"You've loved me and I've only given you disappointment.
Please stop now." They don't stop. (Slight rewrite.)
Frank Kogan's Pazz & Jop ballot, 2012
Interesting the different ways the public reacts to mass shootings, depending on the setting, or on what story just happens to catch hold. Now, after those little kids were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it's about gun control and mental health. But back in 1999, with the Columbine shootings, the story was about teens bullying teens, the killers having responded to years of torment, the public decided. The psychology of the killers may have been no different from that of the man a few months earlier up in Greeley who'd walked into a disciplinary hearing and let blast rounds of fire, or the guy in L.A. a few months later who shot seventy bullets into a Jewish Community Center. But for Columbine, teens shooting teens, people decided to imagine where the rage comes from – one of the few instances where the public wondered what it felt like to be the shooters. In one of the notes put next to the crosses at Clement Park, someone said to the two dead killers, "If only you could have held on for a couple of more months," the time till graduation.
When the Village Voice ran my Columbine piece, managing editor Doug Simmons forwarded me a bunch of emails they'd gotten in response to the shootings. I recall one of them being truly chilling: "After 50 years of oppression, this is payback." Mostly what I was reading, though, was the pain, everyone a former student, everyone seeming to have lived a perpetual gauntlet. Or that's how I remember them, maybe my own memory telling me stories.
Which I'll admit is an overdramatic intro to something that lacked violence, much less murder. But here goes:
There was a big dance hit this summer, one that broke out of K-pop and into international pop. You know about it. But that wasn't the story that obsessed the K-pop fans. Their story was something else, though it isn't a story in the sense of: here are events, here is something that happened. The obsession itself is the story, from what I can tell.
A young woman, a member of a K-pop group, writes a tweet that goes, "The differences in levels of determination ^ ^. Let us all have determination." And several members of the same group take to twitter to concur, or re-tweet, with Jiyeon's concurrence maybe taking on an edge, the phrase, "I applaud you, acting genius," seeming like sarcasm. Hwayoung, the group member whom these tweets are apparently directed at, tweets back, "Sometimes determination alone is not enough." And from here the Internet takes over, seeing this as a set of girls ganging up on another girl. And videos that were obviously faked or even more obviously taken out of context begin to appear, to support this narrative, of a gang of girls bullying another girl: At the K-pop track-and-field events Hwayoung's umbrella is blowing apart in the rain and none of the other girls are helping her. Next image, they're force-feeding her while on a Japanese game show, jamming a rice cake into her mouth. (Amazing that that's taken as bullying; I mean, it's a game show, it's done for laughs, it was broadcast on TV, when it aired thousands saw without seeing any bullying; a few minutes earlier in the very same episode, Jiyeon, supposedly Hwayoung's main antagonist, also had a rice cake shoved into her mouth. Of course, the antis who distributed this as evidence of bullying edited that part out.) And we've got a photo where Hwayoung was on one escalator and the other girls were on another, definitive proof that she was ostracized, shunned.
So, there's a story basically creating itself out of air, but a story that's already in so many people, waiting for an excuse to take to the air.
Of course there was what really happened, too, not that I know what happened, or that the public knows; probably even the participants don't know. Hwayoung's leg was hurt, as happens to so many of these performers. The dancing is at least as important as the singing, and it's strenuous, they're often performing with braces and bandages. So onstage in Budokan the other group members were doing their hard routine while the injured Hwayoung delivered her rap sitting in a chair, and the audience admired her fortitude. But something else had taken place, too. One rumor is that earlier she'd skipped rehearsal because she was hurt, wanted time off, but went to a beauty parlor instead, or went shopping, and it was because of this that the tweets flew. Then back in Seoul two days later, only a couple of groups ahead of them in the queue as they're to perform on Music Bank, Hwayoung is seen crying in the hallway. And when the group goes onstage she's missing, apparently having balked with only ten minutes to go, refusing to perform. Or that's what was claimed. You can see in the playback a couple people in the first row holding cue cards as Eunjung and Hyomin cover for Hwayoung; Hyomin, who'd written that first tweet two days earlier, stopping dead for a couple of seconds, fumbling the lines.
