The writer is the culture desk chief of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The rise and fall of YouTuber Song Ji-ah and the controversy over her in Korea is a strange phenomenon in many ways.
Song, who operates a fashion and beauty YouTube channel under the name “FreeZia,” soared to international fame by appearing on Netflix’s sizzling dating show “Single’s Inferno.” The reality show was a hit and was the fifth most watched TV program on the streaming platform on Jan. 9. But Song came under fire as allegations arose online that many of the clothes she wore on the Netflix show and her YouTube videos, which seemed to be from luxury fashion brands such as Chanel and Dior, were actually fakes. Admit-ting part of the allegations, Song posted a handwritten apology on her Instagram account on Jan 17. That did nothing to quell the pub-lic criticism. Song stopped updating her YouTube and Instagram accounts after making all former videos and posts private on Jan 25. Such a sudden rise and fall could only occur in the age of social media.
Of course, it is wrong to buy counterfeit products and to wear them on TV shows and YouTube videos. It ignores intellectual prop-erty rights and disrespects the creative spirit of designers. However, Song didn’t manufacture or distribute fakes and committed no crime. Why has her problem developed into a hot topic not only on social media but even in legacy media? Why is the public criticism so vociferous?
Some Korean netizens and media take a patriotic perspective on this issue, blaming Song for wearing knock-off designer items on a Netflix show that is watched by people all around the world and, accordingly, causing a disgrace to the country. Foreign media outlets such as the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the Daily Mail in Britain, and Teen Vogue in the United States, reported the news of Song’s troubles and her apology, reflecting the international popularity of “Single’s Inferno,” and Song, and taking her contri-tion seriously. Some foreign media focuses on the Korean public’s outrage.
A Buzzfeed News article reported on Jan. 18, “Fans have been divided in their response, with the overwhelming majority of Kore-an-language users maintaining that they felt deceived and misled,” whereas “Comments in English, and larger international responses online, have skewed more in support of the thrifty queen.”
To explain this, the article quoted a Korean-American social media agency owner, who said, “That anger stems in part from a large cultural difference […] South Korea has an overwhelmingly conservative culture, and the idea of lying to people is very much cause for outrage.”
However, this analysis seems to unaccountably ignore the fact that many politicians in Korea have kept their careers going for long times despite repeated lies.
The comments on the news article are telling. One reader wrote, “The problem isn’t that she wore fake brands, it’s that she lied repeatedly.” The reader pointed out that Song in her “home tour” videos shows off a multi-million-dollar apartment with a view of Han River and speaks as if she owned the home. But it was revealed that it is — gasp! — a rented home paid for monthly. The reader also pointed out Song repeatedly said she grew up rich, arguing that she has perpetuated “too many lies, too much fake stuff to let her get away with.”
Another reader argued that Song is over-pilloried and it is not just. The reader wrote, “If we’re dragging this girl through the mud for lying about her status then we should be dragging 90% of American influencers and ‘celebs’ as well. When these dumb online personas lie about where they live, lie about flying privately or lie about having X amount of wealth, we typically laugh at them […] and move on.”
In my view, the readers’ comments touch on the essence of the controversy. Song’s behavior has become the talk of town and aroused criticism not because she ignored the intellectual property rights of designers, but because it was revealed that she was not as rich as she acted. Her “gold spoon” — Korean slang for those born into wealthy families — turned out to be stainless steel. The standard of the gold spoon is not exact, but the young generations tend to call the top 0.1 percent gold spoon. That Song is not as rich as she pretended to be might strike some as absurd, and others as a cause for anger over being deceived. In Korea, there are more people of the latter kind than I expected. The following two comments posted on Korean online communities summarize this phenomenon.
“The problem is that she showed what it feels like to be ‘young and rich’ with a high-class life style and high self-esteem but then it was revealed as a thoroughly fictitious image.”
“I think this is the reason why FreeZia [Song] is blasted excessively: she has become a target of a [hostile] reaction to the recently intensified worship of gold spoons in Korea.”
If Song were an actor or K-pop singer who gained fame for her talent — acting, singing or dancing — she might be laughed at for a brief moment for wearing fake luxury brand items, but her identity as a star and her career would never be threatened. But Song only became famous for living a wealthy life with a natural and straightforward demeanor and for buying and wearing luxury brands. She didn’t claim any other special abilities. In other words, for her, being born into a rich family and being accustomed to a lavish life was received by her fans as a kind of ability or talent. Just as a singer who rose to fame thanks to singing ability will fall when she is suspected of lip-syncing and her ability is questioned, a person who became famous for her “ability” to splash out on luxury fashion brand, will fall when her ability is doubted.
I don’t know when it began, but many people in today’s Korean society, in particular teenagers and those in their 20s — the age of most of Song’s fans — tend to regard inherited wealth as a kind of talent or ability and, therefore envy and even worship it. It is now considered to be anachronistic to emphasize a star’s past suffering from poverty and his or her efforts to overcome it, which had great appeal in Korea of the past.
A K-pop star who debuted in the 2000s once suffered a sharp decline in popularity. One of the reasons is said to have been his repeated telling of how his family was poor in his childhood and how hard he worked to climb to the stardom. Young people complain about such stories on social media, saying they sound like “a condescending boomer’s sermon.” They are not so much inspired by the success stories of self-made artists and stars as the generations that came before them. The young enjoy vicarious satisfaction by watching the luxury consumption of rich celebrities who are born with a gold spoon.
This is a phenomenon that Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen discussed a century ago in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions” (1899). He pointed out the phenomenon that the upper class pursue economically unproductive practices of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure as a way of distinguishing themselves from the lower classes and that the lower classes envy and emulate these practices. The power of Veblen’s theory would weaken during times when there are more hard-working and self-made rich such as start-up founders and high-income professionals and more people climbing the economic ladder. But in today’s Korean society, Veblen’s theory is gaining pertinence again. It suggests that upward mobility in the economic ladder is weaker than before in the Korean society.
In addition, a situation that Veblen at the end of the 19th century could not have predicted is unfolding. That is, conspicuous consumption itself is no longer “economically unproductive” and becomes a money-making business in the era of social media.
American media personality Paris Hilton is a classic example of making money by spending a lot of money. In the case of Hilton, her gold spoon is true as she is the great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels. She gained global fame by displaying her inherited wealth and lavish lifestyle through the media in the 2000s. Her name has become a byword for celebrities who are “famous for being famous.”
What should be noted is Hilton’s next move. She wasn’t satisfied with just being famous, so she used media fame to run various businesses and eponymous brands. In particular, her perfume line is said to have brought in hefty sums. This has become a strategy that many influencers on YouTube and Instagram channels emulate: first, to display luxurious and free lifestyles as a young and rich person through media; to gain fame and become the object of envy through it; and then to use the fame to run a business and make money.
The problem is that not all the influencers are gold spoons like Hilton. Those who seek vicarious satisfaction with the lavish lifestyle of an influencer on social media want the influencer to be a real gold spoon. Only when an influencer is a real gold spoon will people think they are qualified to sell their brands — in other words, their lifestyle and taste — and open their purses to buy them.
That’s why Song got into trouble. She said she planned to launch her own fashion brand. However, now that it has been revealed that she isn’t wealthy enough to splash out on genuine luxury brand items, people feel deceived and are harshly criticizing her. Of course, her ignorance of intellectual property rights and lies were never right. However, the reality is that she is under fire for not being a real gold spoon. And the reality that a real gold spoon is qualified to just sit and earn money by living a luxurious life — that is, to make more money by boasting their money, and thus become richer — is quite strange.
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]