We’ve all heard stories about life being a K-pop star, but the K-pop industry is tough and you may or may not want to pursue it after reading this.
How to be a K-pop star?
With agencies churning out rookies one after another, one might pose the question: what is exactly needed to be a K-pop idol? If you aspire to follow your bias into the music industry, here is what you need, based on the analysis of contemporary singers.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS … or maybe not
If we were to become a pop star 15-20 years ago, it would have been the macho type of male. You know, be manly, sweat like a horse, be hairy and have a deep, deep voice or at least a very masculine one. Sort of a second Freddie Mercury. Nowadays, however, the trend is for boys to be more … ambiguous. Girly, even. If you cannot sing, you better be a good dancer – or a rapper.
You have two choices. If you are a more feminine type, you don’t need abs. They will be delighted to look at your face only. If you are a more masculine type, abs are unavoidable. Be prepared for long hours in the gym. Then there are the mixed types, the baby faces with a body builder’s muscles. Those are the freakiest, frankly.
The uninitiated would never be able to tell he’s a boy (Ren from Nu’est).
POLES FOR PIN-UP GIRLS
As for the girls, besides being perfectly pretty, you have to be thin. Some agencies time and time again try to launch bands or singers who do not look like the average pole thin beauty – these are the rare exceptions (like Big Mama or Lee Hi). Long legs are a must, as basically every girl band goes for the shortest possible outfits. Curiously enough, it seems like you cannot have your upper body revealed, so tops and shirts would always be high or as closed as possible, but legs can be shown as much as you like. The requirement nowadays seems to be a double standard for girls; you need to be cute-innocent and bitchy sexy at the same time. Preferably, you should sing like a 12 year old and dance like a stripper, at the same time.
Girls bring the… legs out… (Girls’ Generation)
Be young. Well, above 15 but preferably below 25. Agencies are not very much known for recruiting “mature” men and women. Probably because kids are still formidable and easier to govern. If you are lucky you may be in the business for a long time, like Shinhwa, and then your age would not really matter much. But for starters, if you are 30, it will be difficult to sell you to predominantly teen audiences.
Cutesiness or aegyo is what a new K-pop idol should be capable of. Even those macho rappers show their tender sides from time to time. But don’t be extreme. Syrupy aegyo will be too much for foreign audiences. If someone is naturally cute in certain situations, that can be a big plus in endearing themselves to people. Overflowing aegyo may have reverse effects with older audiences. If you strive to engage a wider audience, you need to know when to do aegyo. If you are fine with 12 year olds or uncle fans only, just do it.
Some stars are simply not suited for aegyo… (Yunho)
You have to be fashionable, though some newbies might take it to the extremes in the company’s desperate attempt to ‘stand out’. Some stars, like G-Dragon are able to pull of the most extreme fashion styles and look good even in a potato sack but you need to keep in mind that this requires a certain natural personality. If you are only trying to look cool in certain fashion items, it will show. The best is to harmonize your fashion with your personality. Some agencies have concepts for artists and you might need to wear items you are uncomfortable with, just to build up an image. In the long run, fake images will be destroyed one way or another. Take Jaejoong for example, whose initial image was an Ice Prince dressed in ridiculous otherworldly clothes. Soon fans learned the guy is far from being icy.
The Ice Prince image forever shattered… and we all love him for his goofy side, don’t we?
You have to have a pretty face. No more Shindongs in the industry. It’s very rare for agencies to give a chance to guys like Shindong. The trend shows that you have to be very pretty and if you are not, either you are not accepted or told to go under the knife. For sceptics, do you really think every K-pop idol is born with a perfect ratio face? Currently there are more than 200 active K-pop bands on the market, with an average of five members. A thousand naturally perfect faces?
