An analogy: as Christian Rock is to Rock, Kpop is to American Pop. I’ve often heard Kpop described as American pop with morals. The music is just as good, but promotes more wholesome thoughts, feelings, and relationships. The music videos often avoid displays of overt sexuality by either gender. But then how do we reconcile this notion of morality when Kpop idols are claimed to have crossed the line, leading to allegations of public indecency for several Muslim women in Malaysia? What morality, if any, is Kpop actually based on?
In what may be the first scandal of 2015, an incident at a B1A4 fan meeting in Kuala Lumpur is being investigated by the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), charged with protecting the purity of faith and the teachings of Islam in Malaysia. After a video was released showing several Muslim women being hugged by the Kpop idols, indications are that JAKIM will charge the women under Section 29 of the Shariah Criminal Offences Act:
Any person who, contrary to Islamic Law, acts or behaves in an indecent manner in any public place shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.
One thing should be made clear: this writer is not interested in challenging the laws of Islam or questioning the faith of the women shown on stage. There are plenty of other websites out there, if that’s your thing. Morality, or a set of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, is our focus. And this article is interested in a seemingly small detail: that some Muslims have denounced Kpop following this incident, presumably because they see the genre as lacking morals.
This is an interesting turn for those of us who follow Kpop closely. We are used to morality being questioned publicly. Music videos are frequently banned for being too provocative, sometimes inexplicably. When lyrics cross the line, apologies are forthcoming. When offense is taken, Kpop apologizes and changes. But actual allegations of Kpop as immoral are quite rare. For that reason, the recent incident with B1A4 has forced me to question whether or not it is fair to consider Kpop as a moral genre.
“There are no facts, only interpretations” -Nietzsche
In everyday life, the difference between fact and opinion is simple for us to determine. Facts are true for all of us, while opinions vary by person. But if we inspect that distinction, we may quickly find that the line becomes quite blurry. For example, how should we describe the actions of B1A4 on stage of their fan greeting in Kuala Lumpur. I have read everything from “molested” to “greeted,” neither being more objectively true than the other. The quote from Nietzsche drives to the heart of this idea: there is no such thing as absolute truth, only interpretations which can vary widely by person or culture.
Culture is important here. Consider two similar incidents from 2014, the first being Red Velvet’s use of newspaper clippings referring to Hiroshima and the fall of Imperial Japan in "Happiness," the second being Zico’s use of the Confederate flag in “Tough Cookie.” Both can be viewed as symbols that large groups of people might take offense at. One of these was treated as a scandal and fixed immediately. The other was largely ignored. Why? Is it that Kpop is only moral in certain circumstances? Or is it that the morality of Kpop is only a reflection of the culture that contains it?
The difference between the reaction to Red Velvet’s and Zico’s use of offensive symbolism is a result of the relative size of the population which took offense. In Japan, where Kpop is firmly entrenched, an apology and correction was issued quickly. In America, however, where Kpop has yet to gain a firm hold, not much happened. If Kpop were truly a moral genre, the reaction to such instances would be identical. Instead, we witness vast differences in the reaction to these circumstances. The conclusion: morality is based on culture. A genre of music cannot be said to have morals, except where that genre matches seamlessly with the culture.
So why does the myth of Kpop morality persist? Because a certain degree of morality is what fans of Kpop have demonstrated that they want.
Kpop, like all forms of pop music, aims for one thing: popularity. It will always prioritize adoption by the masses. In an area of the world where adoption and morality intersect, Kpop will typically display morality.
When B1A4 hug their fans in Malaysia, it is not out of contempt of Islamic law; it’s a simple mistake. Their unintentional ignorance of the culture they were surrounded by may have lost them many fans. And those who have denounced Kpop as an immoral genre of music may have isolated themselves from an enjoyable form of art.
That is the cost of morality.
[UPDATE: Recent reports claim that the Malay women in the video will not be prosecuted, with officials admitting they have no legal authority to make the women come forward.]
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.