Behind the K-pop scenes – Looking into K-pop Part 1

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By:  Jason Yu (aka Jangta)

Green Tea Graffiti


Beep.  Beep.  Beep.  An alarm clock nearby rings loudly.  It’s 5:00 am and five teenage girls are fighting the urge to tune out their alarm and go back to sleep.  Reluctantly, the girls finally drag themselves out of bed.  While high school students their age sneak another two hours of sleep before getting ready for school, these girls have no choice.  They are no ordinary girls.   After all, they live the life of a Korean pop star – affectionately known as K-pop.

Starting their day starts at 7 am and ending at 1 am the next morning, the five girls of the new K-pop group, 5Dolls, are used to this daily routine.  This hectic routine is a far cry from their days as normal, everyday teenagers that studied, hung out with friends, and attended afternoon schools known as hagwons (cram schools).  It seemed so long ago since these girls left behind these previous lives.

Only three years ago, these five girls passed their final auditions to be admitted as K-pop trainees of Core Contents Media.  As young, energetic girls that were new to the K-pop industry, they were excited about this new opportunity.  When the girls all met for the first time in 2008, the five girls quickly became friends, as they grew up together during their teenage years.

They have shared a lot of experiences during this time: ramen dinners, many laughing moments, fatigue after dance practice, and tears of pain from the constant pressure and critiques from management.  Often times, the girls train seven days-a-week with no down time.  When asked the last time any of the girls saw their families, 18-year old Hyoyoung replies, “I haven’t seen my family since the Chuseok holidays six months ago.”  To these girls, their group members are their family away from home.

The girls knew that they would have to sacrifice their youth and freedom.  Yet, the tradeoff of being in the spotlight, becoming famous, making money off album sales, and having screaming fans, were too hard to pass up.  So is living the Korean music dream really worth it?


The Feeling of Auditioning

To the many that try out in cities all over Asia and the US every year, the answer is a resounding yes.  In San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York last year, more than a thousand applicants tried their hand at becoming the next Rain or BoA.  In Malaysia, Singapore, and China, thousands more waited long audition lines to show their stuff to the record moguls SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG Entertainment.  Even in Korea itself, a record 1.5 million tried their hand as a K-pop potential singer this year on Korea’s version of American Idol, Superstar K3.  In their search for the next international star, these three music companies knew that K-pop was the new, big thing.  They had no shortage of youthful applicants willing to try out.


Applicants that try out at one of the K-pop auditions go through three auditions.  Judged on looks, stage presence, singing, speaking, and choreography, these hopefuls are whittled down from the thousands that started to a mere handful by the end of the 3rd audition.  After that, the judges make their decision.  For the aspiring K-pop applicants that are handpicked, they are flown out to Korea.

Passing the auditions is the easy part.  The hard part for the new trainees is yet to come.


The Trials of Big Bang

It has been five years since the teenage boys of Big Bang debuted in 2006.  Ever since their first hit, Haru Haru, catapulted them into instant fame, the five members knew this newfound fame was only part of the equation.  Behind the glamour of being a Korean entertainer lays a more realistic picture.  Daesung, a member of this extremely popular group, reminisces.  “I knew that becoming a K-pop star required certain sacrifices – everyone that enters the Korean music industry knows this – yet, nothing prepares you for this,” he says.  “The constant pressure and demands are tough,” he adds.

Daesung was not kidding.  During their breakout year in 2007, several members of the group were taken to the hospital.  Their symptoms: overwork and exhaustion.  The cure: rest.  Yet, the Big Bang members knew the sacrifice they made when they entered the K-pop industry.  They were back at work a few days later.

