The Ninety One Series |||

Part 8: Starlust, the Sasaeng, and the Servant

Why fans disrespect their idols.

Banner image of Ace lying down from “All I Need”

Reader, I have to admit I cheated a little back in Part 5. When I was telling you about 91, the dour docudrama about Ninety One’s first year and a half of existence, I didn’t mention the song they wrote specifically for the soundtrack—wrote, in fact, immediately upon seeing the first cut of the film: Mooz.”

(Note that the video has sections with flashing lights; here’s an audio-only version.)

I have mixed feelings about Mooz.”1 It is a song meant to invoke a lot of feelings; it is as insistent on your attention as E.Yeah” was shallow and relaxed. It doesn’t make the mistake of stating its case too dramatically—Ace, given the chorus, resists the temptation to belt—but it runs through a wide range of emotions, from bemusement to sorrow to confidence to despair to hope. And then it culminates in a promise: When you feel alone / You can breathe with the world / Just keep our rhythm / One love, one rhythm.” There’s something believable, and sweet, about the modesty of the promise: you can breathe, such a little offer, a nothing in the larger context of pop grandiosity.

But it is a promise, and a grandiose gesture at that. The proof lies in our rhythm, as in, if the our in this context is Ninety One, then the solution to potential despair lies in the music, and the act of enjoying the group’s music, itself. As carefully as Mooz” treads, it’s still an exercise in group mythmaking.

This is all easier to see once you start watching live performances. There’s one in August 2017, right after Mooz” was released, at the Eurasian Music Awards, where AZ points out the enthusiastic audience to an awed Bala, a moment that is either genuinely heart-rending or neatly staged or both. There are multiple performances such as at the 2018 Gakku Melodies concert, where Bala doesn’t even try to sing his first verse, just points his microphone at the audience shouting the words for him. (“Mooz” was apparently Ninety One’s biggest hit at that point, bigger than Aiyptama.”)2 And there’s one live staging that gives the game away, in that midway through Ninety One brings a bunch of cute kids onstage to sing along. Nothing says we are firmly convinced of the rightness of our grandiose-pop statement” more efficiently than a guest kid chorus.

The Kazakh word мұз, by the way, translates to ice.” (Неге бəрі мұз? can be translated as Why is everything frozen?”) Which makes it a not-terrible name for a frozen-yogurt chain. And I am apparently not the first person to think this, given that Juz Entertainment’s assets now include a frozen-yogurt chain.

Selfie of Alem with Bala and Ace at a Mooz frozen-yogurt shop
From the official Mooz Instagram account, May 2020

Hence the mixed feelings. The problem of Mooz” isn’t that it insists on throwing emotions at the listener in the service of a world-encompassing statement; it’s that Mooz” insists on throwing emotions at the listener in the service of a world-encompassing statement and the sale of frozen yogurt. Suddenly the seemingly sincere promise about one love, one rhythm becomes just another advertising slogan. In its own way Mooz” ends up looking worse than E.Yeah,” which was too shallow to make any promises.

At least one of you reading this is incredulous: what, you thought they actually meant it? I can feel your contempt from here. But they did mean it: Mooz” was a genuine promise and a grandiose pop statement first, and an advertising slogan second.

And thus Mooz” prompts the question of how much sincerity can possibly be in this supposed mutual love between idols and their fans. Idol-pop work, Ninety One’s included, is full of professions of love for fans. 91TV includes an entire episode devoted to interviews with local fans, culminating in Ninety One’s bedside visit to a fan dealing with lifelong health problems. For the group’s first two years the guys could barely get onscreen without yelling Eaglez! And yet, given that Eaglez are also the people buying CDs, and concert tickets, and clothing with Ninety One lyrics printed as slogans, and Samsung phones and Fanta drinks and (yes) frozen yogurt, how comfortable would Ninety One be saying that they didn’t love their fans? How wholehearted can love possibly be if your livelihood depends on your professing it?

This is not a particularly original observation on my part. As we’ve talked about, idol pop is by its nature commercial: fans show their support by buying their idols’ merchandise, or the merchandise idols have been hired to present; fan love and money are irreparably intertwined. Fans can figure this out pretty quickly, and thus the suspicion of all that professed idol love can surface even after years, even in the most careful of considerations. I think now of Samantha Hunt’s 2015 essay, There Is Only One Direction,” a consideration of love, motherhood, death, and idol-pop love, specifically for One Direction: The boys sing and it triggers a chemical response of joy in my body so intense it sets my mind zooming through history.” She talks about the members with empathy, about how tired they must be onstage, about their mothers, about their tattoos—and then, poking through suddenly, the sting: Perhaps the stick of the needle makes it easier to shill for huge corporations.”

Let me give you another example. Remember H.O.T., the original Korean idol-pop group I mentioned way back in Part 2, debuting in 1996 in coordinated polyester jackets? Three years ago (which is to say, a full two decades later) Moon Hee-jun, one of the members of H.O.T., announced plans to marry. After he made a comment on one of Korea’s endless light interview shows about saving up money for his wedding, the backlash was enough that he had to make an official statement: The thing that made me most upset was people saying that I used my 20th anniversary concert to collect marriage funds. Does Moon Hee Jun think of his fans as ATMs?’ I’ve never once thought this for a moment.”3 Again: two decades worth of going onstage and telling fans he loved them, and the distrust never went away.

