Escaping through K-pop

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — You could probably build an entire nation on K-pop.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — You could probably build an entire nation on K-pop. The Youtube channel of Big Hit, the record label of global K-pop sensation BTS, has 50 million subscribers, which is double the total population of Australia. Anyone who has ever been sucked into the vortex of K-pop would know that the experience is rarely ever solitary. Fandom is an integral part of it, and K-pop fandoms do what so many of us have failed to accomplish in the past few years: Organize. 90,000 BTS fans somehow planned and pulled off a surprise for the group during their 2019 concert at the London Wembley Stadium. Just last year, K-pop Twitter allegedly foiled a Trump rally by spamming their hashtags with K-pop video clips. Locally, the Philippine chapter of BTS fans (known as ARMY) raised ₱2 million for victims of Typhoon Ulysses.

I recently joined a private Facebook group called Titas of BTS out of curiosity. They call it a safe space for “titas,” defined as “anyone born before 1992, the year BTS’ oldest hyung (which means older brother in Korean) (Kim) Seokjin was born.” The group’s membership is around 2000-plus. It is by no means a random forum — it’s a whole community run by what seems to be organizational professionals, complete with a vision-mission, a digital handbook, posting guidelines, and even tita etiquette. The group grows daily and I doubt many of them even know each other offline, but in that group they are all friends and they all call each other tita.

All this is a little bit weird because I have feverishly and vehemently resisted the “tita” label even though I actually am one, thanks to my sister’s children. But “tita” isn’t just a designation from your nieces, it’s a whole lifestyle and stereotype and I (unfortunately) tick off most of the boxes. I enjoy scented candles and orthopedic footwear. I also have gastroesophageal reflux disease, known better by those above the age of 28 as GERD. I have an air fryer and have not shut up about it. I could never afford any of these things when I was on an allowance, but once I started working 9 to 5, not only could I purchase these things, but my own barometer for happiness started to change. These aren’t by any means profound things. In fact, they’re small and a little vapid, but in a world as unpredictable as ours, what matters more to me is that these happinesses are instant and assured.

Chief among these small and certain happinesses is K-pop, which I got into around 2017 when I was 26, which was then already a little older than the average teenage K-pop fan. But unlike the average teenage K-pop fan, I don’t have parental restrictions when it comes to how I express my fandom through purchases. I can charge my yearly fan club membership fee to a credit card under my own name. All of this was made possible by my income, which means it is entirely and unequivocally my fault.

For the most part, my love for K-pop is blissfully trivial. I get a kick out of a great performance and great looks. I’m constantly entertained by regular releases and I rarely ever need convincing when it comes to buying merchandise. But the same year I got into K-pop was also my one-year anniversary at my second job in a small design studio. Meaning it had also been one year since I left my first job, my then-dream job of working in the public sector, which I said goodbye to in 2016.

This isn’t my favorite story. When I graduated in 2013, the air was different. A lot of us had the gall to think we could change the country and change it instantly, within one administration. I wanted to be a part of it so badly. My idols then were a crop of intelligent young-ish people who chose public sector work over the comfort and security of the private sector. In my mind, they were heroes, and once I started working in government, they became peers. I wore my job with an inflated sense of pride because I was so confident that we were doing the right thing. That I was part of something bigger than myself.

I didn’t even have that big of a role, but it was everything to me. I started as a researcher in the Presidential Communications office of the Aquino administration, the youngest person in the office and a low-level position to be sure, but my business card was embossed with the presidential seal. I could tell all my friends: I worked for Malacañang. On my first day, walking through the Palace gates in my crisp white blouse, I thought it was the start of the rest of my life.

“I couldn’t give 100% of myself because I was always holding on to this idea that I had to “save myself” for public service.”

But in the run-up to the 2016 election year, I grew threadbare. Public service had its highs but they were outnumbered by the lows. I learned the limits of my idealism when I had to navigate the soul-sucking reality of salary grades and submitting to rank. I had opinions, but I was told to temper them for unity and practicality. “You need to learn how to be a follower,” I was told in one meeting. When I was finally promoted to a writer position where I could directly publish content for the official government portal, I had grown afraid of my own voice, but I couldn’t really have one even if I wanted to. The final blow to all my youthful dreaming was when I finally, sadly accepted that the change I was looking for wasn’t likely to happen, and it most certainly wasn’t coming from our office. “You’re still so young,” said my boss. “You have so much left to learn.” I handed in my resignation letter early January 2016. I felt like a quitter.

