How many times in a day do you watch idol stars on TV and talk about them with your friends? We can see they dominate TV music shows and occupy top rankings on online music charts. They say idol stars reach 80 % of the cast of music shows such as Music bank or M countdown.
Also, we can see them working actively not only in music but also in other variety shows and even dramas. How about their popularity in the army? Girl group stars are tremendously popular among the young soldiers, making them dance in shows at military camps and gathering them in front of the TV in their barracks. But, are these idol stars’ lives all about success and popularity? In this issue, I would like to examine everything about their life and shed light on the agony they have to go through.
[Idol, Who are you?]
Idol is a word whose meaning ‘graven image’ in English, signifying objects of admiration or a popular person. These days when we say “Idol,” however, we refer to highly promoted and merchandised young stars, most representatively singers and actors who also work as TV show guests and models. In Korea, it is said that ‘Seo-Tae-Ji and Children’ and H.O.T’s successful accomplishment in the ‘90s makes the teen idol market bigger.
Previously, young popular entertainers like H.O.T in the ‘90s or Young-Rok Jeon in the ‘80s were called dance groups, pop stars, or teen age groups. In the early 2000s, however, through the active internet network, teenage groups who were popular among teenagers began to be called ‘Idols’. Most of them start their career as a singer, so ‘Idol’ usually refers to idol singers, and they debut in adolescence or in their early twenties as a member of group with a certain concept promoted by their agency. After the mid-90s, the debuting ages become younger and younger, and there are even some singers or groups debuting as elementary school students. There are many cases of idol stars who debuted through the big management agencies such as Rain, Boa, and Big Bang. Rain debuted in Hollywood as well and Boa is a big hit in Japan. Girl’s Generation, Big Bang, Wonder Girls all became pop sensations overseas, promoting Korea’s brand value as civilian diplomats. Their music and performances are like a tonic for TV audiences and fans.
But what about the other side of the spotlight shed on these idol stars? Is success guaranteed for them? No. Many trainees cannot cross the threshold, and even after their debut the killing schedule and exploitive long-term contract torment them. Though the idol stars are mostly in their late teens and early to mid-twenties, sometimes sexual exposure and plastic surgeries are forced, and hardcore stalking fans as well as anti-fans are big problems they have to suffer. Let’s take a look at the idol world, which cannot be called perfectly fabulous despite its dazzling façade.
First problem – The difficult process of making a debut for a trainee
First, there is the excessive competition and difficulty of ‘the era of one million trainees.’ MBC news reported a story of a trainee under the title of ‘the era of one million trainees.’ He began to train himself as a future idol at his agency for three years, choosing qualification exams to save time instead of entering high school. Daily training begins at evening and continues until dawn, but it’s not like he is settled for the agency. Most trainees wander around three to four management agencies, and an agency has about 50~60 trainees in general.
If you consider ‘vocal’ training academies and practical music academies, there are over 3,000 agencies; among them are some academies whose instructors are not properly qualified. For your information, the competition rate for the Department of Practical Music’s rolling admission is 444 on average, 1300 maximum. The sad reality is that success cannot be guaranteed for those who passed the competition. Out of the many idol groups who made a debut, only a handful are considered successful.
Second problem – Idol stars and trainees forced to expose their body
The second problem directly indicates our society’s moral level. It is about human rights abuse like cosmetic surgery, sexual harassment and molestation for Idol stars and trainees. Entertainer sex bribe incidents like the ‘Jang Ja-yeon’ case may not be that far from idol stars and trainees. They came to the field with high hopes but their first step towards their dream---the audition---sometimes leave them with big scars. We often hear that they are forced to undergo cosmetic surgery from head to toe and be on a diet. According to some sources, 60 percent of female adolescent trainees are forced to expose their body. The relation of agency and trainee is that of the strong and the weak, and some agencies demand excessive requirements, such as sexual harassment and assault, even sex bribes. For example, it was reported last February that staff of an agency were arrested for sexual molestation. The problem is not limited to female trainees. Some anonymous male trainees revealed that they were forced to put on a strip show at a bar for the amusement of a staff’s birthday. Minor trainees are not the exception, as they are exposed to sexual words indiscriminatingly. The reason why they keep silent is because they are on the part of the weak. They have no choice but to suffer to make a debut without getting expelled. There are much more undisclosed cases beyond those that came out to the public. It is part of their sad reality.
