2017 was a banner year for K-pop. The genre, which might have been considered niche just a few years ago, now verges on the North American mainstream. For proof of this, please direct your attention to the group known as BTS, a Korean boy band. In 2017 alone, they performed at the American Music Awards, had their album reviewed in The New York Times, and became Twitter’s most retweeted celebrities.
Between 2013 and 2017, K-pop’s overseas revenue from CDs, concert tickets, music streaming, and band merchandise doubled. Last year may have been a dumpster fire for most of us, but it’s safe to assume that the execs at South Korea’s major pop labels are pretty happy with how it played out — their neighbours to the north notwithstanding.
This level of material success made it all the more jarring when, last month, a prominent K-pop star took his own life. The suicide of SHINee frontman Kim Jong-hyun, better known as Jonghyun, on December 18 shocked the Korean entertainment sphere and made international news. His death sparked a massive outpouring of grief, with fans all over the world flocking to social media to mourn one of K-pop’s greatest talents.
Absent, however, was any degree of in-depth conversation about why it was that Jonghyun felt “broken from the inside,” as he wrote in his suicide note. This is not surprising. Despite having the highest suicide rate of any country belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea is plagued by stigma surrounding mental illness.
Jonghyun identified fame as the specific reason he ended his life. “Becoming famous was probably not my life,” he wrote. “Why did I choose that? It’s funny that I’m able to endure this much.” Fame brings immense and international pressure, but in the context of K-pop, these lines point toward a darker side of the industry — one of which many new fans may be unaware.
In South Korea, being a celebrity mandates the total sacrifice of any semblance of personal life, more so than it does in the west. This is especially true in recent years, as new platforms such as Instagram, where idols post makeup-free selfies alongside professional headshots, have allowed the industry to construct personas for its stars that simultaneously broadcast relatability alongside untouchable, effortless perfection.
“K-pop stars are… products of [the] fantasy world,” said Professor Suk-Young Kim, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in an interview with the podcast Radiolab last year. “They are not a creature of this world. They shouldn’t be.” Fantasy fuels fandom, and record companies go to great lengths to ensure their stars maintain a transcendental image. This includes forbidding idols to have romantic relationships — because it spoils the illusion. “Stars belong to the public,” said Kim.
Jonghyun himself ran up against this mandate in 2010, when paparazzi publicized his secret relationship with actress Shin Se-Kyung, and fans responded with furious accusations of betrayal.
At the same time, K-pop stars are also very much the property of their management agencies, bound by extraordinarily unfair contracts — aptly termed ‘slave contracts.’ YouTubers Simon and Martina Stawski have previously described how K-pop stars may be forced to go years without pay and to work without regard for their physical and mental health.
If a group is promoting a new release, they are likely to spend weeks on end being driven around the country, performing at several venues per day. Numerous stars have been injured or killed in car accidents, often because their exhausted drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel. What’s more, stars and trainees as young as 12 live in company-run dorms so that the agency can tightly control further aspects of their lives, including their diet.
Jonghyun was not the first K-pop star to die by suicide, nor is he likely to be the last. But even as K-pop spreads across the globe, there is no pressure on the industry to change. The current status quo is bringing in $4.7 billion USD as of 2016, according to Bloomberg. For the sake of emphasizing how meteoric K-pop’s rise has been, consider that the number was $30 million in 2009.
If working singers to the bone can increase revenue exponentially, that is what agencies are likely to keep doing. A further barrier is the fact that fans often respond to these abuses with praise for hard-working group members, not condemnation of the entertainment companies that force them to sleep on the floor. A boycott is not in the cards.
I would like to hope that something positive could come out of the death of Kim Jong-hyun, that this tragedy could spur the industry and its fans to look in the mirror and consider the costs of wedging human beings into moulds of impossible, fantastical creations. The truth is that K-pop’s burgeoning popularity likely means we’re just moving further away from that future.