It seems everyone has something to say about Exocalypse ’14 (if you’ve been living under a rock, you will see what I’m referring to soon enough). So it’s time for me to add my 2 cents, I suppose.
As you guys have probably figured out from my Overdose recap, I am a fan of Exo. I am also a fan of Kris. In fact, you might say he was the one who got me interested in Exo. At the time, I was a bit burnt out on all the hype, but Kris kind of dragged me into Exo fandom kicking and screaming because, well… it was really hard not to like him. He was attractive, charming, spoke four languages (I find this hot, OK?) and during those awkward first Exo-M interviews in China (remember those? Seems like way more than just two years ago), was often the one to answer the question when everyone else looked like deer in the headlights of a car (insert Luhan joke here). Over time, Kris’s questionable fashion sense and overall weirdness became known, but they were just part of his charm. And did I mention his face?
What’s not to love?
So naturally, Kris fans were thrown into a huge state of crisis (Krisis? Oh my God, I’m so sorry) when the news broke that he was filing a lawsuit against SM for contract termination. We all started rationalizing it and desperately clung to the hope that this wasn’t the end. Then as cold hard reality sunk in, we started drinking heavily and making inappropriate jokes (OK, maybe that was just me). After all, what was Exo fandom life without Kris? Whose terrible outfits, ridiculous instagram updates, and overall weirdness was I going to laugh at now? While many fen weren’t surprised that he’d want to leave eventually (remember Kriswatch ’13? For the uninitiated, that was the time when he took a long hiatus from the group and fans became restless) a lot of us weren’t expecting it to happen this soon, and we definitely weren’t expecting it in the middle of a comeback.
After all, Exo were, arguably, at the top of their game. They had finally gone from up-and-coming rookies to kings of the K-pop world, with several awards and a huge wanking fandom to their name. They were about to have their first solo concert. At this point, they were basically a household name, even to fans (ifans, at least) who had previously not been paying attention to them. Why would Kris want to give all that up? Why would he subject himself to this massive shitstorm, both in a PR and financial sense (lawsuits of this magnitude ain’t cheap, yo)?
Not surprisingly, the fandom was plunged into a state of wankageddon. An incident like this can be a harsh and unwelcome wake-up call. Young K-pop fans are being inducted into a reality even older, more seasoned fans must necessarily compartmentalize in order to enjoy our faves—that K-pop is, at the end of the day, a business, and a cutthroat one at that. How do you condemn for corruption the same system that gave you these groups you love in the first place?
This is an issue that plagues the entertainment industry as a whole—not just K-pop. Every day, scandals happen in western media to remind us of just what kind of system we are inadvertently supporting. Sordid stories of the dark underbelly of Hollywood emerge, and are discussed extensively on celebrity gossip sites such as ohnotheydidnt. And when our faves are involved, fans get thrown into a moral crisis. Can you support the art and not the artist? Or, if one’s fave is only tangentially involved—for example, celebrities who have worked with someone at the heart of a scandal, such as Woody Allen or Terry Richardson—does that imply a tacit support, or willful ignorance, of the issues at hand? What does it say about our favorites—and in turn, about us—that we continue to consume the products of a system that allows these things to go on?
One fan coping mechanism is, of course, denial. There will always be fans who deny the validity of unwelcome information, no matter how damning the evidence. Woody Allen, for example, still has many avid supporters. Professionally, these scandals seldom affect powerful celebrities in the long run (particularly if said celebrities are white and male). Victim-blaming usually lies at the core of fan defenses, either accusing the victim of lying, or, in less direct cases (such as celebrity nudes being leaked, or invasive paparazzi photos), the classic “they’re celebrities; they knew what they were getting into” argument. To bring the subject back to K-pop, the latter defense frequently shows up in contract disputes. Which in turn raises more questions—just how much invasion of privacy and abuse of civil liberties should celebrities realistically be expected to endure? How far does the “they knew what they were getting into” defense extend when you have paps lying on the ground trying to take crotch shots of female celebrities or fangirls mobbing K-pop idols at airports to the extent that we fear for the safety of the idols and of the fans? Where do you draw the line?
