The two times successful television program Produce 101 had revealed what lies beneath the glittering and fetching façade of a K-pop idol star. The true reality of what it is like to live as a “trainee” was disclosed to the public: continuous practice, living as a group apart from their own family, constant evaluations and extreme psychological pressure. Although it is hard to say that what appears on the screen completely reflects the life of idol trainees, people started to sympathize on their desperation and what it means to live as a trainee. In tandem with the rising criticism of the program’s cruelty in creating a caste system according to grades and ranking, people began to recognize the problems associated with the Korean idol training system that is unprecedented in any other countries. What is more, the prominent idol Jonghyun’s recent suicide again raised thoughts of how much stress and responsibility the position of an idol imposes on them and how it could lead to an extreme level of mental illness. With the ongoing controversy on the circumstances of idols, The Sogang Herald covers the unique training and managing system of idols and how its characteristics can lead to mental impoverishment.
How an Idol is “Made”
To become an idol, most of the trainees start their training from a very young age. The average ages of idol groups when they made their debut are surprisingly low: the group Wondergirls had an average age of 15.2, SHINee as 16.4, f(x) as 16.6 and other well-known groups ranging mostly from 16 to 20. Their years of training started even before reaching these ages. These young kids who enter an entertainment company to be trained give up their ordinary school life and are put under strict regulations made by the company. Trainees who are designated for debut leave their homes and instead live with other trainees in an accommodation provided by the company. They spend literally most of their time in the practice room under surveillance and control by the managers. Eventually these pre-idols become a member of society too early without having sufficient time to find their self-identity and get along with friends and family. This life pattern is never appropriate to support their socialization process which starts at a very young age and has to be carefully dealt with due to its sensitivity as well as its influence on later social life. When this significant stage of maturation is poorly treated, trainees are highly likely to end up finding it hard to settle down their own emotions or stressful situations when they actually encounter these experiences later in life.
The unstable maturation that idols go through in trainee periods shows its pernicious ramification when they become an idol. For example, Cho-a, a former member of AOA, announced her departure saying, “To treat my insomnia and depression, I tried taking medication and started decreasing my work two years ago. However, since the problem did not stem from fatigue, I decided to stop all my activities.” Hani, a member of EXID also said, after her retirement, she would want to be a mental counselor and comfort the minds of trainees. It is likely that this way of living as an idol trainee has at least partly contributed to Jonghyun’s miserable decision, too.
Idols Put in Hunger Games
Another significant aspect underlying the life of an idol is intense competition. Produce 101 has plainly exposed this to the public, highlighting its prominence on the surface which made it more interesting and sensational to watch. Trainees have to compete with other trainees, by regular assessments and tests to achieve their ultimate goal: debut. Their lives remind us of Hunger Games where every minute is a live or die battle and the winner takes it all. The way of living saturated with winning or failing lingers even after they make their debut. The world of idols is seriously bipolarized; they either become globally successful or fail to catch the public’s attention. Their future is even more obscure because of this competition between countless idol groups in the field of K-pop. According to Idology, a webzine specialized for idol music reviews, 60 idol groups made their debut in 2015, which is counted to be 324 idol members in total. In 2011, the newly debuted groups were 40 groups but among them only five survived, while 12 groups of the left 35 disappeared into thin air after their first debut album. Likewise, because catching people’s minds is extremely difficult and losing public’s attention is comparatively easy, the producers who have to invest up to 3-5 billion dollars for a group of five members cannot give up their oppressive attitude towards their idols. Lee Jong-lim, a researcher in Socio-cultural Institute, commented this highly competitive world of idols as a “reduction of limitless competition generalized in Korean society.”
The strict surveillance and regulation of idol entertainment companies are other defects of Korean idol industry. Although producers argue that it is a justifiable act to derive the most benefit from what they invest, their policies are too excessive to think that they are violating their rights. Ha Jae-geun, a critic of popular culture pointed out that the surveillance camera in the training room which constantly oversees trainees, and the manager standing by at all times can be interpreted as serious confinement and invasion of privacy. Idols’ phone usages are restricted, such as doing SNS, texting to other people, and some are not even allowed to have their own cell phones according to many idols like Girlfriend, or Cosmic Girls. Who they meet outside is also restricted, and being in a relationship is considered a taboo for idols. However, such over-interference from the company is not something that comes out of nowhere, but from the ardent fan culture in K-pop idols. That is, the group of genuine fans of the idols, a.k.a. “fandom,” has unbelievably high expectations to their idol groups, and because the company depends on these fandoms for their source of profit, they cannot be easily neglected. The regulation of companies is to make them literally the “ideal” idols who can meet these expectations. The foreign press Variety stated that “the Korean public sets high standards of behavior and physical appearance, and uses social media to pass instant judgment.” The comments that are put under various social media and news about a particular idol, point out the wrong behaviors they conducted however trivial it is, and take heavy criticism from the public including no else but the fandom. This is a life-long burden the idols have to bear every second they act in front of the camera or even in daily life.
With the company urging idols to do more and better, people’s high expectations, beginning social life in early age, and being subjected to intense competition, idols are placed in this extreme situation where their emotional exhaustion is more severe than any other jobs.
Idol Producing, Not Manufacturing
Since idols cannot freely visit hospitals for mental treatments because of public attention, the company should provide professional counsels and treatments for them. According to Professor Lim Myung-ho of Dankook University, it is high time that entertainment companies recruited psychology counselors who can regularly check the mental conditions of idols and help them cope with their stress. Programs for their mental health are also needed to be part of their schedule.
However, the most urgent solution that has to be provided to prevent idols suffering from accumulated stress and mental fatigue is change of the entertainment companies’ fundamental attitude towards their own idol stars. Most companies perceive their idols primarily through their marketability, which is about how attractive they can be to the public. They tend to consider them only as an investment, rather than an individual human being. This business-oriented relationship between idols and the company has to be changed into a rather mutual and responsible relationship. It would make a company “second home” for the idols to rely on, respecting each other and developing a sense of solidarity. The company has to reconsider their idols not only by their profitability, but as a person who can show one’s full potential by the help of the company with humane treatment on the basis of its care.
The unique idol fostering system in Korea does make an idol into an “i-doll.” Like dolls, they have to maintain their perfect shape, both physically and mentally to fulfill the expectations of people and the company. Their emotions are frequently neglected by others, just like putting consideration of a doll’s emotion is useless. Furthermore, the company suppresses this doll into doing what they want them to do, and literally selling them to gain their own profit. Most idols in Korea, who appear to be loved and adored by others in the spotlight, go through mental sufferings in the backstage. We should remember that idols are not made to be a doll that can be exploited and abandoned by others for their own good, but are ones who should be respected as a musician and a human being.
By Moon Gyu-ri (Culture Reporter)