In the midst of writing this series I had a conversation with a fellow American academically-minded Eaglez, who has been developing her own network of Kazakhstani scholars to confer with. Remind me, she texted, to tell you about the feminists I meet who say Ninety One are actually raging misogynists.
To say I read this with a wave of nausea would be overdramatic, but only slightly. I want to know and yet I don’t, I wrote back. And then a minute later: Wait, do you mean as in, feminists interpret their work as being raging misogynists, or as in, the word on the Almaty street is that they’re actually assholes?
Interpreting their work, she said.
I breathed the predictable sigh of relief.
The Kazakhstani feminist scholars might have a point. Especially if they were to cite songs such as “All I Need,” the second single off the 2018 EP Dopamine.
If “Bayau” was the uncomplicated sex jam, “All I Need” is the complicated sex jam: five full minutes long, and by turns admiring, belittling, hostile, submissive, shy, hopeful, self-mocking, and self-pitying. It plays like an idol-pop take on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with fewer references to mortality and more puns. But even the puns are complicated. What an English speaker hears as “all I need” is actually ол айниды, which translates very, very roughly as “she doesn’t want it.” And according to accounts by people who speak enough Kazakh to know a pun when they hear it, ZaQ’s line Құрттың ғой тағы!, which the official translation has as “You messed it up again!”, includes slang for a flaccid penis. Two lines before that ZaQ says “My heart is Aldar Kose,” referring to an Anansi-like trickster character of Kazakh folklore. In other words, “All I Need” is a sex jam in which a man tries to approach a woman and then complains that she’s too standoffish for him, while the lyrics draw attention to the narrator’s unreliability. And it is also the song in which AZ tries a negging strategy: “Yeah, yeah, you look stunning / But I’m not sure there’s actually anything under that hair.”1
AZ spends the Dopamine EP alternating between thinly veiled verging-on-hostile ambivalence towards a female addressee and even less thinly veiled verging-on-hostile ambivalence towards himself. Here’s the entirety of his rap for “E.Yeah,” the first single:
Oh look, your dress, you’re all buttoned up!
Looks like things are about to go down (meaning, they’re about to have a fight)
Are you getting upset? Whatever, just leave it
I’ve got a load of laundry for you to do
But really, it’s more a state of mind than anything else
If you trust me, we’ll figure it all out
I know, I piss you off, but listen—
If I couldn’t drive you crazy, what would I do?
On “Boyman,” Dopamine’s third and most reflective song, he talks about wanting to be a child, missing his mother, and having to take care of himself “until I get married,” and on “Why’m” he declares,
Hold on, am I bad, or am I good?
I can’t answer this question either…
My only rival is me,
I’ll bury him with my own hands,
’Til then, please, don’t get into my business,
You don’t want to get your hands dirty.
Unsurprisingly, the single after “Why’m” includes AZ saying, “My bae and I broke up and now I miss her.” The man whose ambivalent contempt is wide-ranging, with both himself and anyone dumb enough to love him in the target sights, is a type, and how much patience potential lovers have for such a type varies widely. Speaking very broadly, women over the age of thirty, and women who identify as feminists, tend to not be up for the required emotional exhaustion.
But if that’s the bulk of the evidence for them being raging misogynists, why worry about the possibility? Why did I react so strongly when I thought it possible that one or more of them had been real-life jerks? Pretty much everyone I love (including myself) has been a real-life jerk more than once. The overlap between the sets “people who become famous while still teenagers” and “real-life jerks” is large. Why would I demand that Ninety One not be real-life jerks? But also: what would it say about me if I didn’t demand it?
If this seems like an overreaction to some boorish but otherwise unremarkable lyrics, well, it’s time to tell you about #BurningMolka.
The hashtag #BurningMolka, which trended for a while in early 2019, is actually something of a smushing together. “Burning” was for Burning Sun, a Seoul nightclub that came to police attention after a man was beaten up just outside it in early January. Molka is the Korean term for pictures taken surreptitiously, without the consent of the person being photographed. It’s generally assumed to be pictures of women, upskirt shots and the like, taken by men.
