Wanna One has been by far the best-selling K-pop group since around the middle of last year. The record-breaking 11-men group was in the midst of a mobile-phone-based live stream in its waiting room on March 19 at 2 p.m., just hours before its comeback. This live broadcast then caused a massive uproar as some viewers heard Wanna One members utter what they deemed rude, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate for any public figure of their standing. Some of the things that were allegedly heard include vulgar and lewd language. It took a good two days for “Wanna One live stream accident” to disappear from the top of the most-searched keywords list on Naver, and Wanna One, its record label, and the live stream platform were quick to publish apologies.
While I by no means intend to endorse their actions or words — whether alleged or certain — I do believe this incident can offer us some good food for thought with regard to the K-pop consumption culture in general. As Nextshark, an online media outlet, aptly put it, “a spotless reputation is paramount to a stable career” in the K-pop industry.
The said uproar devolved into a dreadfully familiar, dichotomous partisanship of whether Wanna One members actually said things and did things on camera. This discussion invited speculations of all sorts ranging from the mental conditions of the K-pop group to the possibility of the record label being too harsh on Wanna One. Later on, audio engineers were asked to analyze the recording of the live broadcast and make out every single syllable. For a brief moment, it may seem like such an important matter to draw an “objective” conclusion on whether allegations made against Wanna One are true. What lies under this hullabaloo is whether media consumers even have any right whatsoever to bash stage performers out of disappointment. In fact, a more relevant question would be whether to feel disappointed at all by any immature or immodest behavior exhibited by K-pop industry’s public figures, many of whom we well know are barely 20 years old.
Is it out of sheer convenience that the critics turn a blind eye to fellow teenagers and all the lewd, rude, and unpleasant language they utter? Or is being a K-pop idol that much of a hike in the social ladder to the extent that someone who was once a high schooler just months ago is suddenly expected to “suit up” and act all — in AllKpop’s words — mature and modest? Just how intrusive can this get? To demand from a stranger what I believe is nice? No thanks…
As K-pop expands well beyond the peninsula and the fruits of Korea’s soft power strategy continue churning in, the domestic consumption habits towards pop culture must evolve accordingly. The Wanna One incident could be a bad example. Its allegations have not been confirmed, and even if they are, due process — not a congregation of netizens — would be responsible for determining whether its actions/words merit punishment. However, I do hope to have illustrated that it is one thing to be mad at a pop star who has committed criminal offense — something even as mild as “saying something offensive”, for that matter — and another thing to demand from them such and such amendments as I see fit. On screens, these performers and artists may look nothing like us, but that should not blur the fact that they are nothing but us: immature at times, immodest occasionally, and, most definitely, imperfect at all times. While I repeatedly emphasize that I in no way hope to “shield” past and future offenders from deserved public criticism, I simultaneously wish to caution ourselves to treat those offenders as sentient beings free to follow their own sets of standards and retorted only by means of legal action where applicable, and not by means of public disdain followed by attempts to “re-dress the doll”.
We call Wanna One — and many others — idols, which by definition are objects of extreme devotion and worship. But if we keep downplaying the performers as mere marionettes and force them to abide by our social values and comply with our ethical standards, who are we really idolizing?