The Carefully Calculated World of K-Pop
by Kate Brunotts
In October of this year, global superstars BTS broke another world record by becoming the fastest account to gain 1 million followers on the social platform TikTok. It took the group well under 4 hours.
Clearly, K-Pop groups have taken the world by storm and amassed an insane amount of power. At first glance, these bubbly groups seem to be the poster children of what it means to be a successful, glamorous pop star.
But behind their catchy lyrics, colorful video sets, and sleek hairstyles, there’s a much darker reality. Here a few of the harsh sacrifices a K-Pop star, oftentimes called “idol” must face in order to achieve their dreams.
A Government Affair
It’s no accident that K-Pop is making the global splash it does today. The entertainment industry has been supported immensely by the South Korean government, and for good reason: It’s estimated that the group BTS alone has brought in an estimated amount of $3.5 billion worth of value to the Korean economy alone.
The government regularly invests in the creation of multi-million dollar concert venues, musical hologram technology, and helps regulate karaoke bars particularly with the K-Pop export in mind.
In 2008, a ministry of culture was developed specifically to promote the globalization of K-Pop, and the government has certainly seen some results.
Tourism has been booming ever since, and the global interest in learning the Korean language has dramatically risen. In fact, the South Korean Government now sponsors 130 separate foreign language institutes as a result of the general demand.
Lack of Creative Freedom
K-Pop stars usually have very little say in what they are singing. Contrary to popular belief, K-pop groups often get their song structure from Scandanavian and British Pop Wizards, who have crafted hits for big US names like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson.
The common infusion of a small number of English lyrics is deliberate (recall Gangnam Style’s “Hey, sexy lady”) and makes the songs more accessible to a globalized audience. These songs are curated to be algorithmically catchy, not necessarily a form of pure artistic expression, and it’s working.
The Pressure to Look Perfect
South Korea is already known for its normalized standards around plastic surgery. One in five Korean women have had some form of cosmetic surgery and beauty has come to symbolize economic success and wealth.
These staggering statistics have been exacerbated by the K-Pop industry, though most groups won’t outright admit procedures, allegedly grooming of K-Pop stars often involves undergoing at least one cosmetic surgery, especially for female idols.
Not only that, but many K-Pop group members have adopted strict diets they must adhere to in order to preserve a desirable appearance. It’s not uncommon for female performers to have weekly weight checks and resulting consequences should they not meet the industry’s arbitrary standards.
Though their management company may not outwardly force a “nutrition” plan, the pressure from the industry is enough to program these stars to eat in a way that’s unhealthy.
In order to maintain a high level of sex appeal, some K-Pop stars are forced to keep their personal lives a secret, with some agencies going to the lengths of including a “No Dating” clause during a performer’s contract.
In general, K-Pop management groups expect the industry to be each performer’s number one priority, ahead of any and all personal relationships.
Even outside of legal boundaries, performers will often face backlash from crazed fans for entering into a relationship. Notably, the relationship of K-Pop performers and their audiences is like no other. Super K-pop fans are willing to do just about anything to get close to their literal idols, including waiting at the airport for seven hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of the band as they pass by.
Ridiculous Workweeks and Earnings
If you choose to become a K-Pop star, you’re not going to get a lot of sleep during your 7-15 year contract. During a radio interview, K-Pop star Prince Mak described most K-Pop artists clocking in 20-hour workdays with unsurprising frequent rates of burnout.
To top it all off, according to Mak, most idols only keep 10-20% of the profits from the industry. That’s considerably small if you have to split up those profits with five or six other group members.
There’s no denying that K-Pop is something special, but at what cost? As this global export continues to take the world by storm, it’s important to consider all the bad that comes with the good.
K-Pop stars are coined “idols” for a reason, and how they are treated and forced to act will inspire younger generations for years to come.