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K-Pop: phenomenology

Blackpink cookingwiththehamster
Blackpink | ©

BLACKPINK: Light up the sky

BLΛƆKPIИK: Light Up the Sky by Caroline Suh (2020)

When Netflix announced that it was adding a BLACKPINK documentary to its offer, I was very happy because I was hoping for a serious and uncensored insight into the world of South Korean music. But as almost always happens on Netflix, by virtue of the good image to sell and the large rounds of money that a product of this caliber moves, the documentary turned out to be a huge missed opportunity.

Rich in indifference and full of stereotypes about K-Pop, BLACKPINK: Light up the sky is a glossy product packaged ad hoc to make very young spectators dream.

BLACKPINK are represented as four beautiful girls who with commitment and hard work manage to break into the world of music. From training to debut and then performance at Coachella in 2019 (it was the first South Korean group in the world to participate).

An extremely banal documentary, whose content is summary and the interviews without any in-depth analysis

BLACKPINK: Light up the sky, however, can be the starting point for an important reflection on what the South Korean pop music business is.

BLACKPINK and BTS most of all represent both the spearhead of Korean pop music, and the brilliant and winning image of South Korea itself, whose economy has reached global importance within a few years.

K-pop would in fact seem to be the tool through which South Korea has exported a certain image of itself, attracting more and more young people around the world.


The term "k-pop" refers to Korean popular music, a hybrid genre that began in the late 1800s, when Western songs were transcribed into Korean: this link with foreign countries will be a constant of pop from the beginning. South Korean.

In the 1950s, after the Korean War, constant contacts with the US were fundamental for the absorption of US culture. In the late 1980s, with the government lifting restrictions on overseas travel, greater political freedom and a significant increase in purchasing power, Koreans began buying satellite dishes that massively expose them to foreign media products.

The 90s, on the other hand, were characterized by a major Asian financial crisis that culminated in 1997: in this context, they had the intuition of wanting to invest in the entertainment market, with a lot of contribution from the status and relative extension of the project also within schools.

At that moment one of the biggest giants of the record industry, SM Entertainment, was born, the music market was aimed mainly at teenagers and Korean artists followed musical styles, ballet and choreography of rap and hip hop (of US) and the Eurobeat trend.

H.O.T cookingwiththehamster
H.O.T. | ©

In 1996, H.O.T. were the first case of idol in Korean pop - the term "idol" was already used in Japan (ア イ ド ル aidoru) in the 1960s; on 9 October 1999 the term "K-pop" was used for the first time by Cho Hyun-Jin to translate the word "gayo" (a term used to refer to Korean popular music) in an article but, more probably, to contrast and distinguish Korean pop music from Japanese, J-pop.

Japanese pop, despite the enormous response at home, has never managed to be successful outside its borders as well as K-pop because Japanese music has never become westernized like Korean, remaining in fact an almost circumscribed reality.

K-pop thus became a subculture with a global reach, so much so that it was considered in 2019 as the sixth largest music market in the world.

With the advent of the '00s, music agencies were listed on the stock exchange and K-pop spreaded to other Asian countries, the USA and Europe thanks to the emigration of many South Koreans. The growing Korean economy, coupled with South Korea's participation as a cultural industry, the development of social media and the 2002 South Korea-Japan Soccer World Cup resulted in K-pop appearing on Western music charts.

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Gangnam Style by Psy | ©

2012 was the consecration: Gangnam Style video, celebration of the hedonistic lifestyle of the new rich Koreans, by rapper Psy reached for the first time in the world 1 million views on YouTube - Gangnam is the district of Seoul where the highest rate of wealth and well-being of the city is concentrated, home to banks and finance but also the residence of many celebrities.

BLACKPINK managed to enter the US music market and in 2017 BTS were the first South Korean group in the world to win a Billboard Music Award and an American Music Award. BTS today are equated with the Beatles and their enormous influence considered on a par with Beatlemania.

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Bts at the American Music Award 2017 | ©
BLACKPINK cookingwiththehamster
BLACKPINK at Coachella 2019 | ©


If the first idols of the 90s were characterized by a hip-hop and homologating style, in the 00s they are heterogeneous. Since 2010, in fact, they are not considered as simple singers and dancers but real brands: for each of them, even within the same group, a well-defined and recognizable style is chosen. The group is given a concept, a precise visual and musical theme and numerous collaborations are stipulated with the major high fashion houses.

The dance and the choreography (deriving from breakdance) are fundamental parts of the group's design, in some ways much more than the music itself that they have to follow.

The singles are launched on national television, anticipated by a teaser and a trailer on YouTube. Then we move on to the promotion of a couple of songs ("title song") and go on hiatus for a few months (in which the new year is recorded) before returning to the scene with promotional activities ("comeback").

Boys and girls must be very thin and tall, with slightly elongated faces and beautiful skin. The real difference, even compared to the Western scene, is made by the males: androgynous, delicate, almost feminine look with cute poses and expressions.

