K Pop Has Captured the West: But is it All Good?
A more popular Google search than One Direction, groups like BTS are taking over the world. But the industry itself is more than meets the eye.
In 1992, South Korea was hit with something they would never forget, not just personally, but also economically, which would go on to be a global phenomenon loved by millions. For most, it was just another televised talent show, but the losers, who actually received the lowest score, went viral throughout Korea. Seo Taiji & Boys with a rap song called Nan Arayo (I Know) – a song which created the ‘Korean ballad’, infusing rap, rock and techno. Later known as K Pop, this is a trend that still happens today.
Now over twenty years later, K Pop is bigger than ever. Despite the language barrier and everything that has stood in the way of Korean pop becoming famous, it’s completely taken over the Western world as we know it, from number ones in the US, breaking the US box office to time magazine calling it ‘South Korea’s greatest export.’
Korea isn’t just taking over through its music, The ‘Hallyu wave’ is a phrase used to describe the world domination of Korea’s culture. It’s becoming a major driver in pop culture through skincare routines, food, YouTube videos and K-dramas (Korean drama shows), but K Pop is something that stands out among all these things.
But this billion-dollar industry has a dark side. Most notably, in March 2018 world-famous SHINee lead singer Kim Jong-Hyun committed suicide. This put attention and pressure onto the K Pop world as people and fans became more aware of the dark side to the industry. In his suicide note posted by a friend just days after his death, Jong-Hyun said, “it wasn’t my path to become world famous” and “it’s a miracle that I endured through it all this time.” It was a tragic loss for the K Pop community, but it opened people’s eyes to another side of what is mostly known as a happy and fun industry, to something else entirely, which includes a history of racism, reports of young singers being coerced into prostitution, sexual harassment cases including Open World Entertainment CEO Jang Seok-Woo, starvation and more.
@IOILYSM, aka Sarah from Austria, has a fan account on Instagram for K Pop which has over 64,000 followers. She says “Idols do not receive the treatment they deserve, and the management is not really open-minded. The industry is definitely flawed.”
But becoming a K Pop star doesn’t happen overnight- music studios begin auditioning children as early as 10 years old. Most academies the children attend run after school hours and can last 12 hours a day for up to 10 years, until the lucky ones get placed in a group or as a solo idol, before making their ‘debut.’ The academies involve learning to sing, dance, how to handle life as a K Pop idol and more about the industry itself.
As music studios choose who makes it to become an idol, it puts them in direct control of the whole K Pop industry, which can often be exploitative. It is hard, nearly impossible to ‘make it’ on your own, and the three main music companies can control this. SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment make up three of the biggest record labels in South Korea, and whereas in the Western world bands can have a certain amount of control over their music and over their lives, in South Korea, they are more just faces for the music companies. When you listen and support the band, you’re not just supporting them, but the traditions and ideals that the company present to you.
K Pop groups are often marketed through a personality made by the company they’re signed to. Each group is often marketed with a series of characteristics, along with roles. Girl groups are traditionally feminine, and either empowered or a schoolgirl type, often singing about men, crushes and more recently, girl power. The male image focuses more on dancing and hip-hop, singing about a broader range of topics including teen pressures, and has been popularised by BTS, arguably the most popular K Pop group, who now beat One Direction through Google searches.
But both genders are often marketed with a balance of approachable, pristine and charming characteristics, alongside an alluring quality. This can be very subtle in some groups, and very obvious in others. The leader of the group is either the eldest or most experienced and this person will speak for the groups in interviews and videos. Groups also have a ‘visual’, who is the most traditionally handsome of the group and a ‘face’, who is the most well-known/popular at the time, which can sometimes change throughout the groups’ fame.
For a lot of idols, this can become too much. There have been numerous occasions and reports of idols fainting on stage from exhaustion, starvation, bulimia and other health issues that can come from the job. Recently, a video surfaced of a dancer, performing for girl group SeeYa, having a seizure on stage (see below) and no one coming to help until about 30 seconds later.
Some K Pop fans were 'calling out' the girl group, as people commented on how no one tried to help her, but some fans were quick to blame the airtight management and business. Many stars have tried to quit the industry because it becomes too much, but K Pop contracts can be hard to get out of due to the money companies put into the groups, due to the ‘Michael Jackson-esque’ budget which is used for production, rehearsals, training and tours.
Emilia, known to her 157,000 followers as @namjoonoh (a BTS fan account) said “I can’t say I don’t like (the industry) because it brings me a lot of joy. The market is very saturated and can be very toxic, but it depends on the company.”
But some contracts can be easier to get out of. In August 2018, solo idol Hyuna and Pentagon’s E’Dawn’s contracts were both terminated from South Korea’s Cube Entertainment after they confirmed they were dating.
After confirming that they had been dating for two years prior, despite Cube’s claims otherwise, they were quickly ousted from the company’s roster. Cube claimed the “trust is broken and cannot be saved so we are kicking the two out of the company,” in a statement to the Korea Herald. Although Hyuna was one of the biggest female solo idols, there have not yet been any further developments in her career, proving yet again that the entertainment business has complete control over this controversial world.