Nothing! Everybody loves K-Pop, don’t they?
Ha! K-Pop fan spotted. Sorry, we’re not on the same page on this. In fact, a lot of people — parents, sociologists, music industry observers and policymakers in a few countries — now think the K-Pop mania is a cause for concern. Short for Korean Pop, this form of popular music originated in South Korea in the 1990s (older forms of Korean pop music are not taken to be part of the K-Pop we have now). Soon, it spread across the globe like wildfire (remember Psy and Gangnam Style that rocked year 2012?) and is now creating headlines for all the wrong reasons. The latest example is the death of 25-year-old K-pop singer Sulli — whose original name was Choi Jin-ri — just this week.
Ah, Sully! How we miss her!
If you’ve been following the news, you’d know Sulli, who was part of the band f(x), was among the few celebrities who openly supported South Korea’s abortion laws and all her life she was known for controversial statements and stunts. These included her calls to girls to wear shirts without inner-wear, getting drunk on social media, and such. And she was quite vocal about her mental health problems, all of which made her the subject of online vitriol. And the police suspect cyber-bullying forced Sulli to end her life.
Sulli is not the only K-Pop star to succumb to the pressures of the now-(in)famous K-Pop way of life. Recently, grunge.com listed 11 K-Pop stars who died before age 30. Almost all of them had tragic deaths, from accidents to suicide. Just two years ago, when 27-year-old Jong-hyun, who was the lead singer with the extremely popular K-Pop boy-band, SHINee, killed himself inside a Seoul hotel, he left a note saying he was broken from inside and was engulfed by depression. “I was so alone,” he reportedly noted. Sulli too expressed similar feelings about her depression. It seems none got the help they needed despite being ‘surrounded’ by fans, agents and the media.
And therein lies the rub. These unfortunate events and the rising popularity of music and art forms such as K-Pop reveal some unpleasant truths about the society we live in. For starters, K-Pop, despite its humble beginnings in the 1990s as a pastiche of European popular music, with Korean lyrics and African hip-hop’s swashbuckling swag, is now a multi-billion dollar industry across the globe with bands such as BTS and Blackpink enjoying billions of downloads on online streaming platforms. The K-Pop bands contribute nearly $4 billion to South Korea’s economy now. And they do equally well across the globe. BTS is one of the most popular bands now and its singer-performers are worth millions of dollars, attracting intense media attention and adding millions of fans from all over the globe.
Yes, I love BTS!
If you have noticed, the first popular song from the BTS, “No More Dream”, reflects the very philosophy of the current crop of K-Pop. Most songs, according to some sociologists, speak to a generation that want to take life easy and look at their roles as citizens, students, children and wannabe adults differently. This means, according to some pop culture experts, they shy away from confrontations and tend to slip into an escapist dystopia where hard realities of life do not feature in their entirety and rawness. K-Pop, for some, has become the new opium of the masses, whose palliative effect impacts the psyche of its fans as well as proponents.
Isn’t it a generalisation?
Not many think so, considering the way K-Pop industry, fans and its stars function. In fact, the umbrella genre K-Pop belongs to — Hallyu — a “pandemic of trashy, shallow entertainment masquerading as culture” as critic Yonden Lhatoo recently put it. The industry forces the singers (most of them start at under-age levels) into shockingly exploitative contracts and painfully exhaustive training before they make it big. Most ‘stars’ soon crumble under this pressure and the latest spate of deaths are just the tip of the psychological nightmare K-Pop has become, say observers. And that’s why the likes of Lhatoo calls it “an infectious disease”, not a cultural export.
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