PROBLEMS WITH K-POP: RULES, SLAVES CONTRACTS, CYBERBULLYING AND LITTLE FOOD AND MONEY

PROBLEMS WITH K-POP

K-pop has been criticised for its production-line mentality, churning out similar-sounding, similar looking, similar-moving groups. Although they are adored by their fans, the lives of the K-Pop stars often leaves much to be desired.

David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: “Once recruited, future idols sign agreements known as “slave contracts,” which can last over a decade, limiting their contact with the outside world and offering piddling compensation in return. Trainees live in dormitories where they’re taught to sing and dance, told what to eat, when to date (single performers are more attractive to fans) and how to behave. These last two details are crucial, because in a highly Confucian society like Korea, when chat forums start to ring with rumors that a female pop star is dating or that she has acted impertinently, that’s the knell of her career. [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

Charlene Chua and Jeanmarie Tan wrote in the New Paper: “ Korean minders are also notoriously draconian, controlling their famous charges like mastermind puppeteers. Ask any reporter or concert organiser who has ever had to deal with this breed and they'll have more than a few horror stories to spill. At press conferences and interviews involving Korean stars, "no photos, no videos, no personal questions" is a common refrain. All that's missing from this picture is a ball and chain.” [Source: Source:Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan, The New Paper via AsiaOne, June 13, 2011]

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “ “The studios are also a breeding ground for predatory behavior and harassment from studio executives. In recent years, increasing public attention to these problems has given rise to change; in 2017, multiple studios agreed to significant contract reform. Still, as the recent suicide of Shinee artist Kim Jong-hyun revealed, the pressures of studio culture are rarely made public and can take a serious toll on those who grow up within the system.” [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

Complaints About K-Pop Entertainment

Andrew Salmon wrote in Forbes: “The manufactured quality of S.M.-style K-pop irks some. "The artistic side is what is lacking right now," says Hahn Dae-Soo, a legendary folk and rock singer sometimes called Korea's John Lennon. Joo, who left S.M. after his five-year contract expired, agrees. "Musically, we wanted to be seen as artists. We did not want to be teenyboppers doing bubblegum pop." [Source: Andrew Salmon, Forbes, July 31, 2013]

“There are other complaints. "Like the chaebols, S.M. is very secretive at the top; they don't talk much," says Tudor. "Their business practices in the past have been questionable — contracts for young people who perhaps don't know what they are getting into." Indeed, S.M. has been hit by a number of lawsuits and defections from artists over the years.

“Of the big three labels, S.M. is considered the most formulaic, and it's unclear whether it will — or can — diversify into rock, rap and electronica. But it retains massive strengths. "The Korean market is hungry for non-K-pop forms of music," says Russell. "S.M. has a very clear niche, and if they want to go beyond that, it's tricky, but I think they'll do very well with what they have."

“While the 65-year-old Hahn may be critical of S.M.'s music, he acknowledges the company's contributions. "I wish I'd had Lee Soo-Man when I was in my 20s and 30s!" he says. He credits Lee with making music pay. "Before Lee it was, Music is my life, I don't care if I'm rich or poor.' Now you can love music and be a millionaire!"

Complex and Sometimes Toxic Aspects of K-Pop Culture

AJ Willingham of CNN wrote: “While BTS' success has relied heavily on their messages of non-conformity and self esteem, their fame still exists within what some consider a problematic industry that purposefully limits the privacy and individuality of its stars. (After all, K-pop idols are usually not even allowed to date, lest they ruin the fantasy of attainability for their fans.) It's also a widely held observation that K-pop's heavy reliance on perfection and precision reflect stringent expectations and social norms that are commonplace in Korean culture as a whole. In February, South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family released guidelines warning that the homogenous, highly-groomed K-pop "look" could cause some fans to develop skewed standards of beauty. [Source: AJ Willingham, CNN, April 14, 2019]

“"Beauty standards of music shows is a serious problem," the guildelines said. "Most of them are idol band members but they don't represent various appearances (of society)." The guidelines were pulled days later after a deafening outcry from K-pop fans, who likened the guidelines to censorship.

“This complex stew of expectations can sometimes turn toxic, and the K-pop world is currently being rocked by an ongoing scandal surrounding some of its biggest stars. To make a long story short, some male K-pop idols have been implicated, and some even arrested, in connection to a digital sex scandal. Four K-pop idols have admitted to taking part in a group text where men shared illicitly filmed videos of women. Seungri, a member of the hugely popular group BigBang, is being investigated for his connection to a popular Korean nightclub where police say staff members supplied prostitutes to VIP visitors. For some, the scandal — which doesn't involve BTS — reveals ugliness that can fester under K-pop's veneer of perfection, and speaks to a larger culture of toxic masculinity in Korea that is increasingly attracting criticism.

