After “Gangnam Style” made YouTube history by reaching over one billion views, the rest of the world starting paying attention to pop music coming out of Korea, also known as “K-pop”. Although Psy is a married man in his late 30s with children, as a whole the multibillion dollar K-pop industry is mostly dominated by girl groups. Much like the American music industry when Phil Spector pioneered his “Wall of Sound”, industry suits churn out groups that all look the same and embody that girlish, doe-eyed innocence so many labels crave. Yet, surprising nobody, there’s a dark side to this industry and the bubblegum pop it’s spreading around the world. I recently came across an article that talks about the darker side of K-pop, and it was fascinating.
Although girl groups are the main contenders in K-pop, the industry is especially hard on Korean women. Take, for example, Park Boram, viewed as the poster child for the K-pop ideal. To get where she is today, she went through a four-year training process that included learning to dance, sing and act, even modifying her appearance. She had to change her hair, face and body, dropping 66 pounds.
Park’s debut single is called “Beautiful”, although the title in Korean translates to “I became pretty”. The video shows Park working out and weighing her food, and the lyrics involve eating only a banana and an egg every day. These changes were encouraged by Park’s management company. For reasons such as this, a lot of people are concerned that K-pop companies don’t give the performers enough control over their own identities, and that K-pop sends a materialistic, Barbie-esque message to the youth of Korea.
According to Ewha University professor Heather Willoughby, who specializes in Korean music and culture, Korean culture places a heavy emphasis on looks. This could have a lot to do with the influence that modern technology has on Korea; it’s home to one of the fastest Internet speeds in the world, and there are more mobile phones in the country than there are people. Traditionally, Korean culture is highly collective, so there’s a whole lot of pressure to fit in.
There have been some names in the K-pop industry fighting against these trends, such as Amber, who has created a “tomboy” identity for herself after leaving her girl group. Or Sophia Pae, whose career started when she appeared on a reality show, but now controls her own sound. Of course, names like Park Boram, who says that the sacrifices she made for her career were well worth it, remain some of the loudest in the industry.