K-pop: The darker side of the entertainment business

K-pop fansFile photo

It’s no surprise that in recent years, Korean pop widely known as K-pop has made its place to international industry and has been thriving ever since. Right now, K-Pop is a multibillion dollar industry where popular bands like BTS and Black Pink are ruling the billboard and Korean industry and selling out the stadiums in UK and US within minutes. The sudden global recognition of K-pop has turned attention towards their Korean entertainment industry mostly because of the perfection managed in K-pop. Later many raised questions about the business of perfection of K-pop industry.

K-pop started to extend beyond Korean fan base around 2008, being available on international streaming platforms and eventually gaining popularity in Japan and China. But in 2012, K-pop reached beyond the Asian fan base and was introduced globally after South Korean singer and rapper, PSY released ‘Gangnam Style,’ which soon became a worldwide hit, making him one of the most recognizable artists in the world. Around 2016 – 2018, BTS and Black Pink also started gaining global attention as well. Today, other K-pop groups such as Seventeen, Twice, Stray Kids, TXT, Enhypen, New Jeans and many more have elevated K-pop’s global success.

To the fans, the perfection maintained in K-pop is what made it stand out from pop culture in general. Their bright and unique concept, perfect visuals, strong and synchronized choreography, catchy beats and cultural representation of Korea had made a name for itself. But the more people were introduced to the K-pop, the more disturbing the perfection business seemed.

South Korea is widely known for their successful cultural exports like music, films, fashion, beauty products, surgery, food etc. Since South Korea is a conservative country regarding its culture and tradition, it emphasizes on several standards that the artists in the Korean industry need to follow to meet with their promising success. That is the reason why South Korea’s entertainment agencies weightage more on their music industry than other fields. First, the Korean music artistes, referred to as ‘idols’, are held in high regard there. And second, it is really easy for the agencies to impose those standards on these ‘idols’.

K-pop often emphasizes on unattainable beauty standards like a slim figure, small face, V shaped jawline, pale skin, double eyelids, bigger eyes and flawless skin. That’s why the ‘idols’ are deemed highly influential among the fans, mostly because how ‘ethereal’ their visuals are on the screen. These ‘idols’ have to meet up with the beauty standards first to get the recognition from the Korean consumers but as mentioned, most of these are unattainable. That brings up the first major problem with K-pop, the problem of fitting into a specific weight demographic.

K-pop takes slim figure as a standard for the artistes really seriously. The trainees and the artists need to go through strict diet, long hour training and heavy exercises in order to maintain the preferred body weight. Euodias, one of the few British hopefuls to have experienced the gruelling life of a K-pop trainee, interviewed by BBC stated, “Weight was the constant obsession of everyone there. Everyone was required to be no heavier than 47kg (7st 6lb or 104lb) regardless of their age or height. At weekly weigh-ins, your body would be analysed by the trainer, and then they announced your weight to everyone in the room. If you were over the designated weight, then they would ration your food. Sometimes they would even take away entire meals and those “overweight” trainees would just be given water.”

Another big problem K-pop deals with is the heavy plastic surgery culture practiced in South Korea. South Korea heavily accentuate on the structure of the face. And that’s why people in South Korea, mostly the young ones, are more obsessed with heavy facial plastic surgery than any other culture. The trend has been heavily influenced by the ‘idols’ to achieve these special beauty features like them.

According to Dr. Bradford Patt of the Houston Centre for Facial Plastic Surgery, the K-pop look is characterized by three main procedures.

The double eyelid surgery procedure was first developed and performed in the 1950s by an American physician in Korea to give Asians more Western looking eyes. The surgery has been popular ever since. Rhinoplasty, a nose job, to make a wide or flat nose appear higher and narrower is another popular surgery done by most of the Korean artists. Another one is the V-line surgery, the procedure reshapes the jawline to create a smaller, narrower face shape, and it requires excising or shaving bone from the lower jaw. These procedures are highly criticized as an act of reshaping Asian features to meet with Western beauty standards, directing at ‘self-directed racism’.

Another aspect that concerned the K-pop consumers was minor debut of the K-pop ‘idols’. Debuting underage has been a common phenomenon in the Korean industry. The idea of having a 13 or 14-year-old in K-Pop groups is getting normalized at an accelerated rate very recently. Previously, people would at least talk about such young debuts, but now, it hardly receives any attention. Usually, debuting early for the artists bring up early popularity and most importantly, they get plenty of time to build their career.  But minor debuting often costs the artiste their childhood and normal encounters that an underage individual should be experiencing. They also miss out on their education, limiting their career options. And this is a huge business for K-pop industry. Minor debut usually gives way to younger audiences. It is easier for the industry to instill superficial standards on young naive fans.

