What does an idol do?  The obvious answer would be that they sing, but fans are only too aware of how much more there is to idoldom. For one, there’s the dancing, the CFs, fashion shoots and interviews. Idols will also branch out into other areas like acting in dramas and/or musicals, or becoming a MC. There is a wide range of paths available for an idol to pursue, and more often than not they will find one that suits their talent and interests, and thus become more able to fulfil the aim of their industry: to entertain, because that is their raison d’être. An idol is an entertainer–entertaining is what idols do.

The most common piece of career advice (in Western societies) given is to find something that one enjoys and is good at, and to stick with it. But reality never quite works that way, and every field of work has a minority of people who are  just not matched to the job they find themselves in–and the same applies for the idol industry.

Though he is my ultimate K-pop bias, I cannot deny that SHINee‘s Minho is one such idol. While his deep voice helps liven up SHINee songs and makes his band an odd-numbered group favoured for choreography formations, he is nevertheless considered the weakest link in SHINee and is constantly referred to as a “black hole of talent.” This description is highly inaccurate, because the fact is that Minho is not untalented–it’s that his talents lie elsewhere. In an appearance on KBS‘ Sang Sang Plus, Minho told of his passion for soccer and desire to become a professional player. His father, though, did not approve. As a former professional soccer player currently working as a coach, Choi Yoon-gyeom (pictured right) knew very well the dangers of serious injury associated with professional sport, among other issues,  and thus discouraged his son from pursuing that career path (imagine his surprise at Minho deciding to instead become an idol, after being cast by SM in 2006).

Even in his idol career, Minho has always been known for his athletic ability, seen at the annual idol athletics, Dream Team and now in his current drama To The Beautiful You. He’s also known for his ultra-competitive spirit, which has led to a few mini-tantrums when things haven’t quite gone his way (The one he had during his latest appearance on Running Man is an example). In fact, while his drive, determination and fighting spirit is admirable, Minho often focuses on the actual competition rather than the reason behind it–entertainment. These shows are broadcast on TV for the merriment of the viewer, and sometimes winning alone isn’t enough–people want to see funny interactions and memorable incidents, not a straight-up race or game: they can just watch an actual game for that. People may find the fits he has after a loss entertaining, but it also casts Minho in a negative light–K-pop fans have never hesitated to tell me about how they think Minho is a sore loser. Though Minho is not incapable of compassion and does care for others, all of that seems to fly out the window when there’s a competition. All in all, Minho is a born athlete who could have potentially excelled at any sport, and should have never been an idol. Minho might have still been considered a poor sport, but at least his talents would have been put to good use doing something he obviously loves.

Of course, Minho is not the only one  in a career that doesn’t quite fit. Dara was originally chosen to join YG as a actress, but her will and determination allowed her to wear her CEO down enough to allow her to as an idol instead, while an unnamed SB writer finds the inclusion of half of the members of A Pink as idols to be puzzling. Weak voices, sloppy dancing, poor acting and/or bland personalities are the death of entertainers, and such idols are often labelled by fans as “black holes of talent.” Though there is a  mismatch between the person and the occupation, these idols continue to debut.

So, it is only natural to wonder why such idols are able to join a company, join the industry. If they are not capable of being entertainers, then why are they here? After thinking this through, I’ve put together a list of possible reasons why Minho, and other “black holes” enter idoldom when they are not cut out for it, or would be better suited for some other field.

1. A Shortcut to the Good Life
As aforementioned, idols are able to segue into a variety of different industries once they have established themselves as an idol: acting roles are easier to procure, as are places in musicals. Recent comments for the latest Seoulbeats Exchange told of Eunjung being an actress before joining T-ara, and she was in fact a child actress with minor roles in a few dramas. Since T-ara’s debut, Eunjung has been taking on larger and larger roles, with a star turn in Dream High and recently playing the titular character in Queen In-soo. In fact, many aspiring actors and actresses follow the idol route as a shortcut to getting drama roles–considering that idols often take on roles that would have gone to these rookie actors, the adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is very apt. Eunjung’s band-mate Jiyeon’s role in Dream High 2 focused largely on this matter, as her character was encouraged to become an idol as a way to advance her dream of acting. Essentially, idoldom can serve as a shortcut to the good life of fame and money (with some influence thrown in), and this short can be very tempting for a lot of young people to take up.
And it’s not just within the industry that K-pop idols have advantages. A large proportion of idols looking to the future are also currently studying or have graduated from university, and there has been much speculation about how big a role their idol status plays in their acceptance into various tertiary institutions. In late 2011, f(x)‘s Luna was caught up in controversy when she was reportedly admitted to Chung-Ang University under the “special admission” scheme, whereby institutions are able to offer placements to students based on arbitrary criteria like interview performance and prior experience in place of their academic achievements. In fact, school marks are not considered at all, and no entrance exams are required to be taken (which regular students are still required to pass to gain a seat in that institution). Thus far, idols and other celebrities are the ones who have benefited from this set up, with universities also getting a PR boost in having a celebrity as part of the student body. In fact, it almost seems easier to overcome the strict training regimens to debut as an idol, as that seems to be a sure-fire way to gain entry into tertiary education.
And even if you still can’t get into a  college, it really won’t matter, because nowadays in South Korea…


