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December 21, 2022
A group of incredibly attractive and charming people walk onto stage. Their dancing is impeccable, exceptionally synchronized, and their singing and rapping echoes across the stadium, filling your ears. Thousands of fans fill the audience, screaming and waving lightsticks. This is nothing like a western music concert. These are K-pop idols.
Teenagers have probably been exposed to K-pop before you even had knowledge that K-pop existed. With songs like “Nobody,” by Wonder Girls, which was the first K-pop song to enter the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 2009, and “Gangnam Style,” by Psy, which was a huge part of opening up K-pop to a global audience. Now, we see groups like BTS and Blackpink who have further amplified K-Pop’s global success. But many people still wonder what exactly K-pop is, and why it has become such a global phenomenon.
K-pop, which is short for Korean popular music, is a genre of music that often blends traditional Korean music elements with Western influence including R&B, hip hop, electronic dance, rock, jazz, and more. K-pop combines sharp dance routines, compelling lyrics and melodies, and production value with enticing performers who have most likely spent long tiring years devoting themselves to learning to dance, sing, and sometimes rap to perfection.
Other similar genres like J-pop or C-pop haven’t blown up nearly as large or globally as K-pop. So what is the global appeal of K-pop and why has it become so popular in contrast to other Asian entertainment?
“There’s so much more that goes into the image and performances, the variety shows that they do– it’s just a lot more polished I guess,” Aubrey Foreman ‘25 said. “I think a lot of it is because people like consuming Asian entertainment, like Kdramas and anime. Also, the members are really attractive, which results in gaining even more attention.”
According to Foreman, Idols have a certain image of “perfection.” There isn’t any diversity within body types– group members are almost always the Korean beauty standard, creating an impossible idea of beauty, which can be extremely harmful. A single mistake in a dance routine, or a voice crack on stage is often faced with extreme backlash, feeding more into the idea of perfection idols often feel they need to attain.
“I don’t really get why people don’t really like pop from other places. It’s maybe just because it hasn’t really come out of the woodwork yet,” Joseph Fullenkamp ‘24 said. “I think what intrigues people about K-pop is that it’s from a different place than we are. I think that what intrigues people about K-pop is not only the celebrities but also how they take pop in a different direction.”
Why people are more enthralled by K-pop rather than pop from other places might also be answered by what the K-pop industry is doing differently than other industries.
“I feel like they keep up with the industry. They really try to do everything they can and even if that involves some ‘bad’ things, they do anything and everything in their power to really make themselves big,” Zion Araquistain ‘26 said.
One of the reasons that K-pop blew up in general is because of the emergence of BTS. On the other hand, J-pop is much less mainstream in comparison to K-pop.
“A lot of people don’t really know many J-pop artists unless they are big fans of that culture,” Edith Kang ‘24 said. “Also advertising wise you don’t see much advertising for J-pop or like Western music or other cultures like K-pop does. K-pop is really into fan service with fan meets, photocards, lightsticks, posters, and advertising them as much as they can compared to other countries.”
Effects on Fans
Fullenkamp believes that when people mention K-pop, one of the first things people associate it with are the fans. K-pop fans mostly have a bad rap, due to being viewed as cringe or toxic.
“I feel a little bit upset about [the way K-pop fans are portrayed] because K-pop fans are given a lot more of a bad rap than they really should be,” said Fullenkamp. “I don’t know if you look at Twitter, but there’s just a really cool culture around K-pop. However, that can be misinterpreted by a lot of American people as either fetishizing or weird, when in reality, it’s just people liking these groups because of how cool they are as artists, how much competence they have, and how they’re diverse. And I think that it’s very cool. And I feel upset that people kind of tend to be really negative about these K-pop fans because they’re fine. They’re just enjoying something. I should not be judged for that.”
“I know a lot of people that have a problem with us or just the music. Which I feel like they only see the one part [of K-Pop] where K-pop fans take things way too seriously. So I feel like they only see that and then they just go against it when the majority of us are just having fun.” Araquistain said.
Kang feels that people often disguise their hatred of K-pop as hatred of the toxic and/or cringy fans, but bigotry and racism is often the real root of bitter feelings towards K-pop and fans.
“[People who hate on K-pop] are bigots and they’re biased because they don’t know what joy is. But I also think it stems a bit from racism because I’m very into video games and a few months ago there was a tournament and a lot of American fans were saying to the Korean team and Korean fans how we’re all K-pop fans and how we’re all toxic,” Kang said. “But, toxicity is everywhere from video games to music to athletes, and there’s nothing to stop it.”
This bad reputation can lead to some fans being slightly embarrassed or ashamed of their music taste.
“A lot of people think K-pop is embarrassing, so I generally don’t talk about liking it very much unless it’s with other fans,” Foreman said.
On the other hand, Araquistain believes that they have nothing to be ashamed about as a fan of K-pop.
“I am not embarrassed to be a K-pop fan. I actually wanted to show that I was a K-pop fan so maybe I could find connections when I first came here. I’m definitely not ashamed,” Araquistain said. “I don’t think it’s something I should be ashamed about. I just like the music and culture and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
K-pop fans are known for their loyalty. Whether they show that by only listening to a certain K-pop group, buying lightsticks for concerts, or spending hundreds of dollars on albums and photocards, something that is a hallmark of K-pop fans. The dedication of K-pop fans has helped K-pop become what it is today.
