Pop Culture

2017: The whiplash year for K-pop

What does it mean to go from one of the most validating years to its most heartbreaking.

2017 was the year that put Korean pop (K-pop) on the map. And not in a mocking, other-ing way, like how “Gangnam Style” swept pop culture in 2013. No, this year K-pop, specifically boy bands, hit mainstream America and made an impression. As a fan since 2012 (I came late to the game, I know) watching K-pop’s rise was both one of the most amazing things to see… and eventually one of the most heartbreaking.

Let’s start with the one, the only, BTS. Wow. What a year. Historic is just the start of it. Their meteoric rise to fame really began earlier this year when they won the Billboard 2017 award for Top Social Artist (and beat Justin Bieber’s 6-year record), but this year changed everything when they were invited to perform at the American Music Awards — the first Korean boy band to ever do so. As a part of their time visiting Los Angeles, the group appeared on The Late Late Show with James Cordon, performed a mini concert on Jimmy Kimmel Live , and took over Ellen. Then of course the AMA performance itself was legendary.

There were fan chants, light sticks, people dancing —it was the best part of the AMAs (but admittedly it was the only part I watched.) After that I heard BTS on the radio, my friend heard it played at her work, and mainstream American celebrities on Twitter were declaring themselves ARMY (their official fan name.) I’m not even a big BTS fan, but I could feel the change they brought to the game.

And it was so validating. For all those times in high school I felt like an idiot fangirl (which, to be fair, I was pretty obnoxious) for liking K-pop, I finally saw it becoming the next big thing. Not to dismiss Psy and the work he did with “Gangnam Style.” But the entire time he was promoting, it always felt like people were laughing at him, and I was never sure what part of the craze was the joke. For many people, Psy was as far as their knowledge and care for K-pop went. At least, until this year when BTS brought “DNA” into the mainstream to be celebrated.

But still not fully understood. K-pop brings a whole new culture and its own context to American/ Western standards. I’m not saying K-pop gets a pass for its problematic practices —issues best pointed out and discussed by Sandra Song in Teen Vogue — but there are different standards and learning curves at play. Fans, idols, labels, and agencies from both sides need to reconsider and re-educate themselves on what they think pop music and culture means. And in the wake of the hyper-consumption of BTS, I wonder what that means for new fans coming to K-pop at one of its most tragic times.

On December 18, 2017, lead singer of Shinee and angel too good for this world Kim Jonghyun passed away. It’s most likely a suicide. He was 27.

If you’re going to be a fan of K-pop, either the whole genre or just one person, you need to know the system it creates. Part of larger cultural contexts of South Korea (parts I don’t fully understand as an outsider) K-pop can be a brutal machine that causes real damage to its idols. The contracts they sign with labels, specialized diets, constant schedules, and pressure to appear certain ways all build up to create an unhealthy mindset. Looking past the makeup, clothes, singing, and dancing, there’s a steep price to be a K-pop idol.

“The 27-year-old’s passing highlights South Korea’s alarming suicide rate, which an October 2017 report from the Berkeley Political Review says claims the lives of 40 people every day and is the fourth-most common cause of death in the country,” Jeff Benjamin in NPR.

Talking about mental health in Korea does not happen. Again, it’s part of a greater Korean cultural context I’m not qualified to talk about. But it needs to be start getting discussed by those who can affect change. Reading Jonhyun’s final letter shows how much pain he felt, how it was clearly unaddressed, and that he never found the help he needed. I can’t offer answers or guesses for what will happen in the future of the industry, but all I know is that it can’t stay the same. I can only hope that maybe the new (buying) power BTS brought to K-pop will be that catalyst.

This genre, fandoms, and performers are valid parts of the music industry. We’re way past my days in high school when I when tried to explain K-pop to some of my friends, and no one bothered to try and listen to songs or watch a music video. Now we’re hearing BTS on the radio, K-Con is a massive concert in New York and Los Angeles every year, and idols are starting to collaborate with big-name musicians here and abroad. That means fans, artists, and labels need to recognize all aspects of the industry. Because blindly following the next glittery thing only perpetuates the system, when it’s time to change it.

Please remember there are always people to talk to, if you need to reach out. Here’s a list of international hotlines to call, and if you don’t see a country listed please call your local emergency number.

You did well, Jonghyun. You did so well.

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