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Korean popular culture, also known as the Korean Wave or Hallyu consists of entertainment, music, television dramas and movies originating from South Korea (Roll). It started with Seo Taiji and the Boys, who garnered local attention for melding European melodies with Korean lyrics. They produced a new sound that would see many younger Korean artists following this trend of creating music using influences from other parts of the world. While a few artistes had enjoyed fame outside of Korea, the global explosion of Hallyu came with Psy’s Gangnam Style in 2012 (“How Did K-pop Conquer The World?”). Thereafter, the clever management of this soft power to a global audience has brought large incomes for the consumer product industry, the tourism sector and contributed to an improved country image.
At the core of this cultural phenomenon stands a group of people recognised as Korean Idols, all signed to management agencies. They have gained cult-like following both in Korea and around the world for their good looks, voices, synchronised dances and affable personalities. Given the massive attention that these Idols receive, there is continuous pressure to retain and attract new fans. Some strategies used in this relationship marketing include writing their own songs, changing album concepts and coming back with new looks. Yet the big question is: Has their looks take precedence over their talents in a bid for success?
In Korea, there is a particular aesthetic that is magnified in the entertainment industry. This aesthetic highlights features like big eyes, sharp noses, small lips, straight eyebrows, double eyelids, V-line jaws and flawless skin. Pale skin and slim, fat-free bodies are also glorified by Koreans and Idols are strictly held to these standards. In a paper produced by the Association of Consumer Research, the authors claim that white skin has been equated to personal beauty in Korea since her first dynasty (Li et al. 444). Pale and flawless skin denotes youthfulness, health, naturalness and elitism (Li et al. 446). Female idols with glamourous bodies and a baby face are called “Bagel Girls” and are more popular with the crowds (Oh 63). The more popular male idols are those with the same features, termed “Pretty Boys or Flower Boys”.
It is evident that looks play a bigger part than how the music is. For instance, the fame between Girls Generation and 2NE1 was always a big debate. When Girl’s Generation was dubbed the Nation’s Girl Group for their glamorous bodies and babyfaces, 2NE1 was branded as an ugly girl group because their looks or body size didn’t fit into Korea’s qualifications of beauty. While the music Girls Generation performed was produced by a team of artistic individuals behind the scenes, 2NE1 members were involved in writing their songs. Despite 2NE1’s talent, Girls Generation was more popular with both local and international audiences.
Idols are very accustomed to cosmetology and it is the fundamental ingredient of their images. In cosmetology, skincare products are used to keep the skin healthy and clean, makeup products enhance facial features and cosmetic surgery is seen as a permanent extension of makeup. This surgery focuses on looking better and younger and can be done on any body part (‘About Cosmetic Surgery – American Academy Of Cosmetic Surgery’). Companies have invested in the best cosmeticians for their artistes and would go to the extent of advising and sponsoring cosmetic surgery. Even so, Idols remain tight-lipped when it comes to revealing whether they have done surgery as they risk their “perfect” image when they confess to doing it.
In many Idol reality shows like Super Junior Returns, Real GOT7, Run BTS or Blackpink TV, their first schedules of the day would be the salon where they get their hair and make-up done. Idols also appear in different beauty programmes like Lipstick Prince and Beauty Bible to learn and share their knowledge about cosmetics. However, every time an Idol admits to having scalpel work, it draws criticism. Girl group Brown Eyed Girls encapsulates this idea through a show Saturday Night Live Korea, where a video “Plastic Face” was released as a parody of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face (‘Plastic Face – Brown Eyed Girls’). In the video, they sang about cosmetic surgery and called out the double-standards of the public. They also sang about how cosmetic surgery can give one a confidence boost and it should not be looked down upon.
On the flip side, some Idols were born naturally gorgeous and entered management agencies through a casting offer. This process is called scouting and it is commonly practised by management agencies. Employees from agencies are authorised to recruit people they deem attractive for their companies. It happens anywhere from the streets to the malls. Some recruiters would follow their target for days until they agree to join an audition held by the company. Since they already have the looks, the auditions assess their stage presence rather than their musical talents, which companies believe can be trained.
Considering that the industry is built on youth, recruiters would look for faces as young as 7 years old so they have ample time to train before debut. Krystal of F(X) was scouted by S.M. Entertainment at 6 years old when she was on holiday with her family in Korea but her parents negotiated for her to join the company later as she was still too young. Instead, they signed Krystal’s older sister Jessica to the company, who ultimately became a part of Girls Generation. When Krystal turned 12, she started training under the company and debuted with F(X) at 15 years old.