A smushed hashtag was useful for talking about a series of allegations of crimes, only some of which resulted in criminal convictions. The epicenter of the discussion was Lee Seung-hyun, better known as Seungri, a member of the Korean idol-pop group Big Bang. I need to divert here a bit: Big Bang is one of the most successful Korean idol-pop groups ever; it was selling out American arenas before BTS even debuted. As such Big Bang inspired a number of subsequent idol groups, including BTS, and almost certainly Ninety One, for that matter.2
All that success meant a fair bit of revenue for the members of Big Bang; for their company, YG Entertainment; and for YG’s founder, Yang Hyun-suk. Seungri took his share of the revenue and started putting it into nightclubs. For years this was reported as all innocent-enough fun; Seungri got the nickname “The Great Seungri,” as in The Great Gatsby, for his combining investment in Seoul nightlife with his very public repeated enjoyment of said nightlife. But the incident at Burning Sun, one of Seungri’s investments, prompted actual investigations into what might be going on at said clubs.
So by mid-2019 Seungri was being accused of having embezzled money from the nightclubs and evaded paying taxes on their revenue. That by itself would not have been enough to generate a hashtag. He was also accused of having provided prostitutes for foreign investors; of soliciting prostitutes himself; of bribing policemen; and of generally facilitating a club environment where drugs were dealt (both Korean society and Korean law regard recreational drug use far more harshly than is true in America, Canada, or western Europe) and women could be trafficked, and drugged when thought necessary or stimulating.3
Seungri was also a participant in an online chat room with other idol celebrities, including the singer Jung Joon-young and idol-pop group F.T.Island member Choi Jung-hoon, where molka circulated, and in this case by molka I mean videos of women being raped while unconscious. “We’ve done so many things that could put us in jail,” said one chat-room participant. “We just haven’t killed anyone.”4
Both Jung and Choi were eventually tried and convicted of sexual assault. Other chat-room participants (who hadn’t actively raped sleeping women, but had simply enjoyed the resulting pictures), such as Kangin of Super Junior and Lee Jong-hyun of CNBLUE, were fired from their respective groups. Yang Hyun-suk himself had to formally step down from YG Entertainment in a whirl of charges of bribery, international trafficking of prostitutes, gambling, and fraud. (He has since admitted to the gambling.) As of this writing Seungri, who left Big Bang and started his mandatory military service once the allegations got too big to ignore, is awaiting trial in a military court on eight charges.
The gaps between what is alleged to have happened, and what has been certified as having happened in a Korean court of law, are quite wide. One problem in figuring out how much criminal abuse there may be in Korean idol pop is that nearly every iteration of the #BurningMolka scandal included allegations that policemen were bribed. Another is that relatively powerful politicians and businessmen are usually implicated. When the actress Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide in 2009, she left behind letters and notes implicating she’d been raped by her manager and forced to provide sexual services to more than 30 different individuals. The confirmed list she named has never been revealed (although you can find unconfirmed lists online fairly easily). But when the Ministry of Justice re-investigated the case in 2019, they included the detail that the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea’s best-known newspapers, had pressured police not to investigate any of their executives too thoroughly in connection with Jang Ja-yeon’s death.
As Jang Ja-yeon’s case—and that of Johnny Kitagawa and the 12-year-old trainees he raped—illustrates, the risk of sexual assault in idol pop is as much to idols as by idols. “Sexual abuse in the Korean entertainment industry is very prevalent,” Kim Nayoon, a former Starship Entertainment trainee, told interviewer Kpopalypse in April of this year. “I have heard of a lot of stories of higher management actively progressing towards female actresses and trainees, to be kind of blunt.” Serri, a member of the now-defunct group Dal*Shabet, has also gone on record about repeatedly being contacted by potential “sponsors,” although she added that her own company tended to discourage such efforts. In 2012 Jang Seok-woo, CEO of idol company Open World Entertainment, pled guilty to charges of sexually assaulting his trainees. And at the same time as the #BurningMolka scandal was developing, the School of Performing Arts in Seoul, known as the high school that hosts many working teenage idols, was also accused of playing host to sexual harassment and bullying, including requiring students to flirt with drunk guests.