Dark Side of Korean Entertainment Business

Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “She was a young actress with designs on mega-stardom. But to realize her dreams, Jang Ja-yeon was resigned to take her place in the seamy realm of the South Korean sexual casting couch. In the end, the disgrace proved too much. In the seven-page note she wrote before her March 2009 suicide, the 27-year-old TV sitcom regular described how her manager forced her to have sex with industry VIPs such as directors, media executives and CEOs, many of whom she cited by name. Jang’s death stunned this nation transfixed by celebrity and all its trappings. Since 1990, a half-dozen TV and film actresses have committed suicide over the stress that comes with success in South Korea. The aftermath of Jang’s suicide triggered a federal government investigation into “slave contracts,” in which young talent, mostly women, become locked into exclusive contracts by their agents requiring them to work long hours for low pay, receive unwanted plastic surgery and, in Jang’s case, turn to prostitution. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2011]

“Nearly two years after her suicide, critics say, little has changed in the cutthroat “Korean Wave” of TV, film and music that each year draws thousands of young hopefuls ready to endure whatever it takes — including sexual abuse and exploitation — to make it big. While the film and music businesses in such nations as India and the U.S. can also be shady, scholars worry over the perverse treatment of women in South Korea’s entertainment industry. An April 2010 survey conducted by a human rights group here found that 60 percent of South Korean actresses polled said they had been pressured to have sex to further their careers. In interviews with 111 actresses and 240 aspiring actresses, one in five said they were “forced or requested” by their agents to provide sexual favors, nearly half said they were forced to drink with influential figures, and a third said they experienced unwanted physical contact or sexual harassment.

“Though two of Jang’s former managers were each sentenced to 12 months in jail last October for extortion, nearly two dozen executives named in the actress’ suicide note — now known as the “Jang Ja-yeon paper” — were never charged. Other cases have surfaced. A government review panel in Seoul recently ruled that many entertainment contracts illegally infringe on performer privacy and limit an individual’s ability to change agencies.

“Critics say the entertainment industry scandal runs to the very roots of Korean culture, in which powerful authority figures, beginning with the military regimes overthrown a generation ago, feel unchecked in their dominance. Nowadays in South Korea, money really does matter,” said Lee Myoung-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University in Seoul. “To cash in on stardom and wealth, young people do whatever their agents say. There are people out there taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tragedy.”

“Jang’s life story plays out like a TV soap opera, the venue of her first success. Orphaned as a child when her parents died in a car crash, she set her sights on the movie industry. After making her debut in a 2006 television commercial, Jang’s first big break came when she landed the role of a vindictive schoolgirl in the popular TV soap “Boys Over Flowers.” But off-screen, her life was anything but rosy. In her suicide note, the actress described being at the mercy of studio bosses who forced her to have sex with clients and once to serve drinks on a high-roller golf trip to Thailand. “I was called to a bar and pressured to accept a request for a sexual relationship,” she wrote in her suicide note.

“When police later raided her manager’s office, they discovered a shower and bed in a “secret room” they believe was used for Jang’s forced dalliances. After the actress asked to terminate her contract, she was allegedly threatened and beaten, according to her last note. On March 7, 2009, Jang called her sister to lament of her “overwhelming stress.” Hours later, the sister returned to the family home to find Jang’s body hanging from a stairway banister. In a newspaper op-ed published days after Jang’s death, a former national broadcasting official cited the immense pressure on celebrities to keep in the public eye. He said those “who do not make frequent appearances are treated as losers. To avoid this, they often have to go too far.”

“The governmental Fair Trade Commission met in July to investigate the “slave contract” phenomena after three members of the now-disbanded male pop-idol group called TVXQ filed a lawsuit to end a 13-year exclusive contract with their manager. The panel ruled that the management’s contract was illegal and suggested an ongoing problem in the industry. A former English tutor for the popular South Korean pop band Wonder Girls also claimed last year that members were mistreated during a North American tour — kept in isolation and denied medical treatment. The band has denied the claims.

“But Jang’s suicide hit hardest. Even 22 months after Jang’s death, bloggers still rue the death of a fragile celebrity many believed was destined to become one of South Korea’s biggest movie stars. When she took her life, Jang was awaiting the release of her first two films, which were later both well received. In the first two days after her death, nearly 1 million fans visited her website.

Slave Contracts K-Pop Performers on K-Pop

S.M. Entertainment and other major K-pop agencies have been accused of imposing “slave contracts on their performers. In 2009, members of JYJ, who had been part of the five-man group TVXQ, one of its most successful K-Pop groups at that time, took S.M. to court on the grounds that their 13-year-contract was too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success. The group members said SM’s 13-year contracts were virtually life-long contracts and they were required to work long hours with only four hours of sleep per night. The court decided in their favor, and the ruling prompted the Fair Trade Commission to issue a "model contract" to to improve conditions for artists. [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC News, June 14, 2011]

