The Hidden Culture of Korean Pop Music
By Allison Chen
December 18, 2017—the police find K-pop artist Jonghyun—the main vocalist of a successful Korean boy band—unconscious in a private hotel. He passes away in the hospital. In his suicide letter, Jonghyun writes, “I am broken from inside.”
Thin, beautiful adolescent girls twirl on stage. The crowd roars, waving painstakingly made fan signs in the dark stadium. The lyrics are in Korean, with the occasional English phrase chanted in the chorus. It’s usually an amalgamation of company-manufactured songs, strong fan bases and passionate “fan wars,” heavily funded music videos, and intense idolization of its performers.
This is K-pop: a music genre that has quickly garnered international attention, as seen with the Korean pop group, BTS’s, debut at the American Music Awards and Times Square during New Years.
K-pop fans are everywhere. From the United States to Israel, Korean pop music appeals to a wide range of tastes, unbounded by language or culture. Nowadays, a quick peek at the YouTube comments underneath K-pop music videos reveal millions of commenters, from around the globe, proclaiming themselves “ReVels,” “Blinks,” “Armies,” and the like, to declare an allegiance to particular Korean-pop groups. Unlike many American bands, these pop groups are generated by Korean entertainment companies who train idol-aspirants for years before selecting a lucky few to debut as groups.
However, underneath the perfectly-orchestrated glamour lies a darker reality.
“If you look at the schedules of the first generation of K-pop stars,” begins Richard Park (JE ’21), an international South Korean student, “they would come back home for sleep at 2 am and go to filming at 4 am. They would do this every single day without a break.”
The contracts that Korean pop stars adhere to are colloquially called slave contracts— for their highly extensive, restrictive legal agreements that trainees sign upon entering an entertainment agency. Top agencies typically recruit young teenagers—sometimes children as young as eleven years old—requesting them to sign contracts that may ultimately bind them to an agency for more than a decade. In fact, in a Variety article, Sonia Kil writes that the penalties for “teenagers who breached their contracts or decided to leave the business, were found to have been excessive – ranging from $86,200 to $129,000,” demonstrating not only the harsh conditions within the industry, but also the inability for its performers to leave such an industry.
Jonghyun is not the first Korean celebrity suicide to make international news. Since K-pop first became an Asia-wide phenomenon, a wake of artist suicides have occurred. In 1996, Seo Ji-won, one of the first K-pop celebrities to commit suicide, expressed extreme doubts in his possibilities of sustained success in his suicide note at the age of 19. U;Nee, a female artist who hung herself in 2007, had confided in close friends about her depression due to harsh online criticism about her image. A myriad of artists who have ended their own lives have similarly noted extreme depression and disillusionment within the Korean pop industry.
However, Jonghyun’s suicide incurred the fury and sorrow of not only his fans, but many other Korean celebrities including IU, the highly successful songwriter-singer-actress who was dubbed Korea’s “Nation’s Little Sister,” Taeyeon, the leader of SNSD—one of Korea’s most successful pop groups in history, and many others. The national and international outpour of grief over Jonghyun’s death manifested itself in Korean singers breaking down on stage in tears, delivering tributes to him at major award ceremonies, and even one particular artist shouting Jonghyun’s name in the middle of a national concert. His death forced fans, celebrities, and officials to examine the brutal pressure of Korea’s entertainment industry.
This alarming trend may stem from Korea’s culture of hard work, reputation, and image. According to Park, the work hard culture is deeply ingrained within the Korean corporate atmosphere. “We not only give 100% but 120%, and that’s kind of a life and death matter,” says Park, “that also shows in the way that industries train and work these idols—not only in the entertainment industry but in every industry.”
It is not uncommon for idols to faint on stage due to a combination of malnourishment and sleep deprivation. After all, idols constantly work toward a sustainable reputation and glitzy fame. With the work culture of Korea, this trend of breaking healthy work limits for idols represents another layer of the dangers of the K-pop industry.
Additionally, with highly specific beauty standards, idols face even more pressure to undergo extreme dieting and, possibly, plastic surgery. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea’s rate of plastic surgery procedures is the highest per capita. A writer for the Huffington Post, Eudie Pak explains how it is not uncommon for even South Korean-American youths to travel to South Korea for their “transformation.” Much of these beauty standards are both supported by the flawless, constructed appearances of its Kpop idols, who are also sometimes forced to undergo plastic surgery by their companies. In fact, as Public Radio International puts it, “opting out of surgery is tantamount to opting out of the industry.”
With these rigorous pressures, limits, and obligations, Korean pop culture is gritty—not at all the sugary-sweet music scene that appeals to Asian and foreign fans alike. The criticism and mourning finally highlights the quiet danger of the industry. The trending twitter tag for remembering Jonghyun’s mental health battle, #MyMentalHealthIn5Words, the farewell speech by IU, and the outpour of international conversation demonstrates a rising awareness to what the industry entails.
A national tragedy, Jonghyun’s death asks all those complicit—fans, stars, agencies, government officials—to critically examine K-pop’s dangerous trend of trading the mental health of its artists for commercial success.
Allison Chen ‘21 is a prospective Economics and Global Affairs major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.