Soundtrack: PSY: "Right Now" - a K-pop (or thereabouts) song that actually kind of rocks. I like it. Hit play and start reading; more about PSY later.
One of the conversation topics I like to bring into my discussion classes is this: what's the worst sin a Korean celebrity can commit?
I usually lead in by referencing a few Korean celebrity scandals - including my all-time favorite celebrity scandal anywhere, EVER: the Na Hoon-a scandal (I wrote about it here) - rumor had it that he'd had his manhood cut off by gangsters for getting involved with a starlet who had been "claimed" by a Korean gang leader.
Repudiating those claims led to what I still believe is the greatest celebrity scandal moment, maybe ever, when Na Hoona held a press conference where he stood up on the press conference table, unbuttoned his pants, threatened/offered to give proof positive his piece was pristine, and then stared around the press room with an "I fucking dare you to ask another question" face until all reporters had snapped their pictures, and had begun, presumably, to cower in fear. After the press conference finished, I imagine he slew a wild boar with his bare hands, battled an army of ninjas with lightning from his eyes, and tore out the viscera of the reporter who'd first concocted the story, tied a gold bauble to it, and worn it around his neck. That press conference video: truly epic.
Anyway, the question I bring into class is, "What's the one thing a Korean star must not do?" (I teach the phrase "career suicide")
In America, it's racism. And if you don't believe me, kindly let me know if Michael Richards has been getting any work lately. Even a megasuperduperstar like Mel Gibson was out after two strikes - being shunned from Hangover 2 is a pretty good definition of rock bottom, if you ask me.
Some of the other sins worth comment:
these days, a lot of people in my classes didn't have a problem with stars who were gay (though some would prefer if one kept it to onesself)
domestic violence was seen as pretty unforgivable
alcohol problems were OK as long as they didn't disrupt one's career
drug issues, no surprise, were a much bigger deal here than back home
a surprising amount of resentment for stars who used their fame to get into a good university
plastic surgery? a great deal of ambivalence, both for males and females
But this was agreed upon almost across the board, and emphatically with my male students: the number one taboo for Korean (male) stars is:
Don't you DARE try to skip your military service.
MC Mong (a singer I liked) saw his career vanish like a puff of breath on a cold day, when allegations surfaced that he had teeth pulled to dodge his military service. And then, instead of just doing his service (the only way to recover), he stuck to his guns, and kept trying to dodge. His music was (is) fun. But he's been erased completely: TV shows where he used to be a featured member edit out any mention of him.
PSY (see the video at the top) was a reasonably successful hip hop star, but when he tried to skip his military service, he ended up, "serving it twice," in wifeoseyo's words. Since he paid his dues, all is forgiven (not quite forgotten though), and he can now release a song like "Right Now" and run a comeback. As I said: I like the song. I also like that he looks like a total ajosshi, that he's so totally out of the K-pop mold, yet he's got a hip-hop career.
but if you don't serve... well, first of all, you can't work any kind of job in Korea without doing your military service... but also, buddy, you're the object of contempt for anyone around you who hears about it. Ask Korean men around age 30 to 40 (that is, old enough to remember) about Steve (Seungjun) Yoo, a Korean rapper who was really popular until 2002, when, and after spending lots of press time talking about how he'd happily do his military service when the time came, he instead became a naturalized US citizen, and got deported. He walked away from his music career, and lives in LA. Even today, Wifeoseyo and the men in my class talk about him with a kind of contempt that's usually saved for Judas, Brutus, Japan collaborators, and Jim Hewish.
And in light of this, there's a fella named Hyun-Bin. (image)
He's been a popular Korean actor for a while, and his drama, "Secret Garden" is having its series finale right about now. Not only is he famous for his acting, the song he recorded for "Secret Garden"'s soundtrack is currently number one: this is about the Korean equivalent of being Whitney Houston in 1992, with the number one song and the number one movie at the same time. He's the buzz buzzy buzzmaster all around the Korean internets and he's twittertastic as well.
Here's "That Man" - his #1 song right now, from his #1 TV show OST.
The time has come for him to serve in the military, and rather than go for some patsy desk job, or work in military propaganda videos like a lot of stars do, he's applying to join the marines: one of the grittiest, dirtiest, frontlineiest, right-up-in-the-shit jobs the Korean military has to offer. (Article: English Chosun)
The Marines is known to be dangerous, and Korea is known to love celebrities who seem unpretentious - ones who give to charity anonymously, who choose not to use their fame to get into famous universities, who make TV appearances without makeup, and act the fool at a noraebang for cameras, so that people know they're just ordinary folks too. That Hyun-bin wants to eschew the privileges his fame could earn him, and serve the military the best he can, is admirable. (Korea Herald reports: since the North Korean shelling of Yongpyeong Island, men signing up for the marines has taking a huge jump. Attaboys!)
And readers, I guarantee you: when he does finish his service, he will have a couple of years where he can do no wrong, for approaching his military service this way, and if he plays it right, he might stretch the cachet he's earned here even longer. If you think people love him now, just wait a couple of years until he gets out.
Good for him. That's all. Good for him. And good luck serving your country, sir.