Economically, K-pop fans have contributed billions of dollars to South Korea’s economy, with BTS alone raking in an estimated amount of 5 billion dollars a year to South Korea’s economy. This has even caused the South Korean government to consider letting BTS off on the mandatory military requirement that most able-bodied men in South Korea have to perform 18-21 months of military service.
But other than spending lots of money on K-pop, some fans take their love for K-pop to a new extreme. “Sasaeng” is a Korean term that describes obsessive and intrusive fans. Unfortunately, fans hear about sasaengs often. These fans stalk their favorite K-pop idols, often finding out private information about them, including their phone numbers, passports, and addresses.
The most disturbing part of sasaengs is how K-pop idols react to them. There are clips of idols looking extremely uncomfortable when they notice an infamous sasaeng in the crowd of a fan meet, at an airport, a concert, pretty much wherever the idol is, the sasaeng is also there. But, unless there is a real warrant for arrest or punishment, sasaengs are hard to keep away. So, these idols just have to look scared and helpless as their privacy is being invaded so publicly.
While Hallyu (meaning the Korean wave) has hit global audiences, not only with K-pop but with Kdramas, Korean makeup, skincare, and fashion. This has also sparked intense fetishization of Korean people and culture, while purchasing Korean makeup is harmless, it can turn into changing eye shapes to try to look more Korean. And while the fetishization of East Asian people is nothing new, the Korean wave has amplified it to a huge extent.
Even the Korean language has gone through fetishization and been sexualized, especially with the word “oppa,” which translates to older brother or close elder male friend. People that don’t know the Korean language have sexualized this word by calling their favorite K-pop idols oppa. The word, which did not originally to have sexual connotations, was shifted into something that it’s not.
Negative Effects on K-Pop Idols
The negative effects of K-pop don’t stop there. The K-pop industry is incredibly toxic for the idols working in it according to a Daily Vox story. K-pop idols spend many tireless years working incredibly hard as trainees until their company debuts them. Idols devote up to 10+ years of their life, training for their debut. According to The Independent, K-pop trainees train for 18+ hours a day, and according to Hankyoreh, a 2021 study shows that 43% of trainees are minors with extremely low chances of debuting. H.O, an idol, verifies that K-pop trainees don’t even get paid.
Even if K-pop trainees debut, there is no chance that their group will be successful, and there is a high chance they will be mistreated and overworked by their companies. Chuu, an ex-LOONA member, was kicked out of her group after she took legal action because her company wasn’t paying her. After being forced to pay for her own transportation and forced out of LOONA’s world tour, it was announced that Chuu was removed from LOONA under unsound claims that she had mistreated staff.
“It’s strange to see how now, [K-pop idols] that are debuting are younger than me and it’s really strange to see,” Kang said. “It’s also strange to imagine [that] these people have been training their entire lives for this one thing that might not have turned out [to be] successful.”
Trainees are forced to participate in extremely harmful diet culture and starvation that usually continues even past their debut. For example, Momo from TWICE was forced to lose 15 pounds in one week by eating only a cube of ice a day, or she would be kicked out of her company. From a young age, these trainees are overworked and forced to portray incredibly unrealistic beauty standards. Because of this, many trainees are told to get plastic surgery for the smallest imperfections to conform to the impossible Korean beauty standards.
“Because the image is so perfect, it’s harmful to support [it] since it can make people feel bad about themselves,” Foreman said.
One of Korea’s most important beauty standards is having white pale skin. This leads to many naturally tan idols and trainees to use skin whitening products due to Korean society’s extreme colorism. The popular K-pop group, TWICE can be seen promoting skin whitening products, and idols including TWICE’s Tzuyu and NCT’s Haechan, who have naturally tanned skin, have been made fun of for their skin tone. While idols like NCT’s Shotaro as well as BLACKPINK’s Lisa show a noticeable difference with much lighter skin after their debut. It is also often known for K-pop idols to use editing apps like an app entitled “SNOW” to whiten their skin in pictures. This can lead to fans becoming ashamed or insecure about their skin tone.
The pressure of unreachable beauty standards being constantly pushed upon K-pop idols can sometimes be unbearable. Continuously being watched by millions of people around the world can add onto already existing mental health issues, causing many idols taking mental health hiatuses and causing some idols to even commit suicide.
These beauty standards are even stricter and more amplified on foreign idols. While the majority of K-pop idols are Korean, there are also Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai idols who often are targets of major backlash and xenophobia from Korean citizens especially. Ningning from aespa, who is Chinese, faced major backlash for showing support to the Chinese team during the Olympics, EVERGLOW’s Yiren, another Chinese idol, was also under heat for doing a Chinese-style greeting instead of a Korean-style greeting. These foreign idols are watched closely by many Korean citizens, and even showing support to their home country causes a spew of hate, ranging from “go back to your country,” comments to harsh comments about their talent, visuals, or weight.
There are many contrasted opinions towards the music and the industry. But Fullenkamp believes that K-pop has had a positive effect on his life, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“I would say it’s impacted my life,” Fullenkamp said. “It’s made me a lot happier, especially in the mornings. I listen to it, and it just helps me make myself do stuff and go to school.”
K-pop’s unmatched global appeal affects people all around the world. While the way K-pop blew up is disputed, it has reached audiences from all over the world. And despite the many negative effects it can have on idols and fans, K-pop groups have inspired a generation of people and accomplished unimaginable feats.