Have some talent. Truth is you don’t have to be the next Michael Jackson or Jennifer Lopez to be discovered by a K-pop agency. As demonstrated by some of the newest rookies, it is not necessary to possess the best singing skills. Some bands employ one or two members who actually can sing, and they are given the most difficult parts. The rest can sing whatever they can, and there is always autotune to help out. Very few bands are capable of delivering a live performance without pre-recorded audio. Dance skills can be basic too, as the company will always select some members who are great dancers, and they will pull it off in a way you won’t notice that the rest are just doing basic formation routines. Of course this is not always the case, as some agencies (big or indie) prefer talent over everything else. If you are very talented and happen to be pretty (or don’t mind if they make you pretty), you have bigger chances to become really famous and admired.
Endurance and patience are key words in the industry. Even if you are perfectly pretty and gifted as a singer/dancer, if you cannot endure harsh environments and slave work, you better not dream about becoming a K-pop star. Even though training periods have radically gone down compared to what had been the norm before, training is still nerve-wrecking. Trainees work long hours, besides going to school, and they need to deal with the mental hardships of rude criticism from their trainers. Even after debuting you might work your buttocks off and not be paid (well enough) for a certain period of time until your performances pay the investment back to your agency. Cramped in idol dorms, you might need to live like this for years before you would be able to afford to buy a flat. If you happen to be cast in an average band, you might not be able to earn as much as you dreamt about.
Is the K-Pop industry too tough? Let us know about your thoughts in the comments.
Be smart. If you are not smart, you will quickly end your career with any stupid move. Where trainees abound like a flock of sheep, you are quickly replaceable. Think before you act and keep in mind that the whole world is watching you. You are an idol, literally speaking: a role model for young fans. What you do, how you speak and how you act affects ductile young followers. Don’t underestimate this!
Fame doesn’t last forever. At least, not in K-pop, where bands come and go and can easily be forgotten. Don’t neglect your studies, you might need that degree 10 years later when nobody remembers your face anymore. Even the most famous and richest idols plan ahead, they invest their hard-earned money for their future. They buy property, they open shops, restaurants or otherwise build up a business, so they have an income after fading out as an idol.
Smart boy: Junsu is known to be the richest idol in terms of real estate property.
Be versatile. Nowadays, if a K-pop idol is merely a singer or a dancer, it is difficult to compete with look-alikes and the constant stream of up-and-coming rookies. There is not a minute of rest in K-pop. Many idols seek opportunities in variety shows, television dramas and movies, because the more feet you stand on, the more stable you are, and the more visible you become to industry leaders and the audience alike. True, as my colleague Brandi pointed out, this carries the danger that you are not able to focus on one area of expertise and become superficially trained in multiple crafts. On the other hand, competition is so huge nowadays that K-pop idols need to grab whatever opportunity comes along, simply to stay alive. The luckiest will achieve new heights this way, like Yoochun did, others will stumble and fall. Like a natural selection process.
Be emotionally stable. It’s difficult. It’s difficult when you have to keep up the pace, follow strict schedules, fight sasaeng fans, deal with constant criticism, and you cannot see your family as often as your soul would need, either. You will be tired, and you will eventually face depression. Even some of the biggest stars have to go through this phase now and again. Have friends you can confide in. Keep your original surroundings as much as you can, try to stay on the ground and play it cool. If you take things too seriously, that’s going to have a toll on your mental stability. We all know about the celebrities who committed suicide because they were no longer able to cope. Seek professional advice if you feel down. It’s not very much accepted in Korea but you have to think of your own health and not what others think is right.
Kim Hyun-joong tells how friendship helps him cope with stress.
Eat well! In the desperate fight for survival in the industry, many K-pop idols resort to torturing diets and workout programs. Unfortunately, many girls as well as boys feel they need to be pole thin to be pretty. This comes down to the stupidity of the ‘fans’, actually, who point out even the slightest weight gain, even if the person is not overweight or unhealthy looking at all. But as public figures, K-pop stars are the ones who can change this. If they advocate healthier diets that show a balance, eventually fans will approve. If the idol resorts to eating almost nothing for weeks, fans will think this is the normal way to live.
Would you still want to be a K-pop star? Let us know about your thoughts in the comments.
