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With waves of earsplitting screams and frenzied applause from fans, the talent show “Produce 101” finally lowered its curtain a week ago.|
Over the last three months, the song and dance contest, produced by Tencent, culled the original 101 contestants to 11 finalists, based on audience voting. The 11 formed a new super pop group called Rocket Girls.
However, many questions trail the program, including doubts about the impartiality of voting and concerns about the whole phenomenon of fans creating, nurturing and worshiping idols.
The current trend traces its origin back to the late 1980s, when the Little Tigers, or Xiao Hu Dui in Chinese, debuted as one of the first idol bands in Taiwan and rapidly rose to fame. The three boys were cute, with catchy voices, sunny smiles and dynamic dance steps.
They quickly captured the hearts of adoring young Chinese fans around the world.
The development of the Internet and social media has reinvented the stairway to stardom. Nowadays, fans are no longer a passive audience at arm’s length from their idols. Young fans nurture idols, often playing a part in recruiting and promoting unsung talent.
“By witnessing how hard it is for wannabe talent to achieve success, fans can enjoy the thrill of ‘growing up’ together with them,” says Ma Zhonghong, director of the New Media and Youth Culture Research Center at Suzhou University.
Taiwan boy band Little Tigers, established in the late 1980s
Popular Chinese mainland boy band TFboys
Over two decades after the Little Tigers disbanded, another trio emerged as China’s hottest boy group. TFboys, or Fighting Boys, didn’t rely on stage appearances or TV shows to gain publicity. They began the journey to stardom on the Internet.
Web users are now able to generate content and interact with one another via social media. The TFboys sharpened their claws and seized the opportunity. Simply put, they mastered the art of digital self-promotion, creating mini-programs and mini-dramas that they posted online, as well as video clips of their back stories.
They first gained attention when their cover version of “Onion,” a song by Taiwan band Mayday, went viral on Facebook in June 2013. They made their first appearance two months later in a promotional video called “Ten Years,” which showed how the three boys, just entering their teen years, sweated through hard training to learn how to sing and dance.
Their perseverance struck a chord with many teenagers, who somehow felt close to them in their quest for fame.
“For me, the three boys were no longer distant people,” says Zhang Siyu, a junior student at Shanghai Maritime University who has been following the group for over four years. “Instead, I felt encouraged to follow my own dreams after seeing them overcome shortcomings with constant practice.”
SNH48, an all-female Chinese idol band that started as a sister group to Japan’s AKB48, features dozens of members around the age of 18 and younger. They perform regularly in their own theater and interact with fans via face-to-face events. It’s all in the spirit of AKB48’s creator Yasushi Akimoto, who pioneered the idea of “idols you can meet.”
To nurture their idols, fans invest money, time, energy and love. For instance, SNH48 fans vote in an annual competition to determine each member’s place in the band hierarchy. That determines how many appearance opportunities each will receive.
Last year, Ju Jingyi ranked No. 1 in the competition by garnering over 277,000 votes, equaling about 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) from her fans.
Enthusiastic fans jostle with each other for a good position at the front to take photos of their idol Zhu Xingjie, a contestant in "Idol Producer," in a commercial event in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.
Dong Yanlei (in white hat), a contestant in "Idol Producer," is cornered by his fans on an escalator when he arrives in Beijing for an event.
Earlier this year, a survival reality show called “Idol Producer” broadcast by iQIYI selected nine candidates to debut as a boy band, called Nine Percent, by a vote of fans. Some were said to have opened hundreds of accounts on iQIYI to vote for their idols.
The top nine received nearly 150 million votes on the final night of the competition.
The boy band held a fan meeting in a Nanjing stadium in early June. Fans thronged to the event, spending hundreds or thousands of yuan on tickets, posters and other promotional products. Some trying to sneak into the stadium tangled with security guards.
Nowadays, over half of idol fans are between the ages of 18 and 25, according to China Fans Report, published by fans service giant ifensi.com.
New Media and Youth Culture Research Center’s Ma says young fans are no longer satisfied with being only passive end-users of entertainment. Instead, they want to be proactive with idol worship.
A Shanghai girl nicknamed “Pudding” on Weibo has been in charge of the fan club for Huang Tingting, one of the most popular members of the SNH48 group, since last October.
Every day when she returns home from work at 6pm, she logs into the official fan club account, replies to messages and edits fundraising posts for significant events, like Huang’s birthday and the annual competition. She also helps package fan club products like photos and pins.
Core members like Pudding tend to cover some of the costs from their own pockets.
What do they get in return? Well, closer access to their idol, for one thing. Sometimes staff from TV programs where Huang performs will contact the club and ask for promotional help on social media. It’s a symbiotic relationship between fans and idols.
“I spend all my leisure hours on Huang,” Pudding says. “But It feel it worthwhile when I see her marching from an unnoticed corner to the center position in a group dance.”
Luo Zhiyi (left), a participant in the reality show "Produce 101," takes a selfie with her fans upon arrival in Beijing for the contest final.
Talent agencies in China are also seeking to capitalize on the fostered-idol model. Banana Entertainment, an agency in Shanghai, has started regularly updating self-made programs on Tencent’s short-video platform Weishi. These shows give fans a look at the daily lives of the idols, attracting thousands of hits per episode.
“More capital will flow into this industry,” predicts Chen Yuetian, an investor in SNH48.
But is it really money well spent?
The “foster idol” craze has its downsides and critics. There is concern about fans who become overly possessive of their idols or who lose touch with reality and confuse their idol’s life with their own.
Wang Junkai, a member of TFboys, enrolled as a freshman at the Beijing Film Academy last year. His fans gate-crashed the university’s opening ceremony and caused a stir when they demanded that Wang’s dorm mates take good care of their idol.
Last month, Fan Chengcheng, who rose to stardom from “Idol Producer,” posted a photo on the website. To see the picture, fans had to pay 60 yuan. The photo was clicked open 80,000 times, with the idol raking in an easy 4.8 million yuan in just one night.
“No matter whether you are worshipping an idol or ‘fostering’ one, you need to be rational,” says Lu Hai, a Shanghai sociologist. “It’s understandable that some fans fantasize about their idols, but you are, after all, leading different lives, and you have to be clear which is yours.”