By Colette Fitzpatrick
My family find it tiresome and my friends think it’s a humourous quirk to fuel slagging but the reasons why I like K-Pop so much go far beyond the fun tunes and visual appeal of attractive people doing coordinated dance routines in cool outfits.
I discovered girl groups in college, c.2010, and they were cuter and brighter than anything I had ever seen. The catchy pop music of the likes of Girl’s Day, KARA and Girls Generation was an acceptable dalliance from my beloved punk sensibilities as a younger woman as it was still not mainstream Western music and the cute visuals pleased my Shojo Manga-loving self.
This surface-level infatuation remained but wasn’t a full-blown love affair until 2014, when I discovered the first boy group I loved, Shinee. Originally a five-member group, they were launched while teens in 2008 by one of the three biggest labels in the industry, SM Entertainment. By the time I came to them, they were well-established superstars, selling out arenas the world over and establishing successful independent careers. Known as the “Princes of K-pop”, they blend a great variety of genres together in each song and are famous for their incredibly slick and powerful dance routines. The first comeback (K-pop terminology for releasing a new single/album) during the early days of my fandom was the addictive track View on the album Odd Eye in May 2015. I was obsessed.
Through Shinee, I discovered EXO, their younger brother group from the same juggernaut label. Debuted in 2012, they very quickly became the biggest group in the world and remain some of K-pop’s most massive stars; a status that was only recently even somewhat broached by the intense global success of BTS and the reality television appeal of Wanna One. My era was Call Me Baby and I played that tune hundreds of times; the early days of my Insta records this fact with a screengrab of a site that repeats Youtube videos on a loop. This was around the same time that I had run out of anime to watch and had begun watching Korean dramas (television shows) instead. I stumbled across a webseries called EXO Next Door starring the members. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I watched it because it’s rather not very good but I did and, as a result, had my first taste of K-pop fan culture, which is its own beast.
I did not, personally, become part of any fandom until VIXX came into my life. I knew of them for a while but, as I mentioned, my deep love of boy groups only really started in 2015. In the August of that year their first sub-unit, VIXX LR, was formed of rapper Ravi and one of the two main vocalists, Leo. Ravi’s deep rap vocals were combined with Leo’s soaring high notes in the emotional and charmingly moody Beautiful Lie. Leo immediately impressed me and I was caught. When VIXX in its entirety came back in November of the same year with the sexy Chained Up, I was a goner. I fell into the fan culture facilitated by K-pop groups; the behind-the-scenes television shows and Youtube videos, the mobilising of the fandom under a name and spirit, the constant vocalising of love for their fans and the sense of intimacy and closeness created.
On one level, I understand how fabricated it all is but, on another, I genuinely believe their affection for their fans and gratitude. In an industry that launches 100 idol groups a year, chews them up and spits out few survivors, fans are everything. This same cruel machine is what makes me love my groups so.
While VIXX is my absolute favourite group, I have a lot of other groups that maintain my affections, as well. I love VIXX so because they are dorks but their music is often grand and moody, dramatic and gothic; their concepts and songs are varied and incredible from vampires to cyborgs and East-Asian beauty to voodoo dolls; they seem to genuinely love each other and their teasing interactions are adorable and hilarious; they are known as the “Model Idols” and are all tall and handsome; their stylist is a freaking genius and their stage outfits are incredible; they are impossibly skilled and cool on stage; and the fandom, Starlight, is often regarded the kindest in the industry. I also love young groups Monsta X and Seventeen for their great songs and charming energy; the excellent albums of BToB and BTS; idol bands Day6, The Rose and N.Flying; promising rookies like Momoland, NCT, Stray Kids, Pentagon, (G)I-DLE and Pristin; established hit-makers like SHINee, EXO, Red Velvet and EXID; and many other groups that are slipping my mind in this moment.
However, there are some of these multitude of other groups that stand out in my mind, in particular: the ones who struggle and that I think deserve to be more famous and secure than they are; I’m thinking especially of the rising phoenix tale of one of my favourite groups of all, Nu’est.
K-pop is such a hard way of life. Training starts young – in one’s teens, if not younger – and sees kids be taken in by a label, usually housed en masse with other trainees, often not fed enough or allowed to sleep enough – through direct instruction or due to pressure to look a certain way and always be better and train harder. They train and wait, wait to be placed in a group and debuted, often forgoing a consistent or further education. They often see peers placed into groups and know they will have to wait years for the label to invest in the expensive process of debuting another. If this happens, the label may drop them or they may choose to leave and seek out a place at another label.
