TW: Disordered Eating, Mental Health
Whether you consider yourself a K-Pop fan or not, you’ll likely have heard of FIFTY FIFTY. Shooting to fame earlier this year with the viral single ‘Cupid’, they broke BLACKPINK’s record for the longest-charting song by a K-pop girl group on the Billboard Hot 100, and immediately followed it up with a coveted spot on the Barbie soundtrack. Having grown their fanbase — the Hunnies — exponentially in just seven months, they proved a huge breakout hit for ATTRAKT, the Korean record label that launched the group as their flagship signing.
Sadly, you might also know FIFTY FIFTY due to their recent legal troubles. Soon after ‘Cupid’s success, the group’s four members — Saena, Aran, Sio and Keena — filed to suspend their exclusive contracts with ATTRAKT, claiming that the label had failed to be transparent about their financial settlements, and had pushed the members to work far beyond their physical and emotional capabilities, resulting in serious illness.
The same day, a criminal complaint was filed by ATTRAKT against Ahn Sung-Il (a producer and co-writer on Cupid under the pen name SIAHN), for allegedly deleting company data and taking ownership of ‘Cupid’s copyright without the agency’s knowledge. As CEO of The Givers, a company hired by ATTRAKT to do production and management work for the group, Sung-II was also accused of encouraging the girls to break their contracts so that they could be ‘poached’ by Warner Music Korea (claims that were actively denied by Warner).
The lawsuit against The Givers was the one fixated upon on in the Korean press, crowding out the attention paid to the members of FIFTY FIFTY and their alleged mistreatment. In August, FIFTY FIFTY’s injunction against ATTRAKT was denied by South Korean courts, with a further appeal also proving unsuccessful. On Aug 17th, a new social media account released a direct statement from all four members for the first time, stating that they had decided to “put our hesitation aside and [step] up to share our position”.
Further posts would appear on this account, offering context to the claims of label mistreatment. In one particularly harrowing post, Saena describes struggling with hair loss, hormonal changes and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia and severe panic disorder, broadly disregarded by the company. In another, Aran describes being rushed back to work too swiftly after a bout of Cholecystitis, with follow-up surgery to remove potential pre-cancerous polyps being delayed so that she would not “derail scheduled [group] activities”. “Not a day went by without pain…to the agency, we were like machines that had to move even if there was little battery remaining in us.”
It initially seemed as if all four girls were united in their stand against ATTRAKT, but on October 16th, Keena — the only member of FIFTY FIFTY actively credited as a songwriter on ‘Cupid’ — reportedly withdrew her appeal, with the label announcing one week later that the other girls’ contracts would be terminated. The Forty-Five reached out to ATTRAKT for direct comment on the lawsuit, the allegations made against them by FIFTY FIFTY and their future plans with Keena, and received the following written statement:
“ATTRAKT is working on various projects including future activities for the Billboard Music Awards with the returned member, Keena, and is working on the production of the new upcoming K-Pop girl group audition TV show with JTBC with the goal to continue its efforts of global activities leading to continuously successful outcome. ATTRAKT is concerned about the fake news distributed online especially on social media in the intention to harm ATTRAKT with no evidence with obvious intentions to support the illegal activities by The Givers, and is keeping all records with ‘eyes wide open’ since the start of the case.”
Clearly, this is a case that is complicated and ongoing, with many legal and emotional sensitivities to navigate. But for some FIFTY FIFTY fans, the situation has become something that they can no longer endorse, particularly with regards to the girls’ wellbeing. As such, there has been a global, coordinated push from the Hunnies to boycott the group, and any subsequent launches from ATTRAKT. In a way, the Hunnies may be making the ultimate fan sacrifice; what greater love can there be than trying to protect an artist by actively depriving yourself of their music?
Lucy* became a fan of FIFTY FIFTY when they first debuted in 2022, drawn in by what they describe as the group’s “maturity and emotional depth.” To Lucy’s mind, the court ruling which suggested that ATTRAKT had provided sufficient care and rehabilitation time to Aran was particularly unconvincing, feeling that the label was likely motivated by their own business concerns.
“Cholecystitis is linked to calorie-restrictive weight loss – even one month of strict dieting can cause this condition, and it’s been reported that the members were put on a butter coffee weight-loss program for three months,” they say. “Furthermore, the timing of the surgery in May seems to be more related to the company’s handover process than Aran’s need. The Givers had told Jeon Hongjun that they were leaving ATTRAKT in April, and to my understanding, Jeon had no other staff capable of running a company; The Givers had done the accounting, budgeting, operations, promotions, and production. May was a hiatus for the company as well, to hire a completely new set of people.”
Lucy also expresses doubt over the company’s finances, feeling that ATTRAKT has distastefully cashed in on media attention during the ongoing case. Like other fans, she cites the disappointing recent release of a FIFTY FIFTY physical album, priced at $40 and containing minimal new material.
