K-pop: A horror show for masochists

Do you like being treated like rubbish? Do you enjoy having your warmth and kisses rewarded with a fist to the face and a vacuum cleaner nozzle down your wallet? Do you sometimes find normal pop artists simply too talented, or just too nice?

If you said yes to any of the above, you will just love K-pop, that sugary, neon-coloured funtime that combines the best of a plastic surgery trade show and a mugging in a dark alley.

A few months ago, for example, I saw dozens of fans yelled at, marched out of the Singapore Indoor Stadium by security staff and have their belongings confiscated. Why? Because they dared take photographs of a Korean boy band during a show. Because if there is one place in which an artiste absolutely needs his privacy, it is up on stage in front of 20,000 people.

That same paranoid need for control is felt at K-pop press events. These events are notorious for the viciously tight rein over what can and cannot be said. According to what my colleagues tell me, it makes the interviews feel a lot like speaking to puppets with strings pulled by managers.

There is a rumour going around that managers do to artists what parents do to pets when the animals get too old. The parents quietly replace Snowy with a younger version every few years when the kids aren't looking, and hope they won't notice that Snowy version 2 or 3 has taken over. That K-pop performers all look the same and never seem to age is not an accident.

A few weeks ago, Fatfish Entertainment, a concert organiser for a K-pop show, asked fans to donate money to pay for its food and transport costs, as if it suddenly realised that it had forgotten to set aside money for wacky and unexpected expenses, such as eating and getting around.

That move was just a palate teaser compared to what happened later. Fatfish last week cancelled the show, stranding fans who had paid anywhere from $168 to $688 for a ticket.

The reason given by Fatfish was "unforeseen circumstances", words I've heard often when concert promoters can't do what you have paid them to do.

I can't say I understand the phrase. It's like saying "I promise to give you what you paid for. Unless I don't like how things are turning out." This is a bit strange, because I always thought that the whole point of a promise is to make people stick to a plan in spite of how circumstances change.

The business people in the K-pop industry might be scarily ruthless. But the people who make me shudder are the artistes, those eerily interchangeable androids of song and dance. It's not just that they are pre-fab, because manufactured idols have been around since the dawn of pop. What makes my skin crawl is how close these K-pop idols are to being robots, designed to be objectified.

The Koreans, however, are only the inheritors of the idol assembly-line system. The Japanese were the first to design and manufacture stars designed to fulfil very specific, and sometimes odd, fan fantasies. Last year, I lurked on the edges of a show by J-pop outfit SDN48, a girl group known as much for their cleavage-and-legs music videos as for their music, observing their preparations and performance. And yes, it was all as hideously awkward as you would think, both for me the lurker and for the women.

The concert, as you would expect, drew an overwhelmingly male crowd. I'm not a prude and I believe there is a time and place for men to ogle fit ladies. But what freaked me out a little was just how organised the ogling was - there were specific chants and cheers and the women wore outfits that can be described as fetish gear, such as modified schoolgirl and French maid dresses. All that polite perving was a bit much.

Speaking of fixations on dolled-up females, Anime Festival Asia is taking place this weekend in Singapore. This event will put fans together with several manufactured fantasy objects - some of them made of plastic, or existing only on screen, and some of them having pulses. Among them is Valerie Tang, a Singaporean singer who has been named the human analogue for the blonde and huge- eyed Inori, the animated personification of - wait for it - Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Yes, that one on the corner of your desktop that you haven't used in a while. It wants to become relevant again.

On Inori's Facebook page, you can see that she wears short skirts, white stockings, has an impressive bust, strokes a cat while on the computer and, depending on which image you see, looks anywhere from age 12 to 25. In other words, that mix of innocence, cuteness and sexuality that will always make the subculture of schoolgirl anime so unique. Read the comments on the Facebook page for more cringe.

The suffering that K-pop fans must endure at the hands of promoters and management is what I think being married to an abusive spouse is like. Sacrifice and pain are all part of the same mixed-up ball of feelings.

And maybe I have got it all wrong, and the real picture is that the fans stay true not in spite of the suffering, but because of it. Maybe the suffering is all part of a masochistic ritual that intensifies the devotion. More pain for fans, more gain for the industry. In which case, this K-pop phenomenon has suddenly earned my respect - and awe.

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