Who’s Better, Who’s Best: Competition and Manipulation in K-pop

Image: Pixabay

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Director, KPK: Kpop Kollective

Recent developments involving award and competition shows reveal the impact of mainstreaming on K-pop. As stakes increase for industry and media, accolades and competition are perceived as metrics for quality. However, they largely measure popularity, which is subject to manipulation.

While many K-pop acts are managed by an agency and undergo rigorous training that may span years, others result from competition shows developed by broadcast companies. These shows produce a temporary K-pop group that promotes during a fixed promotion period, and then often disbands.  Such shows have proven popular, drawing on the increased global popularity of K-pop. For example, Produce 101, created by CJE&M, has produced K-pop groups I.O.I, Wanna One, IZ ONE, and X1 in four seasons.

Such shows have not been without controversy. While fans may express their displeasure when their favorites do not win, police in South Korea have found that results of the shows were manipulated. Writing for soompi, D.S. Kim reports: “According to the police, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s cyber investigation team found differences between the number of votes revealed on the final episodes and the raw data showing the actual votes that were sent in by viewers.”

Questions about vote manipulation are also leveled at accolades such as awards. Not very long ago, mainstream recognition was not an issue in K-pop because of its marginalized status. However, the mainstreaming of K-pop involves participation in award shows. When the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK recently won several People’s Choice Awards in November 2019, major American media outlets like Newsweek reported on the frustration of fans of BTS, who during the past couple of years had been the most recognizable K-pop group in the United States. Other media outlets revealed suspicions by BTS fans similar to those that sparked the Produce 101 investigation: “Others were confused at the group’s loss given how popular BTS is, with a few fans keeping tabs on fan voting for the People’s Choice Awards. ‘There is no possible way that blackpink beat BTS for this award,@peopleschoice you have some explaining to do,’ wrote @tae25 while tweeting out screenshots of Awards stats that show BTS leading in votes” (Ali).

While fans often lead the charge with accusations around manipulation, it is the personnel in the corporations that manage the competitions and awards. They encourage the use of popularity as a metric of quality. The Produce 101 competitions ultimately relied on fan votes that were based on the performances shown by the show itself, performances that generated profit for the companies when the shows aired. Similarly, awards like the People’s Choice Awards are popularity awards, popularity which results from exposure that the media helps to generate in the first place.

When accusations of manipulation are made, it is in part because of an environment that uses popularity as a metric for quality and benefits the very entities that create the competition.  This is only possible when K-pop goes mainstream, generating a certain level of popularity.

Sources

Ali, Rasha. “BTS fans upset after K-pop group lost to Blackpink at 2019 People’s Choice Awards.” USAToday. 11 Nov 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2019/11/11/peoples-choice-awards-bts-fans-frustrated-k-pop-group-lost/2560369001/ (16 Nov 2019).

Kim, D.S. “Update: Police Find Suspicions That “Produce 101” Seasons 1 And 2 Were Also Manipulated + Mnet Responds.” soompi. 14 Nov 2019. https://www.soompi.com/article/1365570wpp/police-find-suspicions-that-produce-101-seasons-1-and-2-were-also-manipulated (16 Nov 2019).

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Who’s Better, Who’s Best: Competition and Manipulation in K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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