Talent is defined by the dictionary as a natural ability to excel in a particular area. Anyway, we will apply Nietzche’s philosophy of will to power in this essay. His theory explains self-made talent, where people can achieve their dreams when they believe, work hard and invest in it.
Every Idol has to pass the audition process before getting accepted into the company. Anyone who applies for an audition would have a desire to be a successful idol one day. Companies have also made these auditions easily accessible by providing global and online platforms for foreigners. Nevertheless, audition requirements are uncompromising and only the cream of the crop would get a training offer.
The top 3 entertainment companies in Korea assess one’s musical ability and their potential to develop into a success. J.Y.P Entertainment focuses on singing capacity, a rhythmical sense in dance and rap, as well as their stage presence (“JYP Audition”). S.M. Entertainment doesn’t allow candidates to use pre-recorded help, so auditionees have to sing acapella or choreograph a dance immediately. (“Audition”). The CEO of Y.G. Entertainment revealed in an interview that only candidates who are naturally gifted in music are welcomed. He believes that only those who are born with talent will succeed. It is a no-brainer that a lot of effort and hard work goes into perfecting their skills for the audition. Many candidates would enrol into dancing and vocal classes, practising for months or years in preparation for the audition.
Once applicants pass the auditions, they get training contracts that last from 2 to 5 years with no guarantee of a debut. No Idol can escape this phase that is known to be rigorous and difficult. Trainees continue to hone their skills in singing, rapping, dancing and learn other skills required for an idol, such as music writing, image maintenance and the Korean language (Sunio). Yet life after debut only gets harder. Rookie Idols now have to compete with veterans for attention. Thus they have to work even harder to make a distinction for themselves by branching into acting, hosting, variety, musicals or producing.
Idols whose talents go beyond dancing and singing stay successful for longer than 7 years – the average lifespan of a K-pop group. G-Dragon, a solo artist and leader of K-pop group Big Bang, trained for 11 years before debut. During training, he learnt how to compose and produce music and was asked to write a new song each day as homework. The mastery of songwriting and producing has allowed him to be greatly involved in his group’s hit albums and he established their musical integrity (Kim). When Big Bang took a hiatus from the music scene and the members pursued solo activities, G-Dragon continued to write songs for others and himself. He has been so successful that he tops the list of Idol songwriters recorded by Korea Music Copyright Association, with 173 copyrighted songs to his name. His taste in fashion and good looks further cemented his popularity as an Idol. With 13 years of experience in the industry, he has put himself in a new league which rookie idols can only dream of achieving.
There are also public avenues where Idols get discovered for their talents, such as talent shows like Superstar K, school or music festivals. These public platforms provide an express route to debuting as an idol. For example, pop-duo act Akdong Musician was signed to YG Entertainment after they came in first in K-pop Star 2. They wrote and sang their own songs to lighthearted melodies inspired by their surroundings (Ng). With perfect pitch and coordination, they charmed the audiences and panel of judges. Under YG’s directorship, they continued to write songs and perform, now reaching a global audience.
Furthermore, Idols who missed their chance in the spotlight can join re-debut training programmes like Produce 101. Different companies would send their trainees or unpopular acts to the show for a chance to debut in a group. The show reflects the reality of trainee life, from learning how to greet properly to having their own competitions in singing, dancing and other skills. Trainees who are subpar get eliminated from the show and miss their chance to (re-)debut. Alas, only the best get a chance to stand on stage.
Laid out above are factors that influence an Idol’s success even after debut. We see how only the most hardworking Idols get a taste of success: a huge fan following, topping music charts, tours and earning big bucks. While it is true that talents beyond singing and dancing will take you higher and further in the industry, the obsession with looks is not slowing down anytime soon. In fact, the fixation on looks has gotten so severe that the Korean government has expressed concerns about having too many similar-looking Idols in one broadcast. To prevent promoting narrow beauty standards, the government has set guidelines for TV stations to limit the appearance of Idols if they look the same (Kim). Additionally, music theory proves that the pop genre doesn’t need excellent voices as it can rely on technology to modify the songs for artistes. Most top idols are backed by a group of real talents consisting of songwriters, choreographers, artistic directors and producers. What artistes need are good looks, dancing skills and a good personality.
The main goal of Korean management agencies has shifted from producing talent to profit-making. It doesn’t matter if Idols lack talent, they just need to fake it until they make it. Besides, the crowds are drawn to idols for their looks before embracing their talent. As a result, a lot of the Idol groups we see today are just good looking money-making tools who last a short while. Yet idols are hushed when they voice their opinions on these beauty standards, becoming mere puppets to agencies. Do we realise that we are supporting lookism through the consumption of this particular industry? How then, can we stop promoting the judgement of beauty and shift the focus on their talents instead?
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