alive today. They used the term to describe passive consumers of capitalism.
K-pop groups do indeed have as much to do with capitalism as they do with music. In the early 2000s, the South Korean government, in a bid to improve the country's economic market and national image, invested state support into a system of K-Pop star production that grants music labels the power to create, market and tightly control the youth looking for fame as K-pop idols.
These recording companies operate a finely tuned system in which they subject K-pop idol hopefuls to rigorous training in singing, dancing and media-readiness.
Artists whose American record labels left them penniless or trapped in brutal contracts, such as the '90s American all-female group TLC, may have something to say about power dynamics in music industries. I have discussed the problematic nature of the American music industry, which exploits and gatekeeps especially marginalized identities.
The #MeToo movement is a powerful indictment against the power imbalance at the core of western entertainment industries.
The power imbalance inherent within the K-pop system is deeply cultural. South Korea is a strongly conservative society. While some cultural theorists have noted that K-pop presents the country as a developed economy with modern scenery and fashion-forward people, other theorists add that not-so-hidden beneath K-pop's shiny surface are powerful messages of traditional Korean beauty ideals, ethnocentrism and strict codes of conduct.
When an idol's humanity peaks through the resulting cracks, the consequences can be dire. The most recent example of this is K-pop singer and actress Sulli (real name Choi Jin Ri) who years ago shattered her traditionally innocent image with displays of sexuality and feminism.
K-pop columnists and cultural critics in Korea and the west, including Korean critic Yoonha Kim, speculated that the resultant years of cyber-bullying contributed to Sulli's recent suicide. Media reported that she was found dead in her home on Oct. 14, 2019.
Pushing for return
After Wonho's ousting, Monsta X fans have been pushing for his return, not only through the worldwide trending of supportive hashtags, but through offline campaigns. Through crowdfunding, fans paid for a New York City Times Square ad that expresses their desire for the group to stay together despite any mistakes committed.
They've found mainstream support as well: Daniel Chong, creator of Cartoon Network's We Bare Bears (on which Monsta X had a guest appearance) showed support for Wonho, as well as Chicago Radio Station B96, who previously booked Monsta X for their Jingle Bash music concert this December.
Rejecting the costs of capitalism
Through their ongoing campaign, Monsta X fans have sent a strong message that today's current global capitalist system of competition, which renders some people disposable if they're unfit to win the race, has it all wrong.
The Monsta X fan campaign is not fan hysteria. It is the subversive power of fandom, the ability of fans to give the products of capitalism social meaning in ways that challenge the system of production itself. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will effect change to South Korea's idol industry.
Until then, Monsta X fans will continue to #FightForWonho.
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Author: Sarah Olutola - Postdoctoral Fellow 2018-2019, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, LUniversit dOttawa/University of Ottawa