K-pop's rising stars (G)I-DLE are a force to be reckoned with, but why is only Soyeon receiving so much hate?

The group has earned themselves a VMA nomination this year Soyeon has been placed on par with K-pop legends like G-Dragon. Yet, the group continues to draw hate and criticism for their missteps


                            K-pop's rising stars (G)I-DLE are a force to be reckoned with, but why is only Soyeon receiving so much hate?
I-DLE (Getty Images)
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(G)I-dle have often been hailed as one of the most successful girl groups to emerge out of South Korea in recent years; a feat that becomes significantly more meaningful when one considers the fact that the group formed in 2018 under Cube Entertainment, a label not included in the 'Big Three' to which top-selling acts usually belong. But for all their accomplishments, (G)I-dle remains a group that draws an intense amount of hatred, despite not having done anything quite as problematic as their contemporaries.

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(G)I-dle debuted in 2018 with six members - Miyeon, Minnie, Soojin, Soyeon, Yuqi, and Shuhua - and their first extended play titled I Am and its lead single 'Latata'. A year later, they debuted in Japan with the same track and, as of 2020, have signed with Republic Records to pursue music in the American market as well. Right from their debut (G)I-dle found themselves earning high praise and the group kept the momentum up with the release of three extended plays and four more singles, with all of them reaching the top ten on Billboard's World Digital Songs chart. What stood out the most with (G)I-dle was that unlike what is common in K-pop, where group members slowly participate in creating their own music over time, (G)I-dle's members were actively involved in their music from the beginning. Specifically, the group's leader and rapper Soyeon as well as vocalist Minnie and dancer Yuqi all participate in writing and co-producing the group's music.

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Needless to say, it's hard to deny that (G)I-dle is musically gifted. But the group has faced a seemingly disproportionate amount of criticism, owing to cultural appropriation in their music, fashion choices and stage sets, as well as hatred towards Soyeon who tends to get more lines and screentime than the other members.

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Girl group (G) I-DLE performs on stage during the 8th Gaon Chart K-Pop Awards on January 23, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea (Getty Images)

The conversation around cultural appropriation in K-pop is hardly new. It has existed as long as the industry itself, tracing its way back to the roots of K-pop in the '90s that drew heavily from African-American music, specifically rap and hip-hop and by extension often appropriated Black fashion, culture, and language. But as the decades went by, K-pop acts began appropriating from South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures as well, such as using Quran verses in songs (2ne1 member CL's 'Mental Breakdown') and having statues of Hindu deities strewn on the floor (Blackpink's 'How You Like That'), as well as incorporating extremely offensive stereotypes about these cultures into songs that are essentially parodies of them (Norazo's 'Curry'). But the appropriation didn't simply stop there, as idols increasingly engaged in racist behaviors, including wearing blackface (Big Bang's G-Dragon) or featuring stereotypical presentations of people of color in music videos (Rain's 'La Song').

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(G)I-dle is one of the many groups that have found themselves in the same trap of being too ignorant to recognize they were engaging in cultural appropriation masquerading as cultural appreciation. Their appropriation began right with their debut 'Latata', which featured 'mehendi' or 'henna tattoos' commonly associated with South Asian cultures and their behavior has continued well into their career, with the group repeatedly including elements from Indian and African cultures in their work. What appears to bother consumers of K-pop even more, however, is that the group continues to repeat the behavior, despite being called out. But this criticism is an odd one because as problematic as their cultural appropriation is, it is hardly the only instance of it in K-pop. For instance, Blackpink is known to wear henna and 'bindis' (a colored dot or jewel worn on the forehead in South Asia), use Indian-inspired instrumentals and hand gestures, as well as incorporate the war cry from South Asian and Native American cultures in their work. And while they have been called out, they have hardly endured the same level of backlash.

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One possible reason for this disparity is that Blackpink is signed to YG Entertainment, one of the 'Big Three', and that, to some extent, affords them some immunity. Not only has YG housed some of the most successful K-pop acts, including Big Bang and 2ne1, it also happens to be one that has escaped any real repercussions despite having repeatedly been called out for the racism in its music. Perhaps Cube just isn't as adept at covering for their artists. Another reason, however, appears to stem from the specific hate directed at Soyeon, who has been accused of everything from hogging the limelight to being 'too ugly', to queerbaiting to being the sole reason for the group's apparent ignorance.

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It's no secret that Soyeon calls a lot of the shots when it comes to (G)I-dle's creative and musical direction. In 2019, she was seen telling Yuqi to sing in a deeper voice or "African style," mimicking a Black man's voice, while the group was participating in the idol reality show 'Queendom'. She further suggested they incorporate African instruments into their performance, before calling the style 'ethnic hip'. Naturally, this didn't sit well with viewers at all and the group received significant backlash for it. Soyeon, in particular, was called out, and soon, attacked for essentially 'tainting' the group with her appropriation, with many more soon taking issue with the power she wields within the group. But this again seems like an odd criticism, considering it tends to be the norm in K-pop for one member to feature prominently because of their stage presence. G-Dragon is possibly the best example of this, with Block B's Zico being another. Both members also happened to be the leaders of their respective groups, in addition to being idols plagued with accusations of racism and cultural appropriation. And while both dealt with backlash, it was rarely as unprompted as what comes up with Soyeon, whose name appears to pop up across discussions even when she isn't actively doing anything.

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This leads into a secondary discussion: fanwars. Sadly, many an idol has found themselves a pawn in the almighty game of 'my idol is better than your idol'. And Soyeon, it appears, is one of the poster children for how ugly these contests can get, with some toxic fans within (G)I-dle's fandom Neverland or 'Nevies' being a part of why the idol draws as much criticism as she does.

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But is a fanwar enough to draw this much ire from the K-pop community? Or is there more to this puzzle?

Some have pointed to misogyny as a reason, but that doesn't necessarily explain why (G)I-dle's fellow girl groups seem to escape a similar level of backlash. Others point to Soyeon's creative control, but that falls apart when one assesses other groups where one member calls more of the shots. And while some think it might be her looks, Soyeon is hardly the first idol to not meet the ideal standards of beauty as far as the K-pop industry is concerned. And it certainly cannot be a matter of skill, seeing as Soyeon is often compared to artists like G-Dragon and CL, who many cite as the industry standard when it comes to creating music or setting trends, a feat she has accomplished only two years into her career.

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The one reason that stands out among all the others, however, is that the disparity stems largely from international fans and not local Korean ones. Fans in South Korea recognized (G)I-dle as 'monster rookies' back in 2018, and given their willingness to place her on the same level of G-Dragon, it should be evident that they're not particularly bothered by her. Not to mention they place cultural appropriation lower on the list of 'crimes' an idol might commit and should be admonished for. International fans, however, seem to have trouble getting past it. But maybe the conversation should be less about a single actor and more about why the larger K-pop scene seems to gloss over issues of race when it is clearly an industry-wide issue. Because if individual idols or groups are doomed to be targetted, then (G)I-dle have seemingly drawn the short end of the stick.

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