GRANDE IL­LU­SION

Pop star’s fans have ac­cused Chi­nese-Cana­dian K-pop singer of rig­ging iTunes rank­ings

Calgary Herald - - YOU - GERRY SHIH

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump isn’t the only Amer­i­can call­ing out his Chi­nese coun­ter­part for un­fair com­pet­i­tive prac­tices.

The lat­est to fire shots? The camp of Ari­ana Grande, pop su­per­star.

Grande, 25, is em­broiled in a transpa­cific spat this week af­ter a string of sin­gles from Chi­ne­seCana­dian new­comer Kris Wu sud­denly topped the U.S. iTunes store rank­ings, briefly knock­ing Grande — and Lady Gaga — out of the Top 10 and spark­ing al­le­ga­tions of foul play.

Af­ter tracks from Wu’s new al­bum Antares swept the charts on Mon­day, Scooter Braun — agent to Grande, Justin Bieber and Kanye West — ac­cused Wu on Twit­ter of us­ing au­to­mated “bots” to ar­ti­fi­cially in­flate sales in the United States, where he is rel­a­tively un­known. Braun later claimed he didn’t write the tweet and deleted it, but “Chi­nese bots” none­the­less be­came a trend­ing topic, and Grande not so dis­creetly fanned the flames by hit­ting “like” on a tweet that ac­cused Wu of cheat­ing. Cue so­cial me­dia may­hem. On the Chi­nese in­ter­net, the episode has be­come one of the most hotly de­bated sub­jects, not just be­cause le­gions of Wu’s fans have sprung to his de­fence — they def­i­nitely have — but also be­cause the fraud al­le­ga­tions ap­peared to touch a nerve in a coun­try where faked box of­fice re­ceipts, faked e-com­merce re­views and faked down­load num­bers are rec­og­nized as tricks from an all-too-fa­mil­iar play­book.

To be sure, Grande has been crit­i­cized her­self for ploys such as bundling dig­i­tal sales with tour tick­ets. And Wu, known for his Auto-Tune-in­flected rap verses and boy­ish looks, is a bona fide su­per­star in Asia with a large, and real, fan base.

Known as Wu Yi­fan in Chi­nese, Wu has sold out sta­di­ums in China and South Korea, starred in a hand­ful of films, per­formed with Phar­rell Wil­liams and recorded a chart­top­ping track with Travis Scott to lay the ground­work for a push into the North Amer­i­can mar­ket.

Wu, 28, was born and raised in China and holds Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship. At age 10 he moved to Van­cou­ver with his mother. He moved back to China at age 11 briefly for mid­dle school be­fore re­turn­ing to Van­cou­ver for sec­ondary school. Since earn­ing a spot in a Korean ta­lent au­di­tion in 2008, he has lived in South Korea.

Wu’s la­bel, Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group, has de­fended the iTunes sales as le­git­i­mate and threat­ened le­gal ac­tion against those spread­ing “ma­li­cious” ru­mours.

But many Chi­nese aren’t con­vinced. They’re em­bar­rassed.

“What did we suc­cess­fully ex­port to the U.S. and Eu­rope: Kris Wu’s new song or our rot­ten fan cul­ture?” reads a head­line in The Pa­per, a pop­u­lar Shang­haibased news web­site.

“Chi­nese fans’ vote-rig­ging shocks Amer­i­can ne­ti­zens: do they hurt more than they help?” says an­other on Sina, a lead­ing news por­tal.

As other web­sites trans­lated the Twit­ter chat­ter of Grande’s U.S. fans from English into Chi­nese, many Chi­nese in­ter­net users didn’t seem de­fen­sive — rather cha­grined that the episode gave U.S. fans a glimpse into the re­al­ity of their coun­try ’s en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness.

Rig­ging rank­ings and ma­nip­u­lat­ing opin­ion has long been a well­known phe­nom­e­non in China, de­spite ef­forts by au­thor­i­ties to crack down. In 2015, a film dis­trib­u­tor re­port­edly faked $6 mil­lion worth of ticket sales in or­der to claim its an­i­mated com­edy topped Hol­ly­wood’s Fu­ri­ous 7 at the Chi­nese box of­fice. A year later, film au­thor­i­ties de­clared that 7,600 screen­ings of the kung fu movie Ip Man 3 were faked.

China’s web mer­ce­nar­ies, known col­lo­qui­ally as “in­ter­net wa­ter armies,” are no­to­ri­ous for pump­ing out fake re­views for ecom­merce plat­forms such as Taobao and ma­nip­u­lat­ing mes­sag­ing boards, no­tably the now-de­funct Digg. Be­yond the com­mer­cial sphere, the big­gest ma­nip­u­la­tor of on­line opin­ion is likely the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party, which em­ploys 500,000 key­board war­riors to fab­ri­cate nearly 500 mil­lion so­cial me­dia posts a year, ac­cord­ing to cred­i­ble aca­demic es­ti­mates.

As the con­tro­versy swirled around Wu this week, high-pro­file al­lies ap­peared to be in short sup­ply. Lay Zhang, a fel­low mem­ber in Wu’s old boy band, EXO, came clos­est as he of­fered some­what back­handed words of en­cour­age­ment.

“For some­one who is mak­ing their de­but in the U.S., it is quite nor­mal that no one knows you in the be­gin­ning,” he wrote. “You should worry about your stage per­for­mances, rather than chart per­for­mances. And those who look down on all Chi­nese artists, get lost!”

Other Chi­nese celebri­ties sim­ply rev­elled in schaden­freude.

“I’ll be kind for once and re­mind Kris Wu’s fans that your rig­ging of charts will by no means wake him up to the fact that his mu­sic is aw­ful,” said Chi­nese ac­tor Chi Zi in a top Weibo post that was retweeted 22,000 times.

Hong Kong hip-hop artist Edi­son Chen chimed in: “Money can’t buyu love, money can’t buy ufa me, money can’t buy u charts.”

Nor­mal ser­vice ap­peared to have re­sumed by Wed­nes­day, as Grande re­turned to the top of the U.S. iTunes chart with a seem­ingly fit­ting sin­gle she had de­buted live on The Ellen De­Generes Show.

The ti­tle? Thank U, Next.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ari­ana Grande fanned the flames of an on­line con­tro­versy this week by hit­ting “like” on a tweet that ac­cused mu­si­cian Kris Wu of cheat­ing to in­flate his sales num­bers.

Kris Wu

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