But as Seungri’s case shows, if you run the idol gauntlet long enough, and are successful enough at it, you can take part in the abusing fun yourself. Take the case of another veteran idol, Park Yoochun. He was originally in an SM Entertainment group, TVXQ!, which in the mid-2000s became the first Korean male idol group to take Japan by storm. In 2009 Yoochun and two other members sued SM Entertainment to get out of their “slave contracts,” prompting a legal battle that dragged on for years and a sub rosa banning of the new group, JYJ, and all three of its members from idol TV shows. Nonetheless, JYJ was able to find new management and reestablish itself. Somehow, though, Yoochun’s idol career left him with not enough money to pay damages to the woman who sued him after accusing him, in 2016, of sexual assault. Although the case was never pursued by prosecutors, the accuser herself was cleared of charges of defamation, which is a tough case to win as a defendant in a Korean court. (Yes, this chain of events should remind you of the Japanese magazine that was cleared of defamation after accusing idol-pop mogul Johnny Kitagawa of raping one of his employees.) Yoochun may have been out of money because he may have been paying bribes to police officers while being investigated for the original rape claim. After all, the accuser was one of five.5
Yoochun did eventually end up in jail—for testing positive for meth, not sexual assault. YG and Seungri have so far not been found guilty of anything. Of the people named by Jang Ja-yeon, only one (the CEO of her management company) did any jail time. Meanwhile researching #BurningMolka and the various other cases mentioned here leads pretty quickly to a morass of unproven allegations and increasingly disgusting or creepy, and poorly verified, stories featuring mysterious Taiwanese moguls and special rape rooms in the backs of nightclubs. Between the particularities of Korean law6, the difficulty of assessing the reliability of varying Korean media organizations, and the sheer alleged amount of police bribery involved, any one fan (especially a non-Korean fan) could be forgiven for throwing up their hands and choosing to ignore the whole mess.
Which is what the larger world of English-language idol-pop fandom seems to have done. The larger #BurningMolka scandal and the general idea of sponsors hovering behind their favorite idols has fallen into the category of we-know-it-but-we’re-not-going-to-dwell-on-it. Even American media outlets which covered both the #BurningMolka scandal, not to mention the earlier wave of sexual-harassment and sexual-assault allegations in Western entertainment, are now hyping up YG idol-pop group Blackpink and their “clear-cut empowerment message” without so much as mentioning #BurningMolka.
The problem is, no one can be sure the problem isn’t worse. We are talking about the tip of an iceberg in extremely murky water. Put it this way: remember all those links between the success of BTS and the riches accrued to Big Hit Entertainment, and Korea’s tourism industry, and Korea’s economy more generally? Now imagine that you’re the unlucky soul who’s just been the victim of a sexual assault by a member of BTS. If you were to report the assault and get your day in court, how many people would suffer financial losses in the ensuing fallout? How many people have an incentive to keep you from making that report?
That some people working in idol pop abuse their power by forcing sex on others should not, on reflection, be all that surprising. People also abuse their power by forcing sex on others within churches, and sports teams, and schools, and youth groups, and families.7 Moreover, there are plenty of cases within history of musical and theater performance, prostitution, and sexual coercion being intertwined, from the early days of kabuki theater in Japan to the actresses of 18th-century London to the ballerinas of 19th-century Paris.8 But putting the abuses of idol pop into depressing context still leaves us with the question: what role, if any, do fans play in making the abuse easier to commit and cover up? Not potential “sponsors,” but plain old ordinary fans who will never get closer to their fave than a concert audience or CD cover.
There are two different parts to this potential complicity: that of the casual fan, and that of the ardent one. Idol pop pitches to the ardent fan, but a big group will have casual fans as well. Let’s call me a casual fan of Big Bang: I didn’t follow the group closely but I knew all the members’ names, could recognize their songs, once spent $2 to download a copy of “Fantastic Baby.” The question is whether continuing to listen to my download implies that I’m comfortable with Seungri’s presence in my ears, which is to say with Seungri, which is to say a world where idols can get away with rape and sex trafficking.