What’s your deal? Why do you like music that’s in a different language? Why do you love it so much? How did you ever get into Kpop in the first place? Questions like these are part of everyday life for a Kpop fan. Whether it be from a friend, family member, or coworker, we, as fans, get some of the strangest reactions from people in our lives when we say, “I’m a Kpop fan.”
Of the millions of questions we fans are asked, “What got you into Kpop?” is probably one of the most popular. Why? Perhaps the question stems from an attempt to understand our attraction and fascination with a genre of music that they know little or nothing about, or perhaps they are secretly looking for a good reason to check it out themselves. In our new series, “Kpop Magnetism: What pulls in the fans and why?”, we will discuss the most popular answers to that ultimate question and explore not only what draws fans into this fascinating genre, but also what makes them stay.
While Kpop has its own stand-alone appeal, many fans explain that it’s not the music that originally got them interested in the genre. For some, it was catching a random TV clip found on YouTube, an episode of a drama recommended to them from one of their streaming sites, or a cool looking movie poster tab on sites like Hulu or Netflix. That instant intrigue, which compelled them to look further, brought them into their Kpop life.
But what is it about dramas that really draws fans in? Is it something specific, or is it Kdramas as a whole?
While experts still debate which drama–What is Love All about or Star in My Heart–was the very first drama to cross borders into the international market in 1997, experts unanimously agree that the drama Winter Sonata (2002) was the springboard the budding industry needed to ultimately turn the Kdrama into an international multi-billion dollar industry. The appeal of Kdramas has become a huge factor in the acquisition of Kpop fans from around the world.
With stellar cinematography, visually appealing and talented actors, engaging plot lines, and emotional scores, Kdramas offer a myriad of sub-genres that draws in even the most wayward viewer. Romance, historical, comedy, fantasy, melodrama, crime, and horror are just some of the hundreds of different sub-genres within the Kdrama’s repertoire that can appeal to almost anyone.
When mentioning cinematography in references to Kdramas, the first thing that comes to a fan’s mind are historical dramas (sageuk). Sageuks are period-style dramas, usually set in the Joseon or Goryeo eras. These dramas include highly complicated plots, military and political strife, romance, action, adventure, revenge, and even coming of age sub-stories, that keep the viewer fully engaged.
Their fantastical sets, breathtaking shooting locals, stunning costumes, epic fight scenes, and sweeping camera motions make Sageuks veritable feasts for the visual senses. They also bring to life a period of Korean history unknown to many and tell extremely engaging stories.
While many fans of Sageuks argue over which historical dramas should be considered in the prestigious list of all-time-best, there is a consensus among them all that dramas such as the Great Queen Seondoek, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and Warrior Baek Dong-Soo (video above), are perfect examples of some the greatest Sageuks to date, based solely on how visually striking they are.
As the industry has grown over the years, more and more sub-genres have implemented tried and true cinematographic methods of the average sageuk and mirrored them in other types of dramas. This visual appeal has become one of the major factors when determining the popularity of a particular drama and, consequently, has become one of the many ways the industry brings fans into Kpop.
Kdramas catch the eye and interest of the fan and then dare them to keep watching. By the time a viewer finishes their first Kdrama, and sometime even before that, they are so engrossed and in tune with the stunning cinematography of the show that, before they know it, they often find themselves digging deeper into the drama’s story, the lives and careers of the actors/actresses, and the music.
When we discuss the appeal of Kdramas and how effectively they draw fans into Kpop, we cannot forget the actors, actresses, and the plot lines themselves. Many Kpop fans got into the genre simply from seeing a clip of a great looking actor/actress. That alone was enough to spark their Kdrama and Kpop addiction.
South Korea is a veritable hotbed for good looking and highly-talented actors/actress, directing visionaries, and imaginative drama writers. These talented artists produce some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking stories in Asian television history. Plot lines run the gambit of any and all possibilities, from fantasy stories and time travel, to revenge and innocent love, and everything in between. These Kdramas offer up a story line for just about everyone. Fans may ultimately come to a drama because of how great an actor looks, but it’s the story that keeps them coming back each week. In a sense, the actors are the bait and the story is the hook that, once swallowed, will never let you go.
