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HyunA, E’Dawn and the Complex Culture of Idol Dating Bans

Cube Entertainment’s see-sawing over firing the pop star couple for dating opened a gateway to the conversation around South Korea’s idol-fan relationship

Riddhi Chakraborty Sep 27, 2018

HyunA and E'Dawn chose to take control of the rhetoric around their relationship and were vilified for it. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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It’s been exactly two weeks since South Korean music label Cube Entertainment shocked fans with the announcement that they would be firing solo pop star HyunA and boy group Pentagon’s rapper E’Dawn from their roster.

“Cube Entertainment has decided to remove HyunA and E’Dawn [from the company,]” the label declared in an official statement on September 13th. “When managing our artists, the company has worked with faith and trust in each other as the main priority. After much discussion, the judgement was made that it is not possible to recover the faith with the two artists HyunA and E’Dawn, so their removal has been decided. We sincerely thank the two artists and their fans who have been with us until now.”

The company’s decision followed soon after the artists confirmed that they were in a romantic relationship.

HyunA (26) is one of South Korea’s leading solo artists with over 11 years in the music industry and E’Dawn (24) is a rapper who debuted with 10-member group Pentagon in 2016. The two pop stars were caught up in dating rumors in July after fans noticed their onstage chemistry while promoting Triple H (a project unit with Pentagon vocalist Hui) together. While Cube Entertainment dismissed the rumors as false at the time, HyunA independently confirmed to Korean press on August 3rd that she was indeed dating the rapper–a direct contradiction to the company’s claims. “I really wanted to be honest,” she said in her statement to Yonhap News. “For the fans who always support me and watch over me, I want to work hard on stage with a happy heart, with nothing to hide, as I always have.”

The local public outcry post HyunA’s statement was immense, with fans threatening to boycott the artists’ official events, leading to the cancellation of promotions with Triple H and HyunA’s solo appearances. E’Dawn was put on an indefinite hiatus soon after, halting all his activities with Pentagon. The rapper was also excluded from the group’s most recent comeback with Thumbs Up, despite having written and produced several of the tracks in the EP. A month later, the artists were ousted from Cube Entertainment.

While several Korean fans of the artists were reportedly satisfied with the decision, there was a uproar on social media from international fans who were appalled at the idea of artists being fired for being honest about their relationship. HyunA, E’Dawn, Pentagon and Cube Entertainment began trending worldwide for several hours as fans from around the globe voiced their support for the two idols.

Most celebrities in South Korea prefer keeping their relationships on the down low, or are bound by ‘no dating’ clauses in their contracts due to the negative impact such news can have on their careers. This is a difficult thing for a lot of international fans to understand and many are often confused by the concept.

A lot of the shock stems from the difference in the way idols are marketed by their companies to the South Korean public, as compared to the way celebrities from other countries are marketed to their audiences; ‘cult marketing,’ which the Korea Herald describes as a marketing method “in which consumers are led to form a high level of emotional connection with the brand they purchase,” is the most common method to promote an idol. From boyfriend/girlfriend song concepts, album photo cards to idols maintaining limited contact with the opposite sex, it feeds the illusion that the celebrity ‘belongs’ to their fans. The emotional tie builds a sense of entitlement, so once the celebrity announces they are in a ‘real’ relationship and the illusion is destroyed, it can spark mass outrage, malicious comments, violence and boycotting.

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Prior to the stars announcing their relationship, HyunA was criticized for her proximity and chemistry with E’Dawn with several Korean fans labeling her a “sexual predator” for setting her sights on a younger idol. Tabloids reported on the issue, sparking online debates around the pop star’s sexuality, her behavior, artistry and appearance. Soon after, the dating rumors began. At this point it would seem the couple had two options: either stay quiet and allow malicious comments alleging sexual assault to float around, or take control of the situation. HyunA and E’Dawn chose the latter.

Cube Entertainment’s official statement stressed on ‘faith and trust,’ hinting that the main reason for their displeasure was HyunA’s decision to come clean without their consent. So ironically, in what seemed to be a tit-for-tat move, Cube’s decision to boot the idols was reportedly made without them being involved in prior discussions.

HyunA is one of Korea’s biggest superstars. She is the first Korean artist to have a music video cross the 100 million mark on YouTube (2011’s “Bubble Pop,”) has collaborated with several distinguished artists (including PSY on the viral “Gangnam Style”) and is considered a feminist icon. Cube Entertainment’s decision to oust such a popular star was naturally followed by an immense level of backlash from fans and shareholders alike, with the company’s stock price plummeting by 6.57 percent the same day. This PR disaster magnified when Cube backtracked just a few hours later, retracting its statement about terminating HyunA and E’Dawn’s contracts, and claiming the stars had not been expelled after all. Company head Shin Dae Nam stated, “HyunA and E’Dawn’s removal from the agency is a matter that is still being discussed and nothing is finalized. We believe that the artists’ opinion on the matter is important as well.” The final decision, if any, is still not privy to the public.

HyunA and E’Dawn are not the only artists to be thrown under the bus for having a love life; artists like Super Junior’s Sungmin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Girls Generation’s Taeyeon, plus actors like Suzy and Lee Minho were showered with hate for not just engaging in relationships, but for not ‘coming clean’ to their fans about it. The opinion is echoed among a large section of Pentagon’s Korean fanbase, with many individuals outraged that E’Dawn did not disclose the relationship sooner to them or that he owed them the truth. When this happens, most artists are pressured into either breaking up or stepping out of the limelight. The global discussion sparked by the attack HyunA and E’Dawn seem to range from anger at witnessing the toxicity of Korean fandom culture, to criticizing the way Korean entertainment companies fuel the fire by giving in to fan demands:

HyunA and E’Dawn’s situation has brought the entire K-pop industry’s stance on dating under a microscope with reports from several publications, including the BBC and New York Times. There is also a lot of criticism around Cube Entertainment’s management abilities. Disbandment and legal issues with past groups 4MINUTE (of which HyunA was a member) and Beast (now renamed Highlight) were also on the discussion table while the hashtag #CubeIsOverParty began trending worldwide. The amount of control Korean fans and companies have over K-pop idols’ personal lives is now being questioned more than ever before.

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A recent video by YouTube channel and news portal Asian Boss saw their correspondent asking Seoul locals their opinions on if an idol should be allowed to date. While most of the older citizens seemed to lean towards ‘yes,’ younger (mostly female) fans seemed to disagree. “I’d feel like something that’s mine was taken,” said one girl, her statement an example of the toxic effectiveness of cult marketing. Every aspect of an idol is usually carved by the entertainment company through scripting, PR and language training–therefore the idol usually contributes to the toxicity that may eventually be their undoing. “Idols often say to their fans, ‘you’re pretty!’ or ‘I like you!'” explains one fan in the Asian Boss video. “But if they’re dating in real life then fans might feel betrayed.” A comment on YouTube describes this entitlement to celebrities’ private lives as ‘a very warped perception of normal social boundaries’ and it hits the nail right on the head. While the disappointment around one’s favorite celebrity being ‘taken’ is natural to have, hating them for it is probably a step too far.

As of now, it’s still not clear what HyunA and E’Dawn’s future with Cube Entertainment will be. Many fans are hoping the idols will either sign with other labels or start one of their own. While them leaving would most definitely spell the end of Triple H, Pentagon’s future is also under threat because of E’Dawn’s tremendous contribution as a songwriter and producer for several of the group’s tracks. There are reports that allege HyunA will sign with AOMG, hip-hop mogul Jay Park’s label, but there has been no official word from any of the artists to indicate this.

At the end, it all boils down to one question: How much does a celebrity owe their fans?

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