The Dark Side of the K-Pop Boom

Death threats, letters written in blood, fans who want to kidnap them…and that’s what happens to the lucky few who make it big in K-pop.

Rivika Khanna reports.

Source- Girlstyle Singapore

Everyone’s heard of K-pop, the genre of music from South Korea which draws from styles and genres from around the world, all pastiched on top of traditional Korean music roots. Earlier, South Korean pop music was called Gayo (가요). K-pop experienced significant growth and became a 'power player'. In 2019, K-pop is ranked at number six among the top ten music markets worldwide according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's Global Music Report 2019, with BTS cited as artists leading the market growth. In 2020, K-pop experienced a record-breaking year when it positioned itself as the fastest-growing major market of the year. While you sway along and snap your fingers, you should know that K-pop also has its dark side.

Aspiring K-pop stars, known as "trainees," sign contracts with management agencies when the trainee is aged 12 or 13. The level of inequality is best described by the fact that this long-term contract between the wannabe Korean idols and their management agencies are called ‘slave contract’.

That’s only the beginning. Now they must be reshaped to meet market demands. The slave contract lasts for an indefinite period of time, ranging from months to years, and usually involves vocal, dance, and language classes taken while living together with other trainees.

This trainee system was popularised as part of a concept labelled cultural technology. Cultural technology is a system used by South Korean talent agencies to promote K-pop culture throughout the world as part of the Korean Wave. You’re doing it for the nation, stop whining and eat your nice lettuce leaf.

Trainees also attend school at the same time, although some trainees drop out to focus on their careers. Once a trainee enters the system, s/he is controlled in every possible way. Food is monitored. Even the amount of water they drink is controlled for too much water might cause bloating. Because this is not just about music, it’s also about the optics. In the world of K-pop, you aren’t allowed to have a Streisand nose or a Mangeshkar hair-style. You must look like a star and that means you must look wholesome and not ‘too Korean’. So, that means plastic surgery not to conceal blemishes but nose jobs and eyelid jobs and other realignments to fit in with a prevailing beauty stereotype.

“I was like okay, if that’s what it is, I have to do it. If that’s what I want, if I want to chase my dreams, if I want to do this dream job, that’s what I have to do.”, said Amber Liu, the former member of F(x) girl band, who was interviewed by CBS This Morning.

Because it’s not good enough to look good. You have to look as good or better than all the other members of your band. In K-pop, a ‘visual hole’ is a term which describes a member who looks the least attractive in the group. You so do not want to be the visual hole. The ‘fans’ will gang up on you. The trolls will attack you with that peculiar ferocity Netizens reserve for completely unimportant issues like the colour of the t-shirt you wore at a salon launch.   

All over the Western world, the pop star is allowed a certain leeway. You trash the stage, you bite off the head of a bat, you snort as much as your nose can take and it’s all part of the lifestyle. Not in K-pop. The argument is that South Korea is a traditional society and so the wholesome look must be matched with a wholesome image.

This means you have to be cute, you may even be sexy, but you must fit into the binary box. You must be cis-gender. You must be heterosexual. Idols can neither date, nor interact with members of the opposite sex, nor interact with members of a rival company and almost all hours are dedicated to practice, shows, concerts and concert tours.

You must live your brand. You must be the look whether you’re on stage, on set or even at the airport. There are fans everywhere, there are cameras everywhere, every space is a stage and each time you will be judged. 

So far, so ordinary. Beauty pageant contestants do pretty much the same thing. Mumbai’s strugglers will tell you how difficult it is to pay for the right gym and how important it is to be seen in the right trainers with the right trainer so that you might score a few column inches in the local media, so that you might go viral on the next big social media platform. But it’s the economics that tell the story. The management companies decide the members of a band and their training. When a new star earns money, a huge part (roughly 70-80%) of it goes to the management to pay off the investment in training.

However, the real controls are in the hands of the fans. Each K-pop group has its own fan base with a name: BTS’ fandom is Army, MonstaX’s fandom is Monbebe, EXO's is EXO-L, Seventeen's fandom is Carats, and so on. The army shows up in support, armed with the appropriate lightstick. (Each group has its own lightstick with trademark colours.) Ooh, aah, let the music play, and if the fans are happy, the lightsticks allow the artists to look out over an ‘ocean of fans’ and see their trademark lightsticks glow in the dark. If the fans are not happy, the lightsticks are tucked away. The K-pop star will look out on to a black ocean. Too many black oceans and they may fall into the black hole from which no light ever emerges.

The democratisation of the internet means Netizens can get really nasty.  The competition for eyeballs is heavy and espionage reared its ugly head. Meet the fake fan. S/he pretends to be a fan of Team X while really her/his heart belongs to Team Y. S/he may behave in the way the paparazzi did, seeking out anything, any little thing, that will hurt Team X.  

Toxic fandoms involve ‘haters’ to spread hate. There are two subcategories of haters. The first category is, ‘Haters [who are] into K-pop’, which is a subgroup within the main fandom who want to spread hate and rumours about other idol groups who are in competition with the group they care about. They also engage in target harassment for their rivals by disliking the music videos, making negative comments and that kind of stuff.

The second category is ‘Haters not into K-pop’, who are also called ‘anti- fans’ or ‘antis’. It includes people and/ or netizens who are either not at all into K-pop or have a little knowledge about K-pop. This is the exact opposite of a fan. They despise a band or artist, they devote time to mocking, criticizing, or making derivative works about it. Many of these anti-fandoms even have names; TWICE's critics are called ‘Thrice.’

Finally, there is the ‘sasaeng’ or ‘sasaeng fan’ is an obsessive fan who stalks, or engages in other behaviour creating an invasion of the privacy of a Korean idol. “Sasaengs begin as normal fans but get so obsessed with their idols that they do not understand that they are invading the idol’s personal life,” said a fan. Sasaengs have been known to cause all kinds of trouble from cyberbullying (posting threats, death threats on social media) to writing messages in blood and in some instances, kidnapping, or causing car accidents. Sasaengs stalk their idols on social media networks, airports, restaurants, etc.

Many K-pop stars have spoken about how hurtful and scary it is for them to encounter the sasaengs. If you add a threat to the already potent mess of being starved, overworked and kept under a magnifying glass, it’s no wonder that ome K-pop idols like Lee Hye-Ryeon, Ahn So Jin, Kim Jonghyun, Choi Jin-ri (Sulli) and Goo Hara have suffered from stress, depression and have died of depression. Taeyeon of the K-pop girl band SNSD (Girl’s Generation), once posted her call logs on Instagram, asking fans to stop calling her so that she can sleep. 

Jessica, a Korean singer, songwriter, actress and businesswoman, was pursued by a man down the street right up to her house. He even tried to get inside. 

In the case of Tao, former member of the South Korean-Chinese boy band Exo and its Chinese sub-unit, Exo-M, a sasaeng broke into a hotel where he was scheduled to stay and installed microphones. The sasaeng later released audio files of him singing in the shower.
Jackson, a Hong Kong rapper, singer and dancer based in China, founder of record label Team Wang and a member of the South Korean boy group GOT7, got into a road accident because 

he was being chased by a group of sasaengs. 

BTS, a seven-member boy band, were stalked and chased by a sasaeng, during their vacation. In another instance, BTS members while going live on Vlive, a social media application, were stalked by a sasaeng inside their dorm (room) who deceptively worked as a part of BTS’ crew. They have been physically touched/ assaulted by sasaengs while travelling for concerts.