David Tormsen wrote in Listverse: In 2012, EXO-M’s leader Kris filed a lawsuit to get his contract annulled due to” S.M.’s “neglect of his opinion and health: “The company has treated me like a machine part or as an object of control rather than presenting a vision as an entertainer.” In 2009, Korea’s Free Trade Commission introduced “standardized contracts,” meaning they could no longer exceed seven years. However, problems persist, such as profit sharing being solely in the hands of the management agencies and artists forced to pay exorbitant penalties to terminate their contracts.” [Source: David Tormsen, Listverse, May 19, 2015]

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “ Perhaps the most notorious case is that of Han Geng, a Chinese-born, Mandarin-speaking dancer. S.M. discovered him in Beijing in 2001, and he débuted as a member of Super Junior in 2005. In 2009, he accused the company of, among other things, forcing him to sign a thirteen-year contract when he was eighteen; paying him only a fraction of the profits earned; fining him when he refused to do things the company asked him to do; and making him work for two years straight without a single day off, which Han claimed caused him to develop gastritis and kidney disease. The Korean courts ruled in Han’s favor, but shortly after the ruling he withdrew the suit. He has since left the group. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

“S.M. initially defended its long-term contracts by pointing to the costs of housing, feeding, and training recruits for five years or more, which can run into the millions of dollars. But the furor over “slave contracts” damaged S.M.’s reputation among netizens, and in recent years its contracts have become more equitable. Girls’ Generation’s members are rumored to have signed up for seven years each, with salaries of a million dollars a year, which can hardly be called exploitative.

“When an entertainment industry is young, the owners tend to have all the power. In the early days of the movie business, Hollywood studios locked up the talent in long-term contracts. In the record business, making millions off artists, many of whom ended up broke, used to be standard business practice. When you replicate the American entertainment business, and add the Confucian virtue of rigid respect for elders to the traditionally unequal relationship between artists and suits, the consequences can be nasty.

Poorly Paid K-Pop Stars

Many K-Pop performers, even very successful ones, are poorly paid. John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “In February, 2011, three members of KARA, a hugely popular girl group with D.S.P., one of the smaller agencies, filed a lawsuit claiming that, even though the group earned the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars, each member was paid only a hundred and forty dollars a month. The agency disputed that figure, and eventually the two sides settled.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

Jihyun Kim wrote in Korea Expose: In 2017 indie musician Lee Lang made headlines for selling her trophy to the audience right after receiving it at the Korean Music Awards. “My income in January was 420,000 won (around 370 U.S. dollars),” she said, before starting the bidding. “Not just from my music sales, but the total. Thankfully, I made 960,000 won (840 dollars) in February. It is difficult to make a living as an artist. It would have been great if there was some prize money to this award, but it is not the case. So I think I’ll have to sell this trophy.” [Source: Jihyun Kim, Korea Expose, September 28, 2017]

“An alarming portion of South Korean musicians don’t get paid for their work. Unfortunately, this mistreatment is commonplace. Singers and songwriters often complain that there is no law, no contract and no average price in the music industry. Labor exploitation is the norm. Kim Hyeong-seob, the drummer of the indie band Another Day, shared his experience. “When my former band was invited to a cultural event two years ago, an employee of the organizing company said we’d get paid 300,000 won (less than 270 dollars). After we performed, he changed his terms: ‘There were other teams who played much better than your team,’ he said. ‘You should appreciate just being on the stage.’ This basically translated into ‘no pay.’” Kim said practices like this are prevalent in the music industry.

“It’s not uncommon for musicians to perform without knowing how much they would be paid. On Mule, an online community for musicians, posts seeking artists to perform at events are uploaded everyday. (The name of the community is ironic but not inappropriate for describing toiling musicians.) Very few of the job postings state how much the payment would be. Some posts even ask for ‘charity talent,’ which means to perform for free. “Even verbal contracts are rare,” said Esssin, an indie singer and manager of the education and policy team at Korea Musicians’ Union, a labor rights organization established in 2013 for musicians. “When artists ask about the fee before a performance, organizers commonly respond, ‘How dare you ask for money? You should be thankful just to be on stage.’”

“The mistreatment, of not receiving proper compensation, doesn’t happen only to indie musicians, many of whom perform and busk in Hongdae, a busy college neighborhood in Seoul and a hub for musical talents. “Unless you are that ‘hot’ musician of the moment, this sort of humiliation happens frequently to musicians,” said Esssin. “Music professors and even well-known singers are sometimes subject to this mistreatment,” he said, referring to the disadvantageous labor conditions for musicians.

“A former member of a K-pop boy band, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed. “Singers with no names, who belong to the smaller entertainment agencies, are the most vulnerable members within the music production system. My K-pop group was basically forced to sing for free by our company and event organizers. We had to perform many times with no income, just waiting for the day we’d hit fame.”“

Difficulty Making Money in K-Pop

Lucy Williamson of the BBC wrote: A director for DSP says they do share profits with the group, but admits that after the company recoups its costs, there is sometimes little left for the performers. K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses. The bill can add up to several hundred thousand dollars. Depending on the group, some estimates say it is more like a million. [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC News, June 14, 2011]

“But music sales in South Korea alone do not recoup that investment. For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop. The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song. Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites. "But how do you slice a fraction of a penny, and give that to the artist? You can't do it," he says.

