Analysis

The punishing pressures behind K-pop perfection

K-pop is known for impossibly photogenic young stars, impeccably choreographed dance routines and undeniably catchy tunes. But a dark side that's popping up more frequently is its punishing treatment of performers. What's so tough about K-pop life?

Stars face punishing training, intense competition, unrelenting scrutiny via social media

K-pop is known for impossibly photogenic young stars, impeccably choreographed dance routines and undeniably catchy tunes. But a dark side emerging more frequently is its punishing treatment of performers. (Starnews/AFP/Getty Images)

K-pop is having a moment: buoyed by the massive crossover success of boy band BTS — celebrated on American talk and radio shows last fall — and a lively part of the soundtrack to the Pyeongchang Games, where EXO and CL were slated to rock the Winter Olympics closing ceremony this weekend. 

One of South Korea's major exports to the world today, K-pop is known for ever-smiling and impossibly photogenic young stars, impeccably choreographed dance routines and undeniably catchy tunes.

A dark side that's cropping up more frequently, however, is its punishing treatment of performers and seeming disregard for their health. While the North American music industry is no stranger to shocking behind-the-scenes horror stories, what's so tough about K-pop life?

That the genre's stars are dubbed "idols" hints at the massive expectations placed on the young performers, said Jeff Benjamin, a K-pop music columnist who has written for Billboard and the New York Times.

"Just that word in itself gives the idea that they have to be perfect — they have to be the ideal standard of entertainer. That's a lot of pressure for a young person," Benjamin told CBC News. 

Ten-year-old Lee Tae-rim, centre, practises K-pop dance moves at a school in Seoul in 2016. Some aspiring performers begin training in kindergarten. (Jean Chung/Getty Images)

And yet a vast army of young people in South Korea and beyond aspire to become K-pop performers, with thousands aching to break into this ultra-competitive, punishing world. What does it take to make it?

So you think you can dance?

K-pop has arguably taken the notion of mixing vocals with dance moves to its pinnacle. 

But perfecting every step of these fast-paced, elaborately choreographed dance routines — and delivering them with style in music videos, live performances and wildly popular practice sessions posted online — is just the start. 

Watch CBC's Eli Glasner get a crash course on Momoland's Boom Boom.

Just how hard is it to learn the smooth moves of a K-pop idol? CBC's Eli Glasner gets a crash course on Momoland's Boom Boom. 0:52

Have you got the look?

Perhaps you've nailed the moves. But the best dancers don't necessarily make the cut at the constant stream of K-pop auditions in South Korea and around the globe. You'll need to show off the particular look scouts are searching for, said Toronto student and aspiring K-pop performer Steven Chau. 

Toronto student Steven Chau, centre, is a dancer, choreographer and aspiring K-pop idol who has auditioned in Canada and South Korea. (CBC)

"I thought that first you would get in if you were very skilled and talented.… Most of the time, they have set traits they want in terms of looks. They already know what they want in terms of height, how someone styles themselves," said the dancer and part-time choreographer who has attended more than a dozen auditions in Canada and Korea. 

These auditions — in which organizers may, for instance, plow through more than 600 applicants in five hours — can be intense and demoralizing. 

"We were all really packed tightly in the room," Chau said of one audition, "and the judges sometimes didn't even look at you — they would be staring at their phone.… After 30 seconds of playing the music, they would just stop and say 'Thanks. You can leave.'" 

Out of the thousands trying out annually, only a handful are typically chosen to sign with a K-pop company. Then the real training begins.

K-pop boot camp

Once under contract, trainees famously undergo K-pop boot camp. 

They assemble in a dormitory, with reduced communication with family and friends. Add in extreme diet regimes and gruelling training schedules strictly monitored by management companies.

South Korean group Red Velvet performs at KPop Night Out during the 2017 SXSW conference and festival in Austin, Texas. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW)

Drop any romantic relationships and any behaviour that might be deemed "unwholesome." Mix vigorously in a country where outward appearance is paramount — and that has been dubbed the world capital for plastic surgery.

Repeat. 

It's no wonder the K-pop factory system has been likened to a real-life Hunger Games.

The stresses of stardom

Not everyone graduates into an actual K-pop group, but for those who do, the battle is far from over.

Along with the pressure to knock it out of the park with each release, the intense competition expands to include K-pop rivals also vying to top the charts as well as the ever-younger new graduates entering the industry annually. Oh, and don't forget branching into solo career efforts on the side.

Racing against an inevitable "expiration date" of usually five to seven years, idols operate in an accelerated release and whirlwind promotion schedule and must also fulfil fan interaction expectations at every turn, according to music critic Benjamin.

"In North America, we are more used to seeing a single or two or three [released] in a year. Then a full album comes and then maybe [the artist] takes a year, two or three years off," he said.

"K-pop's downtime is maybe a couple of months."

Add in fans' intense social media scrutiny of everything idols do or say and the pressure can be simply unbearable.

[Idols] will do everything, anything for their fans because that's the only reason for them to exist.- Eunice Chang, production manager for E&M Productions

"[Idols] will do everything, anything for their fans because that's the only reason for them to exist," said Eunice Chang, a production manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based E&M Productions, which stages K-pop events, appearances and concerts.

Even when problems arise, she said, many performers feel they cannot speak up. In Korean culture, Chang said, "when you are popular, you can not show your weak side.… People will say: 'Oh, you have everything. Why are you saying that?' They get a little judgmental."

The mid-December suicide of Kim Jong-hyun, lead singer of popular and influential group SHINee, has drawn more attention to the struggles of life in the spotlight. The 27-year-old had discussed his battle with depression in interviews prior to his death.

Fans of K-pop performer Kim Jong-hyun, lead singer of SHINee, gather outside his funeral in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Fans push for change

Kim's death, which sparked an outpouring of grief from music fans worldwide, may prove to be a watershed moment for K-pop. Fans and idols themselves are discussing mental health and calling for greater attention to the welfare of K-pop performers.

"We also see fancams — behind-the-scenes stuff of them recording for the shows — and sometimes we just see them passing out, fainting onstage," said the Toronto-based fan who goes by the name Ky on her YouTube channel. Online, her videos showcase her enthusiastically performing and spoofing the elaborate choreography of K-pop music videos alongside the idols.

"They do inspire us, but they do worry us at the same time."

Ky is a Toronto-based K-pop superfan whose YouTube channel showcases her performing elaborate music video choreography alongside K-pop idols. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Suga, an outspoken member of globally successful K-pop group BTS, told told Billboard magazine that he sympathized with Kim's struggles.

"If we know that everyone is suffering and lonely, I hope we can create an environment where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they're hard, and say that we miss someone when we miss them." 

With files from Eli Glasner, Sharon Wu and Cali Doran

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