It is an understatement to say that 2016 was a bad year. The Trump and Duterte presidency marked the start of a terrifying era whose effects reverberate to this day, and tragedy was a regular occurence. That year, 625 children died in the Syrian civil war. 49 people lost their lives in a mass-shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. The Black Lives Matter movement hit critical global mass. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was buried in the cemetery of our heroes, and we learned that the word “nanlaban” became shorthand for summary execution.

The grand demonstration at Luneta as protest against Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

The original plan was to move laterally into another executive office, one that was more in touch with people on the ground, one that wasn’t co-terminus with the sitting president. But as the months went by, my dread only multiplied. When I told a mentor I no longer wanted to work in government for this president, he chastised me by saying I had the wrong mindset. “We will always need career workers in government, regardless of who the sitting president is.”

2017 felt like the year that I disobeyed everyone’s advice. I didn’t show up to my interview at the Social Welfare Department and instead began work at a start-up design studio run by people my age. Suddenly, all my blouses and pencil skirts were out of place in the 72-square meter condominium unit, which was more home than office. We shared desks, cooked our meals, and we only wore shoes whenever clients came calling. Instead of presidential speeches and executive orders, I was working on brand guidelines for Spanish restaurants and a bottle label for small batch artisanal craft gin.

And though I loved the work, there were days when I’d be overwhelmed by disappointment. Against the backdrop of the worsening national situation, I was learning about x-height and slab serifs. My creativity gave me guilt, like I wasn’t ever doing enough. And as a result, I wasn’t always happy and my work was often mediocre. I couldn’t give 100% of myself because I was always holding on to this idea that I had to “save myself” for public service. I never realized how long I had been stuck in this self-defeating silo until someone broadcast the music video of TWICE’s “TT” on the office T.V.

It was bubblegum-candy-cavity sweet and upbeat to a fault. Even when they pulled their hands to their faces to imitate a crying face (“just like ‘TT’”), the nine girls of TWICE were still smiling. I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until then, and that through K-pop I was allowed to be happy. In K-pop, joy — pure joy — was just a comeback away.

The thing about K-pop is that the content is endless. In 2020, there was an average of 30 K-pop releases (whether single, album, or music video) per month, which meant that there was at least one group releasing something every day. These are called comebacks, a term that simply means an artist is “coming back” with new music and not necessarily a long hiatus. And a comeback is never just releasing the audio on Spotify. There is always a music video, dance practice videos, and comeback stages. Not to mention, idols might tweet once a day, post on Instagram, or even release videos of what they did over the weekend. The breadth and the immediacy of the content makes K-pop feel almost intimate, like I know too much about them.

Related: Our best K-pop songs of 2020

And so, the soundtrack to those years after government was set to Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy,” the first dance I ever memorized, and “Like OOH-AHH,” which often played in the neighborhood Samgyupsalamat where we went to after a long day of work. Looking back from 2020, they were blissful years. Through K-pop, I took myself less seriously. It gave me equilibrium, a path to tread. I fell into my favorite group’s discography, religiously followed their releases, memorized their zodiacs, their favorite food, and the names of their pets. K-pop occupied so much of my heart and soul, I had no room for anxiety. It was an escape from reality, which meant it was an escape from myself.

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But K-pop isn’t without its own prisons. The amount and frequency of content generated by K-pop necessitates the existence of massive, complex, and profit-generating infrastructure. This is known as the record labels and idols cannot exist without them. To become an idol often involves training as early as 13 years old. Young hopefuls leave home to live with other trainees, bootcamp style, in the hopes of one day debuting as a full-fledged K-pop group. This often takes years, and during this time they live under the full sponsorship of a record label. Everything from food, living expenses, training, and even allowances are all paid for by the label.

In return, labels are given most of the creative control of the product. They dictate what idols must show and what fans can see. One of which is the show of aegyo, the display of cuteness and affection meant to elicit romantic excitement, which isn’t much different from what we know as kilig. This explicit fan service adds to K-pop’s charms, and is probably the reason why Filipinos resonate with K-content so much. It’s TWICE’s Sana enunciating Cheese Gimbap, EXO’s DO singing from a fabricated pink T.V. set, or Monsta X’s Joohoney talking in a baby voice. It’s consciously pabebe and indulgently nakakakilig. A friend of mine said Joohoney could cure cancer with his aegyo.