But why would Moon Hee-jun (or any of the members of One Direction, or any of the members of Ninety One) be under any obligation to stop himself from regarding his fans as ATMs? Why shouldn’t idols use their fans? We use them, after all.

There has been research done on the question of why, and how often, fans develop love for celebrities, but it’s been scattershot, and the assumptions underlying it questioned.4 For example, a 1985 study5 failed to find a correlation between self-reported loneliness and parasocial interactions, but a good many commenters still assume that people who develop parasocial crushes are making up for a lack of human connections elsewhere. There’s also a line of thinking that posits that parasocial love is just proof that the lover has been manipulated, which has the advantage of sounding cool and jaded but the disadvantage of shutting down all lines of inquiry as to why such deluded lovers would allow themselves to be manipulated in the first place. (Stuart Hall, I suspect, would not approve.) Even the ways of measuring parasocial love in social-science research—a questionnaire that asks respondents whether they would spend several thousands on a napkin or paper plate used by their favorite celebrity, for example—seem to imply that the people being interviewed are not acting rationally.

Then there’s the worry about the parasocial lover turning threatening, even murderous. Some of this may be misogynistic—the idea of the crazy,” hysterical” fan and so on—but a lot of it may be more simply related to our collective ability to cite a series of widely publicized fan-on-celebrity murders and near-murders. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of hard data to allow us to estimate how aberrant the likes of Ruth Steinhagen6 are. In his famous book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence7, personal-security specialist Gavin de Becker wrote, My office has managed more than twenty thousand cases, and only a quarter of one percent have ever become public.” But (understandably) he doesn’t provide details on how his office distinguishes the dangerous from the merely obnoxious. A 2008 study8 looked at 2,300 recorded cases (in 2003 and 2004) of potential stalking and related crimes from a mix of California databases. Of that set, approximately half resulted in enough incidences that the celebrity target reported feeling fear, but only five—0.2% of the total—resulted in an actual act of violence. We can tentatively conclude that actual physical harm, however well-publicized when it happens, is actually extremely rare relative to threats and low-level harassment.

This is in line with the anecdotal data from Korean and Japanese idol pop, where actual violence, thank God, seems not to have happened very often. The most famous case of fan violence in Korean idol pop occurred in 2006, when an anti” poisoned a drink given to TVXQ!’s Yunho; he was hospitalized, but survived. In 2014 a man with a saw attacked and injured two AKB48 members, Kawaei Rina and Iriyama Anna, at a fan-signing. Two years later Tomita Mayu, a member of the idol group Secret Girls, was stabbed 60 times by a man who had previously told his brother he hoped to marry her; thankfully, she survived. Then at the beginning of 2019, Yamaguchi Maho of NGT48, a sister group of AKB48, revealed that she had been assaulted by two men who had obtained her home address from a fellow NGT48 member.9 Beyond those publicized incidents, there’s an unknown number of incidents in which a fan was able to assault an idol, but the damage was minor enough that the company was able to avoid media coverage. That would be the numerator, against a denominator of thousands upon thousands of incidents of contact between idol and fan that proceeded uneventfully for both parties.

So fan-on-celebrity violence, while a problem that needs addressing, is not the best area to focus on when trying to assess the good and bad of fans in parasocial love. The vast, vast majority of fans will never even come close to committing violence against their beloved. That doesn’t get them fully off the hook.

Screenshot from Monsta X episode of We Bare Bears
Screenshot from the We Bare Bears episode Panda’s Birthday,” which featured Korean idol group Monsta X

The word sasaeng (사생) is a portmanteau of the Korean words for private” and life.” Call a fan a sasaeng and you’re implying that fan will do anything to get their idol’s attention, up to and including invading his privacy. Among the more common alleged sasaeng behaviors: chasing idols in taxis specially commissioned for the purpose; breaking into idols’ apartments or hotel rooms; bribing airline employees to get idols’ flight information, including seat numbers; obtaining and sharing idols’ private phone numbers; and getting into idols’ personal space whenever possible, including at airports or in the idols’ own homes or dorm rooms.

The difference between expected Korean-idol-pop fan behavior and sasaeng behavior is more a question of degree than kind. The first thing to remember,” writes the pseudonymous author of a (largely lenient) 2015 Soompi essay on sasaengs, is that Korea is very small.” If Korean idol-pop culture isn’t as blatant as AKB48s slogan of idols you can touch,” it still gives plenty of opportunities for dedicated fans to see their favorite idols on a fairly regular basis. There are fan-meetings and fan-signs; during comeback week, four or five performances a week at the music shows, with fans able to get into the tapings; and for smaller groups, busking” events on the streets of trendy neighborhoods such as Myeong-dong. And that’s in-person events, not counting streams on YouTube or Instagram or VLive. There are also opportunities for fans to become fansite masters”: dedicated fans who follow a particular idol, taking pictures outside sanctioned events, and then repackaging and selling the resulting photos to the greater fanbase. In such an environment it would be surprising if idols didn’t end up recognizing and acknowledging the more persistent faces.

