With the recent influx of singing competition shows sprouting faster than Jeremy Lin fans, I try avoiding them like people with bad breath. However, it wasn't until I saw a preview of 'SBS KPOP Star' at the conclusion of a hilarious 'Running Man' episode that baited me to check out a few clips of the auditions. One YouTube clip led to another and another (curse you 'Recommended Videos' section!), and before I knew it, I was watching full episodes of the show from its inception.
As Michelle Lee appeared before the judges for the first time, she stood anxiously grabbing the mic with both hands and introduced herself. She spoke in fluent Korean, throwing the judges and myself off guard, because she was… different. The curvy, darker skinned contestant in frumpy attire revealed that she is half black and half Korean, born and raised in Korea. She then delivered an impressive acapella of "Chain of Fools" that Aretha Franklin herself would approve of, immediately garnering the respect of the judges.
'Wow,' I thought to myself. 'She's gooooood… But in the back of my mind I also thought that she'll never win.'
Some of you might be saying 'WTF', but the rest of you who live in the real world were probably thinking the same thing. However, for the sake of argument, I'll be the one to tell the kids that Santa isn't real. I don't mind being the bad guy, I'll say what no one wants to: Michelle Lee will not win KPOP Star because of her appearance.
Before you go logging into your 6Theory accounts to curse my unborn child, hear me out. My deduction may seem cold and racially insensitive on the surface, but I'm merely relaying the status quo of nationalism in South Korea and the standards of beauty as promulgated by K-pop fans and the media. Yes, we've seen the atypical underdogs win these competitions before (see: Susan Boyle), but the requisites are different here, as indicated by the literal title of the show in big, bold, pink font. This show is looking for a K-pop star.
WHAT IS A KPOP STAR?
Let's be real. We all know there are more than a few idols out there with mediocre singing ability. With respect for the wrath of the K-pop netizen, I won't name names for fear of my own safety, but I will say that almost every group has at least one. Entertainment companies cleverly conceal this lack of talent by designating specific roles to group members like 'main vocalist,' 'sub vocalist,' 'dancer,' etc., or the most creative one I've seen yet, 'sexy charisma'. L-O-L.
While exceptional vocal ability is not common in every idol, the ideal physical idiosyncrasies are – the crescent-shaped eyes complimented with double eyelids, the cute button nose, the milky-soft skin, and the S-line figure forged from the perfect ratio of athletic tone and starvation—whether they're God-given or not.
The point is, that in K-pop, image takes precedence over talent. Is it justified? I'll be the first to admit that I often fall victim to the pretty face. I rotate crushes on female idols like Big Bang members change their hairstyles. But to answer the question, hell yes. The voice might sell the 99 cent song on iTunes, but it's the face that sells the posters, clothes, cosmetics, and bottles of soju. We, the fans, the consumers, the drooling dupes who are attracted to shiny things, are the ones to blame for the perpetuation of this criterion.
As the future idols of K-pop now endure the battle auditions and prepare for live performances where elimination is partially influenced by viewer voting, we should start seeing the development of the inevitable transformations in aesthetic presentation. My inner nerd can't help but compare this to the recent Captain America movie, where a scrawny Steve Rogers is injected with the 'super soldier' serum and comes out all jacked up as if he were auditioning for the next season of 'Jersey Shore'. So as our own contestants are about to head into their proverbial stasis chambers, I've noticed a few contestants' metamorphoses have already begun. The judges have specifically asked Lee Ha Yi and Park Ji Min (two leading favorites to take it all), among others, to lose weight. Anyone notice that mum's the word for Michelle?
DISCRIMINATION IN KOREA
New York Times, 2009 'South Koreans Struggle with Race'
"In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year's financial downturn, "incidents of xenophobia are on the rise."
For most of its modern history, South Koreans were taught to take pride in its ethnic homogeneity. Its 'pure-blood' nationalism was fueled from the foul tastes of Imperialist invasion and subjugation from its bigger neighbors, but I'll save the full history lessons for your boring professors.
Before I go on, I want to clear the air. My intention here is not to denounce the Korean people as jingoistic beasts, nor is it to justify their sociological attitude that's governed them for decades. South Korea has made strides in improving its internal disposition. According to the aforementioned New York Times article, in 2007, they urged public education to further condemn widespread use of terms like 'pure-blood' and 'mixed blood'. Political parties also planned to draft legislation that would "provide detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties."
Now some of you Hottests and Aff(x)tion-ites are itching to point out that there are actually quite a few idols in the industry that aren't 'pure-blood' Koreans, exempli gratia Nichkhun, Victoria, Amber, Fei, and Jia to name a few. Being a computer science major, my argumentative response would refer to the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing's logic test for inductive reasoning to rationalize this contrasting principle: "If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." So yeah. I'm reaching, I know.
Interestingly though, Michelle would not be the first black-Korean to hit the Korean mainstream music scene. Yoon Mi Rae aka Tasha Reid, Lady T or T, is in my opinion, the best female rapper in the world. Like Michelle, Yoon Mi Rae was born to a Korean mother and African-American father. She debuted in a duo at the age of 16 in 1999, was a member of Uptown and has had a successful career as a solo artist, but not without conflict. Throughout her life, she often faced discrimination because of her mixed heritage, as can be validated by the emotional lyrics of her songs.
"Black Happiness" (translated)
"I was young, but I could see my mother's sadness.
I was ashamed—thought it was all my fault.
I scrubbed my face twice every day,
My tears melted the white soap
Because I hated my dark skin."
Even not too long ago, Yoon Mi Rae experienced racism after her husband, famed rapper Tiger JK, brought their 21-month old son Jordan onstage with him at 'Yoo Hee Yeol's Sketchbook'. Sadly, after the show, Tiger read some hateful racist comments about his son and family that led to this Twitter tantrum.
On the flip side, discrimination in the entertainment industry isn't exclusive to South Korea, as we've seen many cases of Asian artists having difficulties being accepted in America and other countries as well.
I'm not saying we should hand the crown over to Michelle by default. There are a handful of very talented contestants that could easily win it. If she didn't win, I'd have no qualms with it… if she's outperformed. I honestly don't think we'll get a fair trial though.
Her only advantage and ray of hope is that advancement to the next rounds are heavily influenced by the judges and not entirely by viewer voting as is the case on other shows. In the opening minutes of the very first episode where the judges are introduced, they are each asked what they're looking for and what their standards of judging will be based on:
YG: "I hope to create a new kind of star that has yet to be established."
J.Y. Park: "The standard for KPOP Star is… originality. A person with their own style. One who can express themselves through singing or dancing. That is the person we want to find."
BoA: "For me, rather than someone who is already well-polished, I want to find someone with potential who can be polished in the future. I hope to find someone who's like a clean, white canvas."
If these truly are their ambitions, then Michelle has a shot. Yang Hyun Suk, Park Jin Young, and BoA are three of the most influential icons of the industry that have shaped the K-pop landscape into what it is today. These judges, CEO's and ambassadors of their respective companies, have continually tried to penetrate the western market with their best arsenal (Wonder Girls, Rain, Se7en, and BoA herself), and while they've made progress, they've ultimately failed by most standards. Perhaps its time to try different ammunition.
Maybe instead of the catchy tune backed by the pretty face, you try sheer, unadulterated, magnificent talent? How will America respond? Ask Adele's eight Grammy's.
It's a good thing that Adele wasn't born as a half-black/half-Korean though… because then we wouldn't ever know.
Reference(s) : NY Times