Anyone who has watched a documentary on K-pop will be familiar with the grueling hours of music and dance practice trainees must endure before having a chance to appear on the stage. Most begin as elementary students, balancing an unlikely future of fame with the more likely future of needing a college degree. Money, time, and energy are poured into the endeavor by thousands of families each year, a journey from which only a few dozen will emerge “successful.”
As the recent high-profile suicides of Choi Sulli and Goo Hara have shown, this success appears to have a price. Those of us in the public domain will likely never know for sure what transpired to motivate such tragic ends. Many theories will be suggested: overwork, stress, drugs, alcohol, sex tapes, debt, and blackmail. Perhaps the truth may even be a combination of several factors. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the K-pop industry needs to start rethinking how it prepares and protects its young stars.
For every human, youth is a forum of learning. It is where we make mistakes (many of them) and try, despite our shortcomings, to make sense of the world and find our place within it. Psychologists use a variety of terms like “adjustment,” “conceptualization,” and “self-actualization” to describe the complex processes through which we form a sense of self. It is when this sense of self is sufficiently damaged that people begin to consider drastic measures like suicide.
I myself, in my youth, have also contemplated suicide. Many people I know say they have as well. In the vast majority of cases, these moments are fleeting. Nevertheless, it is possible they are part of a common human experience we are all destined to face. For most of the people I have spoken with, suicidal thoughts abate when we are reminded of things like our kinship with friends or family, our belief in a better future, or our pride in a past accomplishment. It is usually some sense of meaningful belonging and independent self-worth that allows us to endure, waving off the need for an untimely end. And here is where K-pop inadvertently presents a problem.
K-pop, in many ways, is a scientific industry. It surprises many to know most performances are not created by the performers. Rather, they are specifically designed by professional writers and composers to please target audiences. Extensive research is conducted to identify consumer tastes and performers are molded to fit them. This molding occurs through the careful choice of sounds and dance, extending to explicit contract clauses requiring trainees to undergo plastic surgery, specific workout programs, diet regiments, and daily weigh-ins so they can better fit their designated roles.
Put simply, K-pop stars are usually mere vehicles for implementing the artistic visions of others. Most stars have few choices about what they sing or how they dance, with the contracts they signed as teenagers relinquishing such creative decisions to the production company. The way it is argued is that the company takes a risk by investing time and energy into its trainees, thus “deserving” exclusive rights over production. The unfortunate consequence is that K-pop stars, until they reach very high levels of stardom, are usually nothing more than employees following a carefully crafted script, prompting many to refer to such arrangements as “slave contracts.”
Young adults and children are thrust into this carefully designed and choreographed environment, often with their parents as willing accomplices, helping to facilitate grueling schedules and, at times, a total relinquishment of freedom to accommodate the demands of the product. Sure, if the performers are lucky, they get to be famous and make money, but they remain at the beck and call of their production company, a product to be sold until their contract expires. Requirements often include impromptu performances and unscheduled trips arranged with little prior notice, disrupting any semblance of a normal life.
These environments create some fundamental challenges for the development of well-adjusted adults. First, the rigid yet unpredictable structure prevents trainees from having many experiences making their own decisions. Psychology research these days is quite clear in demonstrating that these experiences are essential for developing empathy, sound judgment, and a clear understanding of the potential consequences for one’s actions. Some research suggests young adults without such experiences may be more likely to act recklessly, break the law, and knowingly challenge authority. Sometimes, this may even be done in a desperate attempt to exercise some modicum of freedom and control over their lives, things frequently deprived in a K-pop life.
Related to this is the issue of enabling. In psychology, enabling is described as the process in which a person is allowed, by others, to pursue their own personal needs and desires, irrespective of negative consequences. The sexual exploitations perpetrated by recently convicted male K-pop stars Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon would be good examples of crimes enabled by those around them. In most cultures, people can become very deferent to the successful and famous, treating them with greater leeway, even when they engage in unsavory or illegal acts. Given that South Korea experiences a strong stratification of society, this deference can be even more pronounced.
Experience with failure and success is another arena where K-pop trainees may encounter problems. Most well-adjusted adults generally experience a diverse balance of each on their way through childhood. Failures allow us to learn strategies to overcome pain and disappointment while successes give us confidence and feelings of self-worth. The problem with these experiences is that they are rarely transferrable. For example, overcoming the difficulties of learning a new dance move does not help much when encountering rejection from a date.
The K-pop life, unfortunately, often prevents young adults from experiencing this balance, hindering their ability to overcome the trials of adulthood in a constructive manner. If trainees are constantly showered with success and adoration, a sudden rejection or failure can feel like a soul-crushing blow against the contrast of previous triumphs, possibly prompting depression. This depression is indubitably exacerbated by the strict requirements compelling K-pop stars to maintain a public image consistent with their assigned roles. This can make it difficult for them to confide their problems and seek emotional support, depriving them of a very necessary coping mechanism. And although fans are often led to hold the perception that performers in a K-pop group are best friends, the truth is they often are more coworkers than anything, adding to the isolation.
From the outside, being a K-pop trainee may appear to be, among other things, glamorous and enviable. But when considered from the inside, it is more of an isolating journey of sad perseverance, even a lost childhood. You are removed from your family and friends for long stretches of time and surrounded by people who are focused on using you to achieve a monetary end. If you are unlucky, you may even be exposed to the exploitative and predatory aspects of those seeking to take advantage of fame. Worse, you may even become one of those predators. Whatever the case, the K-pop industry has some serious soul searching to do. There is more to life than song and dance and the young people who are put through the machinations of a K-pop life deserve better.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai.