Most eleven-year-olds spend their time hanging out with friends, going to the movies, playing video games, reading books, practicing musical instruments, playing sports, doing their homework, any variety of activities…but not Samuel.
The youngest member of SEVENTEEN, Pledis Entertainment’s newest boy band slated to debut this year, spends his days going to school then practicing in a studio late into the night. Then he goes to the dorm to sleep until the next day when he repeats it all again. That’s it. No soccer games. No club meetings. No test prep cram courses. Nothing.
Some might applaud Samuel though. He’s figured out what he wants to do with his life already. He’s joined a company, gone through training, and is about to debut as an idol. He’s living his dream.
But is it, really?
How many people follow their childhood dreams of becoming a firefighter, a pilot, a doctor or anything else? It’s not that they can’t do it but simply that they grow up and become different people with different dreams. I myself was convinced until I was seventeen that I wanted to be a doctor, but I changed my mind. That would not be possible for someone contractually bound to a company.
The K-pop industry is a machine with executives in control of their artists’ lives through binding contracts. Idols and trainees are at the mercy of managers who decide everything from how much money they receive, to what they eat on a daily basis. Schedules run their lives, and they spend their days, sun up to sun down, promoting on variety shows, guest starring on radio broadcasts, traveling for tours, featuring on dramas, or simply rehearsing a new track in the studio for hours. They sleep whenever and wherever they can, on buses, in dressing rooms, on planes. Then, exhausted after schedules, they often return to their dorms to squeeze in a few hours of sleep per night, instead of going home to their families.
Idols can’t complain or make changes to their contracts either without paying exorbitant fees or dealing with punishment from executives and managers. Their lives are so intense that multiple celebrities have turned around and sued their companies, after crumbling from the pressure.
Han Geng, former member of Super Junior, went to war with his company S.M. Entertainment. The Chinese singer and dancer said that he had gone along with everything that he was told to do even if it was not in his 13-year-long contract. He worked non-stop even when he was sick, saying that he and fellow member Siwon were once hooked up to IVs backstage. He was never even allowed a single day off in over two years. And Han Geng was only twenty-five when he reached his limit.
While the example is extreme, Han Geng is hardly alone. Many celebrities talk about the difficulties of being a trainee and then an idol. They speak with careful word choice though because they aren’t even allowed to reveal certain details.
And the sad truth is that Samuel is not the only kid in the industry. Actually, this topic is far from new to us. GP Basic stirred up controversy when they debuted back in 2010 with maknae Janey at only eleven years old. The group could not promote as well as others because South Korean broadcast laws restrict anyone under the age of fourteen from performing on music shows and other television programming.
On the tails of their controversy came more from the same company with the debut of an even lesser known girl group G-Story, consisting of members all under ten. At that age, most children–because that’s what they are still–can’t even handle the responsibility of doing homework without being told to do it or picking up their things after they play, let alone performing for hours a day on end without a say in the matter.
But some might say that there are K-pop celebrities who debuted young and are just fine. We can make a case for just about anyone, whether it’s Taemin of SHINee or Minzy of 2NE1, but the truth is that we don’t know whether they had the mental and emotional maturity to handle the pressure of being an idol at such a young age or simply had no choice but to deal with it.
And the thing is that the music they make isn’t for children either. While K-pop is mild in comparison to Western music, it still relies heavily on sexualized concepts for music, dance, and fashion. The common theme lyrically tends to be love, including relationships and sex, such as in “Love Song” by Rain or “Volume Up” by 4Minute. Kids are not mature enough to fully understand what romantic love or sex is, but as idols they’re supposed to sing about it.
Boy and girl groups alike wear revealing clothing for performances, music videos, and photo shoots, even if they are going for a cute, aegyo-infused style such as with “Hoot” by Girls’ Generation. The dances are also suggestive with excessive pelvic thrusting, lip touching, and chest popping as staples in most dances, equally for guys and girls. Famed guy group SS501’s “Love Ya” has perfect choreography with smudged eyeliner, perfectly coiffed hair, and tight black garb to boot.
It’s all wonderful eye candy and part of the visual aspect that is important to K-pop, but those idols actually know what they’re singing about. Samuel though is a child, not an adolescent or young adult. The thought of him pumping his hips a specific way or wearing a certain hairstyle to drive fans wild is downright creepy and almost disturbing when coupled with the fact that many fans are much older than the idols themselves. Even at only twenty-one I feel dirty when I fangirl over idols younger than me such as Zelo of B.A.P, and he’s fifteen.
Youth may be the name of the game in marketing and advertising K-pop, but most kids don’t have the maturity to understand the pressures that come with being an idol. Companies recruit trainees in the hopes that a pretty, young face will get them a dime without thinking about the consequences that it has on those children, but there should be a limit.
We thought thirteen or fourteen was pushing it, but now they’re even younger. Will we see six-year-old idols one day? I hope not because at the end of the day all idols deserve a childhood.
(Pledis Entertainment, S.M. Entertainment, GP Basic Entertainment, TS Entertainment, YouTube )