[CRITICALLY SPEAKING: K-POP] 'Suffocating' side of the K-pop industry and its harms to artists
K-pop continues to grow across the globe and it’s not just boy band BTS making it big — other groups are landing higher and higher on international music charts. With a unique set of rules that sets it apart from other industries, K-pop is becoming not only a driving force for pop culture, but opening up a new chapter in Korean history. In the following interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will sit down with Korean music critics who have been following the growth of this unique industry and ask, "How did it happen and will it last?"
K-pop stars often report having anxiety disorders and some even take their own lives due to the unforgiving harshness that the industry is frequently criticized for. In the words of RM, the leader of K-pop’s biggest boy band BTS, K-pop “wears you down.”
But while this may seem like an issue characteristic only of K-pop, it’s actually representative of the fierce competition and lack of generosity that Korea displays as a whole, according to music critic Seo Jeong Min-gap.
“The hurdles are getting higher and higher,” he said.
“For a K-pop star to succeed, they need to sing, dance, write their own songs, have their own voice, behave well and have a clean past. People expect to see more and entertainment companies catering to that demand, and that’s all weighing down on the stars’ shoulders.”
One hurdle that has gotten especially higher in recent years is that regarding morality.
The case of (G)I-DLE’s former member Sujin is one example. After rumors of her smoking and drinking as a minor went viral online, along with people voicing allegations that they were victim to her violence at school, Sujin ended up leaving the group.
“That’s why BTS said that K-pop is wearing them down — because it does,” he said. “People need to start asking themselves whether they’re giving just as much room for change and improvement, as much as they are holding the celebrities to their strict standards.”
A member of the annual Korean Music Awards' selection committee and a prolific pop music critic, Seo Jeong started his career by taking on different roles in civic art groups in the early 2000s, including the now-dismembered Nationalism Music Association and the Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organization of Korea.
There, he witnessed the realities of what artists of various genres face and began writing about music to help indie artists out with their press releases and promotion. Seo Jeong studied Korean literature at Hanyang University Erica Campus and culture studies at the Graduate School of Culture at Sungkonghoe University.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview taken on June 30 at his residence in Eunpyeong District, northern Seoul.
Q. Tell us more about the strictness of the K-pop industry. Why are Korean celebrities subject to such high standards?
A. It’s because people equate one action to the whole person. But it’s not just K-pop: It’s Korea in general.
But even if it means our human rights awareness is rising, can we really say that one action defines the whole person? Are we giving second chances as much as we are punishing people? Are we as fair to someone when we’re pointing our fingers at them as when we’re reassessing them?
Even when someone says the right thing, they’re subject to criticism if it touches on the wrong issues. Take the case of Sam Okyere [who spoke out on racism], who you can't see on TV anymore because he messed with Koreans’ nationalism, and Steve Yoo.
This isn’t just limited to the entertainment scene, but I wish that people would try to take a balanced stance. Even if the majority of people believe in one thing, it shouldn’t be so difficult for people with other beliefs to speak out.
How is this representative of the whole Korean culture?
Korea is a suffocating society. Koreans are fierce, whether that be in entertainment or even education. There's an excessive obsession to be No. 1.
It is certainly different from Western countries, which is why it’s often subject to criticism.
In a way, the way that fans project their egos onto the stars is similar to how parents project themselves onto their children and hope for them to be the best. That’s why fans spend money to buy albums and spend time streaming music to push the singers higher up on charts.
Because they have reflected their own selves in the stars’ outcomes, they even feel a sense of defeat if the results don’t come out the way they had hoped.
In a way, fans aren’t enjoying music as music. To them, it’s more than that, and it’s only meaningful when their stars become No. 1.
Is there a reason for this strictness?
Koreans tend to like authenticity and originality. This often leads to dogmatic attitudes toward others where nothing is different — it’s just wrong.
Even historically, when new religions were first spread in Korea, believers wanted to keep to the principles of the religions even more than the originating country, as seen in Confucianism and Catholicism, because they wanted to be as close to the original as possible.
Add to that, people mistaking public exposure with being a public figure. Celebrities are exposed easily, so people deem them as public figures and expect them to always behave righteously. And when the bar isn’t met, the no-mercy rule kicks in.
Because celebrities can be seen as public figures, it’s easier for people to point their fingers and demand high standards. In a way, people project themselves onto the stars and expect them to act out their ideals, but get disappointed just as easily when they fail.
People need to remember that celebrities are people, that they can fail and that it hurts when people throw stones. People need to imagine that they’re at the receiving end of their remarks, before they make them.
What do you think of BTS’s announcement and their solo activities?
I’m sure that being “worn down” wasn’t the only reason that BTS took a break, but I think it will have a positive influence on the K-pop scene.
BTS has spoken out on how the members feel, and they’ve also sent the message that stars can stop activities when they want and that the agency has agreed to it. Whatever the real reason may be, they’ve let people know that K-pop stars will take a break if they need to.
I hope this presents an opportunity for other stars to speak out on how they are coping and what thoughts they have on the industry.
We won’t know for now what effects BTS’s announcement will have on the K-pop scene. But the fact that more stars are opening up about their thoughts and the fact that their fans are supporting them is a good thing.
Overseas listeners and even some Koreans often think that K-pop is all there is to the Korean music industry. How is this affecting the music market?
It’s true that more entertainment companies are jumping onto the K-pop bandwagon because it makes money, but there have been and always will be musicians in diverse genres. They just don’t stand out as much because K-pop is innately more fashionable and fancy.
K-pop’s exponential growth is certainly helping Korea become better known on the global stage, but its scale is inevitably overshadowing other genres in the process.
For other music genres to survive, different works need to be exposed more, whether that be through the media or on the streets.
We talk about the media and entertainment companies, but the government also needs to pitch in.
People living in Seoul have easier access to music venues, record shops and other types of shops related to music, but that chance is scarce for people living in smaller cities. It doesn’t have to be big. It could be an independent book store or a small park. It just has to be enough to let people experience the different kinds of art that exist.
In what ways can people become more interested in non-K-pop songs?
There has to be a very active effort. People need to experiment with a lot of different genres to realize what they like, and the media needs to cover music genres that haven’t been made known.
No one is free from the fad, me and you included, because it’s easy and rewarding to copy others.
People say things like, “Music these days just isn’t good enough” or “Why has this song just come out now?” But in reality, they’ve never taken the time to actively search for good songs that are and have been out there all along.
And even if you’ve found a singer you like, you easily grow tired if you can’t talk about that singer with other people because they’re not famous. Sharing your tastes causes a sort of synergy and the feedback from others develops it further.
Finding out what you like or dislike takes effort. You need to take the time to listen to all 100 songs on the charts and more to see if you like each of them and then build on from that.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]