SM Entertainment in China
This post is a long time coming, and probably has been in the making since Super Junior first started promoting in China.
Hallyuism at this stage in the game is all about the money. Korea is a place where trends catch on in a millisecond, and people have caught onto the fact that K-pop can make money, and a lot of money at that. So I get it: it’s a cultural product worthy of pride, and it’s an important national export.
The thing that drives me nuts is the extent to which the people exporting their pop and their business in pop have so little consideration for the cultures and countries that they want to export to. I’m not going to call the kettle black, because I understand that I, as an American, come from a country that is notorious for disregarding the cultures and sensibilities of other countries when it comes to forcing our media and culture onto others.
But I obviously have a horse in this particular race, which is why I feel the need to call K-pop out on this. I work and deal with K-pop, and as a non-Korean observer of K-pop, seeing things happen in K-pop that affect me on some level trigger certain reflexes and emotions. At a moment when K-pop is being so highly self-lauded and whose output is being so aggressively marketed outside of Korea, it disgusts me that it will on the one hand pay so much lip service to the markets and countries it’s trying to pursue, and then on the other hand exploit the shit out of it while maintaining fake deference.
And this rant will be primarily about inklings of things I hated when I watched Super Junior M promote, and now stirring me once again with Exo.
I was in China when Super Junior M first started promoting so I saw the kind of popularity Super Junior M enjoyed. Super Junior, for reasons unbeknownst to me, is massively popular in China, and having a special subunit just for that country was probably icing on the cake.
It was nice that Hangeng was the leader of that de facto group, and that there were two additional Chinese members who were there to help facilitate the conversations, interviews, and appearances. It didn’t seem like a good idea taking a group that was already pretty established and adding two additional (Chinese) members, nor did it seem like a good idea taking some of the most popular Korean members and putting them in China for periods of time and having them promote the Chinese way. But all of this was easy to ignore because hey, what the hell, let’s just enjoy it for what it is.
As the promotions continued, though, there got to be a point when I had to tune out the M promotions because it became increasingly obvious to me that the Korean members try very little in China. The first few times you said that you really liked Shanghainese xiao long bao, it was cute. And then when that was ALL you can say, and when ALL you can communicate is that you ai all the zhong guo fans very much, and you’re very gan xie about the support they’ve shown, I had to stop watching, for the sake of my sanity.
And it made me so angry to watch the Chinese fans lap it up, because, have you no pride? Have you no pride in the fact that these idols were basically half-assing promotions in your country because they knew that K-pop’s pull makes allowances for their laziness?
Now SM is doing it again with Exo. I don’t want to say that SM alone is culpable of exploiting foreign markets, because they’re not the only people in K-pop who stand to gain by pushing their products overseas. They’re just the only company that has successfully and very persistently pursued the Chinese market in ways no other company has, so they’re unfortunately the examples I’m going to use.
The second I found out that there were Korean members on the M team, my heart sank. It’s not because I assumed that they — the Korean members — would half-ass it like their Super Junior bros did. It’s because it’s just not right to do that. As a company, when you decide after the fact that you want to export your idols to another country for promotion, there’s obviously an adjustment period and your idols are gonna have to deal. But to know from the get-go, before the fact, that you want to export something to another country and then to try to FAKE IT like these Korean members are Chinese in order to more effectively market your product? That is awful.
It’s great for the Chinese members, because it’s like going home for them. They have the powerful backing of a well-known K-pop institution, being sort of the Chinese vanguards of Hallyu, so they are almost a class above the Chinese idols, who, to be perfectly frank, are a copy of Korea and Japan’s idols and are not what the idol industry in Asia at large aspire to. The idol market — idol being the matchy matchy boy bands — in China is much smaller than it is in Korea and Japan, and it’s a young industry.
But for the Korean members, I’m sure it sucks. And that is entirely SM’s fault. SM knowingly put Min-seok and Jong-dae in this group, knowing they are not prepared, language-wise, to promote effectively. If they were well-versed in the language and the customs, I would understand their placement in the group. Maybe they just needed bodies to fill the M group and some of their Chinese trainees just weren’t ready to debut yet. But Min-seok and Jong-dae are not ready, and they are as much a hindrance as all the Korean members in Super Junior M, and without the extra boost of popularity. They might as well have taken any other Korean member and stuck him into M because it doesn’t even make a difference.
And this goes back to the disrespect and exploitative issues, because SM assumes that passing Korean members as Chinese ones will make them Chinese, which will make Exo-M an easier sell in China. It’s demeaning to the Chinese audience that they’re trying to sell to, but it’s also exploitative to the Korean members they’re doing this to because they’re easily replaceable. I can’t get over the fact that SM gave them fake Chinese names so that they could pass. I just cannot get over it. It would be an easier pill to swallow if, you know, they just straight up said, “As an addendum, we would like to say that there are two Korean dudes, but I hope that’s coo’ with you.”
It would also be less irritating if they would stop emphasizing how Exo is this never-been-done-before concept where there are two groups promoting at the same time in two different countries, which would imply that these groups are on equal footing and that the Chinese market is just as important as the Korean market, because it’s clearly not. If it were, they would not put in two members who don’t have the language ability into the group. It’s not Min-seok and Jong-dae’s fault, it’s really not, but their language barrier contributes to stilted interviews, and that’s called not being prepared for a debut in a country not theirs’. And really, this is a complaint that goes for every country that K-pop tries to promote in because K-pop tries to get away with this way too many times, and people keep letting them.
And so what does this all have to do with D.O. in the image above?
The people in K-pop I like are the ones who prove themselves to be good performers. I feel like that’s the only way to clear through the smoke and mirrors that K-pop has become, the only way to properly assess for the actual craft at hand before it all fell to the wayside: singing and performing.
I liked D.O. a normal amount, as much as I like all my faves in my preferred groups. Then I noticed something else that didn’t catch my eye until a third (or fourth, or fifteenth, whatever) re-watching of the “MAMA” performance at the Beijing showcase. The song is split into Chinese and Korean verses just so both groups can perform it together, and during the final chorus sung in Chinese, I noticed that D.O. was singing along and I couldn’t make it out for the longest time because the official broadcast version was about the same shit quality as the stuff I filmed with my flip Motorola phone five years ago, but I finally came across a clear fancam. I re-watched that chorus and it became clear that D.O. was singing the chorus along in Chinese. And I’ve scoured high and low for all kinds of fancams of that performance just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things that I wanted to see (here @ 3:50, here @ 3:55, here @ 65:01).
It’s really these little things that win me over in a huge way, and why it really takes me a long time to really like anybody in K-pop because I need to be won over by the small things.
Maybe it’s because D.O. sang the song in Chinese for the studio backtrack because the M voices alone weren’t strong enough, so he had to know the lyrics. But it probably wasn’t because of that (because I don’t even hear him in the Chinese version and my D.O. radar is definitely strong enough to pick up his voice).
Maybe he just knew the song and the Chinese lyrics to the chorus because it was the respectful thing to do. ALL of M — ALL OF THEM — sang along to the final chorus in Korean at the Seoul showcase. They will never need to perform the Korean version of this song. Ever. Yet they sang along to the chorus and even made an effort to know the lyrics because that’s the respectable thing to do.
So thanks, D.O., for being awesome. You completely justified the reason why I like you so much and you haven’t even officially promoted for more than two weekends yet. It’s a reminder that idols want to sell as much as their companies do, and that for most people, doing just enough is enough, but there are some who do a little more. And that’s nice.