With Kris taking the final stride out of SM spurring reactions and counter-reactions, rumours and reports, it put the limelight (again) on the unethical working conditions of entertainment houses. Without debating over how much of Kris’ complaints are valid, it is evident that like his predecessors – JYJ and Hangeng – Kris too left because he was dissatisfied with SM. But is it fair to call it dissatisfaction? To assume it to be, as Greg S. Hwang said, “his own choice, nothing more and nothing less?”
The fallacy in the above mentioned arguments becomes visible when one takes into account that Kris left an active career of two years and a grueling training of five years, even before he could benefit from his hard work, for an uncertain future. Mere dissatisfaction does not elicit such drastic actions; continuous and organized oppression does.
It’ll be rather unfair to assume that these incidents are isolated cases in the K-pop industry. The information shared with us is always through the medium of “newsworthy” victims, ignoring several more “insignificant” stories of the same kind. Moreover, what we get to see is the culmination of various events, the grand finale. What get lost are the little things which perpetuate and maintain the toxic industry, and the insidious techniques of luring young trainees and controlling artists. The problem is widespread and it takes root at a very early stage.
The indoctrination of trainees starts early. I say indoctrination because trainees don’t saunter into practice rooms to realize the “artist” in them. They walk into their compact dormitories to be trained like “soldiers” and “athletes” because the nation’s pride and dignity depends on them. This conception of K-pop as a war weapon is exemplified by Bernie Cho’s – co-founder, DFSB Kollective – view on it:
“If you look from afar, these K-pop acts moving into foreign markets could be looked at as another form of neo-cultural imperialism. It’s not as forced as you think though. It’s finessed.”
In a country where students are pitted against each other in a cut-throat competition to success all the while keeping capitalistic gains in mind, parents are more than willing to send their children to entertainment houses to climb the ladder of economic success tangentially. So far the children have gained nothing. In fact, they have already started paying their price: endless training hours, away from families, highly monitored social lives (if they are allowed to have any), compromises with education, little to no access to legal knowledge and social awareness, and no guarantee of a debut. Apparently, a pot of gold awaits everyone at the end of training. All they have to do is “hard work.” Except hard work is not the only or most used currency in the industry.
KBS’ “VJ Special Forces” brought to light the pervasive existence of monetary bribes and sexual exploitation.
One trainee said:
“Even I knew that I wasn’t able to show off my full potential during my condition, but they gave me a positive review. But after I passed the audition, they demanded that I pay $2,700 USD.”
To which the unaware director responded:
“There are no agencies these days that support you financially 100%. Since we do support you 100%, don’t leave us. Even if you say that we forced you to provide sexual favors, you really have nothing to say in the end.”
Another junior high school student shared the following experience:
“The agency said they were looking for a small role and wanted to meet me in person. They instead dragged me to their home and force fed me various drinks, claiming that they needed to check my limit. After a while, they taped my mouth shut so that I couldn’t scream, and further claimed that in order to become a celebrity, I needed to have sex with him.”
Jang Ja-yeon’s suicide and the Open World Entertainment scandal are further testimonies to the rampant abuse of power and the fact that oppression too is highly gendered. The trap is laid out at the grass root level because children are the most vulnerable. They are unaware of their rights and future, and are, therefore, easiest to exploit and brainwash. In the case of sexual assaults, it pushes victims to turn their grief, fear and anger inwards in fear of public shaming, and are forced to continue working.
While it may seem like a small company phenomena to exploit their concentrated power, it makes one wonder are the Big 3 exempt from it? By virtue of their monetary and social influence, their immense power, manipulative strategies, underground alliance with broadcasting agencies, and a compulsive need to go to great lengths to cover up the truth in order to maintain a healthy public image puts them under equal suspicion, if not more.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tyEsOtV0FY]
A select amount of trainees get signed up for a debut: some lucky ones after a quick 6 months, but most after putting considerable years into training. Here enters the investment ideology. Trainees are treated and are repeatedly reminded that they are massive investments, that the company is doing a huge favour by recruiting them into the band. Power dynamics get more defined with owners of agency creating subservient followers out of trainees. Fact of the matter is, of course, that the company is not doing them any favour but is in fact looking for calculated ways of making profits, that the trainees are doing a favour by staying on in the potential financially beneficial group instead of walking out, that the rejected trainees were less talented, not less lucky or less favoured. But at the end of the day, the entertainment house portrays itself as the benevolent master.
The “benevolent master” rhetoric is mirrored in the way South Korea in itself is constructed. It is a patriarchal society with a huge emphasis on the institution of family. Families are supposed to stand by each other through thick and thin, they are supposed to adhere to the command of the male head. Thus, this structure resonates within the entertainment industry be it SM Town, JYP Nation, or YG Family. Going against the owner/CEO is seen is going against your father; this embedded understanding makes artists squeamish to even whine, and fans livid to see their idol revolting because such an act is seen as a “betrayal” against a family.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PStaWsj9xsQ]
Entertainment lawyer Im Sang-hyuk asserts that there is “no culture of hard negotiation.” The problem lies in the fact that a contract is never conceived as a legal document, as a set of reasonable rules and regulations. Or rather, it is not portrayed as one to the half-informed artists. It is understood as a social relationship, a “partnership,” as if the artist and their recruiters are on an equal footing. It skillfully hides the very unequal relationship under the protective and loving embrace of a familial one. So when former After School member, Bekah, while acknowledging her hard training conditions including only a 30 min nap in the entire day, says:
“They decide that path in the beginning. Before they become an artist, they need to choose the K-pop path. They’re the one that are taking the time to do the training sessions. A ‘factory’ is more like you’re being made. These people already want to do it. There’s a passion that goes into it before everything else,”
she couldn’t have shadowed the truth more effectively because in reality, the trainees have no clue of what they are getting into. They are purposely exposed to legal documents they are unfamiliar with which is then redefined for them as a social relationship, a relationship based on obligations, trust, and loyalty but not on laws and other such “selfish,” “unemotional” aspects.