As for girls, over time there has been a constant sexualization (even of minors). If in the 90s girls had an innocent look, now they wear skimpy dresses, dance provocatively and have sensual attitudes.


The exploitation of the female body is only the tip of the iceberg of the problems underlying the thick facade of K-pop.

Although production companies have always tried to sell a brilliant image of this world, thanks to YouTube and social networks some disturbing videos of idols have been released that literally fall to the ground, fainted from exhaustion. Quite a few people wondered how these guys could dance so perfectly, train for so many hours and be extremely thin. Thus overwork came into the open: it is the term that indicates the exhausting training period to which the boys who enter an agency (the trainees) must undergo a contract.

Kids start between the ages of 11 and 13 and live in dormitories with the other trainees. Generally all agencies guarantee board and lodging. In the morning, the alarm clock is at 06:00 and they train all day until 22:00 (but often you continue until late at night). Classes include dance, singing, diction, music, choreography and a foreign language. The ultimate goal of the schools is "concept choreography": text, music, costumes and dance are united in an exhibition that aims to tell a story. And to reach this goal it takes hours and hours of exhausting training, for years, without interruptions or distractions: by contract, agencies strictly forbid the use of social networks or mobile phones, romantic relationships and the expression of political opinions.

Diet is also a fundamental aspect: trainees are constantly weighed and many of them, who have become famous, remember those moments as the most stressful (some have confessed to cut their nails as much as possible to weigh less or to cut their hair, until the agency banned this too). On the internet you can find absurd diets that lead to anorexia, such as eating only one cucumber a day, eating what can be contained in a plastic cup or chewing ice cubes to not go hungry.

Almost all the contracts also provide that kids undergo plastic surgery (in South Korea it is a consolidated and encouraged practice), under penalty of exclusion from school without assuming responsibility in the event of an operation gone wrong - it is therefore not a coincidence that all these singers have similar, almost unreal faces and bodies.

In short, the complete denial of personal and thought freedoms by virtue of a very rigorous discipline. And despite all these sacrifices it has been calculated that only 0.1% of the trainees make their debut.

The agencies, for their part, argue that this training serves to temper the kids, to prepare them for the life of an idol. But if a trainee realizes he doesn't want to continue and decides to give up before the debut he has to pay a very high penalty, while the agency is free to leave a kid at home if he doesn't consider him good enough or up to par.


Very few hours of sleep, inability to live a normal life like their peers (many are forced to leave school because they do not have time to attend it), constant invasion of privacy, these are all problems that trainees know well: almost all suffer from depression and some of them develop self-harming and suicidal tendencies. Many agencies have therefore been forced to hire psychologists to try to contain the problem.


K-pop critics have advanced a number of arguments to discredit this hugely successful phenomenon.

The most used thesis is the one that describes K-pop as a genre born in an unnatural way but a label created ad hoc to promote South Korea on a global scale but which in fact has no connection with the Korean national identity - for example, many song lyrics are in English and not Korean, thus making "cultural appropriation".

K-pop, therefore, would exist only for a purely commercial function, to sell certain products and promote a certain national image (winning, powerful and competitive), following the trends of the global audience.

Agencies are seen as idol factories, stereotypical characters all the same who sing and dance like robots.

The "perfection" (term to be taken with a grain of salt) that these guys reach with this military training is truly impressive, at the expense of the cancellation of their personality and without any certainty of success.

The Western world has always "churned out" young talents who have been sold on a global scale to give a calibrated image of their idea of ​​nation: the USA (starting from the 80s) and the UK (especially in the 90s) made school. They are the nations that have materialized pop music in terms of bands with certain values ​​built for a teenage audience to promote themselves around the world: Take That, Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Blue, Five are just some of the many groups that drove the very young people glued to MTv crazy.

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Spice Girls, 90s | ©
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Backstreet Boys | ©

Once the artists reach an off-target age, the agencies are forced either to dissolve the group or to give a new course to their career: this is the start of the sexualization especially of women, with the relative exploitation of their bodies. Britney Spears and Hannah Montana are two examples. But the same happens to movie divas, such as Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Watson: from a risque (piloted) scandal, those who were once innocent girls become conscious and sensual women.

At other times, female artists in America are "put on hiatus" after what could be the variant of Korean overwork, a mental and physical breakdown, as in the case of Britney Spears in 2007 and Lady Gaga in 2013 (the press reported that the artist had broken a hip).

Perhaps the world of American music is not so different after all from the South Korean one (Michael Jackson's life is perhaps the saddest and clearest example) as well as that of cinema (on the history of Hollywood actors we should open a separate chapter).

Britney Spears cookingwiththehamster
Britney Spears, young | ©
Britney Spears cookingwiththehamster
Britney Spears, 2017 | ©


On 1/28/2019 MBC Newsweek reported a news of attack by one of the employees of the Burning Sun (famous club in Gangnam) against the singer Kim San-Kyo.

