After a couple of years of flitting around the edge of K-pop with my interest in dramas and the variety show Running Man, it’s finally happened… I’ve become a fully-fledged K-pop fan. This has only happened recently, but it didn’t take long to get sucked into the vortex of music videos, guest appearances, interviews, bias, and sasaeng. However, being a K-pop fan isn’t just about fan girling over boys everyone else will assume are crossing-dressing girls, or getting weird looks from people who think you worship Psy. Over the past couple of months, I’ve recently experienced that there’s a lot of pain and frustration that comes hand in hand with being a K-pop fan.
My K-pop fan story starts at the end of March this year, when my WordPress was flooded with videos and articles about this boy group known as “EXO”, and their comeback music video “Call Me Baby”. After seeing it posted so many times, I decided to give it a watch.
My initial opinion… was that it looks rather tacky, with the cockiness of the boys in the group, the 90s inspired fashion, the rap, the constant costume change, and so on. However, I couldn’t deny the group’s talent and the catchy melody, so I watched it a second time… and then a third time… by the fifth rewatch, I knew I was hooked. So I started looking through suggested videos of their previous songs, and realised that I had actually seen the group before, when their 2013 comeback song “Wolf” had been posted.
Although I didn’t mind the song, there was no way I could take the pretty cutie-pie boys seriously as they growled and clawed at the camera. Rather than “wolf”, I couldn’t help but think “puppy” (by the way, I still can’t help but laugh at some of the shots in that music video). It was just a little too hard to get into the group with that particular song. But now, I’m converted and I can even tell you a little bit about the group.
As you can see, EXO is quite a large group. The boys were all recruited by SM Entertainment, trained, and placed into a group. It’s quite normal for South Korean music groups to be created in this way; companies recruit talented individuals (usually in their teens) who then go through several years of training in singing, dancing, acting, and multiple languages, before being thrown together into a group. Training is often intense and brutal, with the trainees expected to maintain a certain level of skill in each area. The idea with EXO was that the main group would break down into two smaller groups- EXO-K and EXO-M, that would promote the same music in Korea and China respectively (check out the Mandarin versions of Call Me Baby and Wolf). The six-member EXO-K includes the leader Suho, Chanyeol, D.O., Baekhyun, Kai, and Sehun. Meanwhile, EXO-M includes leader Kris, Chen, Luhan, Lay, Xiumin, and Tao. Chen and Xiumin are actually both Koreans who were placed in the Chinese group to help balance it out (also because of their looks). EXO debuted in 2011, instantly becoming popular. They continued producing hit singles each year, starting with “Mama” in 2012 (Korean, Mandarin), “Wolf” in 2013, “Overdose” in 2014 (Korean, Mandarin), and “Call Me Baby” in 2015, ensuring their popularity grew. With each new song, the group was able to show off their vocal and dancing talent. All in all, EXO are a fun, energetic group, with a background determination to become the best… it’s no wonder they’re serving as a great gateway group into the world of K-pop for so many recent fans like myself.
However, the group is not without controversy. The sharp-eyed among you may have already noted that in EXO’s “Wolf” music video, there are twelve members, but in “Call Me Baby”, there are ten. In 2014, two of the Chinese members, Kris and Luhan, left the group. Watch any of their older clips online, and you’ll still find comments lamenting the loss of these two members. As such, EXO also serves as a gateway into the reality of K-pop business and money.
Kris, leader of EXO-M, left in May, 2014, claiming that SM Entertainment treated him unfairly, “like an object”, and would not allow him any input in his career decisions. He also claimed that the company were not concerned with his health, deciding his schedule without his opinions. In October of the same year, Luhan left the group. His stated reasons for leaving were similar to Kris’, but also included unhappiness in the discrimination in treatment for Korean and Chinese members of the group, in terms of financial backing and opportunities, and on-going health issues from exhaustion and stress.
Starting with complaints about the unfair treatment between the Chinese and Korean members, it’s quite easy to understand Luhan’s unhappiness. Apparently, EXO-M received fewer promotions and less endorsement opportunities compared to EXO-K. In guest appearances on variety shows, the Chinese members appeared to have less screen time compared to the Korean members (to be fair, not all of the Chinese members were fluent in Korean). Whilst I can’t comment any further on the inner-workings of SM Entertainment and the group as a whole, I do believe you can see a difference in the music videos of the groups. For example, comparing the Korean and Mandarin versions of “Overdose”…
… you can clearly see that the Korean version features more special effects, costume changes, and more flattering angles, compared to the Mandarin version. Now I’m not expecting the two music videos to be frame-by-frame replicas of each other, but, to me at least, the Korean version looks more polished overall. I get that SM Entertainment is a Korean company, but surely the point of having the two subgroups is to equally promote the same music in South Korea and China. One can’t help but wonder how the company expected to do this when one group appears in music videos of lesser quality…
Moving onto the treatment of the idols. It’s no secret that the trainees recruited by the companies to become idols start a somewhat robotic and unforgiving career. Idols are expected to be perfect in every sense of the word; behaviour, appearance, talent, personality- you name it, it has to be perfect. They are expected to do what the company wants, when the company wants, regardless of their own feelings- including being told when, and for how long, they can return to their home countries. As such, idols are often worked to the bone; once a group has made a comeback there is little-to-no resting time in between touring, interviews, concerts, guest appearances, and so on. Injuries are treated as part of the job, with idols expecting to perform at their best despite them. There are plenty of videos of EXO members injured or unwell, and members Kai and Tao are well known for their various injuries. Furthermore, the group often looks exhausted in interviews and variety shows. Whether the injuries are sustained during practice or performance or not, the fact that the idols are expected to continue despite them is testament to the music company’s slave-like treatment of idols.