In the last couple years, before the pandemic did not-yet-fully-calculated damage to the music industry, music writing abounded with discussions of this question of responsibility. Part of the argument is that, especially in the streaming era, to play a song is to give the artist a financial boost, however tiny. (And given that Spotify shows your friends what you’re playing, your streaming the song might give them incentive to stream the song, thus increasing said financial boost.) But we are talking tiny: an individual song stream is going to give the abuser around a tenth of a cent’s worth of support.9
So the argument goes deeper than financial outlay. In late 2018 Jaya Saxena wrote for Billboard about her ambivalent relationship with the album Ugly Cherries by the group PWR BTTM, whose lead singer had been accused of assault and “preying” on fans the previous year.10 The accusations (which, unlike those against Yoochun, never made it to law enforcement) came after the release of Ugly Cherries; moreover, Saxena wrote that the album “sat on her iPhone,” which implies that she bought the album, and thus any subsequent plays of it wouldn’t result in any more money (and that her initial financial endorsement was a sunk cost). Nevertheless, she closes her essay by saying she deleted her copy of Ugly Cherries. “I learned to live without it,” she wrote. “I liked the music, but I didn’t need it—it wasn’t one of those core albums that defined me.” If the moral quandary had been simply about not wanting to contribute money to an alleged predator, Saxena could have kept Ugly Cherries without guilt. But for her even seeing the file name implicated her in the PWR BTTM singer’s alleged assaults.
One could fairly say that the (admittedly not very large) group of people who write critically about popular music for public consumption takes music very, very seriously. In a despairing piece published last December by Jezebel, Rich Juzwiak showed how multiple artists—R. Kelly, 6ix9ine, Ryan Adams, the rapper YNW Melly (who was arrested for allegedly murdering two of his friends)—all got streamed more, not less, after making the news for unethical acts. “What to extract from this?” Juzwiak wondered. “An indication of general social irresponsibility on the part of music listeners, who are at least apathetic (and, at times it seems, enthusiastic) about lining the pockets of men who are accused of doing very, very bad things? An illustration that our culture fully operates by reality TV values…? A suggestion of a rather sophisticated ability to separate the art from the artist among contemporary music fans?” Or: a general refusal to take pop music so seriously as to see streaming “Ignition (Remix)” as an endorsement of violent abuse. Juzwiak, and the rest of us who take pop music very seriously, have no idea how many of those streams were from people who saw “R. Kelly” in a headline, wondered who that was, did a search, and said, “Oh, that song! I haven’t heard that song in years! Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce—” It’s not a sophisticated separation of art from artist at work; it’s a refusal to agree that pop music is art, with the attendant social power.
You know who else takes pop music very seriously? Ardent idol-pop fans. Which leads to the other part of the complicity accusation: the possibility that fans, in defending their beloved idol, will strength the narrative of the idol’s innocence and make it all the harder for any victim to win justice (and, the argument often goes, for sexual-assault victims of any kind to prove their case). For example, online you can still find Big Bang fans who to this day remain certain that their beloved Seungri is innocent of all charges.
This makes some sense. Idol-pop love is supposed to be very public, after all. Fan names, fan clubs, Tumblrs, organizing streaming parties and trending hashtags: idol fans aren’t supposed to be shy about their love. Two years before the rape allegations surfaced against Yoochun, JYJ released a single called “Back Seat,” and I listened to it primarily because a friend of mine was an ardent JYJ fan at the time, and I wanted to enjoy the music and jokes with her.11 We can cite examples of entertainers, such as Bill Cosby or Jimmy Saville, who built up enough goodwill for their public personae to continue getting away with abuse for quite a while. And idol pop is all about generating that goodwill; arguably, in idol pop the goodwill is more valuable than anything else, including the actual pop.
Yet fans who take idol pop and the feelings it generates seriously can also take accusations seriously. My JYJ-loving friend (who was not a teenager at the time, by the way) was absolutely heartbroken when she heard, and immediately believed, the allegations that Yoochun was a multiple-times-over rapist, and those of us who knew her through idol-pop enjoyment offered our condolences. We were surprised by the allegations themselves but not by the intensity of her grief over them. She had, after all, publicly and repeatedly expressed her love for JYJ and for Yoochun; she had allowed herself to be identified, at least in part, by her love for him; and in return she had received evidence that he, given the chance, would treat her with slightly less dignity than he would a Kleenex.