“With downward pressure on music prices at home, "many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea", Mr Cho says. Company representatives say concerts and advertising bring in far more than music sales. "Overseas markets have been good to us," says one spokesman. South Korean musicians need to perform on home turf, but "Japan is where all the money is".

“As acts start to make money overseas, he says this "broken business model" - underpricing - is creeping into their activities abroad. A former policy director at South Korea's main artists' union, Moon Jae-gap, believes the industry will go through a major upheaval. "Because at the moment, it's not sustainable," he says. Until that happens, he says, artists will continue to have difficulty making a living.

Poor Treatment of Women in the K-Pop World

Women in K-Pop are criticized and humiliated in a way that K-Pop men and women performers in other countries are not. David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: “When the hugely popular group Girls’ Generation batted their eyes at a boy band during a television variety show in 2008, this prompted fans to publicly humiliate them at that year’s annual Dream Concert, where audience members typically show performers their support by creating oceans of light with glow sticks. When Girls’ Generation took to the stage, the audience greeted them with dead silence and pitch darkness for the duration of their set. [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

The scandal at the 25th Seoul Music Awards in January 2016 involved co-host Jun Hyun Moo making EXID member Hani cry onstage after he playfully teased her about having a boyfriend by saying that she looked junsu, or “elegant,” a play on her boyfriend’s name, Junsu. Or take the case of former f(x) member Sulli. When Kim Hee-chul, member of the boy band Super Junior, claimed he was the most handsome member of his band, fans found it amusing. Yet when they discovered Sulli had written in her diary, as a 9-year-old child, “I think I’m pretty but I don’t get why other people think so too,” many people virulently attacked her. Then, when Sulli acknowledged she was dating the rapper Choiza in 2014, her career took a nosedive and she later left f(x). Meanwhile Choiza, whose stage name means “big dick,” not only survived the scandal, he cracked jokes about it on SNL Korea.

“And consider for a moment that, while female idols are excoriated for discreetly having adult relationships, somehow it’s okay when the popular variety program “No More Show” features women explicitly simulating fellatio, sometimes while the host screams “Do it sexily!” as they gag on yogurt.

“In other cases, it’s not etiquette that’s required so much as absolute submissiveness to male authority. In September 2013, Goo Hara of KARA went on the variety show “Radio Star,” where the male hosts relentlessly badgered her about rumors that she was in a relationship. At one point, host Kyuhyun threatened to ruin her, and she broke down crying. The hosts then demanded that her bandmate, Kang Ji Young, make coquettish faces for them. When she declined, host Kim Gura shouted at her and, eventually, she too began to cry. Interestingly, fans directed most of their anger not at the male hosts but at the stars, who both subsequently left KARA.

Restrictions on K-Pop Performers

Ferlyn Wong and Elaine Yuki Wong were picked from a mass audition in 2010 to join three Korean girls to form a group that debut in South Korea in March 2012. Elaine, 23, says: 'I didn't expect it to be so tough.” But because their debut was only months away she said the intensive training was s necessary. “We have to be at our best.” she said [Source: Jocelyn Lee, The Straits Times, June 20, 2011]

Jocelyn Lee wrote in The Straits Times: “This has been their regime five days a week, with weekends off:
Get up at 7am. Eat breakfast consisting of a few low-fat biscuits and lettuce.
Go for 2 1/2-hour gym session.
Swim for two hours.
Lunch, well, no lunch actually. Must count those calories.
Snacks (if the girls complain of hunger) - a banana or a few low-fat biscuits.
Dance class after lunch, for up to four hours.
Dinner - boiled chicken breast and salad.
Finish dinner by 7pm. After that, they are not allowed to eat or drink anything; apparently drinking will make them look bloated in the morning.
After dinner, vocal, acting and Korean language lessons.
10pm, free time. The girls are given back their mobile phones, which their Korean manager keeps during the day so they cannot use them.
They can use the Internet to communicate with their family and friends but it is no more personal Facebook and blog accounts for them.

“No boyfriends are permitted, either. Luckily, both girls say that they are single at the moment. And no make-up - the girls are supposed to have a minimal, natural look. Other orders: When out with their managers, they have to wear sunglasses which they must not remove in public, even when indoors. Add to that new look, new identities: They have to use Korean stage names, with Elaine's being Yuki and Ferlyn's, Gieun.

