How South Korea commodified idols
Back in 2012 when Gangnam Style by PSY first made a big splash, it was when the Hallyu — the Korean Wave — hit the Western world. Some may argue over the nature of its viral popularity (bordering on notoriety) in Internet meme culture than pop music. But the undisputed fact remains — it gave the still-niche genre of K-pop, its big break.
And quite naturally. PSY’s successors warmed the West further towards K-pop, with its tightly choreographed routines, whimsical sets, eye-catching outfits — all of which created a larger-than-life persona of the performers. When the mainstream music market slid into a saturated monotony, K-pop breathed a fresh air into it with its supercharged beats and freestyle genre-mixing. For the sake of brevity, The Irish Times said it better: “It’s pop music on crack.” Then again, it did learn from the best.
Authors Valge & Hinsberg, in their 2019 paper on the workings of the Korean music industry note that the 19th Century Western missionary, Henry Appenzeller, can be credited to introducing English folk music with a Korean translation to the locals. However, it was during the years post the Korean War that American pop music brought about a major cultural shift in the country. A little historical note: as the Korean peninsula, got partitioned into the communist dictatorship of North Korea, the US augmented its capitalist influence in the South to keep the Reds at bay. With American aid and its own pro-business industrial model of ‘Chaebol’, South Korea’s economy lifted itself out of the doldrums in just one generation, rightly giving it the nickname of “Miracle on the Han River”. Clearly, the adoption of capitalism has benefitted the country greatly. Yet, as the country grappled with the modern capitalistic values and the traditional Confucianism, the result was a capitalist, authoritarian leadership that permeated in its industries.
Under the authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee, the first President of South Korea, from 1946 to 1960, the government had the full control over media distribution and creation. It was to maintain mass consensus through censorship of any criticism. This continued well into the next two decades, till the death of the military dictator, Park Chung-Hee in 1979. Nevertheless, the vestiges of these values remain, as the South Korean public still remains loyal to the old order. Except, now it is the music production companies that control the media production in the country.
Ultimately, post the liberalization of the 80s, the Korean government switched their focus from manufacturing to the entertainment sector. Major government-owned media companies were privatized, birthing an oligopoly of the Big Three — SM, YG and JYP Entertainment. These companies devised complex assembly line system to increase the efficiency of music production in South Korea. By carefully regulating every single aspect of the music video — costumes, sets, choreography, lyrics, music — the companies could produce the dizzyingly enchanting masterpieces that K-pop is known for. K-pop, the driving force of the Korean culture wave, became a source of national pride and revenue. The most popular band of the lot, BTS, by itself contributed $3.6 billion to South Korea’s GDP in 2018.
Surprisingly, K-pop’s spread has helped the country secure international ties. Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, highlighted the importance of ‘soft power’ of a country in the inaugural speech, “In the 21st century, culture is power” The current president, Moon Jae-in, took it a step further by inviting the band, EXO, to meet Donald Trump on his visit to South Korea. Another astonishing instance of this is the K-pop group, Red Velvet, performing for Kim Jong-un, just before he and Moon Jae-in signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
So, what is it about these idols anyway?
What makes K-pop’s idol culture so unique is that instead of rising organically, the music industry manufactures them. Talent-scouting agencies recruit children as young as nine years of age, who show considerable talent for singing and dancing amidst massive competition. These children are then made to sign the infamously termed, “slave contracts” which stay valid well into their adulthood. Once they’re in, every aspect of their lives is judiciously controlled. After being made to train for as long as sixteen or more hours a day, there is still no respite. As per the contracts, the trainees are obligated to make themselves available any time as per the agency’s demands. The performers’ weight and appearance are monitored to the point of harassment. Twice’s singer, Momo shared the draconian measures she had to undertake to fit JYP Entertainment’s weight requirements. She confessed to eating just an ice cube a week along with training everyday to lose seven kilos before Twice debuted. Another member, Sana, reportedly had passed out in their sessions owing to the exertion her body was going through to maintain a particular physique. There are scores of such stories of malnourished idols collapsing during training, and even on-stage.
Within the training institutes, the trainees are not given access to social media. Not only are they forbidden to date (outside or otherwise), but they are also discouraged from pursuing friendships with each other to keep up the competitive spirit. Yet, in spite of the sacrifice of their physical and mental health, as well as their personal freedoms, it is all up to the decisions of the entertainment company to decide who’s in and in which group. Once the trainees are segregated into groups (with no regard for pre-existing personal connections), it still doesn’t spell liberty for them. The noose only gets tighter.