Even with the appeal of a drama’s acting and story line, there is something even more special that occurs when a Kpop artist is cast. The melding of the two industries (music and drama) has proven itself time and time again. Examples of the extreme international popularity of such co-industry dramas include such hits as Boys Over Flowers, which starred the highly sought after actor Lee Min-Ho, artists Kim Joon (T-Max), and Kim Hyun-Joong (SS501), and You’re Beautiful, which starred veteran actor Jang Geun-Suk, Jung Yong-Hwa from CNBLUE, and Lee Hong-Ki from F.T.Island.
While castings such as these are now becoming more and more common place, as recently seen in the currently airing dramas Queen of Ambition starring Jung Yunho (TVXQ) and IRIS II with Lee Joon (MBLAQ) and Yoon Doo-Joon (BEAST), they’re not simply the only reason why these dramas have become so popular. It’s the mix of the relatively inexperienced Kpop artist-turned-actor and the expertise of the veteran actors that brings an exciting element to a new story line and a fresh look to any remake or sequel.
When Kpop artists cross over into the realm of acting, they bring with them not only their music fans, but also a wave of curiosity as to the artist’s acting ability. This heretofore unknown element sparks a high interest in the project. The casting of popular Kpop artists in secondary and leading roles usually guarantees that the drama will be popular to some extent. This cross-over becomes mutually beneficial for both Kdrama and Kpop as fans of the artist watch the drama to support him/her, and fans of the drama may be so inclined to learn more about the Kpop artist and his/her music because of their acting performance. This co-mingling creates a never-ending circle of interest that keeps viewer ratings high and sales of the drama’s Official Sound Track (OST) even higher.
While the phenomenal cinematography and an actor’s compelling performances throughout a storyline may be a big draw to bring in fans to Kdramas, it’s the OST that has become the quintessential part of the Kdrama’s appeal. The inclusion of music to any Kdrama emphasizes and increases the emotional response in the viewer, and when that music is then perfectly paired with the proper scene, then the emotions are amplified a hundred fold. Conversely, a bad OST will almost always equate to a bad drama in the eyes of the fans.
Trying to get a Kdrama fan to nail down their absolute favorite OST track is like trying to get a Kpop fan to pick their favorite song from their absolute bias. Some of Kpop’s hottest tracks worldwide hail from the soundtracks of some of the hottest Kdramas, as well as from some of the most least known dramas in the industry’s history. While dramas such as Rooftop Prince, Reply 1997, Boys Over Flowers, You’re Beautiful, and Secret Garden (video above) can outwardly boast that their popularity was not simply due to their OST, many fans would disagree with them. While the popularity of a Kdrama doesn’t necessarily equate to the popularity of the OST, and vice versa, their interconnection can not be denied.
Some die-hard Kpop fans would argue that doing an OST track takes something away from the Kpop artist’s stand-alone appeal. However, there have been a multitude of OST tracks that, over the years, have topped charts all over the world, have inadvertently propelled artists to the forefront of the music scene, and have increased their corresponding dramas’ ratings. A recent example of this is the track, “And One,” performed by Taeyeon (Girl’s Generation), from the currently airing drama, That Winter, The Wind Blows. The song immediately shot up to number one on Daum moments after its release on March 13. After the release of the track, the drama itself also enjoyed an increase in viewership ratings. While Taeyeon was already a world renowned artist, this example is just a mere sampling of the potential popularity of any OST track and how it and the drama both do their part in drawing in more fans to Kpop.
With the Kdrama’s affinity for beautiful cinematography, thought-provoking and emotional story lines, superb acting, and heartwarming music, it’s no wonder why they have solidified their spot as one of the main influences in drawing in new fans to the genre of Kpop. As this match made in heaven continues on its congruent track into the future, we will see more and more fans come to them both as their popularity continues to grow worldwide.
Was a Kdrama your gateway into Kpop? If so, which drama hooked you and why? Tell us your story in the comments section below.