Elaine, says: 'I get hungry very easily and I would complain once every two to three hours. Luckily, my minders give me a banana or a few low-fat biscuits when I complain.' Ferlyn says: 'It is very tough, but it is something that previous female stars have gone through before. They survived and are fine now, so I am not worried that it would affect my health or anything like that.' The 19-year-old has been ordered by her minder to lose 3kg during the two weeks she is back here. If not she will 'die' when she returns to Korea, she says with a laugh. Ferlyn, who weighed 52kg before she went to Korea, says: 'I have only soup these days when I am in Singapore: tofu soup, seafood soup, seaweed soup, fish soup. I feel hungry sometimes, which is why I try to have more small meals a day. It works though, I have already lost 2kg in a week.'

“The local duo are being handled by Korean minders who are well-known in the industry and have managed big Korean names such as Girls' Generation, Rain and Dong Bang Shin Ki. The training they are undergoing is similar to what those big names went through to crack the big time and make millions of dollars. After they debut, they will be paid once every three months - a net sum and any profits they earn. With about five to 10 Korean rookie groups debuting every year, competition is stiff. Some bands such as five-member male group Beast made a strong impression when they emerged, but there are others who toil for years before making it - and some fizzle out altogether.

“They are even prepared to undergo plastic surgery, common among Korean pop stars. Ferlyn wants to have double eyelids, while Elaine has thought about enhancing her nose. However, Elaine, who before being selected for K-pop camp was earning her own money from modelling and blogging, says: 'We asked our minders in Korea and they told us that we look fine and do not need to go for plastic surgery. So, we are not thinking about that issue anymore.' The duo were wary about one aspect of the Korean entertainment industry: the casting couch, where rising stars have to perform sexual favours in return for landing roles in shows. But their Korean minders have assured them that no such thing will happen as they will keep tabs on them all the time, even when they go to the restroom.

“Ferlyn's parents are unfazed by the K-pop boot camp. Her mother, housewife Rosy Ng, 48, says: 'What the girls have gone through so far has been quite reasonable. The company has invested a lot in them, so they need to work hard for the company. I am not worried about Ferlyn. I want her to follow her dreams and make it big.'”

Slips of the Tongue and Surveillance in the K-Pop World

Jane Sit of CNN wrote: “Any slip of the tongue can immediately damage the career” of a K-Pop star. “In 2012, seven-member idol group Block B made comments in an interview about the tragic flooding in Thailand that some fans viewed as disrespectful and offensive. After a public outcry, the group issued many apologies but it wasn't enough. There were reports of music stations restricting them from appearing on its programs. Many netizens reportedly demanded their disbandment; some going as far as calling for the members to commit suicide. [Source: Jane Sit, CNN, December 11, 2013]

Former 2PM leader Jay Park also sparked public outrage after netizens found old posts on his social media site about his dislike for South Korea. The Korean-American was soon dropped from the idol group.

“Every action of an idol is monitored by their agency — even romance can be prohibited by a clause in their contract. Singer Choi Dong-wook, known by his stage name Se7en, told a Korean talk show he saw his fan club instantly drop by about 100,000 members when he announced he had a girlfriend.

Scandals can also have financial consequences. After BIGBANG leader G-Dragon tested positive for marijuana use in 2011, the group's management company YG Entertainment reduced the size of its IPO by around 10 percent.

Cyberbullying and K-Pop

Hyonhee Shin and Hyun Young Yi of Reuters wrote: Kwon Ji-an, better known by her stage name Solbi, was also subjected to cyber insults in 2009, when she was a member of K-pop group Typhoon, after being wrongly identified in a sex video that went viral online. The incident triggered intense depression, social phobia and panic disorder, Kwon said. [Source: Hyonhee Shin and Hyun Young Yi, Reuters, October 17, 2019]

“"I was too young and socially immature to digest all the glamour and changes in the environment, and there's no self-medication whatsoever," Kwon said. Then how do you respond to all of those vicious online comments? If you explain, they'll dismiss it as an excuse, and if you fight, they'll dislike you even more."

Kwon called for a change in the anonymous comment culture on the Internet, which critics has long blamed for cyber bullying. In South Korea, local web portals such as Naver and Daum are a major channel of news consumption, which allow users to leave comments without revealing their real names. "The freedom of expression is a vital value in democratic society, but insulting and hurting someone else's dignity is beyond that limit," said Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "There need to be far harsher penalties for those who violate that law."

Disgust Over American 'K-pop' Group

In April 2017, a group called EXP edition that billed itself as K-Pop debuted but was quickly criticized for their lack of training and the fact that they don't speak Korean Roisin O'Connor wrote in The Independent: “ An American band have raised eyebrows in Asia after announcing themselves as a K-pop group when none of its members are Korean. EXP Edition, whose tagline reads "born in NY, made in Seoul", is made up of four men from the US. They are: Koki Tomlinson (half Japanese and German); Frankie DaPonte, Portuguese; Hunter Kohl, from New York; Šime Košta, from Croatia. [Source: Roisin O'Connor, The Independent, April 18, 2017]

“The band's website says that, while none of them can speak Korean, they have moved to South Korea to study the language and record their debut album. They released their debut single 'Feel Like This' along with a music video this week - suffice to say it hasn't gone down well. One of the main complaints is the band's obvious lack of training compared with the average K-pop group, as the genre is known for videos that feature impressive choreography and dance routines.

“Fans have accused the group of making music in Korean because they noticed its rise in popularity both in South Korea and outside of the country. "Please just debut as an American group what is this mess," one wrote. Another commented: "I could actually write an essay about this because it makes me so f***ing angry. A lot of people believe we are mad because they are a 'new Kpop group' that doesn't consist of 'cute Asian boys' and that we're just being downright racist.” "No, that is not the reason why EXP are getting so much hate at all. It's the fact that they believe putting the Korean before the word pop is going to automatically gain them recognition and popularity when the groups we stan [stalker fan] trained for YEARS just to debut."

However the band seems to be more of an art project by one Bora Kim, who was studying an MFA at Columbia when she decided to start a K-pop group and explore "what K-pop and what K-pop fandom is". "I wanted to see what would happen if I made American boys into K-pop performers, by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys, and complicate this flow/appropriation even more, since I'm in New York, where so many talents are just one online recruitment ad away," she said in 2015.

K-Pop Stars Disconnected From Fans?

Jane Sit of CNN wrote: Some fans “believe that despite these methods, the artists come off as unapproachable and distant. Fans say they want more of their idols, and they're not getting it beyond the tightly controlled images and videos. [Source: Jane Sit, CNN, December 11, 2013]

“Dorothy Advincula, an assistant editor at the Korean entertainment news site Kpopstarz, calls this K-Pop's "economics of scarcity," a method agencies use to try to keep the ball in their court. "Artist agencies make it difficult for idols to relate to their fans beyond the stage performance. So the littlest sighting, the slightest glimpse with a photo or any kind of evidence becomes a sort of trophy," she said.

“Advincula points to the social media presence as a veil. "While it's not unique to K-Pop, the response is different because there can be a disconnect on how idols and fans actually interact... while in mainstream, there is a certain consistency." "I think we've come a point of no-return where because of these bite-sized contacts... naturally fans get a bit greedier and demand something more."

K-Pop: Contradictions, Good Looks and Sex?

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “You might expect that in the face of all this external pressure, K-pop groups would be largely dysfunctional messes. Instead, modern-day K-pop appears to be a seamless, gorgeous, well-oiled machine — complete with a few glaring contradictions that make it all the more fascinating. Though government censorship of South Korean music has relaxed over time, it still exists, as does industry self-censorship in response to a range of controversial topics. South Korean social mores stigmatize everything from sexual references and innuendo to references to drugs and alcohol — as well as actual illicit behavior by idols — and addressing any of these subjects can cause a song to be arbitrarily banned from radio play and broadcast. Songs dealing with serious themes or thorny issues are largely off limits, queer identity is generally only addressed as subtext, and lyrics are usually scrubbed down to fluffy platitudes. Thematically, it’s often charming and innocent, bordering on adolescent. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: ““Good looks are a K-pop artist’s stock-in-trade. Although some of the idols are musicians, K-pop artists rarely play instruments onstage. Where K-pop stars excel is in sheer physical beauty. Their faces, chiselled, sculpted, and tapering to a sharp point at the chin, Na’vi style, look strikingly different from the flat, round faces of most Koreans. Some were born with this bone structure, no doubt, but many can look this way only with the help of plastic surgery. Korea is by far the world leader in procedures per capita, according to The Economist. Double-fold-eyelid surgery, which makes eyes look more Western, is a popular reward for children who get good marks on school exams. The popularity of the K-pop idols has also brought Chinese, Japanese, and Singaporean “medical tourists” to Seoul to have their faces altered to look more like the Korean stars. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: ““They asked me to sing, and I’m not the best singer,” ex-TAHITI member Sarah Wolfgang, formerly known as Hanhee, said of her recruitment in a recent interview. But that doesn’t matter in K-pop, she added, because “everything can be touched up.” During a May 2014 Reddit AMA, when asked if she liked K-pop, Wolfgang replied, “I hate it. No one is an actual artist.” She also pointed out that songs, dance routines and clothes are handed to performers who have “little to no artistic input,” and that fans favor certain groups because of their look, “not because they are talented.” But in the Plasticine world of K-pop, looks are just as manufactured as talent: Before their formal debut, both male and female artists are often forced to undergo cosmetic surgery. Fresh-faced ingénues can decline, but unless they work for YG Entertainment — which forbids its girl groups from going under the knife — opting out of surgery is tantamount to opting out of the industry. As Patricia Marx of the New Yorker puts it, Korean pop culture “shapes not only what music you should listen to but what you should look like while listening to it.” According to the BBC, 50 percent of South Korean women in their 20s have now had cosmetic surgery.” [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

Women’s Image in K-Pop

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “The women of K-pop are typically depicted as traditional versions of femininity. This usually manifests in one of several themes: adorable, shy schoolgirls who sing about giddy crushes; knowing, empowered women who need an “oppa” (a strong older male figure) to fulfill their fantasies; or knowing, empowered women who reject male validation, even as the studio tailors the group’s members for adult male consumption. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“An idol group’s image often changes from one album to the next, undergoing a total visual and tonal overhaul to introduce a new concept. However, there are a few girl groups — 2NE1 and f(x) spring most readily to mind — that have been marketed as breaking away from this gender-centric mode of performance; they’re packaged as rebels and mavericks regardless of what their album is about, even while they operate within the studio culture.

