The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt
Now that “The History of Kpop” has examined the system behind the creation of Korean idol stars, it seems only natural that we now explore the product of that system : the idols themselves. Korean idols experience a long and arduous journey of many years before achieving fame, if achieving it at all. In the process, they are forced to undergo many changes both physically and mentally in order to transform into Kpop stars.
The risk they take is immense, as most students of the star academy system (referred to as “trainees” from here on), barely graduate high school and often give up their college careers in the pursuit of their dream to become an idol. However, the risk’s reward has the potential to rocket them to international status and fame far beyond anything that the trainees could have imagined at the time.
This fame comes at a high price though; ironically, though they are among the most influential and admired people in the world, Korean idols often are trapped within a false image that their company has manufactured for them. They have a lack of control over their own lives that is both fascinating from an industry perspective, and frightening from an emotional, human perspective. Idols are all at once powerful in their celebrity status and yet powerless to the system that gave that status to time.
In the next few installations of “The History of Kpop,” we will explore just how a K-pop idol is created, and what their roles are within the Korean music industry. Today, we will start from the very, very beginning…
Entry into an entertainment company can occur in two different ways: auditioning or scouting. Though a less common practice today due to the development of a now widely used YouTube audition process, SM, YG, and JYP all used to host weekly auditions in which hundreds of young students would line up outside of the entertainment buildings on the weekend in the hopes of impressing a panel of the company’s talent scouts. Below you can see a clip of Hara from girl group KARA auditioning in front of a camera and a panel for JYP Entertainment when she was very young.
Children are also often scouted without having had any premeditation of becoming a singer. For example, Jessica Jung, now a member of Girls’ Generation, was at the mall with her mother and younger sister when an agent approached them. Her younger sister, Krystal Jung, at age 6 was deemed to be too young by her mother (though she too joined the company as a trainee a few years later), but the agents picked up 11-year-old Jessica, asking her to audition and eventually accepting her as an SM trainee.
In the video below is Seo Juhyun, more widely known now by her stage name, Seohyun, also of Girls’ Generation. Seohyun was cast when a talent agent saw her on the subway and asked her to audition at SM. Also only 11 years old at the time, Seohyun went into the audition, told the panel and the camera that her favorite animal was a puppy, that she could play the piano, and then sang a nursery rhyme for her audition song.
I bring up these two examples to emphasize just how young these kids are picked up by entertainment companies. The fact that the first song that came into Seohyun’s head was a nursery rhyme, and that SM wanted to pick up Krystal when she was 6 years old, just goes to show how inexperienced an impressionable the children who attend these auditions are. The reason that entertainment companies take on such young trainees is not just because they are impressionable, but because it takes a long time to hone the skill and mentality necessary to become an idol.
In fact, each of the nine members of Girls’ Generation trained for a combined 52 years at SM, an average of about 6 years each, and began their training at an average age of 11 years old, as fifth grade elementary school students. Can you think of a single thing that you committed to in the fifth grade and still do regularly today? I sure can’t. Most people can’t even pick a major when they’re 20 years old and in college, but these kids pick a career when they’re 11.
You can thus clearly see the gravity of the commitment that the trainees make when they sign a contract with an entertainment company at such a young age. Trainees are scouted so early in order for the entertainment companies to perfect them before debut, and this process was rigorous to say the least. Trainees are expected to come to they company building immediately lafter school ends around 3pm, and then practice until around 11:30 or 12pm at night, giving them just enough time to make it home before the subways shut down. For trainees who lived outside of Seoul, this could mean a three- or four-hour train ride each night and arriving home at 2am, only to wake up four hours later to go to school the next day.
As Ida Simmons, better known as Isak from the SM Entertainment duo, Isak ‘N’ Jiyeon, said in an interview with me last year, “During summer or winter break from school, it was a minimum 10am to 10pm day,” of training at the company buidling, making sure to emphasize that this was the absolute minimum.
Not only are the hours long, but the training that fills up those hours is physically trying as well. Idols are expected to be able to sing live while performing complex and high-energy choreography, a feat that requires no little amount of stamina. In fact, on a talk show in March 2012, MBLAQ revealed that many times they were forced to practice for 14 to 15 hours straight without being allowed to drink water.
Trainees spend hours and hours each day dancing and exercising in order to not only put on a good live performance, but also to develop their bodies into what fans consider to be nothing short of perfection. While most male idols are made to exercise to achieve their washboard abs, girls, according to Isak, “had their weight checked weekly to keep slim,” continuing that there were different diet plans for each female trainee. In an interview with a Korean entertainment newspaper a few years ago, the members of Apink even admitted that by the end of each day they are literally starving, but just ignore it and try to sleep.
The intense dieting and sculpting of their bodies is all part of a very important aspect of being an idol: image. In a lot of ways, talent, music, and creativity all come secondary to image in Kpop. This makes sense considering the role of the idol as a performer within the grand scheme of things: they don’t have to write the music and they can be taught the singing and dancing skills that they lack. Instead, what the entertainment companies rely on their stars to provide is a beautiful face and an irresistible body to endorse the music and choreography that has already been pre-determined for them.
Dieting and exercising are not the only methods by which idols are strongly encouraged to change their looks in order to sell albums, but that is a topic for next week. In Chapter 8 of “The History of Kpop,” we will discuss the double-standard of idols getting plastic surgery, the sexualization of idols, and the delicate process of choosing group members, so make sure to come back to moonROK next Sunday night!
Tags: Apink Girls' Generation Hara Jessica JYP Entertainment KARA MBLAQ Seohyun SM Entertainment The History of K-pop YG Entertainment