As soon as they sign their contracts, K-pop stars are expected to follow a brutal, packed schedule.  A typical day looks like:

5:00 am – 7:00 am:    Wake up, eat breakfast, take a shower, go to the studio

7:00 am – 9:00 am:     Study for home school classes (basic subjects like math, history, etc)

9:00 am – 11:00 am:  Study foreign language class (English, Chinese, Japanese, etc)

11:00 am – 12:00 pm: Go over production notes with managers

12:00 pm – 12:30 pm: Lunch

12:30 pm – 3:00 pm:   Song rehearsal.  The group sings together

3:00 pm – 5:00 pm:     Dance practice

5:00 pm – 7:00 pm:     More song rehearsal.  Practice solo parts, such as ballads or rapping

7:00 pm – 8:00 pm:     “How to act around the media” class

8:00 pm – 9:00 pm:     Go over lyrics, any new changes

9:30 pm – 10:00 pm:   Dinner

10:00 pm – 12:00 am: Final dance with singing practice, then go home


The K-pop world also finds a way to weed out the emotionally weak.  From the constant gossip and rumors, to fans’ opinions and comments, no K-pop star is immune to public opinion.  The critiques even come from music producers, managers, and sometimes even friends and family. The temptation to cry or breakdown is ever-present.  Developing thick skin is not a luxury; it is a necessity to survive in the Korean music industry.

Jung Ji-hoon found this out firsthand.  As an awkward, lanky teenager, Jung passed the auditions to gain admission into the K-pop scene in 2000 under JYP Entertainment.  He soon expected praise and good words from his new mentor, Park Ji-young, but received anything but that.  Instead, Jung was subject to every critique, slight, and putdown from Park.  Park felt that if a trainee can take the emotional punishment, they’ll be ready to handle anything the public threw at them.

Commonly known as ‘tough love’, Park constantly told Jung he wasn’t good enough to succeed.    No matter how hard Jung tried, how much Jung tried to impress Park, and how many times Jung followed Park’s orders, Park would not relent.  Before he was known as Rain, Jung trained as a backup dancer for two years for ballad singer Park Ji-yoon.

“I remember Park Ji-young making me do the same routines over and over again,” recalls Rain.  He continues, “If I did not follow his demands, his orders to the letter, I could not make my debut as a solo singer.”  For all this time, Rain was looking for anyone that would appreciate and believe in him.  If Rain’s experiences taught him one lesson, however, it is that person that needs to believe in himself the most is the person in the mirror.

Ironically, Rain would implement many of the same methods his mentor used when he started his own record label, J Tune Entertainment, in 2007.  His newest project, a five-member boy band called MBLAQ (Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality), was a spitting image of Rain.  The boys had the look, singing style, and choreography that styled like Rain’s.

Yet, when it came down to training the five teenagers, the boys played the part of a baby-faced Rain years ago, while Rain played the role of the stern, stolid, distant Park Ji-young.  It was reported last year that Rain played the silent treatment card – purposely not speaking to them for days – on his young protégés to motivate them.  Like an unofficial rite-of-passage, Rain’s newest trainees would have to endure the same barbs he did years ago.


Tiffany’s Journey to Acceptance

Tiffany from the mega popular all-girl group, Girls’ Generation, echoes the importance of having thick skin.  Two years ago, her group’s song, Gee, exploded in popularity.  For Tiffany, the best was yet to come for the Los Angeles native.  Or so it seemed.  Many netizens and members of the Korean media soon went on the offensive.  Focusing on the little baby fat at her midriff during concerts, rumors spread like wildfire that she was overweight.  She soon broke down and cried after shows for not constantly living up to the Korean standards of a perfect body – known as an S-line.

“The media can be so cruel sometimes,” she said at the time.  She reiterated that belief months later in an interview in December 2009 with VJ Isak on the TV show, Pops in Seoul.  “I really learned to be a tougher person during the time as a singer,” she spoke wistfully.  When asked about the initial struggles when moving to Korea by herself when she was 15 to pursue a singing career, Tiffany carefully chose her words.  “I’m okay and I’m used to the pressures now, but I think I should have stayed home with my family a little bit longer,” she says.