These things are often gratifying and harmless on the surface, but aegyo has an inherent age limit. It seems more natural for 16-year-old girls to wear babydoll dresses and animal ears, but things change once idols are 25 and above. Aging can be a handicap in K-pop, and it disadvantages women more than it does men. 

When idol groups start out, members can be anywhere between 16 to 21 years old. The average length of a contract with a record label is around seven years. For male idols, this conveniently coincides with the maximum allowable age before mandatory military service, which used to be 28 (just recently, a new law was passed to allow artists who “excel in popular culture and art” to defer enlistment for another two years).

Girl groups on the other hand get no such reprieve. The seven-year contract has also been referred to as the “seven-year curse,” where groups either lose a member to non-renewal or they disband completely. Female idols might try to launch their own solo careers or get into acting, but it is rare to see a complete girl group still performing in their 30s.

Female idols often receive harsher criticism than their male counterparts for the same behavior. “People demand that female K-pop idols are kind, submissive and mature,” says communication scholar Kim Sujeong in an SCMP article. “Then they get irked when idols do not fit the norm.” All this is just part of a larger culture of misogyny in South Korea. While there have been significant improvements in the past 50 years, South Korea still has the widest gender pay gap among developed countries, where women took home 32.1% less than men in 2019. The average among OECD countries is 13%.

One can’t help but compare the treatment doled out to Park Bom, age 36, of 2NE1 and G-Dragon, age 32, of Big Bang. Both are part of second generation idol groups and the subjects of drug-related scandals. But while Park Bom struggles with her solo career and the constant criticism of her looks every time she makes a public appearance, G-Dragon was greeted by a crowd of 3,000 fans the day he returned from the military and was even featured on a 2020 cover of Vogue Korea. It was one of their best selling issues to date.

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These days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Japanese city pop, the funky, dreamy sound of an optimistic Tokyo during the economic boom of the ’80s. One artist who has been on my heavy rotation is Yukika, a Japan-born model and voice actor who brought city pop to Seoul when she debuted as an idol in 2019.

Most K-pop groups are assigned concepts even before they debut, and Yukika’s label decided that her concept was “New Retro Girl.” This concept determined everything: her fashion, the things she would say, and the kind of music she would make. But Yukika infused her own experiences, upending expectations of the K-pop genre. Apart from debuting as a solo artist when she was 26 — almost 10 years older than the average debut age for female idols — her album “Soul Lady” is a departure from the heavy electronic dance tracks de rigueur to K-pop.

Yukika’s sound is soft and nostalgic. There’s synths, xylophones, a groovy bass, and a triumphant brass section. She wears vintage dresses, berets, and block heels. The music video of “Neon” is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, like an ‘80s camcorder. All her songs are about love and longing, the sound of a lost year compressed into a 12-track album. It sounds like seeing a city for the first time, from the window seat of an airplane. It sounds like possibility. It’s the soundtrack of leaving something behind and discovering, instead, something new and exciting.

When asked in an interview how she was adjusting to life in Korea, Yukika said that Seoul didn’t feel foreign at all. “I have found that Seoul is chic and energetic like Tokyo and has the warm atmosphere that I felt in Shizuoka where I was born,” she says. As if she had been living there all her life.

I don’t know if I’ll ever return to government work. I often give vague answers to friends who ask: Maybe, someday, eventually. Not because I don’t want to, but because I only wish to open myself to the unknown and unprecedented. After all, none of the old rules applied in 2020 and I don’t think any of them will in the years to come. I often joked that I escaped government work when I went private, but in truth, leaving government was really just the death of my own ego. I used it like a crutch, to give myself meaning, and when it didn’t live up to my expectations I felt betrayed. And when I finally was brave enough to step outside of it, I didn’t know who I was. What was happening was grief and I never knew it, and K-pop was a way to name my grief and finally, eventually, walk away from it.

In the meantime, I’m learning what it takes to be content and to manage my acid reflux. The amount of pleasure I get from perfectly air fried chicken is totally outsized, and I light scented candles at night just to relax. I’ve also got my Titas of BTS group, where people post pictures of their merchandise or stories of how BTS has connected them to their nieces and daughters, “just to share.” Everyone is kind and everyone is happy.

It’s almost too rosy, the way the group exists in this world, in this country, and on Facebook of all places. A tita might ask jokingly, “Is this even allowed?” referring to a picture of a sweaty Kim Namjoon. And everyone replies in purple hearts, laughing emojis, and words of encouragement. In the Titas of BTS group, we’re allowed to enjoy things. We’re allowed to escape, albeit virtually.