Furthermore, how much can we say celebrities “knew what they were getting into,” for that matter? It’s easy for a fan avidly following celebrity news to deduce that anyone out there knows as much as we do, and goes into the business equipped with that knowledge. And even if they did, the reality can be quite different from the hypothetical. You could think to yourself, “yeah, I can handle this” but how can you really know until you’re actually in that situation? It’s kind of like people watching an action movie muttering things like, “You dumb ass, even I know better.” But you’ve also never been chased by a mob of zombies or had to defuse a bomb while being fired upon by gang of bad guys, either.
But at the heart of such scandals, especially for young fans, is the destruction of our illusions—the illusions that often fuel our fannish attachment. No matter how avidly we read gossip websites, the reality is that most of us fans, unless we know the idol personally, have no idea what lies behind an idol’s public image. The personas we see are carefully crafted by a team of publicists and PR people to sell a product—music, image, and persona—and to create a brand. In the case of K-pop groups, one of the cornerstones of the brand is a close brotherly (or sisterly) bond between group members. SM, in particular, really sought to push this image with Exo’s “We Are One” slogan. Fans want to believe their favorites are all the best of friends, that they love each other or at least genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Reality shows have become a fixture for most up-and-coming rookie groups, as a means of humanizing them to fans. Variety shows also serve this purpose. By forging a kind of quasi-personal bond between fans and idol, fans become emotionally attached the group in a way that goes beyond simply consuming their music and media.
Events such as Kris’s lawsuit can throw fans, especially younger ones, into a kind of moral and emotional tailspin. You don’t want to believe that someone you thought was such a stand-up guy would betray his brothers that way. But did he really, and are they really? It’s hard to divorce oneself from the emotional component, but K-pop is first and foremost a business, and I think it’s necessary to view these events from a business perspective and not a personal one in order to understand them better. There are several parallels between the Kris/Exo case and the Hangeng/Super Junior one (not surprising, since Kris is being represented by the same team who represented Hangeng)—an abrupt departure during promotions, bandmates knowing nothing of this until it happened. Many fans condemn the timing of this lawsuit, which admittedly looks terrible from a personal standpoint. But from a business standpoint, what if it was Kris’s best shot at breaking away from SM? Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t have all the facts. But I think it’s safe to assume that Kris is following the advice of a seasoned legal team who have carefully crafted the best strategy to win their case. That’s what lawyers do. They don’t particularly care about brotherly bonds and whatnot.
But what about Kris? How could he behave so coldly toward his fellow bandmates? Well, none of us know what he’s thinking. For that matter, none of us know what the other Exo members are thinking, either. SM has very successfully sold us this “We Are One” image, but none of us know if this is truly the case. We don’t know the real reasons why Kris wanted to leave the group and the company. Sure, there are some leaked quotes from the lawsuit, quotes (released from SM who may be just a little bit biased) from the remaining 11 members, and lots of rumors, but at the end of the day, it’s all just speculation. Yet many fans are taking these bits and pieces of the story and putting them together to form a narrative that makes sense of these events (and that supports their own theories or biases). Building any kind of case in support of one “side” at the expense of the other (usually, it’s Kris vs. OT11 or Kris vs. SME or some combination therein) usually rests on a lot of assumptions, few of which have any solid evidence to back them up. The impulse to assign a hero and a villain is a tempting one, as it gives a tangible target for fans’ understandable feelings of frustration and anger while preserving the illusion Exo’s PR team has created—that They Are One, and the evil Kris/his team or evil SM or evil something-or-other is breaking up the band (given most K-pop companies’ strict no-dating rules, there’s no Yoko in this situation, so fans take what they can get).
Now, I admit I’m not coming at this completely unbiased. Kris has always been my favorite, and I have also been vocal in my criticism of SM’s policies, specifically the lack of adequate protection for their idols at airports and other public appearances. And I definitely believe there is something fishy going on with all the legal troubles they’ve had with idols in the past. That being said, however, they’re hardly the only K-pop company to have such allegations brought against them, or to face harsh criticism of their policies. And while I may, due to personal bias, be more inclined to give Kris the benefit of the doubt, I’m not interested in assigning a hero or a villain—mostly, because I think there is none. The system is what it is. It’s in place for a reason—more often than not, it works. And we’re all going to ruminate on the moral dilemmas of being a K-pop fan—the industry we simultaneously condemn and support, however unintentionally—as long as this debacle goes on. Some people will leave the fandom. Many will not. Then the dust will settle, a shiny new group will come back to distract us, and everything will return to status quo.
Until the next scandal breaks. And this time, I’ll be ready.