Now you can see why I steeled myself (keep steeling myself) for the possibility that Ninety One are raging misogynists. It is more than just being financially complicit, especially since there are, relatively speaking, precious few ways for a fan outside Kazakhstan to actually get money to Ninety One. It is more fear of the discovery of having entered into a relationship at once public and private with someone who has refused the larger responsibilities of basic human decency, and lent your good name to their ability to trade on theirs, undeserved. It is wanting to avoid the particular sting of discovering that in loving someone else you have demeaned yourself.
I’m being melodramatic here, and unfair to Ninety One. They took the first opportunity given to express public disgust at #BurningMolka (which, frankly, was more comment than many of their Korean counterparts were allowed to make). Last year the group appeared in a campaign by the United States Consulate General in Almaty titled 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Which may be less lightweight than it looks, given the local lack of resources for victims of domestic violence.12 In a country where being kidnapped and forced into marriage is still a real fear for a nonzero percentage of women, a song like “All I Need,” where the male narrator mutters self-pityingly as the woman presumably walks away unscathed, at least feels humane, albeit deliberately ignoble.13
To be clear: I wouldn’t call the group feminist. You want actual Kazakhstani femininism, look elsewhere. Ninety One hasn’t even reached the obvious low lyrical bar of a “Sure Shot” equivalent.14 There is also no evidence whatsoever that the guys are privately any better at wisely handling women’s attention than would be any other group of abnormally famous men in their early twenties. That having been said, there is a wide space between “performatively consent-focused and female-deferential in a manner easily decoded by English-speaking progressives” and cruelly misogynistic; that Ninety One is not the former doesn’t automatically make them the latter.
Now, I could decide, preemptively, that the risk is still too great to ignore. Or you could decide it, and judge me for disagreeing. Juz Entertainment has female employees, after all, any one of whom would be in an unenviable position if one of the guys harassed her. And then we have to figure out whether to apply a similarly suspicious position to every idol-pop, or every group, period, or whether taking certain positions in their work—passing the “Sure Shot” test, if you prefer—counts to build trust. But a publicly aware group could turn out to be privately awful. (The angry reaction to the PWR BTTM allegations was so swift and total at least partly because a belief that PWR BTTM created a safe and respectful space for queer and gender-non-conforming fans helped fuel the group’s swift rise.) There may be no way to enjoy pop music, privately or publicly, casually or fervently, without being implicated in abuse.
…wait a minute.
I know I said I was being melodramatic before, but—implicated? How? Not a soul on earth can plausibly argue that my friend could done an ounce of good for Yoochun’s victims if she’d just withdrawn her JYJ fondness earlier. The case against Jaya Saxena is even weaker, since she never apparently loved PWR BTTM so much as to publicly defend them. It would be one thing if picturing the singer as a creep ruined the mood of the album for her (and here I’ll go ahead and admit that I did delete my copy of “Back Seat” from my own MP3 player). But it could have been loud power pop that she enjoyed on its own terms, divorced from the people behind it, just like someone might bop along to “Ignition (Remix)” without having a clue who R. Kelly is. Why should we assume guilt for the actions of artists to whom we have the most tenuous of connections? Why on God’s green earth am I worrying about abuse that I have absolutely no evidence happened, by some guys thousands of miles away, who have no idea who I am and no particular incentive to worry about my disapproval? How self-serious do you have to be to get complicity out of a pop song?
Actually, the possibility of getting complicity out of a pop song is much older than idol pop; it’s been part of conversations about popular music for almost a century now. We’re going to tackle the argument that pop enjoyment is complicit in wrongdoing, and its implications for how idol pop is treated by present-day music critics, next.