You might well then wonder if the structure of idol pop makes sasaeng behavior inevitable. Idol pop, after all, trades on the idea that the fan would come to regard the idol as a dear friend. A clear and creepy demonstration of the potential relationship between idol-pop adorkability promotion and subsequent sasaeng behavior came from a man who, earlier this year, was stalking Nayeon of the Korean idol group Twice, repeatedly showing up at JYP Entertainment’s offices with gifts for her and later approaching her on a plane mid-flight. In the midst of his attempts to reach her, the sasaeng agreed to an interview, in which he talked about why he was so certain that Nayeon would fall in love with him given the chance: I really watch a lot of livestreams, behind the scenes stuff, interviews and videos and things, where you can really see Nayeon being herself and not being like this Twice persona’, where you can see her without makeup and her real person where she just is herself. I’m pretty sure that I know the person who Nayeon is behind the camera really well…”

The interviewer tried to dissuade the sasaeng gently, to no avail. I know how the k-pop business works and I feel like I’m really good at looking through those façades,” the sasaeng insisted. I’m 99.9% sure that I know who the real Nayeon is.”10

In that particular case, Nayeon got police protection and the sasaeng got thrown out of Korea. The case got a disproportionate amount of attention in international Korean idol pop discussion, quite possibly because the stalker was fluent in English and active on message boards; it was easier for non-Korean-speaking fans to identify him and talk about him, and some international fans might have felt guilty or worried about having such a badly-behaving sasaeng in their midst. But again, the one case obscures the fact that idols have to call out sasaengs for going on their flights, or stealing and distributing their phone numbers, or following them on vacation, or rushing them at airports, much more often than they have to resort to asking for police protection.11

Which is to say: there is a line between violent and nonviolent behavior, and the vast majority of fans don’t cross that line. There is a line between wanting someone badly and turning angry enough to threaten them when they don’t grant you your desires, and most fans don’t cross that line. But that’s not the only line. There’s also a line between seeing an idol as a person with privacy rights, as a normal human being who wants to spend as little time as possible in the airport, and an object: and that line many fans do cross, even as they would swear up and down that what they feel for their idol is love, a real and warm and welcoming love. It’s a much easier line to cross.

ZaQ has stories of fans who camped outside the group’s apartment, of fans who tried to get the guys’ attention by threatening to throw themselves under cars.12 But to give you a better illustration of how otherwise rational fans can take their parasocial love and turn it into a burden, we have to go back a few decades.

The Bay City Rollers are quite possibly the least likely success story in teenpop history. They weren’t quite idols, in the sense that we’ve been discussing; their images were controlled to the point of utter blankness. Yet in the mid-1970s, they inspired enough fan devotion to lead to millions of records sold, at least one attributed death by stampede, and performances like this one, where you can barely hear Shang-a-Lang” for all the screaming:

Unlike Ninety One, or One Direction, or the vast majority of Korean and Japanese idol groups, the Rollers were not assembled by an overseeing company with an eye for maximum pop performance; they were originally an Edinburgh pub band founded by a pair of brothers. They did, however, acquire a manager, one Tam Paton, who was shrewd and ambitious enough to hire veteran songwriters13 for the Rollers and land them on London music shows. (Paton was also unscrupulous enough to feed the band amphetamines on a regular basis while hoovering up their profits—three decades’ worth of legal wrangling left the surviving Rollers with just £70,000 each out of millions made. And if that wasn’t bad enough, two different band members would eventually say he sexually harassed them.)

Unfortunately the Rollers’ hits don’t hold up, especially if you’re used to modern pop production standards; everything sounds thin and weak, as if the Rollers’ instruments hadn’t been placed close enough to their microphones.14 But at the time, with disco not yet having crested and the airwaves dominated by the likes of Led Zeppelin, their style was less of a weakness and more of an alternative. Bands didn’t smile in the seventies,” Caroline Sullivan, now a music critic for the Guardian, has written. But here were the Rollers, giving it their all. It made them seem, in their own way, much more radical than Zep or the Grateful Dead or any of the other bands I’d always held to be so individual.”

That’s from Sullivan’s 1999 memoir, Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair with the Bay City Rollers, which should be required reading for anyone who has ever become ensnared in parasocial affection for a pop group. Because Sullivan—who quotes liberally from her 1970s diaries, and doesn’t censor to make herself look better—was basically a sasaeng a good four decades before any English speakers started using the term.

By her own account, Sullivan was a bored New Jersey teenager, enjoying rock concerts and not much else, when the Rollers came along in mid-1975. Having fallen in love almost immediately, she ended up, alongside a small group of similarly obsessed friends, pursuing the group for the next several years. And by pursuing them,” I mean:

  • pretending to be a music journalist to try and get interviews, passes to press conferences, or flight information;
  • routinely tailing the Rollers’ limousine;
  • routinely calling every hotel in the vicinity of a Rollers concert to find out where the band was staying;
  • and when she and her friends did find out, staying up for 36 hours at a stretch just to sit in the lobby and monitor the Rollers’ comings and goings;
  • and occasionally sneaking into hotel rooms the Rollers had just left (“We struck lucky. On the table was a hairbrush full of long, dark-brown hair and a bit of gel”);
  • befriending limo drivers, hotel clerks, roadies, and band members’ relatives;
  • and frequently following the Rollers into restaurants, bars, and, in one case with Tam Paton, from department store to department store while he shopped.

