Most K-pop fans wouldn’t miss the chance to experience the biggest idols up close and personal, even if it’s on a 2D theatre screen (hey, at least it beats YouTube). A while back on September 28th at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Reel Asian presented a free screening of ‘I Am: SM Town Live World Tour’, a documentary that zeros in on the stars of SM Entertainment during their 2011 concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
As part of the audience that night, as well as a K-pop fan myself, it took a bit of retrospect to figure out what this film signifies beyond the montage of dance practice footage, HD close-ups and toe-curling pre-debut hair. Undoubtedly, for those who grew up with these idols, it’s a heartwarming walk down memory lane. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting SME’s past hits, such as Girls Generation’s “Genie” and SHINee’s “Replay”; but the film’s most interesting aspect to me was how it probes into the ‘making of’ the idols: who they are now and where they came from. Honestly, it would take no more than a paragraph or two to discuss the film at face value, which is why I want to dive directly into an exploration of what I feel is its core theme: identity and its fluidity.
IN A NUTSHELL: SM ENTERTAINMENT
For those new to SM Entertainment (SME from here onwards), this agency is often cited as the pioneer of the Korean pop industry. Started by former radio DJ and computer-engineering student Lee Soo Man in the early 1990s, SME was the first to fully – and successfully – implement the ‘star factory system’ K-pop is known for today. It debuted the first idol groups, like H.O.T, S.E.S and Shinhwa; and today, it owns the biggest market share as it houses renown acts such as BoA, Girls Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ!, SHINee, and EXO.
However, those familiar with SME may have reservations about giving it too much positive credit. The label has quite the history of making headlines for a number of issues, including contract disputes with Shinhwa (which eventually caused their leave from the company), three of the original five of TVXQ, former Super Junior member Hangeng, as well as criticisms of unfair employment terms (known as “slave contracts”) and accusations of price-rigging schemes. Moreover, in this year alone, f(x)’s youngest member Sulli took a hiatus from the group under unclear circumstances, EXO (a group that debuted shortly after the documentary’s production) lost two members Kris Wu and Luhan, and Jessica of Girls Generation left on bitter terms to pursue a career in fashion. There have been disagreements on whether or not these departures are due to dynamics within each group alone, or in fact orchestrated by the top tiers of the agency.
Be it bad luck or karma, one still can’t help but be curious about the intentions of this film. Closing with the images of the idols’ smiles and tears after a sold-out concert in a legendary location, subtitled with “SM Town Live World Tour continues”, is the purpose to portray personal achievement or corporate success?
I’d like to leave that question for another day, for the mere sake of keeping this review within your bandwidths. For further reading on both Lee Soo Man, the ‘K-pop revolution’ and the development of South Korea’s entertainment industry as a whole, I highly recommend Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music, and Internet Culture by Mark James Russell. Check out what Sherri had to say about it in her review of four must-read books on Hallyu.
(Film trailer courtesy of SMTOWN)
‘I AM SM’: BUILDING AND REDEFINING IDENTITY
Undoubtedly, there are different ways to interpret the film as it is characterized by many themes, but that of identity stands out from the rest. More specifically, the fact idols have a persona other than their real selves, as well the comparison between the two. Super Junior’s Ryeowook says that for him, “they aren’t that different”. His group mate Siwon agrees that there is “zero incongruence” between his identities. However, others emphasized differences. Taeyeon, the leader of Girls Generation, admits that she is actually “shy and introverted”, while Seohyun, the group’s youngest member, asserts that her own self Seo Ju-hyeon “exists alongside her”.
Some idols contrast their current selves to to who they were before debut. Yesung of Super Junior goes as far as separating these selves when he reveals his life now and that he “had” as Kim Jong-woon are “a world apart”. More poetically, Girls Generation’s Tiffany parallels her journey to that of a metamorphosis. She was born as Mi-yeong, who was more “fragile”, and later adopted the name Stephanie, which represented “strength.” Tiffany, she says, puts them “together in a pretty package.”
However, the salience of identity didn’t occur to me until Key of SHINee says his stage name “acts like an armor”. From the standpoint of a K-pop fan, this is a statement saturated with meaning. An ‘armor’ from what, exactly; and for whom? Does he even mean it as a type of protection? In the bigger picture, by saying this does he think that Key and Kim Ki-bum, his ‘real self’, are not exactly one in the same?
