The Meaning of Idols
2018 might not be the best year for a lot of things, but so far, it has been a blessing for one industry in China:
It all started with two shows.
In January, iqiyi, one of the largest online video platforms in China, rolled out Idol Producer, the reality boy-group survival show. 99 trainees from various entertainment agencies came for a 4-month intense training session under the camera, going through rounds of singing, dancing competitions and other challenges. Eventually, 9 boys were voted as winners and debuted as Nine Percent, the boy idol group with a new, 18-month contract with iQiyi.
In April came Produce 101, a show that is similar in format as Idol Producer (in fact, both shows were based on the original Korean version of Produce 101, an idol reality series from Mnet. While Tencent purchased the copyright and made it into a Chinese localized version, iqiyi claimed to only “referenced” the Korean original, getting itself in criticisms for copyrights infringement and plagiarism), yet featuring female instead of male contestants.
Idol Producer was never appealing to us, which was why when news about Producer 101 came out, we couldn’t help but frown. Another idol reality show? Come on!
Once we started watching however, we became hooked. For ten weeks in a row, Yan and I sat in front of our laptops and followed the entire journey of Produce 101. Like every other fan of the show, we quickly had our “picks”of favorite contestants, and – as much as we are shameful to admit – even began to vote for them online.
Voting?! For young, fluffy idol girls?! It’s all sugar-coated capitalism lie! How dare you!
Staring at the contestants’ cute dance moves and couldn’t help to smile. Opening the Tencent Video app everyday to vote.
From Idol Producer to Produce 101, from Nine Percent to Rocket Girls (the girl group formed by 11 of Produce 101’s final winners), in China, so much public attention and money have poured into the idol industry this year. Both shows have generated massive capital through its voting systems; according to this report, Cai Xukun and Meng Meiqi, the most popular boy and girl contestant from each show, had received over 2 million and 12 million RMB worth of votes respectively.
Public discussions around Produce 101 went on for weeks after it ended, for there hasn’t been a Chinese reality show with such phenomenal attention in a very long time. For some, including the two of us, Produce 101 was no longer just an entertaining time-killer; it made people to reflect over the idea of “Chinese idols” on a broad level, and to think about a question that we briefly touched on (remember our TFboys and idol-in-love articles?) but never really thought about seriously enough in the past:
What is the meaning of idols? Do they actually make a difference, to a society?
For a moment, the answer almost seemed to be a “yes”.
It was because of two girls.
First, Wang Ju, or, as fans like to call her, the beloved Sister Ju (菊姐).
The Chinese Internet turned Ju-crazy in late May/early June.
Ju was a Produce 101 contestant who, at the first sight, doesn’t look like a Produce 101 contestant at all. She was “old” (25 years old), “inexperienced” (worked as a model manager, never been professionally trained or signed by entertainment agencies), and, most importantly, looked different to all the other girls on the show. Her skin is glowingly tanned, her figure being relative curvy (or healthy-looking by us normal people standard), and instead of being “cute” and “sweet” as the majority of girl contestants were, she was unapologetically confident, and openly ambitious.
To some, Ju was unconventionally odd. To the others – in particular, people from LGBTQ communities and those who have longed for a more diverse aesthetic standard to emerge in China – Ju was the one that gave us hope. All of a sudden, the act of voting for a contestant in a reality TV competition was given new meanings; it became an act of rebellious declaration, an expression of dissent, and a celebration of uniqueness and difference. By the first week of June, Ju’s popularity ranking had climbed to No.2 in the show, beating a pool of pretty, young, well-trained idol-to-be girls who were supposed to be more “reasonable” and “correct”.
“The power to redefine China’s female idol groups is right in your hands.” In an episode of Produce 101, Ju declared to the camera, her tone filled with assertive confidence and determination.
Yan and I were both sold. Ju quickly became our favorite contestant of all, and we were thrilled to notice that public discussions around her had expanded to include various important social topics, from body image, beauty standard to feminism and womanhood in China. Within a few weeks, Ju had transformed from a misfit, marginal contestant to virtually the greatest online sensation; everyone, including my friends who had never watched the show, were now asking about her, discussing her and using her as a creative outlet for content creation (remember all those Ju-themed memes that swept across the internet?).
Although Ju eventually didn’t make it to the final 11, the fact that she remained on stage until the last episode was already a triumph of hope. It proved, even just temporarily, that there was still room for diversity and change in China’s entertainment industry, a place where highly-standardized, bland pop stars have dominated in recent years.
And then there was Yang Chaoyue, the girl with a delicate doll face who generated as much public discussions as Ju, only for completely different reasons.
Produce 101 was not short of talents. Before coming to the show, many girls were already being trained for years, some even had debuted as pop stars or members of girl bands. From singing, dancing, rapping to manner and expression-management, the majority of contestants were equipped with professional strengths at least in one of these areas.
Yang Chaoyue had none of those. Her singing was horribly inconsistent. She could never keep up with the beats when she dances. Her poses and facial expressions were always awkward, and her speech often illogical and absurd. Even worse, she virtually cried in every single episode of the show.