With fellow cast mate Jessica also at the interview, she knew firsthand how rough the K-pop business has been on Tiffany.  Born in San Francisco, Jessica moved with her mother and sister to Korea to pursue her singing career in 2000.  She always had her family close by.

However, Tiffany didn’t have that same luxury.  Like Rain, Tiffany was also looking for acceptance and someone to lean on.  And like the master of rain, she knew that she had to toughen up and seek support of her other cast members to survive in the K-pop industry.


Jay’s MySpace Comment Heard around the World

Another famous star, Park Jaebeom, also found out being in the target of the Korean public quickly.  Park’s situation was more notable as it was known as one of the biggest controversies in modern Korean music history.

Better known as Jay Park, the Edmonds, Washington was highly coveted for his breaking dancing skills (b-boy) and signing.  He was soon signed by JYP mogul Park Ji-young in 2004.  He was to train as the leader of the upcoming all-male band, 2PM.  After being accepted, the 17 year-old hopped on a plane on a one way trip to Seoul.  However, like fellow Korean-American Tiffany, Jay had a hard time adapting to Korea.

Spilling out his frustrations on Myspace the following year, he commented that he hated Korea, thought the country was gay and whack, and wanted to come back to the US.  These comments went unnoticed for four years.  That is, until 2PM started to break out.

In 2009, a couple of netizens took note of the old posts and started spreading it around the net.  The posts soon went viral.  And with that, Jay’s reputation plummeted.  The fans felt betrayed.

Everywhere across Korea, tens of thousands of netizens, fans, and even some record producers, denounced him for saying such hateful things towards Korea.  Some fans were even more extreme.  These hardcore fanatics were calling for his resignation from 2PM, an immediate expulsion from Korea and even for his suicide.  To say the fans were overreacting would be generous.

As he apologized for his past comments, he explained, “I first came to Korea as a high school freshman. I didn’t know much about Korea nor the language and the food was different,” Jae-beom said in the public apology. ”The comments that I made were emotional expressions of discontent over my situation at that time … I sincerely apologize.”

He soon left 2PM and headed back to his hometown in Washington.  Before leaving, he vowed to his former band mates, “I will return a better person.”

Park decided to stay low in the US and escape the constant battering to his reputation back in Korea.  Yet, the biggest twist to this saga happened days later.  In a sudden reversal of popular opinion, many of the same fans that called for his resignation now wanted him to stay.  Petitions, rallies, and a flood of “we miss you Jay” comments online soon followed.  The fans realized they made a mistake and they were sorry.

However, the damage to Jay’s psyche has already been done.  To the discernment to the fans, he decided to pursue a solo career.

As of 2011, Jay has furthered his music career and is even more popular than he was in 2PM.  He recently returned to Korea to pursue his comeback.  Although he ended up with a happy ending, he knows exactly how the Korean public can quickly crush their stars emotionally.  When he stated nearly two years ago, “I will return a better person”, he accomplished his goal.  He also returned to Korea with much thicker immunity to the Korean media as well.

Jay understood what every other K-pop star finds out after being in the industry for some time – the public can turn on you at any time.


Wrapping it Up

For all the smiles, the fun, and the entertainment the K-pop stars provide on stage, there’s always the other side that we don’t see.  The struggles, the brutal routines, and the intense scrutiny they receive are behind closed scenes.

As the girls of 5Dolls finish their practice for the night, it’s well past midnight.  It’s 1:00 am.  Sweaty, fatigued, and sleepy, the five members drag their way back home.  Once they get back to their dormitory, they take a quick shower, brush their teeth, change their clothes, and get ready for bed.  Despite their grueling day earlier, practice starts again in a mere six hours.  Hyoyoung says in a tired voice, “just another day at work.”

For most people, even working overtime never equated to working 16+ hours.  Yet, to singers in the Korean music industry, it’s part of everyday life.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Behind the K-pop Scenes.  We’ll delve deeper into the history of K-pop, trends, and the Hallyu Wave.


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