Sullivan doesn’t pretend that the group welcomed her presence. (“Each time we glanced over, we found Leslie glaring, arms folded across his chest, like a bouncer dying to introduce his boot to the nearest head.”) But it being the 1970s, with the highest-profile celebrity assassinations in the future, the Rollers seem to have regarded her group as more annoying than dangerous, car chases (in a battered 1967 Oldsmobile, no less) aside. By mid-1977 the Rollers were at least willing to hang out in the same hotel room as Sullivan and her friends, and by 1981, when the Rollers were well past the high point of their fame and recording Ricochet in a nondescript studio in New Jersey, Sullivan had an open invitation to come visit.

It all worked out, kinda, sorta. Even when Sullivan slept with a Roller (whom she refuses to name), no unlikely grand romance resulted, but the guy seems to have treated her much better than either the story’s general air of grimy desperation or the general reputation of 1970s pop stars would imply. All of her fellow Tacky Tartan Tarts, as they called themselves, eventually moved on to more conventional, less destructive lives. For Sullivan herself, a prolonged bout of Rollermania seems to have worked as a way out from life as a high school dropout facing dead-end jobs, anxiety attacks, and the the occasional creepy cat-caller. Learning that she could apply herself, even if applying herself” meant learning how to deceive airline reservation clerks and pursue the Rollers even in the face of their contempt, might have helped her gain the self-confidence she needed to get out of her airless, unpromising life in New Jersey and start a career an ocean away.15

Moreover, even had Sullivan and her saesangs not been a regular problem, the Bay City Rollers’ experience of fame would still have been exhausting and unhappy. Being followed into hotels by a demanding group of strangers was probably just one more indignity in a period full of them. Still, it’s hard not to judge Sullivan and her friends in retrospect for simultaneously claiming to be in love with the Rollers yet refusing to consider that their own graspy behavior implied a thorough lack of respect for their beloveds. We just wanted, badly, to possess them,” she admits. To hell with what they wanted.

The temptation to cross the line and make your love a burden, as Sullivan and her friends did, is inherent in parasocial love. After all, the idol isn’t asking for your love, not you, personally. The best they can do is ask for an undefined genial group love. It is not easy for me to know every single one of our MooMoos,” Solar, a member of the Korean idol group Mamamoo, once posted on the group’s fancafé,” a members-only website. One MooMoo told me, I was hurt when I asked if you knew me, and you replied that you didn’t.’ Even if I don’t know you, I don’t want to trick you and pretend that I do. That’s still the way I think now.”16

It’s tricky, since idols and their managing companies use every visual and audial trick in the book to persuade fans to stake some of themselves on parasocial love: to become first casual and then ardent fans. Ardent fans spend more, after all. And so it becomes the fan’s responsibility to keep their affection from breeding dehumanization, from thinking that their beloved owes them something.

Every star feels patronised by his or her fans,” Pete Townshend of the Who once wrote. It is quite sobering to realise that someone who writes to you as if you are the most important person in the universe doesn’t need you to be alive in order to eulogise you.” He wrote this as an introduction to Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans, a book published by British writer Fred Vermorel in 1985.17 If Bye Bye Baby allows the contemporary parasocial lover to reassure herself that she would never be so gross as to tail the Bay City Rollers for months on end, Starlust offers no such smug distance. I can only read portions of it at a time without getting queasy.

Starlust, according to its Foreword, is based on about 350 hours of interviews, 20 hours of ansaphone messages, and over 400 written accounts… We also read about 40,000 letters written to every kind of star.” Vermorel later acquired a reputation for leaning hard on the creative” part of creative nonfiction18, so it’s possible there’s some exaggeration of those numbers. Almost all the fans are identified by first name only. Starlust is, by its nature, un-fact-checkable. We have to rely on Vermorel’s assurances that these are, in fact, real stories from real fans in the early 1980s. All I can say is that the many varieties of longing the book transcribes seem true to me.

There are dozens of stories: mostly about David Bowie and Barry Manilow, both of whom apparently had fan groups willing to participate, but a number of other pop stars of the time: Boy George, Nick Heyward, Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz. The celebrity changes; the sheer volume of want remains constant. There are detailed sexual fantasies, and detailed fantasies of stars being spanked or bruised or ill or hurt, and wishes to share tea or beach vacations. There are reports, dozens of them, of the extreme high of concerts, and the horrible depression that follows. There are asides, dozens of them, full of resentment: I only wanted to say hello to you, that’s all, but you couldn’t spare me that.” One middle-aged Manilow fan admits she can no longer have sex with her husband, as it feels too much like cheating on Barry Manilow; another concludes, I don’t think my marriage will last much longer.” (A third Manilow fan: Most husbands can’t cope with it.”) A Duran Duran fan talks about punching the walls upon receiving word of Nick Rhodes getting engaged. I’m really going to try and stop him,” she says. Anything I can do. I don’t want to hurt him but I’m going to try and stop it.” A David Bowie fan says: Because in my fantasies when I kill him then he’s definitely part of me.”