“Yet the women of K-pop are also increasingly producing self-aware videos that navigate their own relationships to these rigid impositions. Witness Sunmi, a former member of Wonder Girls, tearing down her own carefully cultivated public image in her recent single “Heroine,” a song about a woman surviving a failed relationship. In the video, Sunmi transforms physically, growing more empowered and defiant as she faces the camera and finally confronts a billboard of herself.

“If songs for women in K-pop break down along the “virgin/mature woman” divide, songs for men tend to break down along a “bad boy/sophisticated man” line. Occasionally they even break down in the same song — like Block B’s “Jackpot,” the video for which sees the band posing as wildly varied members of a renegade circus, uniting to kidnap actress Kim Sae-ron into a life of cheerful hedonism.

David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: “Korean ladies, despite being among the world’s most educated, are objectified, vilified and legally enslaved by a multibillion dollar industry that manufactures outrageous profit from their exploitation. Male stars are certainly exploited, too. But female artists suffer heavy double standards, especially when it comes to pay and the way their personal lives are judged. “Most K-pop videos portray women as sex objects and that includes all the female K-pop singers and groups, too,” Kevin Cawley, professor of East Asian studies at University College Cork in Ireland, told Global Post. Many have cosmetic surgery and dance provocatively, but are “still expected to adhere to outdated Confucian norms about sexual conduct in their private lives while men can do as they please.”[Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

Romano wrote: “Male performance groups are generally permitted a broader range of topics than K-pop’s women: BTS notably sings about serious issues like teen social pressures, while many other boy bands feature a wide range of narrative concepts. But male entertainers get held to arguably even more exacting physical and technical standards than their female counterparts, with precision choreography — like Speed’s all-Heely dance routine — being a huge part of the draw for male idol groups.”

Piggy Dolls Lose Weight, Then Disappear and What That Says About K-Pop

Seoul Beats reported: “Way back in 2011, a trio of plump girls made their debut under the name Piggy Dolls. They were a very talented group with powerful vocals that sought to prove that talent came first when it came to music. Their debut song, “Trend,” was a song that spoke their message perfectly. With lyrics like, “My figure, what about it?” and “My face, it’s unique,” Piggy Dolls put themselves on the map for speaking out for fuller figures and some of the abuse they take. [Source: Seoul Beats, September 9, 2013]

“Of course, with their debut, there was backlash in forums and underneath many of their performance videos. The girls’ health was constantly pulled into question as well as cruder comments saying that the girls’ weight simply made them unattractive. Others criticized having the girls’ weight be a selling point in the first place and were against the name “Piggy Dolls” the all together.

“However, a few months later, the girls did come back with a big change. All three members had undergone dramatic weight loss. Many fans were upset by the claims that the weight loss was natural, due to practice, and an idea fully supported by the girls. People that looked up to them for change in the girl group body standards quickly saw that idea fading away.“Regardless, the girls continued on. They gave us a full album and, heavy or not, had some of the best vocals that had debuted that year. They told people who asked about their weight that they “didn’t look good enough” to feel betrayed by their weight loss and that, compared to other girl groups, they were still overweight. They still hoped to inspire people with their performances and show that your size wasn’t the value of your worth, even in K-pop.”...A few days ago, Winning Insight revealed that the group would be making a comeback, but with some changes. And by changes, they meant a completely new group of girls. Gone were the Piggy Dolls and in there place were thin girls of (currently) unknown origins.

“I loved the Piggy Dolls. I loved their vocals, their energy, and that when their weight was brought up, it was not laced with embarrassment. While I did not agree with their weight being their “hook,” especially since it changed during their next promotion, I enjoyed the girls nonetheless. Even with their weight loss, one member did remain on the plumper side and their vocals slowly became their talking point.”

“This group change shows a very disappointing side to the Korean pop industry. While these are not unknown topics, the blatant switch that has been made within the Piggy Dolls group speaks volumes. So let’s break this down. First of all, the original girls came with a purpose. Yes, they were a vocal group, but them being overweight counted for something as well. Idols are constantly talking about their weight loss and the Korean media is not shy about telling people how much weight they need to lose to be acceptable. With “V” lines, “S” lines, and every other line created to label women, a group that didn’t fit any of that was groundbreaking. They were not the first women of size to promote in K-pop, but they were the first of this generation to take the bull by the horns and address the issue head on.