K-pop artists are heavily sexualised by the fans.  That’s why minor debuting in K-pop is more alarming because of the exposure of young audiences to concepts that are not age appropriate, making it an easy way to sexualize the K-pop artists.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of K-pop industry is the ‘Aegyo’ culture. Korean entertainment is mostly cuteness–oriented. There’s a skill viewed highly in Korean culture, mostly known as Aegyo, refers to “a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute voice, changes to speech, facial expressions, or gestures”. Aegyo is pretty similar to ‘Kawai’ in Japan and ‘Sa Jiao’ in China. K-pop idols are frequently asked to do the Aegyo by the fans and this is often viewed as an important skill. But the excruciating part that creates pressure on the idols is the thought of Aegyo being an innate skill. The preconceived notion of Aegyo given by the nature furthers the idea that Korean people are naturally cuter. This makes the artistes who often avoid Aegyo, seem rude among the fans. So, the K-pop agencies are really strict with their artistes even when it comes to the skill of ‘acting cute’.

Korean music usually holds bright and colourful concepts, no matter how deep or dark the concept is. But behind all these colours hides the neglected mental health of the K-pop artiste, that are not only overlooked by the agencies but audiences as well. The tight training hours, the strict diet and the continuous competition for perfection before and after debut, keeping up with the standards are major reasons behind this. There was a high-profile suicide in 2017: Jonghyun, lead singer of one of the biggest groups, SHINee, took his own life at the age of 27, and a note believed to have been sent by him to a friend spoke of his struggles with depression and fame. Another well-known star T.O.P. overdosed on anxiety medications. Known for speaking out about her feminist ideals, another K-pop artist, Sulli often received backlash from her contemporaries in conservative South Korea, resulting in Sulli committing suicide in 2019, at the age of 25.

BTS poses at the carpet during arrivals ahead of iHeartRadio Jingle Ball concert at The Forum, in Inglewood, California, US, 3 December 2021.
Reuters file photo

K-pop has also been accused of capitalising on the consumers' mental health. There is a strict rule for the idols regarding their dating life. Idols are not allowed to date before the contract with the agency expires. This is a strategy to not only avoid unnecessary scandals, but reassuring the audiences that their favourite artiste belong to them, which leads to the extreme obsession of the fans with idols, where they believe they have the access in their idol’s personal life. That’s also why sexualising the artists is highly visible in K-pop culture. There are multiple encounters where Korean fan base often invade the privacy of the K-pop artistes. In 2020, Chen, member of popular South Korean band EXO faced backlashes from the fandom after the announcement of his wedding and his children, as the fandom claimed it “jeopardized the relationship between the singer and the fans”.

The extreme behaviour of the K-pop fanatics and death of these idols after reaching the peak of their career speak volumes about the dark concealed side of K-pop.

To aggrandize the impact and profit more, K-pop agencies have been trying to tap into American market for a long time. They were successful in 2012, after the release of Gangnam Style by PSY and their efforts have really ramped up in the past few years after BTS and Black Pink shot to fame. Other strategies the agencies use to grab the western attention is, producing more English songs and recruiting English speaking members in K-pop groups. K-pop is now more interested in debuting more Korean-Australian and Korean-American artistes for drawing the attention of western consumers.

In 2018, BTS was rewarded ‘Order of Cultural Merit’ in South Korea. The Order of Cultural Merit is awarded by the president of South Korea for “outstanding meritorious services in the fields of culture and art in the interest of promoting the national culture and national development.” It clearly reinforces the idea of K-pop being a reliable representation of the country. Yet the K-pop artists are treated as commodities where they are trained to perfection, have restrictions on dating, being held to beauty standards to influence the fans. They are needed to be polished so that they can be consumable by the fans. Clearly, to South Korea’s entertainment agencies, K-pop is a marketing strategy where South Korea inculcates their standards in cultural exports by the Korean artistes. It’s also a strategy of drawing the attention of the foreigner consumers as well.

Many people try to define K-pop as an entertainment source which is enjoyable only when it is consumed wisely. Over the years, the way K-pop has conquered the international industry by their smart marketing and advertising strategy, denotes the extreme practice of these problematic standards. At first, K-pop was an expression of Korean culture. But now, it has become a business of standards than an entertainment sector for the country, where every artiste and audience involved in it, are merely trading products. All said and done, South Korea has been extremely profited by this export of culture and the government has been more than happy to capitalise on this success.

* Ayesha Humayra Waresa is a student of Dhaka University