It can be hard to discern, for the sheer intensity on the page (after page after page), that these fans are largely being responsible and keeping their want to themselves. There are pitiable exceptions, like the depressed young woman who writes Nick Heyward dozens of letters, and horrifying ones, like the Bay City Rollers fan who out-sasaengs Sullivan, going as far as to steal spark plugs out of the Rollers’ cars. Vermorel’s presentation raises the question of how thin the line is between the responsible fan and the irresponsible one. There has to be a line: the ugliest or most possessive fantasy does no harm so long as the fan keeps it well out of the idol’s orbit. And yet, reading Vermorel (especially in conjunction with Sullivan), you can see pretty easily how thought might lead to action.

The other unnerving aspect of Starlust is the way its fans’ fantasies tends to echo each other. The star’s work—the differences in creative output between a David Bowie and a Cheryl Baker—becomes irrelevant, mere window dressing for the want. You are a fan first and then you choose your star,” Vermorel observes in an afterward. And the star you elect to follow seems secondary, a matter of convenience or taste.” It’s as if the idol is a mere lacky to the fan’s desire. No wonder Pete Townshend felt patronized.

Of course, another way to say I use you is you inspire me.

I own all four issues produced so far of the zine Fuck What You Love, a successor to Starlust in subject if not in tone.19 Claire Biddles, the Edinburgh-based writer and multimedia artist (and fellow Singles Jukebox contributor) who edits and publishes FWYL, designed it specifically as a venue for writers to talk about their pop-star crushes. Especially as a woman, or a queer person, or anybody other than a cishet male, I think it’s really really important to allow yourself to genuinely enjoy things that bring you pleasure but are often dismissed as childish or girly’ or frivolous,” she wrote in 2015. Whether that be listening to pop music or fancying pop stars.”

Rather than draw from interviews and existing material, as Starlust does, Biddles puts out calls on Tumblr and Twitter for contributions, and asks for writing samples as well as essay ideas. So her writers are more analytical and self-conscious, more likely to focus on the consequences of the crush than the crush itself. A lot of them talk about having used their crush as a vehicle to overcome loneliness or illness or self-disgust, or having been inspired by the idol to accept their own sexual or gender identity. No one goes into pornographic detail; the closest anyone gets to resentment is one writer’s retroactive annoyance that Madonna appropriated queer culture. The yearning is generally tempered by gratitude.

This may simply be a case of increased collective media savvy: if any of the FWYL writers have done anything like steal a sparkplug out of their beloved’s car, they presumably know better than to let the fact get into print. But taking them at their words, we are left with a spectrum of fan responses to idols, not all of them overwhelming or nastily demanding. Ezra Furman, Harry Styles, or Janelle Monáe might be actually delighted to read how they’d helped a fan reach greater self-acceptance. They also might be glad that neither the authors nor Biddles nor anyone else actually needs them to do the reading.20

Parasocial love can also be a vehicle for social love—not between the fan and the idol, but between the fan and other fans. Starlust has an entire section devoted to letters between Manilow fans, who circulate photographs and concert anecdotes and sign off with Yours in MANILUST!!!” And for all the over-the-top thirst it’s easy to miss the mutual affection: Dearest Lisa, Thank you for your lovely newsy letter. It’s always a great day for me when it arrives. I do so enjoy your letters—I don’t know what I’d do without them.” Dearest Monica, Your lovely letter came this morning—thank you so much.” Bye Bye Baby is the same: the stories of chasing of the Bay City Rollers from earth-tone hotel lobby to earth-tone hotel lobby obscure the bonding between the women doing it. My own best Roller friends have gone revisionist, and now pretend they never liked them,” writes Sullivan, affectionately teasing. When I called Emma to tell her I was writing a book about them, her response was swift: You’d better change my name.’” Which implies that Sullivan and Emma” were still good enough friends to joke and talk about prospective books, more than twenty years after the events that brought them together.

Another Rollermaniac turned writer, Sheryl Garratt, also eventually concluded that the true benefit of her parasocial love for the Rollers was the friends she made along the way:

With the Rollers at least, many become involved not because they particularly liked the music, but because they didn’t want to miss out. We were a gang of girls hanging out together, able to identify each other by tartan scarves and badges. Women are in the minority at demonstrations, in union meetings, or in the crowd at football matches: at the concerts, many were experiencing mass power for the first and last time. Looking back now, I hardly remember the gigs themselves, the songs, or what the Rollers looked like. What I do remember are the bus rides, running home from school together to get to someone’s house to watch Shang-a-Lang on TV, dancing in lines at the school disco, and sitting in each others’ bedrooms discussing our fantasies and compiling our scrapbooks. Our real obsession was with ourselves; in the end, the actual men behind the posters had very little to do with it at all.21

Along similar lines, Alex Clifton (another Singles Jukebox writer) wrote for the third volume of Fuck What You Love about BTS:

…stanning BTS has enabled me to connect with my IRL queer family on a deeper level than any of us planned… We initially established a weekly anime night to watch Gundam Wing, but that quickly turned into BTS night, with us rewatching every music video and catching up on all the new content…. And out of these nights, a deeper friendship has formed, the kind I longed for my entire life but struggled to find…. To know I have a chosen family where we all unconditionally love and accept everyone as they are, in all our queer weirdness and anxieties, has meant the world to me. With my friends and BTS by my side, I know that I never walk alone; instead, I’ve found a home.