It is known to Kpop fans that some Korean artists have ventured out of Asia and set their sights on the western market.
From fan meetings, solo concerts, album promotions and even live television guestings, the artists were able to prove that they can handle the competition and capture the hearts of fans from all over the world.
As proof of their success, Instiz recently released the top ‘50 Best Korean Idol By American Chart’ through their official website. BIGBANG topped the chart, followed by Super Junior, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation and PSY, consecutively. See the complete list below:
Did your favorite artists get in?
I was born in Europe and my friends here are always amazed when I show them K-pop videos or try to convince them to watch K-dramas. “You must be kidding me, this guy looks like a woman!” Are any of you familiar with such exclamations? It’s typically very difficult to explain them why many Korean male idols or even actors look so feminine. It has quite a complicated history with more gray areas than the theory of the “Big Bang” (no, not meaning G-Dragon & co. here) and since the appearance of the new male prototypes is very recent, research has just started to explore this phenomenon. While there are no definite answers as yet, there exist a couple of interesting theories about why suddenly, at the turn of the 21st century, Korea abandoned the tough looking Bruce Lees and settled with quite a number of Kim Jae-joongs and Lee Min-hos, despite still being a very much male-centered, patriarchal society. Apparently all you need to turn machos into flower boys is a healthy mixture of a grand-scale financial crisis, a soccer world cup, Japanese manga and a lot of very, very, very demanding women – at the right time and right place…
Kim Hyun-joong, the perfect flower boy: pretty face, adorable smile, hot abs, magnificent manners (Photo: Newsen)
OK, I admit this sounds strange, so let’s put the puzzle pieces together. Flower boys, or kkonminam (꽃미남) in Korean first appeared at the end of the 1990s, effectively backed up by a number of important social changes. Korea was, and to a degree still is, a very patriarchal society. Images associated with males are that of a ‘provider’, the head of the household, a tough and demanding man. A far cry from what flower boys represent. One could argue that flower boys are nothing more than mere metrosexuals, a phenomenon that originated in the West, at the beginning of the 1990s, and is frequently associated with David Beckham, being its perfect embodiment: heterosexual guys who take care of their looks, like to work out, are not afraid to wear pastel colors, dye their hair and won’t blink an eye when it comes to spending money on make-up – things frequently labeled ‘gay’ by people with a more conservative stance (no wonder some K-pop stars also receive this label from Westerners). James Turnbull at The Grand Narrative, who is regarded an expert on the issue, argues that metrosexuality at that time had no real impact in Korea, because society was much more closed to Western influences and the softened male image developed on its own there.
Turnbull makes an interesting claim saying the 1997 financial crisis is to be ‘blamed’ for the change in male role models. The crisis brought along changes in how women started to perceive themselves and their men. Beforehand, guys were almost sole providers for the family, but the crisis needed women to put washing dishes aside and have a bigger say in the family budget. At the same time, due to the patriarchal nature, when a company had to reduce workforce to cope with the crisis, it was mostly the women workers to get sacked. The ladies, also being encouraged by growing self-esteem and feminism, disappointed in how men were treating them, abandoned the machos and started looking for men who have a deeper understanding of female nature. This – says Turnbull – was further enhanced by the 2002 soccer world cup that Korea and Japan co-hosted. The football enthusiast nation was much more permissive during the games than usual, and Korean women actively participated in the event, rooted for the national eleven like crazy, dressed in tiny little tops and shorts, a sight basically unseen on national broadcast before. Not to mention the national obsession with the players, especially one particularly very handsome, long-haired guy among them: Ahn Jung-hwan, who can be considered as the prototype of all Korean flower boys, endorsing cosmetic brands, among others.