2. Education Doesn’t Equal Jobs
South Korea, like many Asian societies, greatly values education and young Asians are more often than not expected to get a degree, as that was seen to be the surest was of securing a job, and thus becoming more upwardly mobile. In South Korea, especially, the university one attends is crucial to one’s future success, as a universities reputation can greatly affect both career and personal life, from the company you work at the composition of your friendship circle. Competition to get into South Korea’s top tertiary institutions, lead by Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University–collectively known as SKY– is ruthless, as seen with the rigorous (to put it mildly) study regimes adopted for college entrance exams. And when they are accepted in to a university, students face high fees, which have been rising since the 1990s. Protests by students on this matter led president Lee Myung-bak to promise a reduction in fees. That was in 2007, and the only improvement has been a 4.5% reduction in tuition fees.
With the amount of money they’ve had to shell out for their degrees, it’s understandable that students only wish to work at the top firms, even if there are clearly not enough jobs available for them and mid- to low-sized firms still have vacancies, but less pay. As children, they are told, promised, that if they work hard and gain good marks at school and graduate from a top university, then they were set for life. Of course, there were less graduates in the previous generation, and technology wasn’t as advanced. Now, 80% pf school leavers are said to enrol in college and new technology has allowed for tasks to become more automated and require less labour to complete them. Naturally, jobs are going to become scarcer, yet to have done all that hard work in expectation of a high-flying career, only to settle for a lower-paying job at a smaller firm, seems a poor consolation prize, and a reality many unemployed graduates are unwilling to accept.
To combat this problem, President Lee (pictured right, visiting a high school) has advised his country’s youth to consider forgoing university altogether and instead consider alternative pathways, like attending a vocational college, as well as to encourage companies to hire more school leavers, which they have in fact done: Samsung is said to have hired 700 high school graduates this year. So, with the value of a degree seemingly diminishing in value, it makes sense that other options should be considered with regards to one’s livelihood. And why can’t becoming an idol be one such option? After all, idols are often recruited before they’ve even finished high school and their training costs are not up-front; in fact, because companies have invested in their trainees, they will be more likely to debut them than not in an effort to recoup their investment, so there is a greater chance of being able to work as an idol. Youth from poorer backgrounds, and their families, may find an offer from a company too good to pass up due to the fact that most costs are not up-front, unlike fees for tertiary institutions.
And of course, one cannot forget that not everyone’s talents lie in academia. University won’t suit everyone, but the emphasis placed on education by South Korean and other Asian societies means that most people will go to college, without thinking of whether of not the degree they get at the end is what they actually want and need to lead a happy and fulfilling life. It wouldn’t be surprising if young people haven’t even though of what they want to do, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter: you do what you have to to get yourself to the best place you can be in life, and that’s it. Education is traditionally seen as the best way to achieve this, and this is the path young people follow, with little regard to the other options–unless they are directly presented with them.  President Lee’s statement regarding alternatives is an attempt at this, but K-pop companies have already perfected a system to bring in trainees, which is more or less hiring a person to go up to young people in public and say:


3. “Hey, I Like Your Face”
Okay, that’s not what they say, but it’s more or less the reason why young people are approached by scouts. Though idol hopefuls are able to try out for companies via open auditions, the majority of trainees are usually cast pretty much off the street–potential idols to the company, where camera tests and displays of talent such as singing or dancing are sought to gauge that person’s skills and potential, and then if the company is satisfied, be offered a contract. SM Entertainment is a company notorious for street casting: they found Super Junior‘s Siwon on his way to school and Exo-M‘s Lu Han while he was out shopping. When TVXQ‘s Changmin, who was scouted while playing badminton, was asked to dance at his audition, he clapped like a soldier instead, while Minho got through a video test because he started laughing when told to put on a serious expression though really, who could resist that face? This doesn’t mean that other companies don’t employ the same practice, though: Cube Entertainment‘s CEO revealed that 80-90% of his trainees were street-cast, and we are all well aware of how CCM CEO Kim Kwang-soo “discovered” the soon-to-be T-ara‘s Dani.
In most of these cases, the idols in question were not displaying any kind of still or talent, but were approached for their looks. And while they do have to pass through an audition to be eligible for selection, there is also the factor of potential to consider: because these candidates would be put through training, selectors must look for potential talent as well as actual. For example, an auditionee may not have had any prior singing lessons but still have a voice that, with some polishing, could make them a vocalist for an idol group (like SNSD’s Seohyun). So companies often recruit trainees on the basis of such potential.  Unfortunately, though, a selector’s judgment may have been in err, or the potential hasn’t been realised and you end up with idols that are nothing more than placeholders in dance formations. Picking out potential entertainers is not an exact art, and it is inevitable that some people who are not cut out for the entertainment industry slip through.
Thus, with its appeal to young people look for a (seemingly) quick and easy way to hit the big time, its increasing viability as a career choice and a selection system that is not foolproof, K-pop has been able to attract both the right and wrong types of idol hopefuls. And while some of these “black hole” idols are lucky enough to carve a niche for themselves in the industry and sometimes even develop some skills over time, one cannot help but wonder if they could have achieved more doing something else.
What are your thoughts, Seoulmates? Do you think the term “black hole” is too harsh, or an accurate enough descriptor? Do you have your own special name for such idols? And I think Minho should have just become a sportsperson–do you agree? What other idols do you think could benefit greatly from a career change? Let us know in the comments below!
 (The Christian Science MonitorChronicle, The Korea TimesNateNaver, Newsen via SMOneLove, (x)clusive,  World Socialist Wed SiteYahoo!News. Choi Yoon-gyeom image: credit as tagged)