K-pop (Korean pop) has been growing over the last 20 years, and even more so in the last 10. My first memory of K-pop, like for so many people, was with the hit ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY in 2012. I watched the horse impersonation and didn't quite know whether to laugh or applaud. But what I thought didn't matter - it became a social media music phenomenon.
More recently other bands have hit the big time, such as BTS and NTC. Yet up until 2016 it was predominantly a boy band world. Then along came Blackpink, an all girl band of young 20 year olds. They were the first Korean girl band to play Coachella last year and to reach one billion YouTube views. They broke three Guinness World Records with their single “Kill This Love” which has more than 312 million plays on Spotify and over 824 million YouTube views.
I have mixed feelings about Blackpink; I like their songs which are catchy and good fun and especially their choreography. They rap in both English and Korean and are able to switch quickly from one language to another. So good to see intelligent girls succeeding in what had predominantly been a boy band world, or is it?
As Blackpink's recent documentary on Netflix, ‘Light up the Sky’, revealed, little is left to chance in the K-Pop world . The group was put together by YG Entertainment, a company based in Seoul in South Korea. Here they trained for 5 years not only in singing and dancing but also in academic studies and languages. In the documentary we get to see this as an intense few years for the band but also for others in the agency. Trainees get one day off every two weeks and at the end of each month they are graded. If they are not good enough they can no longer train with the agency. The girls discuss how difficult this was to be told that weren't good enough and especially not being able to see family members for months during the intense training period. Equally, they cannot, drink smoke or get a tattoo and their ultimate reward - living in an apartment all together - is constantly monitored by YG.
But even this looks sanitised compared to the stories that have gradually emerged of girls nearly starving themselves to have the required stick thin image and of grueling training schedules. This manufactured world is all too well known to 'One', a K-pop rapper who originally trained under YG Entertainment. In a recent interview he stated "... I was forced to fit into a certain mould, that wasn’t truly me. This manifested in a lot of ways, from having me create songs that were not true to my style, to changing my fashion style to something that felt unnatural."
So it is a tough world to become a K-pop star. However, in the case of Blackpink they clearly think success trumps everything, especially playing Coachella,; Jennie clearly thought so as in the documentary she stated:
"This was a moment that made me feel really satisfied with our work, all those training years ... was worth it"!
South Korea has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world and during the pandemic it has already been reported this has particularly grown amongst young women. Already the suicide rate is 100,000 people per year aged between 9 and 24, much of this it is suggested to do with stress from school or work. The high pressure that music companies put on young stars to succeed, such as Blackpink, may be part of a cultural attitude to work but it clearly has high risks. It makes you wonder, for every Blackpink success just how many discarded young hopefuls there are whose worlds have been turned to black.
You don’t have to listen to, or see, Pillow Queens for long to realise this is no sanitised, put-together, talent contest blended, group of girls. Their roots are more on display than a bad hair dye job.