Key could be the exception to the rule, but based on the thoughts shared by others within his company, he could very much be the rule: being a celebrity involves having multiple sides to one’s personality. The degree to which it happens and its manifestations may differ from person to person, but the driving point is that idols are not exactly 100% themselves on TV, and those who consume celebrity culture like air (aka a huge percentage of the K-pop fans) are seriously in way over their heads. I may sound judgmental, because not all K-poppers are like this and such fans can be found beyond K-pop; but if you’re a junkie for the genre like myself, you know what I mean when I say that there’s a serious case of unwarranted disillusionment (and denial, at its extreme) within the fandom when it comes to impressions and perceptions of our idols. You’ve probably been there, and I totally have as well.
An endearing but ultimately tragic trait common among many fans is how we claim to ‘know’ these idols. “So-and-so didn’t mean it because he’s too young and naïve!” or “I’ve always thought she was somewhat spoiled and ungrateful – she’s always cold and quiet on TV and never smiles during fan meets!” are just a couple of the many preconceptions seen in the comments section of news articles on the latest K-pop ‘controversy’. While it’s true that bits of reality leak through the mask one dons on camera, we often make the mistake of believing that handful of ‘bits’ alone make the whole. Then again, fans are not entirely to blame for this.
Like many other sub-industries within entertainment, that of K-pop is not just about selling music. It’s also about selling personalities. K-pop singers are known as ‘K-pop idols’ because they perform beyond the frames of a camera – they perform during fan meets, for print and radio interviews; heck, even in airports, as they exit broadcasting stations and just before they enter their dormitories. Why? Because there are fans (from whom they profit), and as long as there are fans (and money to be made), there is a reputation, thus a likeable (sellable) personality, to be maintained. Defying this has proven to be no joke. In 2012 fans and the media persecuted soloist IU after she accidentally tweeted a photo of her and Super Junior’s Eunhyuk that ‘looked’ like they were in bed together. This was a big deal because to the public, IU has an image of innocence and youth. Another case took place in 2010 and involved Epik High’s Tablo. Hundreds didn’t believe that he is a Stanford alumnus, and as a result he and his family suffered numerous death threats as well as lawsuits for forgery; and after receiving little to no support from his agency at the time, he was forced to take a few years away from the spotlight. All because people couldn’t simply fathom that talented musician was also that intellectually gifted to graduate from an Ivy League school in three and a half years. No, really.
Going back to Key and SME, considering the repercussions of a supposed ‘image screw-up’ (on a scale from negative first impressions to nation-wide witch hunts) putting on different faces doesn’t happen just because. As part of a very sought-after idol group, ‘Key’ is a necessity, or at least, a reminder that when the camera is on, ‘Kim Ki-bum’ should be off. Again, it may come in different forms and to different degrees. Girls Generation’s Yoona admits there is “a part of Yoona that [she] only knows about” and Krystal of f(x) says her screen name sounds “more ready for the stage”. U-Know’ of TVXQ! allows Jeong Yunho to “live his dream onstage” and Sooyoung of Girls Generation is “more hardworking” than the original “glitz-free, baby of the family” Choi Soo-young. All in all, they serve similar purposes of professionalism and survival within the industry, but on a deeper level, perhaps even for the sake of personal well-being, just like an armor.
Despite certain reservations, I appreciate that this documentary gives SME’s idols the opportunity to reflect upon their current selves; and even allowing us, the audience, to relate to them on that level.
Though we are universes apart, we too experience similar shifts of identity, mostly between our lives at work and off. At the end of the day, being an idol is a job too; and being good, or just capable, at our job requires our ‘best foot forward’. Like idols, our work is also a performance. In some environments this may mean knowing how to follow directions even if you take no one’s but your own at home; and in others it’s putting a smile on your face and keeping it there for hours until closing time. We’re told that this is what it means to be professional: to keep the personal out of the business and to leave it home until you get home.
Besides the fact we don’t have our faces plastered on giant billboards, at the core there is barely anything that sets us apart – celebrity or not, we all live in work-obsessed society that subjects us to the same expectations of professionalism and success.
Did you catch ‘I Am: SMTown Live World Tour’? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below!
Disclaimer: The opinions shared in this article are solely those of the author’s and not ATK Magazine’s as a whole.