Lightly dressed Korean girl cheering at the world cup. A sight rarely seen on TV before. (Photo: Getty Images)
Other researchers attribute the appearance of flower boys at least partially to a particular type of Japanese manga: bishonen. This type of manga features exceptionally beautiful male leads, usually very feminine in looks with long legs, gentle and understanding in nature and in love with average or not-so-pretty girls – thus embodying the dream of every insecure young girl. As the ban on the imports of Japanese products was lifted in Korea due to the co-hosted world cup, Japanese manga also became widespread and was adapted into Korean formats. Korean women have also over time become more conscious of their rights to choose their mates, and this confidence put pressure on men, who started to feel like they needed to meet the demand.
Oh those bishonen boys… (Photo: Koei)
As society underwent changes, media of course followed the trends and flower boys started to appear on television, in movies, and naturally, in K-pop. One of the early influences was certainly the hit drama series Winter Sonata in 2002 with Bae Yong-joon as the male lead: a sophisticated, gentle character with a beautiful face. Women all over Asia, particularly in Japan went wild over his delicate looks and even the Japanese prime minister noted how Bae’s popularity surpassed his own. It turned out from interviews conducted with female viewers of the drama that Bae reminded them of beautiful male leads of bishonen mangas that they used to be so fond of as adolescent girls.
If you think that flower boys are only abundant among actors and K-pop stars, you might be surprised to know that this trend is very much affecting men in Korea. Not only because women demand that their mates be well-groomed but also because advertisements and images spread by the media push them to do so. Korean men spend a staggering amount of money on cosmetics each year, as much as 885 million USD in 2012, which is 20% of all sales in male-oriented cosmetics worldwide!
Among these products you can find BB Creams and foundations, and even lipstick and lip gloss designed for men. There are specific cosmetic shops or saloons for men, something that is rare to find in the West.
Average Korean guy shopping male cosmetics. (Photo: AP)
Feminine looking males are not new in Asia, literary works as old as the legendary Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber employed feminine looking heroes, who were much more fond of writing poems and painting pictures than fighting the enemy with a sword and courted many ladies. In Japan ‘make-up’ for men in the era of antiquity was generally accepted. Male Kabuki* actors as early as the 1620s dressed as females for certain roles. Flower boys are not only exclusively Korean, they can also be found in Japan, China and Taiwan. This could be the result of the heavy and rapid export of Korean popular culture on the wings of the Korean wave, boosted by the use of social media platforms and media sharing websites like YouTube that allow content to be shared instantly.
But why are these guys so popular? Flower boys are what every sane woman has in her hopes and more: men who are beautiful and kind, understand and cooperate, treat as an equal rather than dictate or demand. Finding a partner nowadays is no easy job. I frequently hear my friends complaining that young men tend to be shallow, are only after physical intimacy and are rude otherwise. As much as many of us like testosterone-filled ‘manly men’, most educated and self-conscious women resent guys who behave like cave-men, pulling you into their territory by your hair, battering their chests in victory. Not as if pretty guys would always be that much different in reality, but just like the romance novels my generation grew up on, this isn’t about reality. It’s about the hopes, dreams and needs of women around the globe. And as women’s tastes change over time, so does the image of Prince Charming evolve. It is no wonder that the demand for flower boys is on the rise.
From tough guy to flower boy (from left to right): actor Choi Min-soo, soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan, K-pop idol Kim Jae-joong (Photos in order: Sports Seoul, photoro.co.kr, SM Entertainment)
*Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theatre that involves dance, as well as elaborate clothes and make-up.
Have you been affected by this trend? Flower boys or machos, who would you choose?
A flamboyant pictorial featuring Kim Hyun Joong has been released through Volume 96 of High Cut magazine.
Kim nimbly captures his audience’s attention with dynamic ensembles that maintain a natural appearance. High Cut describes Kim to be eccentric yet refreshing.
For the first image, Kim dons a blue-and-white striped shirt by Hang Ten while holding two flowers over his eyes. A second image displays the model wearing a green knit top with orange cuffs, navy pants by Hang Ten, burgundy loafers, and Gentle Monster sunglasses. The third image features Kim wearing a red-and-white checkered shirt with green pants, both from Hang Ten.
Take a look at Kim Hyun Joong’s pictorial with High Cut below: