censored, cancel culture
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K-Pop: Who Gets Canceled and Why

You can tell what bedevils a society by whom its members try to forcibly remove from the spotlight. In K-Pop, here’s who gets canceled and why.

There was this old VH1 television show at the turn of the millennium called Where Are They Now? Over the course of ten episodes, it followed former stars who were once at the height of universal name recognition into their current lots in life. Each episode had a theme; the docuseries started with old movies (Grease; Saturday Night Fever) but then segued into teen idols from various decades and other musicians.

Most of their subjects were famous before my time, but I recognized the boy- and girl bands from the 1990s: 89 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, and Spice Girls. Back then, even to my prepubescent brain, I may not have understood the vast majority of references to bygone stars whose most famous works I’d never seen or heard, but I understood the voyeuristic intrigue that comes from watching people fall from grace. It wasn’t quite schadenfreude—there was no joy in seeing former celebs suddenly live excessively ordinary lives, whether by choice or not. The pleasure to be had from watching Where Are They Now? was in feeling the awe and wonder of seeing a person descend from the highest of heights only to discover that they do not die from the fall (if they did, it’d be a different kind of show). They merely moved on, for better or worse. 

Of course, basic cable television companies weren’t the only ones obsessed with tracking what the rich and formerly famous were up to when they were no longer rich or famous. Various iterations of similar series have appeared in different formats (on YouTube, other cable channels, and media outlets). But whatever their modality, these shows almost always focused on celebrities who faded quietly until they were no longer on anybody’s mind – until a show dragged them out of obscurity. Their descents were usually gradual and slow.

In these times, a celebrity can still ride quietly off into the sunset, but a new type of descent—abrupt, catastrophic, public—has captured our attention, all thanks to the dawn of Cancel Culture. Two patterns in Cancel Culture are notable:

  1. People everywhere can and have been “canceled” – some to career-devastating effect.
  2. The reasons for cancellation – and the aftermath – apparently depend on the canceled person’s status and geocultural location.

When it comes to celebrities, for example, Louis C.K. won two Grammys (and was nominated for a third). His comedy act sold out Madison Square Garden’s 21,000-seat venue three times in a row before he confessed to a series of sexual misconduct revelations that ended with him moving to France. He’s back in America now—both physically and career-wise, it seems, at least based on both his box-office numbers, with two more sold-out shows at the same Madison Square Garden and Recording Academy nominations (two more).

That Louis C.K. isn’t the only disgraced American celebrity to find second chances in France before attempting to make a comeback — Woody Allen and Johnny Depp have both successfully made new films there after their respective fallouts from public opinion in the US —suggests that these aren’t accidents. There may be something systematically different from Europe’s most (allegedly) romantic hotspot that allows artists to break moral codes and still be celebrated for their work. The age-old adage, “location, location, location”, may not just apply to real estate anymore; it might also apply to Cancel Culture.

Of course, cultural differences in tolerance for bad behavior are relative. France’s willingness to rehabilitate fallen American stars might make the US seem more “moralistic” than France until we consider how America compares to another global leader in the music industry: South Korea. 

Let’s compare/contrast the growing list of American musical artists facing potential cancellation, from Lizzo’s dancers’ allegations of weight shaming and sexualized work environments to Kanye West’s antisemitism or country music singer Morgan Wallen’s racist remark to the parallel list of Korean artists facing similar fates. Le Sserafim’s Kim Garam, for example, is accused of bullying, Big Bang has legal troubles following several members’ drug/prostitution charges. Lizzo’s situation is pending as of the writing of this article, but that she appeared, presented, and received much love at the latest Grammys after a judge refused her bid to throw out her dancers’ lawsuit suggests that the songstress may recover from the allegations (which she has denied).

Speaking of recovery, Wallen has been a walking testament to how quickly a musician can bounce back after controversy: following the released video footage of him using a racial slur, he was briefly banned from several multiple radio and music streaming platforms as well as the American Music Awards—not to mention suspended from his record label—but a year later, he was back, performing at the Billboard Music Awards. He is busy inking global publishing deals these days, and his 2023 album, One Thing at a Time, shares Billboard’s country album top spot with Garth Brooks’ 1991 album, Ropin’ the Wind.

For some, cancellation looms but never comes. For a brief period after Dan Reed’s 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland released, it seemed unclear what would become of Michael Jackson. Yet the King of Pop remains the King of Pop, now more than ever. Still, not all Americans survive revelation. Kanye’s career, for example, shows no signs of repairing itself a year after his antisemitic comments brought an end to his sneaker deal, fashion collab, and stadium tours. 

K-pop stars appear to face cancellation for different reasons, but their opportunities for recovery seem just as varied. When allegations about bullying behavior during her middle school years emerged against Kim Garam shortly before Le Sserafim’s debut, 2023’s Unforgiven. An agency-issued denial was followed by a temporary hiatus, which quickly turned permanent when HYBE terminated her contract. As of her recent graduation from Seoul’s premier School of Performing Arts this month, the former idol shows no hints of returning to the spotlight.

When Hyunjin of Stray Kids faced a similar scandal over bullying, an immediate apology accompanied by a four-month-long absence preceded a successful return. His musical act went on to dominate the Billboards; Stray Kids are now more successful than ever. As for Big Bang—whose long tenure in Korea’s music industry included controversies among several of its members over marijuana and prostitution, both of which are illegal in the country—the outcomes may be more varied. In the case of its former rapper, G-Dragon, a recent acquittal of drug charges preceded a change in agencies, with a planned comeback in the works. The vocalist Daesang also appears to be planning his solo comeback, while fellow singer Taeyang—himself free of controversy—already has a successful solo career. Meanwhile, the group’s other former rapper, T.O.P., is now in the new cast for Netflix’s wildly anticipated Squid Game, Season 2. What the future holds for Seungri, the lead dancer who completed jail time last year remains uncertain.

You can tell what bedevils a society by whom its members try to forcibly remove from the spotlight. Although much hand-wringing has been made about the powers of Cancel Culture, there remain limits to cancellation for music and film stars, anyway (not so much for others): it frequently doesn’t last forever, although public opinion about who is to be forgiven and who isn’t—that is the question. 

Works Cited

Burrows, Mark. “Louis CK’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden proves there’s no such thing as cancel culture”. Big Issue. 30 January 2023.

Cha, E. “SOPA clarifies rumors about Kim Garam posing for press photos at graduation”. Soompi. 6 February 2024.

Dong, Sun-hwa. “Hyunjin of Stray Kids returns after bullying scandal”. The Korea Times. 27 June 2021.

Kurutz, Steven. “France extends a welcome to Woody Allen, Louis CK and Johnny Depp.” New York Times. 7 September 2023.

MacDonald, Joan. “More cast members announced for second season of ‘Squid Game.’” Forbes. 28 June 2023.

Norris, Pippa. “Cancel culture: Myth or reality?“. Political Studies 71.1. 2023