One of the executive directors of the club was Seungri, the singer of the famous Big Bang group, particularly loved by the public and already rich and powerful, so much so that he claims to want to retire from the scene at just 28 years old. He was a key character in this story because a series of thorough investigations will start from him that will bring to light chilling truths.

Seungri publicly apologized on 2/2/2019 for the attack in the venue, although he claimed not to have been present during the incident. But from that moment the police delved into his life: it turned out that he had provided escorts for various investors and was suspected of being a regular customer of casinos in Las Vegas with the founder and former president of YG Entertainment (one of the most important agencies) from 2013 to 2016 - according to the law in force in South Korea, gambling is illegal even if registered outside the national borders.

After allegations of sexual corruption, on 11/3/2019 Seungri resigned from the entertainment industry and the next day the singer Jung Joon-Young also resigned after admitting to having secretly resumed sexual relations and then to have shared the videos without the consent of the women - a video of him raping a woman unable to react will then be found.

Burning Sun club cookingwiththehamster
Seungri at Burning Sun club | ©

The world of music was being investigated and the police found group chats run by celebrities on Kakao (the equivalent of our Whatsapp) dating back to 2015 and 2016 in which sex videos recorded without consent from women were exchanged and in which themselves were commented on in a vulgar and violent way.

This discovery had a huge media and political impact: President Moon Jae-in ordered an in-depth investigation that affected Deputy Minister of Justice KIm Hak-Ui: already accused of rape by several women in 2013, videos of the violence in which he himself appeared. The letter left behind by actress Jang Ja-Jeon before committing suicide is also discovered, in which she claimed to have been abused by some members of her agency.

In November 2019, people involved in the Burning Sun scandal were sentenced to prison in addition to being banned for ten years from working with or near minors: during the sentence the judge also harshly condemned the way in which the convicts had acted against the women, forcing them to participate in sexual assailant therapy. A former policeman was also convicted of accepting 20 million won to cover up the investigation into the case of a minor who claimed she was raped in the club.

The entire entertainment sector took a heavy shock, as were the night clubs of Gangnam, Hondae and Itawon.


Since the Burning Sun scandal, the scene of corruption, exploitation of prostitution, trafficking and drug abuse (in South Korea they are illegal), many women begin to report harassment suffered and televisions around the world begin to talk about it, albeit timidly. But not everyone has had the ability to react in the same way, especially the trainees.

On February 24, 2015, trainee Ahn So Jin committed suicide at the age of 22 by jumping from the tenth floor of a building one month after the termination of her contract with the record agency.

On December 18, 2017 Kim Jong-Hyun, lead singer of Shinee, depressed for a long time, committed suicide at the age of 27 in Gangnam. The famous singer, model and actress Sulli was very close to this artist, found dead by her manager in her Seoul home on October 14, 2014, at the age of 25. Her death had a huge media impact. Sulli was a much talked about star, especially after her debut in f(x) - one of the most famous K-pop groups in the world. Eccentric, at the forefront of women's rights, Sulli was a supporter of the "no bra" movement (on several occasions she appeared in public without a bra) and of freedom of choice over abortion (still illegal in South Korea) - taken of position that have generated numerous criticisms from her own fans, revealing in fact the profound contradiction of the very modern South Korea, still in fact anchored to the conservative and patriarchal matrix.

Once she discovered her relationship with the singer Choiza, the social networks were constantly inundated with hate messages and false comments throughout their public relationship, so much so that Sulli decided to take a break due to a strong mental and physical exhaustion. The depression caused by cyberbullying would have prompted the girl to take her own life. During the investigation after her death it emerged that the girl had repeatedly asked her agency to take stronger measures against hate comments online.

Since that time, politics has tried to change the rules by which comments can be written on social media, so that you have to write your name and surname. In 2018, Kakako then announced that it was committed to progressively disabling news comments regarding the show.

On November 24, 2019, actress and singer Goo Hara, aged 28, was found dead in her home in Gangnam. Best friend of Sulli, she too had been a victim of cyberbullying: already in March she had attempted suicide after being blackmailed by her ex-boyfriend to publish an intimate video of her and her agency had terminated her contract.

On 3 December 2019 Cha In Ha, 27, actor and singer of SURPRISE U, was found dead in his house in Gangnam by his manager and on 6 June 2020 at the age of 28, Yohan of TST committed suicide.

Sulli cookingwiththehamster
Sulli | ©
Goo Hara cookingwiththehamster
Goo Hara | ©

I have included only a small number of crime reports, some of the most discussed, those that make the South Korean recording empire a river of mud.

But just with the exception of the newspapers that report the news, no one has ever made the commitment to testify the reality of this dream-generating world on a journalistic and objective level. The result is a story absorbed by the audience without any critical filter but on the contrary, young people are willing to do anything to participate in the auditions, which year after year register more and more candidates.

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