Once, and if, they do finally make it to a group, they have given up years of their lives, their youths, friendships, other opportunities and the uncertainty only continues. As I said, around 100 groups debut per annum but few survive past several years of existence. Some are finished within months. In order for members to earn money and a wage, they need to make enough profits to pay back the label for their training and the investment in the group. If albums fail to make a profit continuously, they are put on a shelf in the company and left in limbo. They work long hours when promoting albums, barely sleeping or eating, and miserably sit around, paranoid, between releases. They are not allowed date and any sort of public scandal can spell the end of a career. Life is tough.
Nu’est is a five-member group that debuted in 2012 when the members were all around 16 or 17 years of age. Their initial releases were met with enthusiasm and they seemed to have a promising career ahead of them. However, when they changed concepts, the public didn’t come on the journey with them and various attempts were made to promote the group abroad, such as a venture as a Chinese version of the group and long periods working in Japan. The domestic audience is the most lucrative for K-pop groups so being sent abroad can be a bad sign for a group and it is reported that untoward things happened to the members in this time, such as fans at meetings being allowed to be handsy with the young idols. In the meantime, their label debuted a new boy group, Seventeen, which quickly became one of the most popular in Korea. Nu’est still had yet to make a profit so their label, Pledis, would not invest in any more promotions or releases for the group.
Last year, in a last ditch attempt to save the group, four of the members joined the reality show Produce 101, which gathered 101 idols and trainees from labels all over the country. Some were young teens that had just begun their training and others were from rookie groups that needed some promotion for their members. Nu’est, with six years of industry experience, were serious seniors. Other contestants were put out at having to compete against them and the media mocked them for the desperate move but the members laid down their pride. After a rocky start on the show, they began to flourish with their kind leader, JR, and the handsome Minhyun becoming especially popular. All the members made it into the last episode of the show and the public was sure that JR, the “Nation’s Leader” would make it into the final supergroup. In a twist, only Minhyun made it into Wanna One, the group formed of the winners, which has become one of the most wildly popular in the industry in the past year. The other members – with the fifth, Aron, who hadn’t joined the show – formed a sub-unit called Nu’est W (the “w” standing for “waiting”, while they await Minhyun’s return upon the completion of his contract with Wanna One) and have become very popular in their own right. The members have had a hit single, joined television shows, won awards, been on the covers of magazines and gained several sponsorship contracts.
It is a Hollywood-perfect plot in real life and has transformed them from a group whose songs I quite liked to a group that I have watched suffer and grow and succeed spectacularly. I feel so incredibly emotionally invested in them now.
To a greater or lesser degree, this is what K-pop does. They make you love these groups and their members, rather than passively enjoy their music. You watch the dramas they act in and the reality and variety shows they guest on, you take in the magazine shoots they model for and the memes the inspire, you watch special performances in amazement, and you cry along with them when their sorrows are broadcast and their successes finally come to pass. The entertainment industry is hard the world over but the K-pop industry, with its shiny exterior and murky depths, seems especially fickle and cruel, at times. One can’t help but feel for the idols that are part of it and it makes a catchy song into something much more, almost like a prayer for these kids to survive.
Because not all of them survive. Last year, SHINee became a four member group when Jonghyun took his own life. Still one of the leading lights of the industry and deeply loved, his passing rocked the K-pop industry and fandom. I read the news in work and spent the rest of the day periodically crying, shaken by a celebrity death unlike I ever had been before. It terrified me and saddened me. One of my oldest favourites, one of the ones that was doing alright, and he was lost to us. Mental health and suicide are, of course, complicated things and Jonghyun had publically spoken about his struggles before (in a cultural setting that didn’t see such an act of bravery about such a topic, especially from a perfect idol, very often) and success doesn’t necessarily make one happy or fix their issues and comes with its own problems. However, it always does rock us all to see someone we perceive as “having it all”, commit suicide. It seems all the more perplexing and horrifying. K-pop made him a superstar but the pressures of the role also weighed heavily on a delicate soul.
K-pop is beautiful and crazy and messy and flawed. It produces incredible talent and amazing performances and it also leaves lots of victims behind. Yet, it is these very stakes that make me become so emotionally invested. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t like things but, instead, is obsessed with them and K-pop is a perfect drug to a person like me. But, outside the machinations of the industry I keep coming back for the indomitable spirit and inspirational soul of the idols who manage to somehow succeed, despite the odds.
For more music content, check out Colette’s guide to Chicks, an Irish nineties teen punk girl band and for more entertainment bits check out Emma’s HBO gems.