What You Don’t Know About K-pop

Light Up the Sky, a documentary film about global sensation K-pop girl group Blackpink, recently premiered on Netflix. As a Blink, what Blackpink’s fans endearingly call themselves, I was excited to see the behind the scenes of creating music. However, while watching the documentary, I teared up and was reminded of how brutal the K-pop industry is toward aspiring singers and artists. Even though this documentary shows some of the hardships and struggles, there is even more that isn’t shown entirely in the film. 

camcorder on blue background

The beginning of the journey of an aspiring K-pop idol starts as young as seven years old. At this age, they audition then sign a five-year contract with an entertainment agency who will take them in as trainees. Eventually, they are chosen from a large number of trainees to debut in an idol group. During their time as trainees, they live in dorms away from their family and friends and are required to practice rapping, dancing, singing, and learning different languages. For female trainees, they are also required to maintain a specific weight throughout their training, with weekly evaluations where they are weighted and judged based on their performance, which is shown in the Blackpink film. There are also times when the higher-ups abuse the trainees. Another documentary that touches more on the darker issues within the K-pop industry is Idol Dreams. In this documentary, they explain the case of K-pop band The East Light, who suffered years of physical and verbal abuse from their music director. This situation sheds light on the harsh realities of the K-pop industry and has prompted fans to question how many trainees have been victims of abuse. It is terrifying to think about how many young children are separated from their parents and taught to be obedient to higher-ups no matter the circumstance in order to succeed in becoming a K-pop idol. 

woman in bed under covers

The exploitation and abuse of K-pop artists continue even after they debut and have become successful artists. As a K-pop idol, they are required to maintain the image of a perfect product that looks and acts a certain way. Every performance needs to be perfect, and they need to show their fierce or energetic selves at all times. Popular girl group Nine Muses suffered various humiliations and putdowns from their manager, directors, and staff in charge of their performances whenever they made a mistake, as shown in the Nine Muse documentary. In Light Up the Sky, one of the main singers, Rose, mentions how when preparing for a tour or a comeback, she lives for the next day of work, and when she returns to the hotel or home, she feels empty. K-pop is no longer about the love for music but capitalism and exploitation of young aspiring artists. As K-pop has become more global, many fans have pointed out the extreme training and exploitation of K-pop idols. As a result, some record labels have made changes to provide idols with more creative freedom as artists, but there is still more to be done.

Girl Holding Vinyl Record

As a K-pop fan, it is a difficult situation because on the one hand, I don't want to support the capitalist mindset of the record labels and accept their ways of training. However, not supporting means many talented performers won't follow their dreams and their hard work might go to waste. Instead, they can end up being in debt with the record label for the money they invested in them. Only after years in an active group do they start earning a salary, and many artists receive less than half of the group's total earnings. This is why many fans feel the need to support even while knowing they are being overworked and treated as a product. I support the artists in ways that I can and form part of the fandom activist groups that will speak out when they see something unethical or immoral being done by the record labels or staff. Sometimes we might be blinded by the amazing choreography, stunning music videos, visuals, and addictive songs, so we forget about the behind the scenes. Light Up the Sky ends with the girls gathering at a restaurant they often visited when they were trainees to talk about what their future might look like. As a Blink, I hope their future is filled with happiness. I know that they don't have to be perfect because no one is perfect, and that is OK.  

I highly recommend watching the documentaries Light Up the Sky, Idol Dream, and Nine Muse to learn more about the realities of the K-pop industry.