Third problem – Idol market, Zero-sum game, private life and humanity
The next problem is about their invasion of privacy and the red ocean which is known as the Idol market. Most of the time, idols are to be seen through TV monitors, and as the internet became popularized, teenagers and those in their twenties have become their main customers. The customers started to show an interest in idols who belong to their own age group, and their dance performances, appearance, and fashion become the focus rather than the singing itself. Agencies begin to produce a lot of idol singers.
However, the elements of idol pop such as repeatability, simple melody, and expendability are blamed to downgrade the quality of Korean pop. Listeners got easily tired of their music, so you cannot find their hit numbers on the top charts after only a few weeks. As a result agencies pursue more marketable and stronger concepts to stimulate maximum sales, and idol groups are struggling to survive in the so-called red-ocean market. In the context, invasion of privacy is another shackle. Apart from contract articles such as cell-phone confiscation and date prohibition, paparazzi, anti-fans, and hardcore fan’s stalking; increase their emotional distress. A well-known case is JYJ’s member Park Yoo-chun’s hardcore fan who installed a hidden camera. We can watch him going back home on-guard, afraid of stalkers. Idol stars have to behave carefully whatever they do for fear of stalkers and anti-fans. They are living in a cage, because they are ‘Idol stars’.
Fourth problem – Endless ankle chain after debut, slave contracts with entertainment agencies
It’s not over even after overcoming a series of obstacles and becoming a successful star. Starting with the debut, they are caught up with a so-called ‘slave contract’ that is filled with unreasonable conditions and articles. The first one is a long-term contract for ten years. During this period, idol stars’ private activities are limited under the monitoring of their agency. < Copyright © The Gachon Herald All rights reserved >
The second thing that is unfair is income distribution. If income is created, an agency takes most of it, then each member gets the rest of the money divided between them. JYJ and KARA most notably experienced conflicts with agencies because of the distribution issue. Even these well-known groups are suffering from the problem, then what about less successful and unknown idols?
The third thing is a killing schedule for idol stars. They have to follow the schedule created by their agency, and most of the time it means a hectic life which can threaten their health. Though we can understand the agency’s position that they need to maximize the profit out of idol stars, it definitely affects their health and humanity. Idol group T-ara’s case indicates this problem clearly, as they are known to work with only thirty minutes to two hours of sleep for a year. You know how serious it is and why such conditions make it an unreasonable contract, which is often called a “slave contract.’ As such, some idol stars are still leading a passive life, treated unreasonably.
Everybody has their own idol. These idols are one’s vent and life’s tonic. They help someone endure tiring military life and deal with one’s school day. Idols’ behind-the-scene story is not as fancy as their fabulous image seen on TV. An Idol is not a deity, but we call them heroes of the Korean wave and cheer them. However, what needs to be considered first is the improvement of labor conditions for idol stars that are exploited as well as trainees who wander around countless agencies to reach their dreams.
Idols are young, from late teens to early twenties. Even if they are young, their rights need to be protected. We used to say, “If you put on a crown, deal with the weight." However, with these idol stars, the ‘weight’ already exceeds the limit---it is pressing down on their shoulders because of their unreasonable contracts and fierce competition. It is true that idol stars are the heroes of the Korean wave and our worthy cultural property. They are contributing to our national brand improvement. We cannot just sit by and watch them suffer. Some authority may need to intervene for the improvement of idol stars and trainees’ rights and treatment. I hope fans also think one more time about Idol stars’ private lives and human rights. They are the same as who we are. They deserve to live as decent human beings.