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A screenshot from the UNIVERSE website advertising the app’s chat feature Image: NCSoft

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This game about hanging with AI pop stars sent me into an existential tailspin

Welcome to the friendship factory

Every day on the internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become old news five minutes later. In Polygon’s new series The Next Generation of Everything, we’re looking at what’s blowing up in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest shifts say about where Extremely Online life is going next.

People on Twitter were saying that NCSoft had taken out most of the creepy features of UNIVERSE, their K-pop fandom platform app, so it was OK to use it to gorge my eyes bloody on beautiful people. NCSoft is a game company, the developers of Blade and Soul, an MMO I only know of from that Monster Factory episode where the hosts worry they’ll go to jail after seeing the sexualized character poses done by their pedomorphic Rat Baby. But people told NCSoft the app was creepy and now it’s less creepy, and so NCSoft has become A Video Game Company That Listens To The Fans. It would be foolish not to give them all my money.

What were the creepy things that they fixed? They changed the app’s UI, which used to imitate the cult hit dating sim Mystic Messenger. It’s now a gamified newsfeed more typical of fandom platform apps, with lots of calls to action to participate in polls (a crucial mechanism for making the band you like better than the other ones), and the currency has been turned from MM-style hourglasses to something called “Klap.” The app also has a “Studio” feature, where you can dress up cartoony idols rendered in the style of a Fortnite knockoff. Previously, if you tapped on the female idols, even ones who are, like, 16 years old, they used to bend over, or back their asses up in a Rat Baby-esque manner. This has now been toned down. NCSoft also fixed the feature that let fans pay thousands of won to hear a AI deepfake voice of their favorite idol guilt-tripping them for not responding to his horny DMs. Now, the DMs the robot sends you are no longer permitted to be horny.

UNIVERSE’s AI call feature still functions like a dating sim. You book in a call with your idol (so the server can render your name), and you see a meter showing the extent of the relationship between the two of you, to keep the subscriptions in place on sunk-cost fallacy logic. Even with the desexualizing of the app, it still expects you to have a romantic crush on your bias. This includes the content that isn’t generated by neural network. One banner promises me a voicemail message from IZ-ONE’s Min-ju. She is luminously cute as she talks to me and thousands of other fans as if we were her boyfriend, in a pastel-ice-cream-parlors-fantasy type sense. As I watch, I am able to imagine a version of myself who is able to talk to men as softly as that, the way my gender role has taught me that I should, instead of being someone who men try to hit on by telling me “you’re funny” with nothing but skinned-grape terror in their eyes. This message from Min-ju is no less fake than the AI version of Min-ju, available deeper in the app. But there might be a crucial glimpse of Min-ju’s soul represented in her acting, and also, it’s not trying to present itself as anything real.

It’s easier to find these kinds of videos on the app than videos of the bands performing songs, which makes sense, since actual music is increasingly inessential to a music industry based more on tricking us into thinking the stars are our friends. It’s that sense of non-friendship which gives fandom the high, personal stakes that makes it susceptible to misguided moral panics, and some of the criticism of UNIVERSE does seem a little extreme. One faction is convinced the UNIVERSE app will allow people to impersonate members of The Boyz to frame them for crimes (it’s difficult to see how effective it would be to disguise yourself as one of the most famous people on the planet). Others are furious that because the AI idol will call you whatever you input as your name, you can have them call you obscene words implying awful sexual crimes, and that this is the same as the app being built to personally do awful sexual crimes on the real-life idols. These reactions seem disproportionate, but they also seem to stem from a sincere feeling that something is wrong with this whole idea—that these are real people whose bodies are being fragmented up and consumed, and that the consumption itself is only technically not for sexual reasons.

But once you get over this reaction of Gibsonian future-panic, a lot of this kind of imaginative play can be benign. Pretending stars are your friends has been a popular pastime dating back to the vials of gladiator sweat sold in Ancient Rome. I saw one Twitter user claim that getting “healing messages” from ATEEZ’s Mingi helps give her relief after she’s done sitting an exam. I can relate; in moments of doubt during my mid-teens, I would sometimes like to imagine the kind of gruff, Olympian advice I would get from Metal Gear protagonist Solid Snake. But Solid Snake is in a video game because he is a legendary war hero who infiltrates impregnable fortresses to stop nuclear armed walking tanks called Metal Gears. Mingi is in a video game because there is a real person called Mingi who raps for a band, and the game version of him is just a normal boy who sends you photos of his food, encourages you to sleep well, and wants to take care of you.

A screenshot of the UNIVERSE app website advertising AI voices of K-pop stars Image: NCSoft

I think this failure of imagination is why so much of K-pop fandom had a negative response to the app when it dropped. It’s not so much the presence of AI idols as fantasy friends. It’s that they’ve been cast in generic girlfriend and boyfriend roles, as if out of contempt for their audience. K-pop often uses music videos as a form of kayfabe fiction, allowing bands to embody a fantasy bigger than their own personhood. If you’ve ever been surprised by the strength of BTS ARMY’s loyalty, much of it comes from the band’s “BTS Universe” kayfabe, a saga constructed through the band’s music videos that covers patricide, torture, distrust of authority, over-the-top death scenes, and gorgeous men being emotionally close—the exact reasons Solid Snake captivated my own teen imagination.

