“This award belongs to the every people around the world that shine their love and light on us by the millions and make BTS proud everywhere. Please Army, remember what we say, love myself, love yourself.” RM, the leader of the K-pop group BTS said in self-taught English, though his native language is Korean. Winning the Top Social Artist marked the first time a Korean pop artist or group has won an award at the Billboard Music Awards.
In an awards show dominated by white and Latino artists, BTS finished their speech with a short message in Korean, thanking the fans once again and vowing to work harder. It didn’t matter that most of the audience did not understand them at that moment. It mattered that the Korean language and music were being represented on a mainstream Western stage due to K-pop’s massive influence around the globe.
According to the Creative Content Agency, K-pop concert tickets and K-pop group merchandise sales brought in an outstanding $4.7 billion in global revenue in 2016 alone. According to Bloomberg, the top 200 K-pop artists gathered 24 billion views on YouTube, a global forum in which 80 percent of the views came from outside of South Korea.
But as much as they are popular, K-pop groups receive ridicule for encouraging blatantly superficial qualities through the endorsement of plastic surgery, idols’ unhealthy effort towards achieving the “ideal” body, and albums that prioritize excitement rather than musicality.
Fans of K-pop are particularly problematic in their worship of the idols, as they often expect perfection of their idols, causing idols to feel obligated to maintain this image in order to stay loved.
It’s tempting to say that K-pop’s success is a result of positive measures that the industry has taken. But the global influence that K-pop has had in recent years is a product of strenuous lifestyles that are enforced upon the artists throughout their musical career.
The industry’s treatment of idols has always been a controversial topic. Multiple articles and entertainment shows have revealed the intense training and lifestyle that these celebrities are forced to endure to achieve success. In 2008, members of the legendary K-pop band TVXQ sued their management agency for forcing them to sign an outrageous 13-year long contract. In response to this court case, the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) passed a law that set seven years as the maximum length of time that a contract remains valid. But not much has changed beyond the contract time span, and the mindset that is perpetuated throughout the fan community is to blame.
Many cite the industry’s overwhelming success in defense of the harsh conditions, as if to say that the ends justify the means, but the belief that all K-pop idols are living a prosperous lifestyle due to advancement overseas is simply not true. The contracts that K-pop idols must sign with their respective agencies when they first start training hold them accountable for every singing and dancing lesson that they receive; once they debut, a large portion of the money that they make is taken from them to pay off these “debts.”
In fact, these infamous contracts have often taken advantage of K-pop idols’ success. In an entertainment show, well-known rapper Loco confessed that he was forced to pay a penalty fee of the Korean equivalent of $186,800 dollars in order to leave a management agency to which he was contractually bound to.
Most prospective artists begin training at around 12 to 13 years old, and companies manipulate these young trainees into believing that their dreams will be fulfilled if they sign over decades of their lives. Once trainees sign the contract, they move into company dormitories where their companies enforce strict diets upon them, require long hours of practice, and take hold of their personal lives, including their romantic relationships.
Koreans live according to the principle that one can succeed through hard work, but the measures that K-pop industries have taken to turn their idols into well-oiled factory machines ignore human needs.
If companies themselves are trying to show that the best idols are flawless, what is to stop fans from demanding that all K-pop artists are the same? Companies follow public appeal, and if they find that more people want to see distant and shining icons instead of up-close respected artists, they will continue to tweak their policies to fit this expectation until K-pop artists nearly suffocate under the pressure.
Management agencies YG, JYP, and SM have created countless groups that have become international sensations, so much so that the K-pop music genre has become primarily populated by groups from these three companies. However, groups such as 2NE1 found fault in the companies’ hold over all of their trainees and idols, citing the restriction on dating as an obvious example of a controlling environment.
To have enforced policies that infringed upon idols’ freedom is one thing, but to shamelessly continue to include it in contracts despite media coverage of its harmful effects on idols’ mental health demonstrates how entertainment companies use the recent success to justify inexcusable methods.
Not all K-pop entertainment companies have a Spartan, money-hungry mindset, however. Suga, the main rapper of BTS, confessed in a YouTube Red documentary that he had delivered food to pay for college tuition while he was still a trainee. Upon getting into a serious car accident that left his shoulder severely hurt, Suga resolved to quit his training in order to save the company the trouble of trying to debut an injured singer; Bighit Entertainment, the company he had signed with, decided to pay for his entire college tuition instead, promising him that they would wait for him to heal. Additionally, unlike the three main entertainment companies, Bighit Entertainment has also allowed BTS dating rights ever since their debut.
But BTS, and plenty of Korean pop singers that aren’t held back by their companies, remain cautious. Although entertainment companies and management agencies may have established restrictive policies on idols, ultimately, it is the fans who enforce them. As loyal and dedicated fans are to their respective idols, these people are the loudest protesters when their idols stray from the perfect image that they expect them to stay dutiful to.
Recently, a rumor that artist Suran and Suga of BTS were dating surfaced when fans analyzed a harmless Instagram post by Suran to mean more. Though the rumor turned out to be false, Suran received so much backlash from BTS fans that she replaced her post with a lengthy apology, stating that she did not mean to hurt the fans’ feelings. What should have been a common occurrence for two adults became a grossly complicated scandal when fans let their selfish wants affect personal matters.
The hatred that is incited from a leaked video of a celebrity swearing, a disheveled picture of normally dazzling singer, or the dating rumors of a loved icon contribute to the increasing oppression of those in the K-pop industry more than any exploiting contract or company.
In December of last year, Jong-hyun, lead singer of the famous K-pop band Shinee, committed suicide. Jong-hyun was loved and adored by so many people around the world, but this truth ultimately killed him. In an industry in which he was expected to be the shining icon, Jong-hyun’s insecurities were hidden. Whether this was because his management agency wanted to make more profit by showcasing only the side of a confident and talented singer or because fans looked to him to be the perfect role model, Jong-hyun could not voice his insecurities and paid the price for it.
“I thought that people didn’t want to know the real me” Jonghyun said 3 years ago on “The 4 Things Show.”
To call for the elimination of the entire industry would mean losing a great opportunity for excellent music. Fans all over the world find consolation in their relationships with their idols. As awareness of mental health increases, numerous K-pop idols have taken the opportunity to address the social issues implied in the strict enforcement of “ideal” behavior in contracts.
However, it is imperative that fans rethink their relationships with these artists and start seeing them as humans instead of gods.