Similar concerns about SM Entertainment’s treatment of idols have resurfaced recently with rumours of the remaining Chinese members, Tao and Lay, looking to leave the group. Tao has had complaints similar to those of Luhan, suffering with serious waist and ankle injuries since last year. His father has made it very clear that he wants Tao to withdraw from the group, claiming that SM Entertainment has not provided support for Tao’s recovery from his injuries. This appears as another example of the company expecting their idols to perform without a substantial resting period for injury. Currently, Tao’s status within the group remains unconfirmed with him seeming to have left China for the USA, seeking treatment for his injuries, and possibly to finish his studies. Was this break organised by SM Entertainment as a sign of good faith towards Tao’s welfare following the mishap that happened with Luhan, or are they just biding their time before confirming his permanent departure from the group?
Lay’s circumstances are slightly different. With the aid of SM Entertainment, he has set up a “workshop” registered in his name, to be used to help him in following Chinese activities and opportunities. He will be able to select his own staff and work with outside agencies… a massive difference to the opportunities denied to Kris and Luhan. This is beyond amazing, given that Lay, at only twenty-three years old, is the first person in SM Entertainment’s history to be allowed to branch out in this way. However, don’t let his age fool you… Lay has been performing on Hunan Television since he was quite young. He’s a veteran performer and clearly knows how the entertainment business in China and South Korea works. Given SM Entertainment’s history, this is surely a positive step for the company in recognising its stars’ talent. Lay is the perfect person to pioneer this, given his experience. However, there are still a few (anti-?)fans who believe this is the first step for Lay to leave EXO.
Of course, it’s easy to place all of the blame on SM Entertainment; EXO is not their only group that has had issues such as these- there have been many controversies with other groups, including Girls’ Generation and TVXQ. However, you cannot discount the idols’ determination to perform despite injury and illness. Watch this video to see Tao’s disappointment at not being able to perform because of his injury (start at 10.10 for Tao’s speech, watch the whole thing if you want waterfalls falling from your eyes). Performing means everything to these idols, so of course they will want to do it despite their physical limitations. Furthermore, SM Entertainment is not the only entertainment company in South Korea and as such, is not the only company guilty of these sins.
I turn now to the second K-pop band that I became obsessed with… JYP Entertainment’s 2PM. JYP Entertainment, in the scale of South Korean entertainment company “evilness” is middle-ranked, presenting a softer, more family-friendly image compared to SM Entertainment. However, this company has also undergone some controversy, and although dated compared to EXO’s issues, 2PM’s 2010 Jay Park (Jaebeom) controversy is a good example of this. When 2PM debuted back in 2008, Jay Park was the group’s leader. Born and raised in the USA, he moved to South Korea to train as an idol. As I’ve already mentioned, idol training in South Korea is no walk in the park, and Jay Park was not allowed to return home during his training period. At seventeen years old, in a foreign country and struggling with the Korean language and idol training, it’s not really surprising that Jay Park had some negative comments to make about South Korea and JYP Entertainment… comments that he unfortunately made online, and were eventually found and publicised in 2009. To a western observer, these are just the comments of a frustrated, homesick seventeen year old, but they blew up in South Korea like you would not believe. The company, surprisingly, were not too upset by most of these comments, despite the public outcry. However, they were more furious that Jay Park had mentioned some of the clauses of his so-called “slave contract”, which tarnished the image of the company. Anyway, despite JYP Entertainment assuring 2PM fans that Jay Park would not be fired from the company, he resigned anyway, undoubtedly bowing to public pressure to maintain the perfect idol image (and to save the reputation of the other group members).
This example with 2PM again highlights South Korea’s music industry drive to produce perfectly trained and behaved idols, and suggests that it is something ingrained in the culture of the music industry, rather than pertaining to one company or group. Now, it would be outright rude to leave out YG Entertainment, the third well-known entertainment company in South Korea. Here, we seem to have a company that isn’t obsessed with money and image. None of the ex-YG Entertainment musicians listed on the company’s Wikipedia have controversy associated with them leaving the company. Why such a different attitude in this entertainment company? It’s not like it was established any later than the previous companies I mentioned; all were established in the mid-90s. Furthermore, YG Entertainment’s biggest K-pop groups, Big Bang and 2NE1, weren’t set up any differently to any other idol groups. Is it the idols having more involvement in the creation of their music, and therefore their future? Is it a friendlier, more open environment? Whatever it is, YG Entertainment breaks the mould adhered to by the other entertainment companies.
Now, fully exposed to the realities of the music industry in South Korea, across companies and groups, I can’t help but wonder what will be the future for EXO? The ten (nine?) remaining members seem to be in a good place as a group, appearing more at ease with each other and with stronger bonds between them. They look less and less like a group of talented individuals hobbled into an entertainment machine, and more like the family image they’ve been trying to showcase for so long. Hopefully SM Entertainment will continue to follow a path that avoids 2014’s fiasco, giving Tao the time he needs to recover, and being flexible with Lay’s schedule, which is bound to get increasingly full. Us EXO-L members can only hope that SM Entertainment will continue recognising and standing by their idols’ individual talents, solidifying the future for the talented, loveable EXO boys.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this post are completely my own. Although I have researched much of this article, I am still new to the world of K-Pop and apologise for any gross generalizations I have made.