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Why Chen’s engagement is dividing EXO fans

Experts say their reaction marks an important moment for K-pop

A group of EXO fans protest just outside Coex in Gangnam on Sunday. (Yonhap)
A group of EXO fans protest just outside Coex in Gangnam on Sunday. (Yonhap)

A score of protesters took to the street in Gangnam on Sunday afternoon demanding that K-pop singer Chen leave EXO, the band he’s been part of for over eight years.

One female protester said she feels betrayed by the 27-year-old singer for announcing his engagement and his fiancee’s pregnancy without even a “sorry” in a letter last week.

“He’s pursuing his happiness at the expense of other people’s dreams, youth and passion,” she said while protesting outside SM Town Coex Artium, a complex run by S.M. Entertainment which manages the group.

On Twitter, however, hashtags like “#AlwayswithCHEN” and “#EXOLBelievesInEXO9” trended as the group’s fans, known as EXO-L, flocked to the platform to show their support for the singer.

Both sides are reacting to Chen’s sudden announcement last week, in which the singer announced he’s going to marry his girlfriend and also hinted she’s pregnant by referring to a “blessing.”

“We want him out of the group because we don’t want controversial labels following EXO. Being a baby daddy, premarital pregnancy -- these negative labels are tainting EXO’s image,” the protester said.

Holding signs that read “#Chen_Leave,” the protesters wore masks and hoodies so they couldn’t be identified. A slight brawl also broke out when Jessica, an EXO fan from the US, tried to take a photograph of the protest.

Coming from America, she’s aware of cultural differences, but she wants Chen to stay in the group.

“The culture is very different and I get that. But it should be about the music and as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, not getting a DUI or starting a fight, then I don’t see how it should matter to the fandom.”

Why is dating controversial in K-pop?

Stephanie Choi, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said some fans are calling for Chen’s departure not necessarily because of the couple’s upcoming marriage or the possible pregnancy, but because of their negative impact on the band’s popularity.

“They are very aware that the mass media’s coverage of an idol member’s marriage and pregnancy will be followed by a decrease in the public perception, popularity, and the overall economic value of the group,” Choi said.

According to her, the majority of idols actively perform fan service and “aegyo” as a way of selling intimacy, and this effort to maintain an intimate relationship with fans only -- at least publicly -- has become a tacit contract. 

EXO Member Chen (S.M. Entertainment)
EXO Member Chen (S.M. Entertainment)

More K-pop stars are opening up about dating, including HyunA and Dawn -- who ended up leaving their agency in 2018 after going public with their relationship -- but the pressure is still on.

Earlier this month, Momo of Twice said she was “sorry” and thankful for her fans after her relationship with Heechul of Super Junior was made public.

A viral tweet from one of Heechul’s fans also said the Super Junior member kept saying sorry in the wake of the news.

This feeling of betrayal stems from the seemingly close relationship between idols and fans, according to Lee Jong-im, the author of “Idol Trainees’ Sweat and Tears.”

“I believe some fans are feeling betrayed or annoyed that their idol who shared almost everything with them has suddenly dropped a big announcement without much communication.

“In the current system, fans do things together as if part of a team and work with the agency. But the illusion was shattered this time which might have led to an outburst of emotion,” she said.

Many fans -- and label -- stand behind Chen

Though Sunday’s protest grabbed headlines, many fans want Chen to remain in EXO. So does his agency, S.M. Entertainment, which came out in support of the singer after he announced his engagement.

Among Chen’s supporters is the EXO-L OT9 Global Union, a group on Twitter representing pro-Chen EXO fans around the world.

In a statement, the group said the opinions of Kim Jong-dae -- the singer’s real name -- should be respected and that he is a human being first and an artist second.

An image on Twitter shows hashtags in support of Chen (Twitter)
An image on Twitter shows hashtags in support of Chen (Twitter)

While the opposing sides clash over a group that they both cherish, Maeng, the 21-year-old female fan who leads the pro-Chen group, said the whole situation is a shame.

“I find it sad that the same fandom that once supported and loved EXO together has been divided. And I understand their feeling of betrayal is not simply based on the delusion that they were in love with Chen.

“But if you think about it, it is not right to see premarital pregnancy used as a negative label. It’s also unethical to use the marriage and love life of an artist to attack them. I’d like to see this mindset challenged so not just EXO but other artists’ privacy is respected,” she said.

Ana, an EXO fan from France, also believes supporting Chen is a good step for K-pop, considering the way that mental health problems have emerged as a major issue for the industry in recent years.

If Chen’s marriage goes ahead and the fans react well, she said, “it will prove that people do care about the artist behind the image, the stage persona.”

Ph.D. candidate Choi sees Chen’s announcement and fans’ reaction as an important moment for the K-pop fandom in general.

“Chen is among the first K-pop idols to become a husband and father, and thus this is a significant moment to redefine what type of intimacy the idols and fans would like to develop in the future.”

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)

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