The history of Korean pop music reaches back to the 19th century, when a Western missionary called Henry Appenzeller introduced British and US folk songs with the lyrics translated into Korean to the local population. In the post-war years, American pop music reached Korean ears through the US forces stationed in the newly freed South. The servicemen’s demand for familiar-sounding music gave rise to a prototype based on Western pop music performed by Korean artists and rooted in local content—the West being at the same time the source of inspiration for the developing genre and its main market. One of the first success stories was a group called The Kim Sisters, which consisted of two sisters and a cousin. They performed in bars and clubs for US troops to earn extra money for their families. The growing support of the local Westerners brought them a Las Vegas contract, more than 20 performances on the famous Ed Sullivan Show and a number 7 hit on the Billboard singles chart, thereby effectively paving the way for modern Korean pop music as well as Asian artists’ commercial success on the Western entertainment landscape.
K-pop’s uniqueness lies in its skill in combining traditional elements specific to Korean culture with Western-oriented pop music.But the standards for writing music, producing videos and performing dance numbers are high. Great demand allows companies to pick the best of competing professionals so as to shape multilayered and complex conceptual art and aesthetics. The industry frequently cooperates with Western artists, drawing attention to East Asian music, while performers are under increasing pressure to perform in English to win over new audiences, which may cause them to sacrifice their unique cultural characteristics.
K-pop has swiftly become South Korea’s number one cultural export: the currently most popular K-pop band, BTS, alone contributed 3.6 billon dollars to the country’s GDP last year.2 While technology giants like Samsung, Hyundai and LG still bring in more, their success can also be attributed to promoters who are mainly well-known performing artists. The “soft power” of K-pop in foreign policy is proved by the performances of CL and EXO during the closing ceremony at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in 2018, BTS’s speech at the UN and the fact that former US president Barack Obama noted in his speech at the Asia Leadership Conference in 2017 how many Americans were learning Korean to keep up with the K-pop group SHINee.
All K-pop stars must present the perfect façade of a supremely talented and gorgeous, 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, at least at the start of their careers.
In addition, this image reinforces heteronormativity, which is already deeply rooted in the conservative and homophobic Korean society, as coming out automatically means certain disgrace and even the end of their career for LGBTQ+ stars.
Due to South Korea’s restrictive and ethnically specific beauty standards, the country has the highest per capita ratio of plastic surgeries in the world. This is why plastic surgery is common among both female and male performers. The cult of beauty increases the already fierce competition in the jobs market.
Because of this, K-pop is one the major reinforcers of the unrealistic beauty standards rooted in Korean society, as it is especially harmful to the confidence and mental health of young people and normalises dangerous skin-bleaching creams and eating disorders.
Female performers are expected to look sexualised but innocent in a doll-like way, which can be explained by the industry’s Lolita complex, bordering on paedophilia, as well as the misogynistic idea of humble and “untainted” beauty.
The bodies of K-pop artists, especially female stars, are like national property to take pride in or criticise. Female artists are sexualised in an especially objectifying way typical of a capitalist patriarchal society.
Women are expected to be mild, extremely polite and sometimes even childishly innocent (aegyo in Korean). Anything that isn’t compatible with the Korean Confucian patriarchal view of society is also controversial.
For example, when Irene of Red Velvet said that she read a feminist book, many male fans organised a childish protest and burned her photos.
In the case of male idols, distancing themselves from traditional Confucian masculinity and breaking gender stereotypes, especially in terms of appearance (gender-neutral clothing, normalising make-up and dyed hair for men) but also in creative work can be viewed as positive.
Thus, combining traditional gender normative sexiness and romanticised innocence may be considered the central characteristic of K-pop in terms of both beauty and behavioural norms.
Pre-teen would-be stars talent-scouted by companies among massive competition often sign so-called slave contracts, which used to be valid for more than ten years. Almost the entire earnings of new performers are often taken by the company to compensate for training and launch costs, so that artists may effectively work for nothing for years before they earn anything at all. Training performers to sing, rap, dance, act, speak foreign languages, perform and so on may take years. Some of the groups are never launched, since only the super-talented make it and some less successful groups only perform for a couple of years. Thus, hopes of stardom may end with crippling debt, not to mention the fact that many youngsters sacrifice their education to chase a dream, which is why it’s hard for them to find another job later. Moreover, the restrictive slave contracts allow companies to control nearly every aspect of their performers’ lives. The trainees, who live in ascetic dormitories, are often prohibited from communicating even with their parents and friends. They may not go out if it’s not urgent and they’re worked to exhaustion up to 20 hours a day. This state of half-imprisonment cuts young teenagers off from normal development and may cause mental health issues, especially if they live in fear of their employer’s violence.