What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear K Pop? We just heard a loud roar of ‘BTS’ pan back and forth from ear to ear! K-Pop, like what it’s name would imply, is of course a genre of pop or popular music from the South Korean region. K-Pop is a genre that fuses varied musical styles and genres like pop, hip hop, dance, electronica, dubstep, even boldly sometimes – jazz. The end result is a sweet amalgamation leading to this pop music form, seasoned with Korean music at its roots.
What do you know about K-Pop? Sure you can throw familiar names like BTS, BLACKPINK and EXO from the top of your head, but do you know what makes K-Pop stars, for real? There’s a whole industry invested in the making of such stars, and if you aren’t very familiar, you may find this read pretty interesting. Let’s first talk about K-Pop’s global rise, and dive deeper into the shocking stories behind the successful genre showing the reality and struggle of a K-Pop artist.
K-Pop’s inclusion and domination in Western Culture
The Korean Wave or Hallyu, as they call it in South Korea, is expeditiously overpowering pop culture on a global scale. Millions of fans from across the world have vested interest in their preferred Idol group, and spend their time, energy, and money to promulgate their favorites.
This has vehemently changed and diversified the global music scene that is otherwise dominated by Western artists. Blackpink and BTS, the K-pop international front-runners, are now bagging awards beyond the ‘K-pop/International’ allocated categories. BTS’s recent MTV Video Music Award (VMA) wins as Best Pop and Best Group was lauded as a historic victory. These K-pop front-runners are also grabbing top spots in notable Billboard charts. BTS dominated the top two spots in the Hot 100 charts, making them the first K-pop group to score the No.1. BLACKPINK debuted at No. 2 with their latest album on the US Billboard album charts.
Acclaimed K-pop bands are debuting themselves on American television talk shows, thereby including the genre into mainstream pop. Apart from BTS and Blackpink, renowned bands such as SuperM, Monsta X and NCT 127, and rookie bands like Itzy and Stray Kids have performed on “Ellen,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, “The Kelly Clarkson Show”, “Today” and more!
Bands are going as far as producing all-English version songs to attract a much wider listener base. Apart from Korean songs, most artists produce Japanese version or even Chinese versions of their hits. Now as major leading artists have teamed up with American record Labels (SuperM with Capitol, Monsta X with Epic Records, Ateez with RCA Records, so on.), English tracks have become yet another variant.
For some, BTS’s ‘Dynamite’ might classify as the first K-pop all English track, partially due to the booming recognition of the song. Nonetheless, all-English tracks have been making the rounds in k-pop since time immemorial.
What really happens…
This industry is unlike any you’ve seen before, not for the music, but for how you actually become a K-pop star. While there is a lot of stardom and increasing fandom across the globe when it comes to K-Pop, it’s not all fun and colors. K-Pop artists actually go through a training of between 2-4 years (sometimes more) to debut. In this mini-universe, ambitious Korean boys and girls go through an entire transformation to become what we can call a K-pop idol, someone who sings, dances, even models and acts. There are training centers, sometimes even coaches, who train you in every aspect, almost make a product out of you. You’d also be surprised to know how thousands of aspiring kids yearn to be a part of this program every year, flocking to audition centers so they can be given a chance to train and become stars.
Euodias, a British singer of Korean origin, told BBC earlier this year how she was selected for a girl group and quit after. She mentioned more grueling details like dating being banned, curfews on the building, permission not being granted outside the premises unless it was for regular school, segregation of sexes, always behaving straight even if you weren’t, etc.
But that’s not it. Since this training begins when kids are in school, they have hours of K-pop training classes after they are done, sometimes before school, depending on the training center they’ve enrolled to. They receive homework from there too, along with their regular school work. Trainees have to keep performing their best every time to show the training center that they’re progressing, out of fear of getting kicked out or transferred to another center, which is not highly uncommon here. Besides not having a say, they have to keep smaller things in check like their body weight, as some companies even check this daily.
Many trainees, after years of hard work, don’t get to make their debut with the rest of the batch. According to Rampages.us, Jo Kwon, part of South Korean boy band 2AM, was allowed to debut with the group, as opposed to Kyuhyun, a member of Super Junior, who had to train for just 3 months before his debut. But some spend YEARS in the hope of someday making a debut, paying their way into schools, and giving up everything to follow this dream. The contracts issued are a whole new issue, with artists making little for the years of effort. Contracts with agencies last for 13 to even 20 years at times, with artists having no say or control of this.
The Impact on Mental Health
The amount of mental stress that weighs in because of these factors is unaccounted for. Like Euodias explained even further, your weight was announced to the whole class, overweight children were starved, fainting was common due to fatigue and lack of proper nutrition. There might be even more factors we are completely unaware of, besides working like a product in a factory, being labelled with a number, kept away from your parents, getting trainees to do plastic surgery, bullying because of reaching the maximum expected weight at the training center, and much more. And yet, thousands of Korean children, year after year, join these training programmes and sacrifice everything, with no actual guarantee of becoming something.
The suicides of two K-Pop stars – Sulli from f(x) and Goo Hara – who were at the peak of their careers, shed light on the focus that mental health needs. According to The Guardian, both girls were being constantly threatened by online bullies. Goo was caught up in a case with an ex-boyfriend who threatened her with revenge porn, while Sulli’s feminist ideologies were attracted a lot of hate from misogynists, toughening her battle with depression. They are not the only ones to go through this. The Guardian also further wrote about these incidents posing ‘uncomfortable questions about the toxic mix of misogyny and taboos over mental illness that experts say is ruining lives beyond the highly pressured confines of the music industry.’
For a few who managed to break through the shackles and the direct influence of this Korean industry, members of boy band BTS stood up, being vocal about their struggles and mental health. They are ambassadors for UNICEF #ENDViolence through their love campaign, trying to nip the problem in the bud by spreading awareness on bullying in school and how it needs to stop.
While the world of media, entertainment and any industry in general can often have its dark side, we can also see the paradox in the level of success versus the amount of struggle kids have to go through. The repercussions of any sense of failure can be so shattering, it would take very strong-headed, dedicated and affirmative people to turn their dreams into reality. Our love and respect to the K-Pop icons out there.
Change is constant and while we can’t expect an entire industry to change overnight, we can support and stand by the changes we see rippling through the vast sea of talent.
Article contributions from TFWord writers Pratika Prabhune, Lavanya Thankappan and Anmol Hejmadi.