“The 200-page “photobook” is mostly blank pages or filler pages. They claim to have printed 156,000 copies when the group had only sold around 45000 copies of the two previous releases combined. I can’t help but think that it might have been a way to add more expenses into the FIFTY FIFTY account, to reduce the profit they would have to pay out to the members.”
ATTRAKT and Warner have recently released a ‘new’ compilation album of FIFTY FIFTY. However, the album quality is very poor, images are reused, and a boycott is in the works. Please DO NOT support this release.#FIFTYFIFTY #피프티피프티 pic.twitter.com/ZLj8gVeBwn— FIFTY FIFTY Updates (@fiftyfiftyfeed) September 23, 2023
Like Lucy, Ben is keen to emphasise that amidst their boycott, most Hunnies do still extend their compassion to Keena, who they do not wish to be portrayed as some kind of vicious betrayer to the other girls. “I feel incredibly worried about Keena returning to the company alone,” Ben says. “I can only trust that she made her decision knowing what’s best for her and respect that it’s not my position to determine that for her, but it’s been heartbreaking to see people turn on Keena in ways that constitute victim blaming, perpetuate the belief that there is such a thing as a “perfect survivor”.”
Describing ATTRAKT’s intention to add new members to FIFTY FIFTY as “salt rubbed in a still gushing wound”, Ben actively rejects the idea that a new lineup can in any way replace what has gone before.
“ATTRAKT wants to further capitalise on ‘Cupid’’s virality, but what they don’t realise is that they can’t forcibly replicate that organic success of their voices.” they say, “To me, FIFTY FIFTY will always be Keena, Saena, Sio, and Aran, and Hunnies will always be the fandom name for the original members. I refuse to let ATTRAKT or anyone else take that away from us; I will be fully boycotting any new iteration of FIFTY FIFTY ATTRAKT attempts to put out, even if it includes Keena.”
Outside of the specifics of FIFTY FIFTY’s case, the lawsuits and subsequent fan boycott highlight wider concerns of wellbeing and fair compensation in K-Pop. Whilst the potential exploitation of young entertainers is a worldwide issue, Asian entertainment industries are well known for holding their stars to exacting and often unhealthy standards, recruiting idols at incredibly young ages and training them intensively in a manner which tends to praise exhaustion as a sign of admirable commitment and determination. K-Pop lovers are drawn to the genre because of its creativity and athletic excellence, but when you imagine the kind of work it takes to meet those ever-heightening standards, it can feel difficult not to fear what may be going on behind the scenes. As Lucy puts it, “What is the point of very skinny, young girls singing about empowerment and body positivity when it is clear that they aren’t empowered themselves?”
A push for stronger regulation on the industry (known as the Lee Seung Gi Crisis Prevention Act) was thankfully proposed earlier this year by the Korean Minister for Culture, limiting the number of hours that underage idols could work and encouraging more clear-cut disclosures of label expenditure. That the members of FIFTY FIFTY felt they could speak out at all is perhaps a further sign of some positive change, breaking the kind of cultural taboos that force Korean idols into dangerous forms of compliant gratitude. But still, there is a long way to go in the bid for true transparency, where idols are respected as people rather than product.
“I think it’s important that we start talking more about these conditions imposed on K-pop” agrees John, a Hunnie whose fan account endorses the boycott. “It’s a beautiful culture with incredibly talented people, but behind this, there is an industry that consumes a lot of idols’ mental and physical energy. It’s sad to see such a promising group like FIFTY FIFTY end up like this: I hope companies see this and learn a lesson to be more sincere and committed to their artists. Don’t just treat them as a source of money; there are dreams and many years of dedication at stake.”
Stans are often pathologised as silly or over-reactionary, but when they come together with a common cause, they can enact significant change. Right across the world, Hunnies like John, Ben and Lucy have been working for months to keep people informed on the FIFTY FIFTY case, translating statements into numerous languages and generally doing whatever they can to try and protect the idols they have come to care so deeply about. The next step, Ben says, is to take this message further than the FIFTY FIFTY fandom itself, educating wider audiences about issues in K-Pop.
“Our demands are for ATTRAKT to take responsibility for their inhumane abuse of FIFTY FIFTY, retract defamatory statements about the members, and cancel their plans for a new lineup,” they say. “Right now, the people working on the boycott are still segmented in many ways, so I’m trying to get us organised in one place so that we can respond to future developments more efficiently. We need as much help as we can get to create impact and achieve our goals.”
As for FIFTY FIFTY themselves, all Ben truly hopes is that all four original members might find their own sense of closure, moving beyond this moment of emotional and financial limbo.
“I would be happy to see them make music again one day, because they’ve expressed multiple times that they want to return to performing, but it’s fine if they don’t. I just want them to have the chance to truly, fully heal from the immense trauma of this situation, and be happy and healthy. Is that too much to ask for?”
*names have been changed to protect anonymity