One of the reasons I’m interested in fame and why I think it’s a microcosm that demonstrates the way our socio-political institutions (including the media) work in late capitalism to keep us firmly away from a culture of care is because I read this article in Wired in 2012 on the “The Stalking of Korean Hip Hop Superstar Daniel Lee.”
I actually became an Epik High fan later, and had a “wait, that’s the guy?” moment.
Dexter Thomas Jr. for VICE recently created a podcast called “Authentic: The Story of Tablo” that goes much more in depth into what happened to Tablo. I recommend listening to it, but as briefly as possible: starting in 2010 there was a massive online smear campaign wherein a very large internet forum accused Tablo of lying about graduating from Stanford University, which ultimately led to both journalistic investigations and a full police investigation.
It’s also a story of globalization and capitalism and elitism and anger. It’s told through the lens of Tablo’s career and his fame, but as Tablo himself said in a March 2022 Twitter Space he hosted, “This is the world you live in.” He has reiterated that anyone could become targeted by a smear campaign and harassed online. And this is true. We live in a world where anonymous, misdirected rage built on false information and biased perception causes real harm — personal and material — to people.
We live in a world that often seems to encourage this — usually against people who are already socially disadvantaged in some way. In the US (and beyond), our neoliberal, capitalistic tendencies encourage us to construct narratives at the level of the individual rather than at the system level (which always benefits those in power, i.e., the ones who benefit from the systems).
The main perpetrator of the anti-Tablo forum (or Tajinyo) was actually a middle-aged South Korean man in Chicago, but many of the forum members were located in South Korea, and that’s where the police investigation took place. Thomas talked to one of them on the podcast, who to this day still thinks Tablo is lying (he isn’t — let me make that clear). This forum member is a man in his 50s, who grew up in the 1970s when South Korea was undergoing rapid, export-based industrialization — particularly in ships, heavy equipment, and petrochemical industries. (Cars and electronics were added in the 1980s.)
The historical context for this is complex — Japan’s colonial occupation, the “Cold War,” US imperialism and anti-communism, a push for economic and political autonomy, followed by democratization in the 1980s (and more), and all this is important. It’s also important that industrialization requires cheap labor and quashing worker-led movements. South Korea is often spoken of as a development “success” story, regarding how fast its mixed economy was able to match other high-income countries in a short span of time, and that’s all part of this too.
Because while we direct our focus solely on individuals, we’re trained to talk in the abstract about economics. The signs of a “strong economy” usually only apply to the wealthy. The GDP, for instance, masks inequality. In the US currently, rent is unlivable, healthcare is unaffordable, childcare is astronomical, and wages aren’t sustainable. The media abstracts these things into numbers and percentages, glossing over the fact that those numbers refer to actual human beings. You rarely hear about what historical economic shifts actually mean for regular people’s lives — not as percentages but in their material, lived reality.
So when you hear this man try to explain why he joined the forum, you can tell his frustrations didn’t really have anything to do with Tablo.
In episode 5, titled “Hell Korea” (an interesting term in itself), the forum member talks about the pressure created by a social structure where studying hard and having one chance to succeed at exams to get into a “good school” is essentially the only path most have to “succeed” or “get ahead” in life. Meanwhile, the elite (the wealthy, the chaebols, the “haves”) don’t have to go through the same pressure-filled process. They’re already “ahead.” They can buy their way into good schools, and they can do so by falsifying information. In 2007, there was a massive scandal when an art curator in Korea was found to have lied about her academic background to become an assistant art professor at Dongguk University and chief curator at Sungkok Art Museum.
It seems like the forum member’s primary issue is with the system that makes going to an elite school either a sign that someone is already well-to-do (which Tablo wasn’t) or the only path for anyone else to “get ahead” in life. Tablo wasn’t from a rich family and explains that he only went to Stanford because his parents pushed him toward it (and obviously he met the qualifications to get in). And it seems from his conversations with Thomas that Tablo also thinks the education system shouldn’t be so punishing.
But this forum member, and presumably many of the others, blamed Tablo anyway. Because Tablo was a famous rapper (something you don’t need a master’s degree from Stanford to do in the first place), he became a symbol, something to project frustrations onto. As far as I can tell, from what this one forum member said, it was mostly because Tablo joked around on a variety show in a way that rubbed some people the wrong way.
And Tablo suffered for all of this — mentally, of course, but he also legitimately feared for the safety of his daughter. His family and his relationship with them also suffered; his dad died likely due in part to the stress the situation put him under.
This is often what we do to celebrities (or to people with a tiny bit of social media presence). Instead of treating them as a fully-realized human, we make a snap judgment about them based on an inconsequential thing they said about themselves that we have probably decontextualized and given the most disingenuous reading to/analysis of to fit our own preconceptions of the world. Sometimes it just causes a brief fuss in the media. But sometimes we channel our biases, frustrations, or bigotries onto them and harass them, stalk them, or harm their career.
