As years go by, and more rookies crop up, one wonders when and if their beloved groups will end up on the chopping block and fade into obscurity. In an industry that is based around appearance and youthfulness, it would be logical to assume that once an idol passes their “prime,” or in the case of K-pop, “twenties,” it’s only a matter of time until they fully disappear from K-pop’s sphere of relevancy. It happened to the first generation of idols, save for Shinhwa, what’s to say that it won’t happen to second generation groups like DBSK/JYJ, Big Bang and Super Junior? The end of any idol’s career is a thought that is hard for a dedicated fan to digest, but is age really a factor?

It can be said that as idols grow older, it can be more and more difficult to respond to the demands of idoldom than it is for a twenty-year old, especially after repeated intense exercise over the course of ten or so years. This is why it’s worrisome for idols as they grow older if their bodies will be decrepit to the point that they will have illnesses like osteoporosis and heart problems after years of intense exercise, little sleep, and lack of food. This, again, doesn’t have to with their age, but is the result of their bodies wearing down due to laborious work in their youth. Prior to his enlistment, Rain revealed that despite his real age being 30, biologically, his body’s age was that of a 40-year old.

But we must keep in mind that the true detriment of an idol either staying in or leaving K-pop is their contract. Right before their debut, each idol must sign a contract with their entertainment company. The contract requires that an idol relenquish five, ten, or more years of their lives to perform and entertain under the watchful eye of their entertainment company. It is likely that an idol might have second thoughts during their career, especially after undergoing intense and often times gruelling work that is demanded by their company, but are unable to leave due to the omnipotent contract. It is this piece of paper that binds an idol to the entertainment world, and once they are free from its grip, they are usually well into their thirties. That’s when an idol can decide to leave the industry for good or start off on a life more true to themselves.

This occurred with many first generation groups, once their contract expired, each idol was free to go off into different directions. Some, like Lee Hyori, Kangta, and Kan Mi-yeon, will choose to stay within K-pop. The rest, which was the majority, will choose other paths, like acting, the business world, or relative obscurity. This means that it’s not because they reach a certain age, or end of a contract, that idols will automatically disappear from K-pop, it’s the freedom to actually choose one’s path as life goes on, instead of being held back a contract they made in their teenage years. The end of a contract is a litmus test of sorts to see which idols will stay or go, not their age. Many groups of the first generation of K-pop broke up because of creative (or personal) differences. After several years of entertaining and being heavily scruntinized, it’s no surprise that an idol would want to stray away from K-pop and enter into the comfort of obscurity. The limelight of K-pop is alluring, but at what cost?

But what about idols that are already nearing the end, or past their twenties, of their idol careers? Idols like 2NE1‘s Dara and Bom, After School‘s Kahi, and almost all of the Brown Eyed Girls are living proof that one’s prime is not relative solely on a certain decade of one’s life. Granted, many of these idols don’t look a day over twenty-five, but it shows that age is indeed just a number. How about their thirties and beyond, can idols still keep up to the demands of idoldom? It’s really all about the passion and drive of the idol. In the West, Madonna is still able to bend her body in ways most fifty-year olds are not able to do; it’s really just relative to the person and what they want in life.

Take Park Jin-young, or JYP, for instance. He’s 40 years old, CEO of one of the Big Three, and still manages to find time to release track after track. With his producing and singing, on top of acting and managing an entertainment company, the man is definitely still passionate about music and K-pop in general. On the performance-side, there is also Baek Ji-young who is still belting out songs and performing at the level of most of her hoobaes. And then there’s Shinhwa, who oblierated the five-year idol group curse and are still going strong fourteen years after their debut. In an interview, member Jun Jin admitted that although they may have some difficulty doing fast-paced choreography, their stamina and passion for performing has not changed. Perhaps their bodies may be getting older, but it doesn’t mean that they have to stop doing what they love.

In life, all good things must come to an end. In K-pop, idols can come and go, for a plethora of reasons, but age does not have to be one of them. There is nothing stopping an idol from performing into their forties and beyond, if they are up for it. True fans will stick by them no matter what, and if their new material is just as fantastic as their past material, new fans will come as well. Although the idea of a forty-year old prancing about in front of a crowd of teenagers may be off-putting to some, the connection between fans and their idols makes up for it. Growing up with your beloved idol is a wonderful thing and it’s always sad to see an idol fade away into the depths of obscurity either by choice or fate. But, having your beloved idol do what they are passionate about doing, regardless of their age, is up-lifting and powerful. Sure, it might be hard to keep up with younger idols, but if they are willing to perform until the bitter end, their loyal fans will be right alongside them.

(ShinhwaForeverSF, Naver, sookyeong)