Three days later Hwayoung is sacked from the group, the label CEO making cheap defamatory comments, saying he was firing her in deference to the wishes of staff, implying that Hwayoung was the sort to mistreat manicurists and receptionists. And what on the Net had up till then been standard carping and crabbing and viciousness suddenly turns into a conflagration, a mass howl of anguish, kids ranting and weeping in defense of poor Hwayoung – except, as I said, this group, T-ara, young and vivacious and delivering the most fetching songs in K-pop, and their nineteen-year-old rapper, Hwayoung, and beautiful Jiyeon, also nineteen, whom the Internet has designated Queen Bitch, they're not the real story. They're just the hook that kids hang their fantasies on, Jiyeon's pale, clear gorgeousness and her slightly detached air; and Hwayoung's freshness and franticness. From here it's children crying. I can't say who they are. I don't speak Korean so I'm seeing those who post in English, which is the language the international fans use, fans and antifans in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Canada, the U.S., Chile, Peru, Britain, France, Turkey. International pain, forums and comment threads full of protest and full of protests against the protests, kids I'm guessing – I assume they're mostly teenagers, the majority girls, but I don't know; I mean, I'm in my late fifties, and I'm there, too, watching, fascinated.
It's no news that crazies show up on the Internet, that anger and pain flow from post to post, comment to comment. What's interesting here, though, is that, from what I can tell, the mob isn't just the trolls and the bullies; it's also people well-disposed towards T-ara who are confused, and credulous, as the words "T-ara Bullying Scandal" repeat over and over and the fans wonder; they see the concocted videos and, incredibly, are taken in; they wail, they demand to know what really happened. The word "bullying" elicits so much. And the mob has countercurrents, counter stories, you-who-are-calling-them-bullies-without-k
Back and forth, anger and anger back, daily people waking up to go online and to cry and fight, to throw forth argument, pain sloshing up and above, mass grief and dissension over... what? that fate is unfair, that people are not always nice, that teasing is pervasive, that everything hurts? Hwayoung tweets an apology to her former label and bandmates and tells her supporters, "To my fans, you've loved me until now, and I'm sorry that I've only given you disappointment. Please stop now." They don't stop. Netizens discover that if you line up some of the Hangul characters in Hwayoung's tweet vertically, there is the secret message, "only fans know," proving that she didn't mean it and had been forced to write it against her will (allkpop.com, in reporting this, notes that how the characters line up depends on what browser you're using; but they run the piece anyway, knowing it'll give 'em clickthroughs, leading with the claim and waiting a bunch of lines for the debunking). My favorite comment here, "CRAZY PEOPLES. DON'T YOU HAVE ANY ACTIVITIES, JOB OR SOMETHING IN YOUR REAL LIFE !!!?!?!??!"
Jiyeon keeps her acting gig but Eunjung is fired from hers, and loses a couple of endorsement deals; Soyeon is in a car crash and some Netizens post that the crash was engineered by the label boss to build sympathy for her and to distract from the Hwayoung controversy; alternately, that he sabotaged her car in order to kill her or punish her for allowing herself to be interviewed on the subject without his permission. The producer of a TV drama Soyeon acts in, acknowledging the injustice and insanity of these claims, of the whole uproar, nonetheless cites the pathology of such responses as a reason to limit Soyeon's lines – as if to say: that the public is being so irrational and screwed-up, this just proves that the situation is extreme and therefore we have to give into it. What can you do when the mob is baying?