As is common to most assembly line structures, these idols are now physically moulded into the porcelain white, slender models we see. Plastic surgery as a means to fit the ethnically restrictive beauty standards of the country has been pervasive in the South Korean culture since 1953. The country has the highest per capita cosmetic surgery rates in the world (and the highest suicide rates in the OECD; coincidence?) But what is increasingly insidious about the surgeries on the idols is that clauses for consent to cosmetic treatments are sneaked into the contracts, sometimes unbeknownst to the trainees. These treatments range from bleaching to lighten the complexion to surgically removing parts of jaws to attain a V-line face. It is a particular trend owing to the Lolita Complex in the industry, which is further fuelled by the “uncle fans” market for girl groups.
And yes, for those of you who are wondering, sexual abuse is particularly rampant in the K-pop industry. In a horrifying expose, it was revealed that Jang Suk Woo, CEO of Open Entertainment Company, allegedly harassed and raped up to ten girls, some of whom were minors. He also coerced his male idols to drug and harass the female trainees, along with prostituting the latter to investors. Actress, Jang Ja-yeon, was known to commit suicide in 2009, because of her forced prostitution.
After all this, if the idols do gain stardom, it doesn’t guarantee them riches or freedom. The entertainment companies would appropriate the lion’s share of the gains, under the pretext of covering charges for their training, diet, facilities, costumes, etc. Sometimes, if the number after deducting these costs, that is, the net income, is still high, they are known to artificially inflate the expense which would leave the idols with 1% to 5% of the gains. In 2008, the duo TVXQ sued SM Entertainment over a clause in their contract that paid them $0 from their album sales till July 2008, since their album sales hadn’t crossed the 500,000 copies mark. The artists are also not given monetary benefits (or paid peanuts over) of album concerts, live shows, interviews or commercials.
While there is no reprieve for the inhumane treatment of trainees and idols by the entertainment companies, the ever-growing demand for this music is complicit in this. As a corollary to Say’s law, demand, here, creates its own supply. And the companies’ tapping into the American market was a capitalist’s jackpot. As the popularity of the groups grows further, more merchandise, apps, movies and everything in between are created — all of which centre around the idols themselves. This is a classic example of what Karl Marx called “commodity fetishism”. To go a little into Marxian theory here, the Labour Theory of Value states that any commodity is worth the cost of labour that is put into it. Commodity fetishism is the case where the value accrued is more than what the Labour Theory proposes. This is because the people assign an almost ‘mystical’ value to them, either due to their role as a status symbol (think luxury goods — iPhones) or because of their association with a certain person or group (the Contagion Heuristic). Here, by projecting a positive, attractive image of the idols which are so meticulously created by the production companies, the idols themselves become the products. Their status as products is maintained by disallowing them from dating or expressing liberal opinions, which the fans may not approve of. This ensures that the idols stay in public grace and the industry keeps flourishing. In a truly capitalist fashion, the product that the public demands stay in business. Thus, by a purely capitalistic definition, there is nothing wrong with the system. However, the reason public choice in the country is so because of the music videos produced by the Big 3 mega entertainment companies, that leave little market for the fringe firms, let alone independent artists to capture. Essentially, it creates an authoritarian regime of the production companies over South Korean entertainment, so what they say, goes.
As I had mentioned before, critics of the South Korea’s Confucian principles claim that these only enable their oligopoly. Like most East Asian countries, South Korean culture rewards obedience and subservience. Their hierarchal values are reflected in their language, etiquette and culture as a whole. In modern times, these principles simply replace the “King” with “Boss” in their system of hierarchy (also affected majorly by its pre-liberalisation military dictatorships). While these arguments walk a fine line between racial profiling and a historical behavioural analysis, South Korea’s dictatorial rule doesn’t help the case, either.
This is just a long-winded way of saying, “Yes, the work culture is toxic and in dire need of labour reforms, but does it matter? They aren’t complaining. They are used to it!”
Perhaps, they are. Perhaps the Korean music industry might collapse altogether if stricter labour reforms are enforced. But that’s also what the Confederates said about their cotton plantations. A system that inherently depends upon the exploitation of its labour is unquestionably flawed. Hollywood went through that phase too with the abuse of stars like Maureen O’Hara or the child star Shirley Temple. Or the infamous bitter feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — one that prompted the former to remove her back teeth to accentuate her cheekbones and pour boric acid in her eyes to make them sparkle, as the book Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud reveals.
Yet, things have improved — more or less.
And if a system as archaic, established and of global renown can change, perhaps the K-pop industry can take a hint or two.