This is still using, but it’s a very different kind of using, warm rather than resentful, creative rather than intrusive. The ability of some fans to turn parasocial love into something positive doesn’t justify others’ (or their own) sasaeng behavior. But neither does the sasaeng behavior imply that all parasocial love is destructive.

The best distinction I’ve ever seen between healthy and unhealthy parasocial love comes from longtime pop-culture writer Linda Holmes:

I can tell you that I have pinned to my cubicle walls almost every paper note and letter I’ve ever received from readers and listeners. But, speaking metaphorically, not every expression of gratitude arrives on paper, which you can keep with you, pinned to your life indefinitely. Some thank-yous arrive written on rocks, and if you feel obligated to carry all of those rocks everywhere you go for the rest of your life, if you can’t learn to look at them, be grateful for them, and set them down, even they become a lot to carry.

The more the gratitude is for what has already been done, the more it is written on paper: I’m so grateful for the thing you made; it meant the world to me. That is weightless; it is wonderful. The closer it gets to expecting something from you in the future, something that must continue, the more it is written on stone: You’re the only one who understands me. You’re the only reason I can get out of bed every day.22

I would argue that in neither the healthy nor the unhealthy version of parasocial love is the idol truly an idol”, an object of worship; in neither case does the fan’s behavior flow from the idol’s supposed directions. The fans who can put their love on paper can treat the crush itself as a vehicle to a different place, and separate the idol from it. When the fan’s love becomes written on stone, becomes a demand—that the beloved celebrate that fan as somehow more special than other fans; that the beloved sees the relationship in exactly the same terms as the fan sees it; that the beloved continue producing the work that the fan first fell in love with, in the same way—then the celebrity becomes a servant.

Reader, I’ve been cheating. No, more than I told you at the beginning of this essay. Because all this time I’ve been talking about Ninety One as a five-member group, and they aren’t any longer.

One difference, so far, between the Kazakhstani idol-pop industry and its Korean and Japanese counterparts is that the former is having a much harder time keeping its group lineups locked down. SMAP, debuting as six in 1989, lost one member in 1996 and then continued as five until disbandment in 2010; Arashi, another wildly successful idol group under the Johnny’s Entertainment jimusho, is set to disband at the end of this year with the same lineup it started with in 1999. Korean groups, especially those signed to more established companies, usually don’t lose members until the seven-year curse” kicks in, named for the standard length of post-trainee contracts, which start the day of the group’s debut. But Q-pop is still a young, unsettled industry, with significantly less money at its disposal than is true in Japan or Korea, and almost all of the groups founded in the wake of Ninety One’s initial success have either lost at least one original member (Mad Men, Moonlight, Crystalz) or dissolved altogether (Juzim, Black Dial, Sevenlight).

Another way to recast the previous paragraph is to speculate that, unlike their Japanese and Korean counterparts, Kazakhstani idol-pop managing agencies have not yet become powerful enough to suppress labor movement. Former members of Black Dial, Sevenlight, and Moonlight can all be found recording new songs and uploading videos to Gakku TV. Remember how I told you in Part 6 that three members quit SM Entertainment’s group TVXQ and were subsequently blacklisted by Korean television for years on end? Nobody yet seems to be enforcing blacklists in Almaty. I shouldn’t make too much of this: there’s too much history in music industries around the world of performers getting treated shoddily by managing companies. But at least at the moment, if you want to become a Q-pop star, and your company isn’t to your liking, it seems that you do have the option of walking away and plumping for something better.

And so, at the beginning of August, AZ—he of the yelp-rapping and the solar-system knowledge and the Bayau” styling—left the group. The parting was apparently amicable, although Juz Entertainment’s announcement of AZs departure on Instagram came with deep regret and profound sadness.” (The announcement added, The company grants all copyrights to AZ for the future,” such a statement being decidedly not standard procedure in idol pop public relations.) AZ himself has already started dropping his own singles.

Now: Juz Entertainment had good reason to mourn, having just lost a valuable proven human-capital asset in the midst of a horrid global economic downturn. But what about the fans? AZ deciding to go independent can be grounds for disappointment or worry. (How are they going to perform his parts from here on out?) But surely the worse situation would be if he wanted to leave and couldn’t. The upsides to AZ going his own way, for Eaglez, are twofold: one that a person they claim to love is now able to try for a creative environment that suits him better, and two, that the other four, whom Eaglez also claim to love, are still with Juz Entertainment of their own initiative, since we now know they had at least some power to walk if they wanted. Put it this way: if you had a real-life beloved who wanted to change employers, would you insist they stay put, and rage against their selfishness, as proof of your love?

After the news broke, some kind soul translated a selection of comments on the Juz Instagram post. The comments included phrases such as complete disrespect towards the fandom”; without us or Ninety One, AZ wouldn’t have what he has now, so we have a right to know”; now Eaglez will always be in fear that another member will just leave”; unserious company that doesn’t care about fans’ feelings.” This is a selection, admittedly, but a wholly unsurprising one, if you’ve ever seen someone leave a pop group—or sign a contract with a different sports team, for that matter. Idol-pop agencies, Juz Entertainment included, encourage fans to invest in the group as a group rather than as specific individuals who happen to be working together. This has the potential consequence of, in the case of disputes between idols and their employers, encouraging the fans to side with the latter no matter how much they’ve shrieked over the former.