By the time they debut, they are not professional artists who know the nitty-gritty of industry life but are naïve children who are dependent on their “parents” because of their glaring ignorance. There is a tendency to assume that idols know what they are getting into but I am inclined to believe that they too consider the “mishaps” as certain isolated cases of system failure or even worse, that the rebelling idols were being selfish, greedy, disloyal, and too ambitious. That is what they are taught anyway, and that is why the number of idols walking out of oppressive holds, shedding the fetters of conditioning are so few.
And even if they did know about the workings of the industry, how does it justify the torture inflicted upon them? Why do we expect them to fight it out till the end when we know the kind of dehumanizing oppression they go through? Why is it considered “a part and parcel of the idol life?” Why is the price of fame not hard work, but overwork, starvation, and little to no pay? Why do idols even have to pay for fame when they have actually earned it?
Nothing justifies oppression, dehumanization, and over-exhaustion, be it idols or someone else. And as a fan, I wonder what more does the industry have to offer idols except for some limited supply of fame? They don’t even have job security because clearly the amount of people turning up for auditions makes any artist easily replaceable. Graduation system of bands like After School and Nine Muses make artists aware of their quick shelf life and disposability. One wrong move, and you shall be kicked out, and you alone shall incur the losses. Such an environment does not allow for growth, communication, and understanding. Instead, it builds a claustrophobic cell of fear and doubt. Jay Park provides an insider’s perspective albeit on training but equally applicable to active idol life:
“It’s pretty cutthroat. You have a bunch of guys who are trying to debut, and you don’t know who’s going to make it or who they’re going to choose. You could be placed, but then they might feel like someone else fits better and swap you out. You always have to be on top of your game.”
It is therefore not a surprise to see compliant idols being tight-lipped about being forced into plastic surgery, about confiscation of phones, about the child labour the underage artists are made to go through, or sexualized marketing because neither do they have any agency nor do they have a backup option. It is widely believed that the minimal pay of the idols in their early years is justified because they need to pay for the immense amount of money spent on them, but a certain commenter contested the claim on strong grounds:
“Re-classifying idols’ income from being a cost for the company to instead being a share in profit is an arbitrary decision. The company should take the risk because that’s what all other companies do. The investors and music companies have shifted the investment risk from themselves – where it should be – to the idols – who don’t know better.
As we all know, an idol performance is a whole package. The song writers, music producers, choreographers, stylists, etc. All of those people work just as hard and are artists just as much as the idols. So why should idols not be treated like all the other artists and be a ‘cost’ for the company to pay?”
Being a famous, well-paid idol does not make one immune to the toxicity running through the system, or the fans that help perpetuate the ideology of the system. Once you gain acclamation, you are raised to a superhuman status where being sick, depressed, sad, anything but happy, is a sign of disrespect and ingratitude towards your company and your fans. Nana reiterated the same concerns on “Roommate” while talking to Hong Soo-hyun in addition to making a crucial point on being unhappy even while doing what she loves because she felt tired and overworked. They can’t complain because they should be grateful as if they don’t scale the heights of success on their own efforts.
What roles do fans play in keeping the toxicity alive and making the idol stay within an oppressive system, tangentially or otherwise? One only needs to watch EXO’s recent press conference to get an idea as to how fans are shown to be the overriding concern of the group and how they are situated at an insanely high pedestal. In addition, companies are so obsessed with portraying an image of solidarity and familial bonding, and with forcing that picture down a fandom’s throat, that fans assume an entitlement over their idols, they internalize their supposed priority and therefore, are prone to panic, chaos, and later retaliation and repression, as and when an idol decides to put himself/herself before everything else.
From being understood as the sole pillar of support to being treated as a hindrance to freedom forces fans to come out of their self-important bubbles but only to cause infighting, outrage, and spin a web of lies. This backlash can also be considered as one of the many reasons why idols silently accept the nonsense they are subjected to, especially if they intend to stay and work in South Korea.
A systemic and organized system of oppression, the young age of the artists, the abundance of half-truths, the importance and authority bestowed on fans, and the lack of an alternative working model, in addition to several other reasons, makes it difficult for idols to leave the industry and makes monstrous the exits of the few. While the Fair Trade Commission did issue the “model contract,” clearly the problem is far more complicated than the creation of a more flexible contract. With the spread of Hallyu, and the endless supply of revenue, the government is also hand in glove with the entertainment companies. Creation of artist unions could be one way of reforming the system but as long as the function of K-pop remains “to show how far we have come,” it will not mind sacrificing some known soldiers and constructing several unmarked graves.