In 2013, Lorde released her song, ‘Tennis Court’ through a minimalistic music video. It features the singer in a plain black background, eyes wide, pale face, black lipstick and her dark hair up, staring right at the screen. That same year, SHINEE wore army inspired white outfits, bleached hair and heavy makeup, dancing intricate steps in perfect synchronization for their music video ‘Everybody’.
One Direction, and Destiny’s Child came into the airwaves as groups whose history go back to formed friendships and filial connections. There were no stringent dance routines, and their opinions mattered in their music style and message.
But on the other side of the world, such contrast is present in KPop artists. Perhaps the first thing that will be noticed in the KPop industry is its carefully structured nature–its music, the videos, its artists and their personal lives. After auditioning, they undergo years of harsh training, should they get accepted into a company. During this period, they are briefed of their music style, message and image to portray in front of the cameras and the fans. Authenticity is out of the question since day one in the industry.
KPop is known for its tough competition. So much is at stake that companies cannot gamble the company’s reputation to let their artists work independently. SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment were known to produce the biggest artists in Asia, such as EXO and Girls’ Generation (SM), and Big Bang and Psy (YG). While being a singer-songwriter is very common in Western artists in the likes of One Direction, Ed Sheeran, and Taylor Swift, singers such as G-Dragon of BIGBANG, IU, BTS and the late Jonghyun of SHINEE who create their own materials are very unique in South Korea.
The sense of authenticity is rare in KPOP. Almost everything about these artists are packaged and well planned. More often than not, these artists have no hand in their artistry and branding–TAEYEON, the leader of Girls’ Generation, is very vocal of not being fond of their group’s music–and have no choice if the company tells them to undergo drastic makeovers through plastic surgery and skin bleaching. All these for the sake of marketability and revenue.
Not only are these artists very limited in their music, their personal lives are also controlled by their companies for almost their entire career. What they share, do and say in the public eye are controlled and taught to them beforehand. This is because fans are (almost sickeningly) also critical of their idols, nitpicking everything from the clothes they wear, to how they look at another idol within their vicinity.
It is this level of possessiveness and scrutiny that limited the amount of the artist’s personal life that is provided to the fans. While every Directioner knows who Anne Twist and Trisha Malik are, no fans knows the name of Jungkook’s parents, unless extensive sleuthing is done by obsessive fans. In ways that western artists are open with their fans, a high degree of secrecy is applied to Hallyu artists’ personal life.
And with reason. While overly obsessive fans of One Direction are satisfied with being able to follow the singers’ personal accounts on Twitter and Instagram, KPop fans resort to great lengths that they can be convicted as criminals have they not been underaged. The fan’s lack of sense of privacy differ in more ways than one. The news of fans gatecrashing Greg Horan’s wedding led to many Directioners apologizing in behalf of their sisters’ lack of a sense respect and privacy. On the other hand, such intrusion is a common occurrence to a Hallyu star’s daily life. EXO D.O.’s underwear being stolen and sold on eBay are proof that fans go as far as trespass their dorms and private belongings, while fans gatecrashing and threatening family members are common on Hallyu news sites.
The level of restraint artists go through is unprecedented for fans, especially for those who have been used to the openness of western artists. While it is common to see a woman in Justin Bieber’s arms, a night out between two Korean artists who are widely known to have been best friends for years can still cause quite a stir in the fandom, alongside it speculations that there could be something more to it. The over analysis and speculations of dating and homosexuality can affect a Hallyu star’s image, which limits their interactions with their peers. In ways that Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift are known to be best friends, a mere picture of JIMIN with a female high school friend caused a stir in many Korean news outlets. Suffice to say, friendship between the opposite sex is rare, almost unacceptable for fans, in the KPop industry.
What makes KPop special doesn’t really make it special. In fact, any fan who would take a closer look at the artists’ lives can be hit with a pang of pity. It is obvious that many of these artists have no lives outside of their careers as singers. With no friends to openly hang out with, romantic interests to freely take out on dates, and family members to go out with without being hoarded by intrusive fans, it seems that their social lives are nonexistent.
Not allowed to go out, openly drink, smoke or make mistakes, it seems that these artists have their entire lives cut out for them. What makes KPop special doesn’t really make it special. In fact, these aspects that differentiate their industry to the rest of the world makes them appear naive and unusual when thrown in the mix with their Western peers (consider BTS’s stay in the States during the Billboard Music Awards last year). With their every single word, and movement under scrutiny and ready for (mis)(over)interpretation, it seems that these artists sacrificed authenticity for image, their personal growth for fame, their lives and genuine happiness for influence.