The managing company is the go-between that facilitates the perpetually fraught exchange between idols and fans, at once mutually affectionate and mutually extractive. Somebody has to get some revenue out of this deal, to turn fan affection into endorsements and frozen-yogurt franchises. As such it benefits Juz Entertainment to convince both Ninety One and Eaglez that they need each other, in exactly the arrangement provided. The system is more or less set up for managing firms to overreach, and thus you get the kinds of coercion and twisty contracts that have proliferated in music industries around the globe for as long as there has been recorded music. (Just as the Monkees’ rebellion may have led Western music executives to seek out more pliant potential teenpop singers in the 1970s, so aspiring Kazakhstani rappers might in future be asked to sign longer and more restrictive contracts than AZ was.) It is not a kind system.

But pointing that out doesn’t answer the question: what would a kind system look like? There has never been a time in history when artists haven’t had to figure out how to make a living from their work. There has never been a time in history when everyone who says I love you” can be trusted. Fans have their own set of demands: don’t change your look; don’t change your sound; don’t leave the group; don’t raise your ticket prices; don’t tell offensive jokes; don’t date publicly; don’t do anything that might make us have to recognize, however briefly, that you’re not actually beholden to our fantasies. Fans’ distaste at being viewed as ATMs”—at idols’ openly acknowledging that they are working, and want to make as good a living as possible from their work—is its own version of selfishness.

To be fair: many of these demands may stem from teenagers, who still compose idol pop’s ostensible audience. It has become unfashionable in some quarters to complain about the poor judgment of teenagers. As Harry Styles, who would know, put it: We’re so past that dumb outdated narrative of Oh, these people are girls, so they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ They’re the ones who know what they’re talking about. They’re the people who listen obsessively. They fucking own this shit.”23 But teenagers, frontal lobes still developing, are perfectly capable of being demanding, selfish jerks. As are all the fans who are decidedly not teenagers but nevertheless take fandom as an excuse to act like demanding, selfish jerks, believing that, as teenagers often do, passion is a substitute for empathy.

Idol pop provides its fans with prompts: imagine interacting with this person, imagine feeling this feeling, imagine how you might be similar to or different from this stranger on the other side of the screen. As such it can lead to creativity, empathy, humility, richness. But to claim that richness in spite of your own inherent human tendency to covet is a challenge.

That’s on us. What’s on them, as performers who want to make music, and make money, and get and keep fans’ affection (within limits), is a different set of responsibilities. In the next section, we’ll consider Ninety One confronting a uniquely thorny question as to their responsibility, and what happens when the soft power of idol pop meets actual power, wielded cruelly.

Back to Part 7: Theodor Adorno vs. the Poptimists vs. Zhanar Dugalova

On to Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang

  1. As proof, and in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I wrote about Mooz” three months after it came out, which is more than a bit different in tone and emphasis than what you’re getting here.↩︎

  2. Trying to figure out what is and isn’t a hit in Kazakhstan is tough, given that a lot of music listeners there don’t use YouTube or Spotify. The Russian service Yandex Music publishes its own charts, but only for Russia and Global.” If VK Music publishes official charts, I haven’t found them. Popnable claims to track Kazakhstani pop but its data seems to be based on YouTube streams alone. For what it’s worth, which is not very much, Mooz” has about 16 million views on YouTube, more than any other Ninety One official video.↩︎

  3. The quote is from C. Hong, Moon Hee Jun Addresses Rumors That His Concert Was to Pay for His Wedding,” Soompi, February 11, 2017. See also IAFTB, Moon Hee Jun fans upset that Moon Hee Jun saved the money he made over the years… yup,” Asian Junkie, February 11, 2017.↩︎

  4. This paragraph is largely based on the summary of research on parasocial relationships in David C. Giles’s Twenty-First Century Celebrity: Fame in Digital Culture (Emerald Publishing, 2018).↩︎

  5. Alan M. Rubin, Elizabeth M. Perse, and Robert A. Powell, Loneliness, Parasocial Interaction, and Local Television News Viewing,” Human Communication Research, Volume 12, No. 2 (Winter 1985), pp. 155-180. The reference is in Giles.↩︎

  6. Steinhagen shot Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus on June 14, 1949, after having fallen in love with him as a fan, even going so far as to learn Lithuanian after learning that was the language he spoke with his parents. Waitkus survived, but his ballplaying career did not recover; Steinhagen was declared insane and institutionalized for three years before being released. See Bruce Weber, Ruth Ann Steinhagen Is Dead at 83; Shot a Ballplayer,” New York Times, March 23, 2013. Gavin de Becker discusses the Waitkus case in The Gift of Fear and concludes that Steinhagen’s crime had less to do with Waitkus and more with a hunger for recognition and celebrity: Ruth felt it was better to be wanted by the police than not wanted at all.”↩︎

  7. Little, Brown and Company, 1997.↩︎

  8. J. Reid Meloy, Kris Mohandie, and Mila Green, A Forensic Investigation of Those Who Stalk Celebrities,” in J. Reid Maloy, Lorraine Sheridan, and Jens Hoffmann, eds., Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis, Oxford University Press, 2008.↩︎

