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Capitalism Over Artistry—The K-pop Industry

Behind the glamorous world of the elaborately choreographed dances and impeccable fashion of K-pop lies a dark secret of exploitative capitalism. This is a direct consequence of the ‘Hallyu Wave’ — a cultural phenomenon which refers to the rapid growth in popularity of Korean pop, encompassing everything from music, movies, TV dramas that have swept across most parts of Asia like China, Japan, and various Southeast Asian countries and are now taking over the western world too. The South Korean government has made it a priority to become a leading exporter of pop culture to develop its ‘soft’ power, allowing the country to wield its power through image rather than brute force.

When the anti-communist and pro-American leader, Syngman Rhee became the president of Korea in 1945, there were only light traces of Korean popular music, which were left by the American missionaries who were in Korea before the liberation. As Rhee’s manner of the overtly authoritarian rule set in, the Korean War, only one of the many proxies of the Cold War was fought. The USO (United Service Organisation) hosted shows with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong for the troops that remained in South Korea, which further influenced the westernisation of Korean music.

Syngman Rhee, who came into power after the Korean War was a pro-western president and encouraged western art and culture (Photo: Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: LC-DIG-hec-26756))

The usual pentatonic scale of Korean music was gradually replaced by the heptatonic scale of its western counterpart, and this music became more and more popular. The talented singers of the impoverished country on discovering a market for their trade by performing in US army bars would take to this profession. Beatlemania in the 1960s and the rock bands that sprouted from this craze took over the spotlight from the Korean-Japanese trot music of the yesteryears.

Although highly defined by the course of music in the west, the life of the artists in this industry would be nowhere close to the life of those in the west. Corporations like the SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and the JYP Entertainment in the 1990s are called the ‘Big 3’ entertainment companies of South Korea. Through almost dictatorial production heads and monopolised TV channels, aspiring musicians had very little freedom of choice in things like dropping out of school to work and pursue their creative interests as compared to America’s popstars. The inability of the musicians to effectively pursue their interests on their own allowed these companies to exploit their talents for their own benefit. The lack of technological advances such as the phonograph which redefined pop culture, and the monopolised TV channels of the country, turned K-pop into a much more visually inclined form of music. Dance performances, props, and stages played as much a vital role as they do today.

BTS, a seven-member boy band which has led the Hallyu wave in America, shattered records and has scaled to new heights of popularity. BTS is just one of the many wildly popular idol groups—both girl groups such as Blackpink, Red Velvet, Twice, and boy bands Exo, Got7 have been on the rise. These artists are called ‘idols’, as they are trained to be proficient in singing, dancing, rapping, and performing onstage. They are talent-scouted in their pre-teen years and then inducted into a gruelling trainee process to groom, the whole process lasting several years before they are launched. Every aspect of their performances, right down to their personalities and interactions with their fans are carefully crafted as idols are essentially seen as products to be peddled to the masses.

BTS, A very popular K-Pop boy band that has been at the helm of the Hallyu Wave.

While fans across the world enjoy a special and intimate relationship with their favourite stars, K-pop takes this to a whole new level. All K-pop stars present a façade of a supremely talented, beautiful, single, heterosexual star, seemingly accessible to fans of the opposite sex. To maintain this illusion and prevent fans from becoming irrationally jealous, performers are often prohibited from dating by their companies, at least at the start of their careers. Similarly, fandoms are willing to go to any lengths to support their idols which leads to the obsessive fan culture—saesang fans do not see their favourite idol’s as human beings anymore, possessively stalking and invading their privacy.

Due to widespread cut-throat competition, the idols are made to sign restrictive so-called slave contracts that involve the companies recruiting them engulfing a major fraction of earnings from new performers at the beginning to compensate for training and launching costs. This leads to frequent cases of overworking and exploitation of idols which in turn is a major cause for mental health issues and an increasing rate of suicides among these pressured to be ‘perfect’ humans.

Idols are seen as objects of aesthetic purity and ideals. Thus, it is not unusual for Kpop idols to get plastic surgery done to achieve the unrealistic beauty standards deeply rooted in Korean society of pale porcelain skin and extremely thin bodies. Female artistes are sexualized and objectified from a young age—a concept that is vastly evident in a patriarchal and capitalist society. They are forced to conform to certain gender norms and are supposed to look flawless and sexually appealing, all while putting up an image of innocence.

However, K-pop has had the positive effect of becoming a propaganda tool that helped South Korea and their arch-enemies further up north form diplomatic ties. The countries, with a deployed troop of ‘musical foot soldiers’ in 2018, as a part of the cultural exchange, helped further the ties between both the nations. A popular all-female K-pop group, Red Velvet headlined a historic concert in Pyongyang attended by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju posing with South Korean musicians after their performance in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater in Pyongyang. (Photo :  North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency)

Although this isn’t an uncommon problem in the entertainment industries worldwide, the K-pop management companies are rife with sexism—they are known to promote their boy groups better than girl groups. YG is notorious for giving BlackPink—a current leading girl group worldwide—only one comeback per year without putting out a full album four years after their debut, all the while raking in money through the group’s merchandise and advertisements.

Due to a growing awareness of all these issues plaguing the industry, K-pop fans are perenially put in a state of a dilemma of how to support the incredibly talented artists without addressing the fact that their hard-earned money and time is poured into the unethical practices of the industry. The growing awareness has also allowed the artists to be humanized, and for fans to see them as people who can be sympathised with. We can only hope that the fans of this massive entertainment industry can influence the industry to humanize the artists and allow them the freedom to express themselves.

Featured Image Credits : Syona Mulumoodi, Vibha Bhat