“Their weight loss was only the beginning of the issue. I am not here to say that those girls needed to remain large to be relevant. But it was clear that those girls lost weight to be accepted. They already had more than enough vocal talent to make it, but K-pop is a visual genre and no matter how their agency tried to spin it, they couldn’t get the attention they wanted without changing their figures.

“Now the girls are completely gone. The original idea that these girls were there to make a difference has been totally destroyed. The fact that all new girls were given the same name shows just how superficial the K-pop genre can be, especially for women. Shindong is a Super Junior member who is known for being a bit larger than average, but has, on many occasions, spoken against the same equality for women. While many people are taken back by the things he says, the industry shows what he says to be very true. Why even give the girls the name when they now have nothing to do with the concept? Unlike Jewelry or After School, their name is one that brings up a very certain image and idea. Their name stood for something and the change is almost as jarring as having a male member in Girls’ Generation. It just doesn’t make sense and, at its core, very hurtful.

“K-pop is a genre that has clearly labeled “visual” members. We have idols that cannot sing, and many that cannot perform, but get into groups on their face alone. Members undergo surgery after surgery to get the perfect shape while others starve themselves. Women get labeled with terms like “honey-thighs” and “bagel girl” without people batting an eye. Piggy Dolls was the one group of this current generation of K-pop that was attempting to go against that, only to be disbanded because the concept of “loving yourself” wasn’t profitable enough. Talent wasn’t a good enough hook, and that’s sad.

“I know that K-pop is superficial. I know that there are talentless members in the limelight and vocal powerhouses that are constantly in the shadows. But it was nice to think that there was some good in K-pop. That talent really did come first at least sometimes and that it’s not all about the money and churning out more cogs to be part of the machine. But perhaps that was simply wishful thinking.”

Going Beyond K-Pop Insipidity?

David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: ““Thankfully, Koreans are becoming inured to K-pop dating scandals, and while the genre is still mostly glitter and puff, its best artists have matured faster than the industry has grown, taking control of their own creative efforts and producing works of originality and thought. G-Dragon, for instance, who used to croon insipid platitudes like “yeah, love is pain” when he was a member of the group Big Bang, is now a rapper who contemplates the profitless nature of celebrity.” [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

“As for girl groups, there’s some progress there, too, with songs like Miss A’s “I Don’t Need A Man,” dedicated to “all the independent ladies” and Mamamoo’s “I Do Me,” which includes the line “what if I don’t look pretty? Why would I hide?”

“Outside the realm of K-pop, there are even more extreme examples of women asserting power in ways that violate Confucian norms. In the 2015 track “Crazy Dog,” for example, female artist Yezi raps, “jacking off while watching my breast shot gifs, gripping a rag in one hand, typing on the keyboard with the other, no matter how much you diss me, you can’t console yourself.”

“Nevertheless, slut-shaming remains a societal mainstay, as does the infantilization of female pop idols. Just last year, IU released the song “Twenty-three,” in which she sings about the pressure put upon female stars to appear child-like, despite the fact that she herself is becoming a mature woman. But, because she dresses like a child in the video, rather than spark a national dialogue about the pedophiliac overtones of dressing grown women like schoolgirls, instead she was accused of using pedophiliac imagery to sell records.

“Some groups do indeed consciously cling to their virginal image. Others, like Yezi and IU, are moving in the other direction. Last year there was Vibrato’s “Stellar,” which features the female members of the band locked in glass cages and surrounded by cameras. As they are compared to Barbie dolls, they sing, “I don’t feel good. It’s weird because of you.” No doubt this is a message directed at the public, and the industry.

“Despite these signs that things are trending liberal, critical fans would do well to consider whether K-pop’s feminist coming of age is, like everything else about it, merely fabricated. Girl power is chic, but when an industry like this one commodifies feminism, one has to wonder where the power goes.

K-Pop Groups Boycott of U.S. Troops Concert

In 2017, several K-Pop groups boycotted a concert for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Afp reported: “South Korea's presidential Blue House said it was "regrettable" a government-backed concert for US troops was hit by a boycott from scores of K-Pop stars. The concert was to mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, which is stationed in Uijeongbu, just north of the capital Seoul, but activists launched a campaign against the event. They argued it coincided with the 15th anniversary of the deaths of two South Korean high school girls, who were crushed to death by a US military vehicle near Uijeongbu, sparking nationwide protests at the time. [Source: AFP, June 14, 2017]

“Scores of top K-Pop musicians scheduled to perform, including singer Insooni, K-pop bands EXID, Oh My Girl, Sweet Sorrow, punk band Crying Nut and rapper SanE, failed to show up or left the stage before performing. "I'm sorry but I can't sing under these circumstances," Insooni told the audience at the start of the concert, before walking off stage.

“Only a few acts — including a US Army Band and a Korean traditional music ensemble — actually made their scheduled performances. "We find it regrettable that the event prepared as a token of gratitude and farewell has been disrupted," spokesman Yoon Young-Chan of the presidential Blue House said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021


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