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K-pop: The Dark Side

Today, the K-pop world is celebrating SUGA’s birthday. He’s BTS’s lead rapper and a record-breaking solo artist of his own right. But back in 2012, he was struggling. With no support from his family, he’d been forced to take up a delivery job to make ends meet. During a round he had an accident which dislocated his shoulder. His first thought? “Don’t tell the company.” They could fire him if he was unfit to perform.

SUGA debuted, his group beginning as an underdog and then shooting to fame as BTS. For seven whole years, he performed in inexplicable pain with the torn shoulder. It was only during the pandemic in 2019 that he took a hiatus – with many apologies to fans – to undergo surgery.  

On a Livestream with her fans, TWICE’s Momo recounted when she lost 7 kilograms in a week at the behest of her label, JYP Entertainment. She survived on one ice cube a day and cried herself to sleep, fearing she might not wake up the next day. Like Momo, K-pop trainees are required to weigh themselves daily and their weights displayed for all to see. 

“The depression that has slowly been gnawing away at me has finally overtook me,” Kim Jong-hyun penned in his suicide note. “Becoming famous was probably not my life. It’s funny I was able to endure this much.” 

It was 2017. At age 27, Jonghyun was the main vocalist of the wildly successful K-pop band SHINee. He had performed at a concert just a week ago with a smile on his face. He suffocated himself with Carbon Monoxide.

But why were these three world-famous idols driven to such lengths? 

The K-wave, or ‘Hallyu’, has captured Muslim countries in a way Hollywood couldn’t. Perhaps it was because for once, we saw someone other than ‘westerners’ dominating the entertainment scene. Suddenly we felt like we had a stake in it – like this was a lesser evil. 

Bands form unique relationships from living together since their trainee days. BTS had to share one room before debut, and BLACKPINK lived in a roach-infested flat. But that also makes it less like watching a team of professionals and more like a group of old friends. Stories like Jimin and V’s dumpling incident become fables in the fandom, reinforcing that special feeling of connection with our favorite idols.

But behind this appealing mask is the strict driving force of Korea’s culture and economy – the same thing that drives stars into debt, depression and suicide. 

K-pop is a product, furnished to the limit. Trainees start from as young as 9, spending 10 to 12-hour days taking classes in not only vocal and dance, but in personality, modeling and even acting funny on camera. For looks, there is no taboo associated with going under the knife. “If a girl has a bad face and a good body, the problem can be fixed through plastic surgery,” Kim Min-Seok, head of a k-pop training center, dead-pans. And unless they’re from the small fraction signed to a ‘Big 4’ label, trainees have to pay for every class or cosmetic procedure. Couple that with many dropping out of school to focus on training and then not being selected in the 10% that debuts. That’s why ex-kpop trainees often end their two-to-nine year contracts without any practical skills or educational degree, cripplingly indebted. 

Even the lucky 10% who do make it don’t have it much easier: they continue packed schedules with little time to meet family, sleep or eat.  Whether it was BTS’s V or ENHYPEN’s Jake, both were unable to visit their families after their grandmother’s death. Idols have fainted on-stage and even more often backstage. Car crashes are also common as managers speed to get idols to their schedules.

Idols are also an open target for netizens’ or anti-fans’ comments about their body, looks, opinions or skills. Korea’s strict beauty standards make it no easier. Fat-shaming is one of the main reasons why idols starve and develop severe eating disorders or body dysmorphia. Non-korean idols also face steady racism, like Aespa’s Ningning or BlackPink’s Lisa.

Sexualization is a driving force in K-pop. Scandals have occurred where company heads exploited minor female trainees. Female idols are undeniably styled to dress less and more sexually, but boys are not far behind. BTS’s debut song ‘No more dream’ had them dragging their shirts up to flex their bodies while three of its members were still minors. Years later, the girl group NewJeans, debuting from their label at ages 18 to 14, have ended up developing a pedophilic audience.

A huge part of fan culture is romantic ‘shipping’. Whether it’s TaeKook of BTS or JenLisa of BP, the majority of these ships are of same-sex bandmates. Scratching the surface reveals explicit fanfiction and erotic fanart. LGBTQ is normalised to the extent that even casual fans loosely throw around LGBTQ terms, laughing about ‘gay’ or ‘jealous’ behaviours.

To all the K-stans reading this, we understand your feelings – but shouldn’t we be brave enough to face the truth?

It’s a fact that music doesn’t make money anymore. All those fancy cars and clothes you see in MV’s? Even your idol’s airport look? They’re all rentals. Idols only start earning real money when they’re famous enough to get brand deals – and their fans get fanatic enough to buy any item with their face on it. An MV is merely an ad, convincing companies to use these idols for their next product placement.

Yes, we purchase the merch out of sheer love for the idols – but at best, they get 50% (split amongst the members) and at worst, 5%. Either way, every penny is fuelling the industry. More kids will dream of becoming idols and fall into pseudo child labour. More pressure will be heaped on our idols to portray the perfect image, starving themselves, dancing till they drop and fixing a fake smile for the camera. 

What if we don’t spend money? All our likes, comments and views are the same sort of pressure. Alright, we’ll unfollow! But can’t we just be inspired by their good vibes?

Well, is it healthy to be inspired by kids who’ve spent most of their lives under strict curfew, in the eye of crushing public pressure, who’re objectified for their work? Are we enjoying entertainment, or enslavement?  

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