Unlocking The K-pop Machine’s Key To International Fame

K-pop has taken over the world, but in no ways was this industry’s massive popularity a mere coincidence.

The phrase, “Oppa Gangnam Style,” likely triggers an instant memory in your mind. The grip that the virality of the “Gangnam Style” music video held over the world in 2012 was one not yet seen before. The top comment on the YouTube video, which now stands at over four billion views, “When everyone listened to K-pop without knowing it was K-pop.”

Today, K-pop as its own genre is well-known across the world. The popular boy band, BTS, just collaborated on a meal with McDonalds. The girl group, Black Pink, has its own documentary on Netflix, and many other incredibly successful K groups and singers boast millions of international fans.

A fan displays their BTS Meal shrine. Photo by bts_meal_7 on Instagram

It’s not hard to see why K-pop is so popular with diverse demographics – the catchy tunes, engaging visuals, intricate dance sequences, and stunning stars hold enough wow factor to charm anybody remotely interested in pop music. K-pop’s popularity, however, was not an organic, homegrown genre built from the bottom akin to the likes of Jazz or Country. K-pop is unique in its very curated, precise, and meticulously crafted creation – an aspect of it that receives much speculation and is the source of its greatest controversy.

Instead of the commonplace practice of music production through record labels like that in the United States, K-pop music is fully developed through large “entertainment companies” in South Korea. According to Hypebae, many of the most popular groups are owned by only a handful of companies, which gives them massive power and influence over the industry. The process through which K-pop stars are recruited and trained is referred to as “The K-pop Machine,” for its mass production of Korean superstars. In the Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, the members of the girl group recount their days as “trainees” for the industry, YG Entertainment. They each express the difficulties that came with leaving home at a young age (trainees are recruited as early as age 11) as some members had to move to a completely different country and even learn to speak Korean.

blackpink k-pop star
Black Pink on the cover of Vogue Korea. Photo by blackpinkofficial on Instagram

The actual training that “trainees” must go through is a very controversial and long process. Lasting anywhere from a few months to potentially a full decade, trainees are held to a strict schedule consisting of both late nights and early mornings. A former member of the K-pop band Crayon Pop, exposed her brief experience in the industry in the YoutTube video, “Confessions Of A Former K-pop Idol.” In the video she admits to being forced to go on a strict diet, only getting four hours of sleep per night, and practicing dance until her legs were swollen and bruised. She also exposed the contract terms she signed with her company, which she was made to sign while still a trainee. Under the contract the group members were only able to receive 30% of their profits and were often accused of owing the company money for production costs.

According to Grunge, contracts between  potential stars and their entertainment companies are often referred to as “slave contracts” as the terms are incredibly restrictive and essentially strip basic freedom rights from the signer. Common rules dictated in contracts include the stars not being allowed to date, get tattoos, drive, drink, or go out on their own unsupervised.

Beauty standards in South Korea are incredibly strict, as a result, K-pop stars are held to an incredibly high expectation. According to The Vou, physical features most strived for in the country include a thin physique, pale skin, a double eyelid, heart shaped face, small and plump lips, and a small nose. Due to the intense pressure to fit the standard and considering that many aspects of the standard are not achievable simply through products, diet or exercise, plastic surgery is quite common among the people of South Korea. It is reported that around 20% of young Korean women alone have undergone cosmetic surgery and it is not uncommon for them to receive it as a graduation gift in the country. Speculation surrounding K-pop stars and plastic surgery is high – there are thousands of videos and articles online comparing the before and after photos of K-pop stars in their youth and in the present day. Although it is never explicitly stated, it would not be out of the cultural ordinary for stars to go under the knife in pursuit of the “perfect look” to fulfill their K-pop personas.

“K Beauty” has taken over the global beauty industry. Photo by Sunny Ng on Unsplash

These personas and the intense training process that all K-pop stars are required to complete before “debuting” is not superfluous, but rather to ensure perfection in the entertainment company’s curated algorithm of success. The K-pop industry is oftentimes the only impression of South Korea that many people hold and for this reason (the fact that it is worth $5 billion,) it is highly monitored to a level of perfection which organically is unattainable. Although the darker sides of the industry are not flaunted, many are aware and criticize the giants who control it for their questionable treatment of the stars. Despite this, the groups maintain a loyal fanbase of millions and companies still receive countless auditions to train thousands of young potentials who will never ever debut. The K-pop machine, however controversial it may be, is a guaranteed modern path to international fame.

Delaney Beaudoin

Content Creator & FB Manager

Having grown up in a non-traditional family of intersecting identities, Delaney takes pride in her blank-slate, open-minded perception of the world. Her interests in writing, politics, and travel converge perfectly to fuel her intense passion for journalism and the pursuit of truth in modern media. Delaney values her tendency towards impulsivity and loves the unprecedented circumstances that come with traveling.

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