Many fans see music shows as pure entertainment, and a chance to see their favourites perform. However, for some fans music shows are a lot more important than just entertainment. They value music shows for the competition aspect – and, more importantly, the win. These fans see the win as not only important for their favourite group, but necessary.
Like much else in K-Pop, the importance of the music show win is wholly socially constructed. A social construction is not meaningless or unimportant, but it does mean that we create the meaning ourselves based on the criteria we use to both define it, and associate with it. At the same time, it means that the meaning is always open to change. Of course, people are often resistant to change – and like many other things in K-Pop, things can get out of hand.
It’s not surprising that something as corporately driven as K-Pop can be explained by sociological consumption theory. Sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s theory about consumption exchange (also known as an exchange relationship, which is something I’ve written about before) says people’s consumption is synonymous with status. He suggested that use consumption as a form of ‘salvation’, and that people attempt ‘salvation by works, since salvation by grace is unattainable’.
So what does this mean for K-Pop and music shows?
Well, it explains some fan behaviour. For fans invested in music shows, groups who win on them can be pointed to as being “better” groups. As well as this, it means that these groups’ fans are “better” fans. This is for two reasons: one because their faves have awards, and two because it means that they, as fans, voted enough times to allow their group to win. So groups achieve higher status, and fans get to be a part of their “salvation by works”.
Some fans felt that BLACKPINK didn’t deserve to win on a music show after debut, and felt that Monsta X’s comeback for ‘Stuck’ was a better candidate for the simple fact that Monsta X aren’t rookies. Obviously, fans on both sides feel that their group is more deserving of the win, and more deserving of the status a win provides.
The issue with personal taste is, of course, that it can’t ever really be wrong or right. A music show is a performance, and there are several things about performances that many fans don’t seem to be aware of. For starters, some fans seem to be unable to work out when a performance is ‘live’ or not. Of course, the dancing on a music show can’t be faked; if it’s bad, then it’s truly bad, and the only thing that can save the quality is by doing lots and lots of takes. But not being able to sing can be covered up by lip-syncing and MRs.
Either through lack of knowledge or blind faith, some fans are adamant that their groups never, ever lip sync despite its prevalence. The fact is that it is very, very hard to dance and sound good singing live at the same time, which is why groups sometimes use pre-recorded vocals. It seems obvious, but a glance at the comment section of any performance with an MR shows that some fans just have no idea when a group is lip syncing or not.
In this performance, EXO are using an MR which is why they sound so even despite the intense choreography. The recording they are using has not been mixed for an album, so it sounds a little more organic – but it’s not the same as them singing fully live.
Contrast with a performance on Music Core (broadcast by MBC who may or may not have banned lip syncing since 2014):
There’s an MR during the chorus but not during the verses, and this is why EXO sound way more shaky than during their Inkigayo performance. This performance is a prime example of why lipsyncing happens to often: music shows are competitions based on performannce, rather than singing alone. Do vocals really matter during a heavily edited performance broadcast? No, not at all – but performance skill does. However, some fans remain adamant that singing is somehow the be all-end all of a music show. This is despite the fact that idols often specialise in one area – Seventeen are a good example of a group who acknowledges this by having singing, rapping, and dancing teams. Having perfect vocal ability is rarely actually important for idols.
So, because music show wins are not actually based on the talent that fans consider most important, it can be difficult to work out why they might be important. The group with the most wins is always the group with the right combination of a good company and luck at releasing singles at the right time. K-Pop is a wholly corporate genre, and it relies on emotional investment from fans to humanise it.
In this way the exchange relationship of music shows is the same as every other exchange relationship in K-Pop: with money on one side in return for emotional fulfilment on the other. You can replace the music show win with fanservice or a pretty photoshoot, but the relationship and its result are always the same.