The technology of splitting a voice from a person has a legitimate artistic potential. It’s not far from the themes of SM Entertainment’s new girl group aespa, where each member has a League of Legends-style avatar they’re linked with, a metaphor for the play of their social media buzz versus their actual selves. But, in the current incarnation of UNIVERSE, where the AI is deployed as a means of removing the idol’s own input into their fans—labour-saving machinery for the friendship factory—it only reinforces the distance between idol and fan. There’s a reason why most of the fans download UNIVERSE only to use videos of the stars performing songs, dancing, and doing silly things while being themselves.

I am scared of the possibility that music doesn’t really exist, and never did. I was born into the faith that it is real. My father was once in a punk band that got rejected by an experimental-grind label because their demo tape was “just noise.” He believes that all kinds of music are just parallel paths to reach the same Pythagorean sublime; a pure and ecstatic music that exists beyond body, identity and self. As tends to happen when kids get raised in their parents’ faith, I managed to absorb it as doctrine. I still carry out the rituals because they’re my culture. I’m admitting for the first time that I’m not sure if that sublime is real.

“Music Sounds Better With You” isn’t just a song title. Music sounds good because we rely on cues from other people to tell us how a person like us should respond to it. For example, insofar as it is possible to enjoy music, I enjoy K-pop. I enjoy the fact that, in the UK, you have to go purposefully seeking out K-pop to listen to it, which gives it an instant advantage by meaning that it isn’t your music (dogshit) but my music (the next stage in human evolution). I also like that the dubstep-style sounds that dominated pop in 2013 didn’t become instantly discredited in South Korea and have instead had room to grow into fascinating new shapes, which I also like because being into chart dubstep in 2021 shows that I have such a high level of cool that I’m able to play with reviving stuff from the awkward 10-year interval that could also out me as being disgracefully behind the times if I weren’t confident about it. I tend to prefer girl groups, because the idea of a girl group has a vibe of ironic ‘60s sleaze that makes me, as a feminist, seem nuanced and mysterious, while also hitting one of those masochistic girl-fantasies most women have, because we know enough to know what we’re told to want is stupid and bad for us and we’d hate it, but it doesn’t stop us from wanting it with our entire souls. Plus, all the BTS fans I’ve communicated with on Twitter have been interesting, creative people who are really nice to me. So I approve of K-pop now, and everyone else who does is my friend.

Do you see what I’m starting to mean? Like all the ways you can use something artificial to make part of your brain light up, the precise emotion music elicits is going to depend on the context—what you’re primed on going in, what you want people to think of you. Listen to music with people who are like you, and it will affirm you; listen to it while being reminded of the fact that the people who it is for are not like you, and it will feel like nothing. I was raised to brand myself as someone who is beyond the earthly bullshit of celebrity and the inane tribalism of fake subcultures. But if that’s the case, then why is it that the music I tend to like most is stuff that I think Dad would like? That my favorite way to listen to music is at a live gig, in Manchester, the cool city of post-punk and gentrified industrial gore that I live in and that I always wanted to live in, because I thought the kind of person I could tell I was becoming would live in Manchester and go to live gigs?

Suede Perform At Albert Hall In Manchester
Brett Anderson of Suede performs at Albert Hall on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/Redferns

And so I worry that it is all an affectation, that my preferences have been manufactured against my will, despite my best efforts. My Dad once feared this, too, even though in his youth, the only contact he had with the music geek underground was with mimeographed fanzines. For me, stewing in the lockdown Instant Pot with my only connection to people my age being a bunch of screens that make me feel bad, I have no way of experiencing music without an empty, algorithmic layer of parasocial shrieking. Videos of people playing gimmick Mario Kart covers bump up in my feed against a handcrafted album by my actual, real-life friend, against whatever pop star is getting dunked on for saying something awful, against entire promotional machines hijacking social media to force an insubstantial yahoo with terrible hair into mattering to me. And yet at the same time, locked away from loud speakers and big rooms, I have no way of truly sharing that experience with other people anymore.

But you know what I miss most? Music I used to hate hearing. Featureless chart pop played too loudly in a shop, some jerk’s staticky homemade beats vomiting out of a phone speaker on the bus—because that was a way of connecting with my culture, and with the lives of other people around me. Without that way of measuring myself, music has turned in my head from something that could maybe change something into just a bunch of meaningless vibrations in air. Music was only ever real because of what we agreed, as a social convention, that it represents about our society and the way we want others to view us—a bit like monarchy, or Bitcoin.

I was asked to talk about what I thought the future of music is, and here I am in the confession booth, telling you that there is no future because it wasn’t real in the first place. In its place will be a music industry pumping out only its raw product—a series of complex parasocial brandings that serve as a means to make us feel like we have personalities. Maybe, when we all get back to the world of people’s breaths and farts and unwanted eye contact, we’ll be able to confuse the limbs and sweat and interpersonal judgement with the beats being good. But the lockdown has forced us to rely on the parts of music that can be experienced at our screen, an algorithmic storm of personal identity markers that no longer requires anything as inefficient as sound. And since it’s much cheaper to post than it is to learn how to sing, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to go back from here.

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