Once in a while, the court of public opinion targets a celebrity who has actually done something terrible, but so often we’re actually angry about something else entirely. We unwittingly project our dissatisfaction with broad social institutions onto individuals, who we treat as avatars, because it’s easier to blame a person than to think about or confront a systemic problem or failure.
We play a role in making celebrities famous, and so we can hurt them in a way that we can’t (or don’t) hurt the elite who aren’t famous — the ones doing a hell of a lot more harm in the world than a Korean rapper who had the nerve to make good music.
We live in a world where I suspect most people aren’t like me. I find the phrase “get ahead” or the idea of “the elite” to be horrifying. I don’t want to be ahead of anyone else. The only thing I want to be “ahead” of are my bills and the expenses that come with keeping myself alive. I want every person to have a relatively fulfilling life that they want and to not live in a stratified society that convinces us we have to be “ahead” of others. That we should want to be. That we are lesser as people if we have less money than someone else, if we have fewer “accomplishments,” if we have disabilities, if we don’t look a certain way, or if we don’t have the idyllic spouse + kids + pets + house, etc. That the only way to have a good life is for someone else’s to be worse by comparison. That other people who aren’t like us, or who live their life differently, are an existential threat simply because they also dare to exist.
This myth of the need to “get ahead” is convincing, because there most certainly are haves and have nots. There are elitist institutions. There are people who have more because they exploit the labor of others such that they have less. There are people who can get away with murder, with assault, with literal coups, because they have more social status, money, and power.
There are also celebrities. Sometimes they fit right in with the exploiters, the rich, and the powerful. And sometimes they don’t. Because they aren’t actually a homogeneous group and because “celebrity” isn’t an identity category — it’s a job.
I guess you could say that Tablo is “ahead” now. Epik High has released 11 studio albums and toured all over. But the thing is, Tablo didn’t lie about graduating from Stanford or about his fluency in English. His success with Epik High wasn’t immediate. It was part being good at what he does, part promoting the hell out of their music, and part luck and good timing. He worked for it. But it’s harder to be pissed off at a guy who worked for it and had some good luck.
What struck me the most in the interview with the forum member was his anger. Because his anger at the economic and education system was righteous. The system doesn’t sound fair as he describes it. Capitalist practices and competitive educational systems — and anything socially stratified and individual-centric — are going to be unfair and punishing to most of us.
This all reminds me of something Pankaj Mishra wrote in Age of Anger: A History of the Present:
“Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.” (p. 341)
We all deserve to live a life where our material needs are met, where we feel safe, where we have some kind of purpose, where we have a community. And instead of imagining that world (and trying to build it), we believe the myths of scarcity and false competition and property, and isolate ourselves into thinking we deserve and others don’t. We fester in resentment.
Maybe it feels good to punch up instead of punching down. But directing your anger at a single person who actually wields very little power isn’t going to make anything better. Because the truth is a rapper who went to Stanford didn’t make your life worse. Much like the immigrant didn’t take your job. Or the existence of trans people doesn’t hurt cis people in any way, shape, or form.
We live in a world where the vast majority of people are exploited in some way. And this is especially so in societies like the US, which has unfathomable inequality and individualistic social institutions built on bigoted exclusion.
Celebrity is seen as an elite position in such societies — and the wealth that some celebrities have does make them so in one sense. Some of them lean into that status. Some rely on nepotism. Some are morally corrupt. I’ve already written about the ways we dehumanize celebrities. How they are also exploited to make other people (whom we don’t vilify nearly enough) richer behind the scenes. How most musicians, athletes, and actors aren’t actually wealthy or famous.
My ultimate point is that there doesn’t have to be an elite class. There doesn’t have to be an ownership class. There doesn’t have to be a celebrity “class.” We don’t actually have to organize society this way at all. We could still have movies and sports and music and entertainment (and maybe even Twitter) in a world without the soul-crushing effects of a system that thrives on overconsumption and profit margins and selling the myth of “getting ahead.”
I guess I understand why people want to be a member of the elite (and thus resent them). I just never could, because it comes at the expense of others. I think we should topple elitist structures. I think we should work toward liberation for all, even if it seems impossible.
And I think in the here and now we should treat celebrities humanely, which was one of the reasons I started writing this series in the first place, because they are mere humans. But, at the end of the day, I also don’t think celebrity should be a thing.
I use celebrity as a lens because celebrity culture is pervasive, but also complex and full of contradictions to unravel. And, sure, Tablo was targeted because he was on TV and most of us are not, but what happened to him is yet one more example of how we do live in an age of anger. This is the world we live in.