By Madison Reyes
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I have a couple of friends that listen to Kpop, and I never got overly interested in the genre. There are a couple of songs I like here and there, but to deny the genre’s massive expansion over the past couple of years would be a crime. Korean Pop, also known as Kpop, has released some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry like BTS, Psy, and BlackPink that make millions a year and can cause stocks to skyrocket once their names are placed on a brand.
The fans of these groups are incredibly loyal, and the lengths they are willing to go to support their favorite idol (the term used for the members of each group) are extreme. At college, I used to be in the student center at two in the morning doing homework, and I would see other students huddled around a phone watching a live stream from one of these kpop idols without any English translations, they didn’t care what the pop-star was saying they just wanted to be able to say that they were at the live stream. I’ve seen people online spend thousands of dollars on albums so that they could collect little cards with each of the members’ faces on them, and each band has something called a lightstick, which could be upwards of $70, and it’s just a fancy flashlight at the end of the day that fans flock to buy for each band. And surely you have seen the massive social media fights between the fans of each band. Most of these fans are high school and college-age kids (especially in America), and they willing to throw away sleep, school work, and money to buy and give attention to these bands.
I started to look into the genre, and why it was gaining the popularity it was, and the entire industry is nothing like the U.S. entertainment industry. Before debuting, these idols go through an intense training period where their company pushes them to extreme measures to perfect their singing, rapping, and dancing abilities as well as their mannerism, physical appearance, and behavior in order to create the “perfect Korean Idol” in the eyes of the public. Trainees (what Idols are called during their training period) are forces into long hours of practice and school, far from home, and some even come from other countries to be a part of these companies. Many idols start young and train for years with the hope of debut, which isn’t guaranteed to every trainee. The average age for debuting for idols is 16-21 years of age and the training period last for about 3-6 years on average, with these aspiring performers starting, on average, between the ages of 13-16 years old and their lives are entirely controlled by these companies. Many idols start even young and train even longer. Jiyho, a member of the popular girl group Twice, trained for ten years and debuted at the age of nineteen- meaning that she started her training at the age of nine with the company JYP Entertainment. Some Idols debut even younger as more and more boys and girls are debuting younger, such as Iz*one’s Wonyoung when she was 14 and Loona’s Yeojin, who released her solo debut at the age of 13 in 2016. and These companies mold idols to be the best the industry has to offer, and a single slip up can cost their entire career, as seen in survival shows such as MixNine and the Produce Series, which showcase idols trying to debut in group and with one false step in the dance moves or a voice crack can get a trainee booted from the show.
The perfection of these idols’ talents are not the only thing that makes Kpop, in my opinion, to be as addictive as it is. Kpop is a very visual-heavy industry. If you look at any idols, their beauty is undeniable. Symmetrical faces, silky hair, flawless skin, and skinny bodies are all features that the general public strives for regarding beauty standards. These idols are constantly under strict diets and beauty routines to keep their bodies the way they are, and many go to extreme lengths to get these figures, such as the singer IU who has the famous IU Diet, which only consisted of around 700 calories a day. Many times these diets are not made public, or they are ignored by much of the fanbases as beauty standards in Korea are extremely harsh, and according to a survey taken in Korea but a local cosmetic company, many citizens said that if a woman is over 110lbs (no matter her height), she is considered chubby.
The bodies of these idols, from my point of view, fall similar to those of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Their bodies are always seen as perfect and have to maintain that way for the public to see them as beautiful and for their companies to accept them in an over-competitive and saturated market. Humans are naturally attracted to people that seen as more attractive or have the proportions/symmetry that is seen in the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, and they are more likely to do what the person wants them to do because of their beauty.
The idols are not the only visually stimulating thing about Kpop; the music videos, outfits, and performances have high budgets production values. While western artists usually come out with multiple music videos per mini/full album, kpop companies place all their nuggets into one stunning music video. The emphasis is always on the video for the fans and companies due to the “Streaming Culture” (as Kpop Fans call it) to break records for their groups and the number of views. The music video, from their CGI to cinematography, to colorful sets and outfits, is eye-catching and captivates the audience till the end of the video. On top of that, each music video has secret messages and theories behind it, causing the audiences to watch the video repeatedly. An example of this is Red Velvet’s Pyscho that my friend showed me. Not only is it a stunning music video, but every single time I watch the music video, I notice something different within the background of the clothes they are wearing or even the color of their eyes that changes throughout the video.
The stage performances are also very different than western performances. Dances are choreographed, and from solo artists to groups with numbers into the double digits never fall out of beat and are in perfect synchronization, which is very pleasing to the eye. It is rare that something isn’t happening in a live or video performance that these idols produce. The performer and the surrounding set are constantly in motion during the performance to keep the audience engaged from state to finish.
The idols and the visual production are both two considerable aspects that can be attributed to why Kpop is so popular and often times addicting to its fans. But I think there is one bigger. Kpop is one of the most effective industries in creating constant content. I have never seen another entertainment industry have such a quick output of goods for their audiences to buy. In America, audiences are used to waiting years for their favorite artist to release a new song. Kpop fans only have to wait a couple of months. Some groups like BlackPink or EXO have one release a year and is deemed normal compared to western standards. But then some groups release constant content year-round, rarely slowing down.
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JYP, the company that produces and promotes Twice, has been criticized over for overworking artists. Twice is not even the most extreme version of this treatment from the company. Twice’s brother band, Stray Kids, is still deemed as a rookie group who debuted in 2018 after competing in a survival show. The group writes and produces their own music and has since before debut and in their three-year run so far have published over 86 songs and 54 music videos with more coming as they have just won the competition show Kingdom produced by MNet and have already dropped videos to promote their upcoming comeback.
The constant stream of musical content is matched with the same intense push for merchandise from companies. From multiple versions of physical albums to photo books, live streams, concert tickets, and clothing, each group has an array of (very overpriced) merchandise for their fans to choose from. This constant flow of content rarely gives the audience any time to relax, and it has created an unhealthy consumerism culture among the kpop community. I have seen fans shame others for not having the most albums or not having the light sticks at concerts. Fans give hundreds of dollars to have birthday messages in Times Square NYC and other places around the world even if their idol isn’t there to see it, and it continues to grow and expand as the industry does.
It causes me to wonder if Kpop will eventually be disregarded like other trends? Will it reach its peak and burst, leaving a shell of an industry left? Just think about the dystonia genre when The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead came out. That was all people could talk about, and the genre kept growing and growing until one day, people moved on because of the over-saturation and massive amounts of content. Will kpop face the same fate one day? I don’t know, but for the next couple of years, at least, I don’t see it slowing down.
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Author's note: I know very little about Kpop and all of this was based on the research I found in the articles I linked.
If I got anything wrong please let me know and I will update the article.
Thank you for reading.