  9. The attack on Kawaei Rina and Iriyama Anna was covered by Agence-France Presse: see Japanese girl band AKB48 attacked with a saw at fan event,” the Guardian, May 26, 2014. For more on the attack on Tomita Mayu, see Julian Ryall, Stabbed 60 times: Japanese pop idol Mayu Tomita sues police for inaction over obsessed fan, as stalking cases rise in the country,” South China Morning Post, July 11, 2019. For more on the assault on Yamaguchi Maho, see Manichi Japan, Controversy after idol quits NGT48 over management’s handling of assault case, April 24, 2019.↩︎

  10. The interview itself is at KPOPALYPSE INTERVIEW—Josh (a.k.a. the German Nayeon stalker)’ Kpopalypse, December 21, 2019. As of this writing it’s password-protected; both the password and the reason for having it are available at Kpopalypse apologizes to ONCEs for posting an interview with that creepy German Nayeon stalker,” December 21, 2019.↩︎

  11. For a recent overview of the sasaeng problem in Korean idol pop, see Hong Dam-young, K-pop in battle with sasaeng,” The Korea Herald, January 22, 2020. Searching around you can also find fan-compiled lists of sasaeng accounts for individual groups, though I don’t know the methods by which names are added to those lists.↩︎

  12. See this portion of the TengriTV interview referred to in Part 5; credit, again, to the group Qpop Translation for the English subtitles.↩︎

  13. Most of the Rollers’ best-known songs, such as Shang-a-Lang” and the chant-along Saturday Night” (which would inspire the Ramones’ Hey! Ho! Let’s go!”), were written by the team of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who were writing tons of songs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the 1967 Eurovision winner Puppet on a String.”↩︎

  14. Although one writer has made a case that Ricochet, the 1981 album recorded after the band’s fall from Top-40 grace and multiple lineup changes, is a specimen of de-bluesified, sharp-riffed, harmony-laden, absurdly catchy rock and roll” that deserves more respect. See Matthew Walther, Nobody’s Ever Heard of the Best Bay City Rollers Album,” The Federalist, August 5, 2016.↩︎

  15. Interestingly, in her Guardian career Sullivan has proven consistently open-hearted towards Korean idol pop: see this review of a Day6 concert or her contemplating the possibility that Korean idol pop will help shift pop music away from English as a whole.↩︎

  16. Quote from Mamamoo Translations, ENG TRANS: 160411 Solar Fancafe Message,” posted April 11, 2016.↩︎

  17. My copy of Starlust is a 2011 ebook edition published by Faber and Faber, Limited. In the excerpt of Starlust published in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s edited volume On the Record, author credit is given to Fred and Judy Vermorel,” with is the author byline in pictures of the original 1985 edition’s cover, and the Foreword is written in the first-person plural; it’s not clear to me why Judy Vermorel isn’t credited as an author in the Faber & Faber edition. The emphasis in Townshend’s quote is in the original.↩︎

  18. Vermorel’s later biographies of Kate Bush and Kate Moss have been described as anti-biographies”; in the former, Vermorel imagined himself as Bush’s stalker. See Richard Cabut, Richard Cabut explores Fred Vermorel for,” Eyeplug, December 16, 2019. See also Mark Duffett’s three-part interview with Vermorel for his blog, Pop Research Links…: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, all posted October 3, 2017.↩︎

  19. I also wrote an essay for the first issue. (No, it’s not about any member of Ninety One.) I will add that Biddles publishes Fuck What You Love as print only, although authors reserve the right to reprint their own essays as they see fit.↩︎

  20. A relevant anecdote: in 2011 I got to see Scott Thompson and Kevin McDonald of the Kids in the Hall perform stand-up, and afterwards, during a very brief and casual meet-and-greet, I said to Thompson, I know you get this all the time, but I’m bisexual, and having you on TV in the early 1990s was a godsend.” He was professionally gracious about it.↩︎

  21. Sheryl Garratt, Teenage Dreams,” in Frith and Goodwin, eds., On the Record. They excerpted it from Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: True Stories of Women in Pop, by Sue Steward and Garratt, originally published in 1984, republished in 1999 by South End Press. Garratt now works as a freelance creative coach.↩︎

  22. Linda Holmes, Missing Richard Simmons’ and the Nature of Being Known,” Pop Culture Happy Hour (National Public Radio), March 21, 2017.↩︎

  23. The quote is from Rob Sheffield, The Eternal Sunshine of Harry Styles,” Rolling Stone, August 26, 2019.↩︎

Up next Part 7: Theodor Adorno vs. the Poptimists vs. Zhanar Dugalova Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang
Latest posts Part 11: Conclusion Part 10: Ninety One as Nazarbayevean Realists Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang Part 8: Starlust, the Sasaeng, and the Servant Part 7: Theodor Adorno vs. the Poptimists vs. Zhanar Dugalova Part 6: But Maybe Our Faves Are Awful Part 5: The Loyalties of Little Fresh Meat Part 4: Bring Them the Head of Kenesary Khan Part 3: Idol Pop and the Languages of Love Part 2: The Art of Adorkable Part 1: Introduction