In parts one and two of the series, I took a critical look at whether or not we could consider music shows to be actual competitions. Today, I’m turning my attention to the format of the shows to discuss how they use (and abuse) spectacle, illusion, and co-presence to create a show that is anything but live. And while that might be fine for certain kinds of television, it’s antithetical and harmful to one based on “live performance.”
It’s a grand illusion.
What is a live broadcast? Most people would define it as a direct broadcast from the source with little or no time-delay. A live broadcast maintains a high degree of authenticity. If this is happening live, the thinking goes, then there is no chance for the performance or the results to be doctored. And that concept of authenticity is incredibly important for things like sporting events and live performances.
It shouldn’t really come as any surprise that Kpop music shows are not live. There are fairly obvious signals if you pay attention to the broadcast. And yet, each of these shows assumes the posture of a live broadcast. They pretend. And this isn’t really that weird. There are hundreds of shows that adopt the rhetoric of live TV while still being pre-recorded. It’s all to create an illusion called co-presence, where the viewer is able to believe that he or she is connected to those on television through time if not space. A perfect example in Western culture is the late night show, typically filmed in the afternoon and then broadcast later against backdrops of the city skyline at night.
Creating the illusion of live TV is not necessarily a problem. Kpop music shows, however, aren’t any good at maintaining the illusion.
The format ruins the spectacle.
Television is based around spectacle. A spectacle, from the Latin “spectaculum,” is a public show, especially one that is large-scale and designed for entertainment. Before the advent of TV and internet, these public shows required physical presence. Nowadays, the spectacle includes both the live audience and the viewers at home, joining them together in co-presence. For that joining of audiences to work, the illusion of live broadcast must be maintained.
Kpop music shows struggle with this part, and that has everything to do with the format they employ. For a typical broadcast, a music show will first begin with the pre-recordings, which start early in the morning. Many groups will pre-record their entire performance, and the producers work hard to fill the seats with screaming fans throughout the day. They hustle fans in and out to ensure that the right fandom is screaming their fanchant for the right group. Even the MCs pre-record much of their script.
The idea here is that the producers will splice all these pre-recordings together along with the small portions of the show that are done live. The problem is that this splicing is clumsy and ruins any chance at co-presence. Every week, the viewer at home will watch a group perform one song, then, without even a commercial break, magically be on stage once more in a different outfit, in front of a different background, performing a different song. Obviously, one (or maybe both) of these has been pre-recorded, but the Kpop music shows make no effort to hide this fact. For the viewers at home, this ceases to be a spectacle in which they can believe they are a part.
And it’s even worse for the fans in the audience. While these pre-recorded segments are airing live, the various groups will come out on stage, wave their little hats, and blow a few kisses. “Look,” they seem to say to the audience, “Look what we did while you weren’t here.” Sometimes those recordings were made as much as a week ahead of time, following the recording of the prior week’s show. For all their production value, Kpop music shows ruin their potential as spectacles by failing to maintain the illusion of live broadcast and co-presence for both the live audience and the viewers at home.
The music is painfully, dreadfully, not live.
Aside from the issues of format and illusion, the Kpop music shows produce very little that can be considered “live music.” And for a show that is based around showcasing musical performance, this is wholly unsuitable.
The most frequent discussion around live performance typically centers around the issue of lip-syncing. The argument goes something like this. Those who believe that lip-syncing is an acceptable part of live performance typically cite the high degree of difficulty of Kpop dances, claiming that the required movement and heavy-breathing naturally affects vocal performance. To give fans the best performance possible, groups should be allow to lip-sync. Those on the other side of spectrum, however, see no reason to alter vocals. For what reason, they might ask, would we watch our idols perform live if not to hear their live vocals?
The co-Producer of Show! Music Core, Park Hyun Suk, famously weighed in on this issue by claiming that his show would be taking steps to eliminate lip-syncing. In an interview he claimed that, "Ultimately, one needs to sing at least 50% [of the song] live...K-pop is now influencing the world. As much as it is receiving a lot of interest, the standards of the international fans will also get higher.”
And he is right about one thing. Kpop is receiving much more scrutiny these days, and an inability to sing live is sure to draw negative criticism. But this viewer cannot help but note the hypocrisy in Park Hyun Suk’s statement. Not only is he ignoring the fact that the majority of all music shows are pre-recorded and, therefore, no different from lip-syncing; not only is he promoting a definition of live music that sets the bar at a dangerously low threshold of 50%; not only is he unaware that his own show films live performances in the same style as music videos, thereby creating a desire in the audience for the same level of vocal enhancement heard on the album; but he is also ignoring the fact that it is impossible, as in literally not allowed, for a Kpop artist to play an instrument live on stage.
Toy instruments make for pretend performance.
None of the Kpop music shows make it possible for artists to play live music on their shows. That might sound like an issue that only applies to rock bands. The big name group import their synthesized tunes from a factory somewhere in the Nordic peninsula, after all. But the very reason why idols are allowed to lip-sync at all is because there is no opportunity for live instrumentation. No live instrumentation means that a MR (music recorded) track must be piped into the sound system, and from that point it is all too easy to start adding pre-recorded vocals. Just a section here and there quickly becomes the majority of the song.
For groups that actually do play instruments, they have zero ability to translate that into live performance. This was painfully obvious with Wonder Girls’ recent comeback in which the women took up instruments that looked very much like the toys they were. The instruments were not connected to the sound board, and Wonder Girls did not waste much effort on acting. No matter that Wonder Girls actually can play their instruments; on a show like Show! Music Core, they are not allowed to plug them in. And the same is true for more established bands like Nell and CNBLUE.
Wonder Girls performing "I Feel You" on Show! Music Core
Maybe what is so disturbing about this inability to accommodate live instrumentation is that there is no reason for it. The producers will, of course, cite the difficulties involved in set-up and breakdown for multiple bands. But this is misdirection, pure and simple. The average comeback stage is every bit as time-intensive in terms of production value.
Furthermore, if we are willing to accept the format of Kpop music shows as being pre-recorded, then where’s the problem? Set them up early, record them early, and break them down early. If that’s not good enough, a two-stage system is an easy fix. Ultimately this lack of live instrumentation is limiting for Kpop artists. Their only option right now, though Park Hyun Suk and his peers won’t want to admit it, is to rely on pre-recorded music.
The joy of watching our favorite idols perform on stage should be the ability to watch them, live, in real-time (or at least the illusion of real-time), using their own vocals and (if desired) playing their own instruments. The problem is that the Kpop music shows make this impossible with their draconian format.
Join me next week for the final part of the series in which I take on...fandoms!
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.