by Ashley Duong
Since our generation’s novelty song, “Gangnam Style,” dropped, K-pop has very quickly ascended into the ranks of American pop culture. Flocks of both fangirls and fanboys now unabashedly jam out to Korean idols singing and dancing to ornately-choreographed music. The surge in popularity has lead to American tours by various groups and the advent of KCON, an annual convention held in LA and NYC focused on K-pop and all it has to offer.
To those unfamiliar with the K-pop craze, having a convention for a genre of music may seem extreme. But K-pop is not just music; it is an experience. Idols are not only required to be talented but also project an image of themselves that will satisfy their fans’ fantasies; they become literal idols, put on pedestals and lauded and loved by millions of teenage boys and girls around the globe. It becomes a sort of collective hysteria amongst fans, prompted by the fact that the industry is based entirely on meeting fans’ expectations.
From personality to attitude, when fans bring up anything that seems amiss, idol groups are quick to apologize in an attempt to assuage any bad sentiments that have come up. Bad publicity of any sort can derail a group’s career trajectory, leading to overzealous apologies from members and their management companies in response to even mild backlash. Groups are put on strict schedules organized by their management companies, overloaded with music video filmings and fanmeets to satisfy the ever-growing demand for public appearances. Often, every song, every display of aegyo (exaggerated flirtation that mimics the actions of a baby), every answer to an interview question is part of a carefully-crafted image meant to target a specific audience.
The concert experience takes this concept to a new level; when fans buy tickets, they’re paying to feel special; for an “only girl/boy in the world” sort of experience. Idols are painted as friends, closer than other out-of-reach celebrities. As a result, fans eat up whatever is given to them: waiting until late hours of the night to catch a music video right when it’s released, buying multiple copies of albums, scrupulously watching fancams when unable to attend fanmeets or concerts themselves and screaming their lungs out at concerts when they can, proof that the polished veneer of K-pop is as addictive as it is fun to indulge in.
It’s a supposedly symbiotic relationship: fans shell out ridiculous amounts of money in support of their favorite group while K-pop idols continue to play the role of fantasy boyfriend/girlfriend for their fans to keep them coming.
But the reality is that this relationship feeds into an industry that is often abusive to its artists and fundamentally broken in many ways. Idols are, in some sense, the property of the company that they work for. Sometimes dubbed “slave contracts,” idols are forced to do as they’re told and are often overworked to the point of exhaustion as part of their agreement with their company. It is not uncommon for group members to perform even when they’re sick; hospital visits due to having collapsed from fatigue and skipped meals and sleepless nights are very much the norm. Meeting societal beauty standards often means strict diets and workout routines, as well as cosmetic surgery, all promoted and encouraged by the companies themselves. Dating bans prohibit idols from developing romantic relationships, or at the very least force them to keep those relationships hidden from the public, to help preserve the idealized image for fans, an illusion of purity and one that helps keep the fantasy of a fan and idol relationship alive.
Stories of idols suing their management companies have become less and less shocking as the realities of what it takes to be an idol continue to surface. Yet the industry does not fail to prosper: the three largest management companies in Korea (JYP, SM and YG) collectively tallied up $39 million dollars in net profit in 2015. Despite blatant evidence that artists are often being mistreated, fans continue to ask for more.
Part of the issue lies in the very core aspect of K-pop. Idols are fantasies, not real, fallible human beings to fans. The entire point of the industry is to promote that image to keep fans entertained and craving more. Extreme fans believe they own their idols, throwing fits when their favorite group members start dating or, in the worst cases, stalking their favorite groups, breaking into homes or recording members’ private moments.
Still, that’s not to say all of K-pop is horrible and unredeemable, or that all fans are crazy sociopaths. K-pop is still a form of art, unifying people from different countries and walks of life through music. The dance choreography that often accompanies the music is complex and expressive, bringing additional meaning to the songs.
But even in its best moments, it’s worth the time to ask ourselves: What are we really engaging in and contributing to when we indulge in K-pop? And how can we support our favorite artists without feeding into a system that, at its worst, is inhuman and destructive?