I'll say that K-pop is the world's best music, and T-ara are K-pop's best musical group, and this summer they were almost destroyed. Over here in America, in the wake of Psy's "Gangnam Style" hitting worldwide, there were articles about how well the Korean Wave markets itself internationally, how for better or worse its system of production delivers: performers starting in their teens as trainees and worked as if they're prodigies and athletes, long hours and strict diets and oppressive contracts as they wait for their chance, but dazzling performances, stunning outfits, elaborate sets, high-production videos. But here's K-pop not working, the Core Contents Media's CEO screwing up daily as he keeps replacing one shifting reason and rationale with another for the firing of Hwayoung, no one believing him and none of the young women in T-ara able to step forward and take charge and counter him, to figuratively grab the mouthpiece and speak for themselves; no one in authority anywhere willing to tell the mob to stand down, no one being responsible, no one a genuine leader. Indie rapper E.via addressed the Internet, "Is witch-hunting your hobby? I, too, feel terrible for that person and am curious for the truth, but [demanding the truth] like this will only increase the number of people in pain." And Kahi, former member of After School, wrote, "Either way, it doesn't seem like someone else's business." But no one else in the biz, no one with anything to lose (or even anything to gain), said a damn thing. A blank, the biz silent, and this all played out. The counter-currents and arguments from fans themselves, those are what ended up blunting some of the hysteria. The actors union and the Korea Entertainment Management Association weighed in on Eunjung's side when she was fired from Five Fingers, her TV drama. But overall, adults were absent.
So the story here is what welled up in the youth. Thousands joined a Website called "We demand the truth about T-ara," but what's there to discover? Breakups happen and this was like a breakup. It's like asking Mommy and Daddy why they got divorced. You're not going to find out. If they're decent they know they can't tell you, and if they're not, what they tell you will be bullshit. A girl whose Tumblr is called hyotheleader, who went on to patiently expose and debunk all the faked videos and false rumors, posted early on, "Heartbreaking... (╥﹏╥) Hwayoung is my 2nd bias after Hyomin and I shipped HwaMin like crazy after Subyung so I'm speechless right now. It just like you want me to choose between my dad & mom, who I want to die first!" And then as she sifted through all the lies and rumors, she in essence was telling a story too, that people on the Internet are mean – which is a variant of the story these Net people were telling themselves: "They kicked her out because she wasn't the popular one and it's a mean girls thing the other members got bad attitudes... It's all bullshit" wrote one kid about an hour after Hwayoung was tossed out. Another went, "i mean they are all bitches but srsly make the other members suffer as well for bullying her and shit but in return they make the victim leave the group!" It's their own story they're telling, a wrongness in a world that's supposed to be right.
1. T-ara "Lovey-Dovey" (Core Contents Media)
2. Orange Caramel "Lipstick" (Pledis Entertainment)
3. Trouble Maker "Trouble Maker" (Cube Entertainment)
4. ChoColat "I Like It" (Paramount)
5. Dev "Take Her From You" (Universal)
6. Dev "In My Trunk" (Universal)
7. Cassie "King Of Hearts" (Bad Boy/Interscope)
8. Wonder Girls "Like This" (JYP Entertainment)
9. Sistar "Alone" (Starship Entertainment)
10. T-ara "Day By Day" (Core Contents Media)
1. T-ara Funky Town EP (Core Contents Media) 13 points
2. T-ara Mirage EP (Core Contents Media) 13 points
3. ChoColat I Like It, The First Mini Album EP (Paramount) 12 points
4. Neil Young Americana (Reprise) 10 points
5. Miss $ Miss Us? EP (Brand New Music/Windmill Media) 10 points
6. Serebro Mama Lover (Columbia Europe) 10 points
7. E.via E.viagradation Part 1. (Black & Red) EP (Dline Art Media) 8 points
8. DJ Bedbugs Teenpop Lock And Drop Volume 2 [self-released] 8 points
9. Miss A Touch EP (JYP Entertainment) 8 points
10. Orange Caramel Lipstick (Pledis Entertainment) 8 points
--Frank Kogan, December 28, 2012; minor revisions in comments January 23, 2013.