To people who think along these lines, Yang Chaoyue was literally like a joke. Every time she performed, hateful comments would emerge all around Weibo to trash both her stage acts and personality. Yet the more she was trolled online, the better her voting results were; in the end, Chaoyue ranked no.3 out of the 11 wining contestants.
Why on earth would people vote for a girl who presents zero talents to be an idol?
Yang Chaoyue’s rankings had been consistently high throughout the show.
Growing up in the countryside in Jiangsu Province, Chaoyue had a family origin humbler than everyone else on the show. She didn’t go to high school, worked various low-paid jobs from restaurant waitress, comic convention showgirl to livestream host on Kuaishou. In fact, according to Yang Chaoyue’s claim, she decided to come cast for this show simply for two reasons: the 2,000 RMB advertised salary, and free accommodations.
In the eyes of Chaoyue’s fans – largely young, straight guys coming from rural villages or small towns – it is these details that matter. The bitter her backstory, the more they want to protect her and to make her rise. Urban netizens might find her to be alienating or even stupid, for those who come from a humbler background however, Yang Chaoyue’s story is their own story too.
From appearances, personalities to values, what Wang Ju and Yang Chaoyue displayed to the camera were contrasting to say the least. Such contrast nonetheless is exactly why Produce 101 was a hit; instead of forcing industrialized homogeneity (something idol shows tend to do), it presented an array of individuals with different attitudes and talents. Moreover, by setting up the audiences as “producers” (aka who has the power to make decisions through voting), Produce 101 really managed to construct a dreamy, pink fantasy that swept across the entire nation. For a while, the girls’ dreams became our own dreams, and our stories became part of these girls’ stories, too.
On Saturday June 23rd, Produce 101, the show that dominated national entertainment headlines for over two months, aired its final episode. After almost three hours of live singing and dancing (and many time-dragging conversations), 11 girls were selected, solely on the basis of public votes, as winners of the game. Together they formed “Rocket Girls”, the female idol group with a 2-year contract with Tencent and a line of publicities already scheduled, from commercials, TV appearances to album and concerts.
On Weibo, the fan accounts I followed during the show are now busying tracking the girls’ new celebrity journey. Within three weeks, Rocket Girls has already attended two national TV shows, signed endorsement with Macdonalds, and launched a weekly reality show about their new daily lives as idols.
Rocket Girls as the spokesperson for MacDonalds.
Looks like a cheerful and bright future has began for these girls.
Last week, news broke that Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, two popular contestants who originally debuted in a Korean girl group, might have to be withdrawn from Rocket Girls, their new group after winning Produce 101. The conflicts between their previous agency and Tencent has led to the delay of Rocket Girl’s debuting press conference, which was supposed to happen on July 11th. Till this day, there’s yet news about whether a satisfying settlement has been achieved from both sides – in other words, the fate of Rocket Girls is currently a mystery. (Nine Percent, the boy group formed by winners of Idol Producer, has encountered legal problems too. Although the group is now signed collectively with iQiyi, the individual members still carry personal contracts with their previous agencies, resulting in a long period of negotiation and bargaining between the various interest groups after the boy group debuted in April.)
On July 10th, China’s SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) published a new announcement to clamp down talent shows and idol competitions during summer vacation, requiring the productions to present “positive, healthy value” for young audiences and to “eliminate materialistic ideology at all cost”. Although Produce 101 was not mentioned directly, media is now speculating that SARFT’s announcement is a response to the show’s misconducts in fans fund-raising: in order to make their beloved contestant win, Produce 101 fans organized many online fundraising campaigns during the show, and claimed to have used these funds to purchase votes. Without the proper legal infrastructure and supervision mechanism however, a large portion of the money ended up in untraceable destinations, some times personal pockets.
Now let’s go back to the question we raised to ourselves:
What is the meaning of idols? Do they actually make a difference, to a society?
Asking us in the evening of Produce 101’s grand finale, we would certainly say yes. The moment when all the 101 girls, dressed in their pink uniforms, stepped on that giant shinny stage and bowed together to their “producers” (aka us the audiences). The moment when the final winners were announced and each of them cried with brimming joys. The moment when the 11 girls walked through the “flower path” (a ceremonial setting on stage) while waving to their fanatic fans – at these times, it truly felt like I, as an individual, had accomplished something greater than myself. Idols gave us hope, and that power of hope was so strong that we were able to believe in a better, greater future as a collective. The making of idols bonded us, and it felt so good to be bonded, together.
But all that good feelings, in the end of the day, diminished after the show. Now the stage lights are turned off and the drama is over, we are left with a harsh, ironic reality: these “idols”, the girls we poured in so much attention and even money for, are just as powerless as us watchers are in a giant, orderless capitalism machine. Various stakeholders and interest groups nest inside this system; when they work together, we see well-manufactured, highly-polished figures known as idols. When they collide, or when the authority starts to knock things down from the top, we get to see nothing but chaotic crumbles.
Never mind the idols. There were never idols.