At 1:47: Иә, иә! Сырт келбетіңе әңгімем жоқ / Бірақ шашыңның астындағысына менің күмәнім бар. By “All I Need” Ninety One was regularly providing English subtitles with their music videos, so what I’ve given you (here and in the other excerpts in this section) is a slightly modified version of the official English translation.↩︎
I’m not sure this has ever been confirmed on the record, but the three-vocalist-two-rapper lineup, plus the early styling of AZ to resemble a Central Asian version of Big Bang leader G-Dragon, strongly suggests it. Also compare the hook of “Kalai Karaisyn?,” off the Aiyptama EP, to Big Bang’s 2012 hit “Fantastic Baby.” Writing about Ninety One in 2017, I went into the comparison in more detail.↩︎
The Wikipedia entry on the Burning Sun scandal is well-sourced and provides a chronological summary of the accusations. See also Caitlin Kelley and Tamar Herman, “Burning Sun Scandal: A Timeline of Allegations, Arrests and Involvement of Several K-Pop Stars (Updated),” Billboard, March 24, 2019, and the compilation of information maintained by the /r/kpop subreddit.↩︎
The quotation is from Haeryun Kang, “The K-pop sex scandal is just the beginning,” Washington Post, March 19, 2019. See also Dong Sun-hwa, “FULL TEXT: Dirty talks among K-pop stars reconstructed,” The Korea Times, posted March 14, 2019, updated October 12, 2019.↩︎
See the /r/kpop “Park Yoochun Sexual Assault Accusations Megathread,” last updated in August 2016, for a full timeline of allegations, with links to sources.↩︎
See, for example, the 2017 final report by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, including the list of case studies. More generally, a 2013 literature review by two researchers at the University of Alberta tentatively concludes that around 15% of girls and 6% of boys between the ages of 2 and 17 experience some form of sexual abuse, with 95% of cases going unreported.↩︎
For more on kabuki and prostitution, see Lisa Hix, “Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan’s Floating World,” Collectors Weekly, March 23, 2015, and Sara K. Birk’s 2006 master’s thesis, “Sex, androgyny, prostitution and the development of onnagata roles in Kabuki theatre.” Paula Byrne’s Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson (Random House, 2005) includes information on how actresses in Covent Garden were regarded as prostitutes and frequently offered the 18th-century equivalent of “sponsorship.” For more on 19th-century ballerinas, see Erin Blakemore, “Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas,” History.com, first published January 5, 2018, updated August 22, 2018.↩︎
This number is from The Trichordist’s “2019-2020 Streaming Price Bible: YouTube is STILL The #1 Problem To Solve,” published March 5, 2020, which aggregates streaming rates paid out by 30 different companies. (Unfortunately, VK and Yandex Music, two Russia-based services which probably together account for a good chunk of Ninety One’s streaming revenue, aren’t on the chart.)↩︎
See Andrew Flanagan, “Dramatic Fallout For PWR BTTM After Accusations Of Sexual Misconduct,” NPR’s The Record, May 15, 2017, for a description of the accusations against PWR BTTM leader Ben Hopkins and the band’s subsequently being dropped by their label and touring partners.↩︎
By what is almost certainly grotesque coincidence—Yoochun didn’t have anything to do with the lyric writing—“Back Seat” reads in retrospect like the narrator is working hard to overcome the girl’s strongly held objections, including Jaejoong crooning “You don’t have to fight” (in English) and Yoochun starting the song by muttering “Don’t be afraid of it” (also in English).↩︎
See Human Rights Watch, “Kazakhstan: Little Help for Domestic Violence Survivors,” October 17, 2019.↩︎
A caveat: in 2015 Yerbolat Bedelkhan’s group, Orda, released a single, “Alyp ket,” whose video features a bride kidnapping: as in, the members haul a bound bride out of a trunk and proceed to hold her hostage. The whole thing is played for laughs—Orda exaggeratedly sings and dances while the bride struggles to get away—and ends with the woman making an escape and fleeing to a bar, where a female bartender gives her a glass of water. So you could argue that the whole thing is a sympathetic satire of women being harassed and forced. But, especially as a viewer wholly outside of the Kazakhstani context, hoo boy is that video uncomfortable to watch.↩︎
More caveats: one, ZaQ has posted queries about gender roles and experiencing domestic violence in ARTJAQ, the Telegram channel he helped create that is supposed to promote discussion of less-talked-about subjects in Kazakhstani society. Two, lack of Russian comprehension is absolutely hurting my ability to paint you a full picture here: for example, Alem and Bala were asked about women’s rights in this interview (at about 45 minutes in, according to the timestamps), but I don’t have a clue as to their replies.↩︎