Where Socio-Economic Class Meets K-pop

Over the last few years, K-pop, or Korean-pop, has taken the world by storm. Although there were hints of this overtaking in 2012, with PSY’s record-breaking ‘Gangnam Style’ overtaking Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ in both views and likes on YouTube, the song was only the beginning and served as a way to introduce K-pop to the world.

PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, however, was already “second-generation” K-pop, and worked to unleash K-pop to the western world, acting as the beginning of “hallyu”, or the “Korean Wave”.

At the eye of this storm lies Bangtan Sonyeondan, also known as the global phenomenon BTS, a 7-member boy group that is a household name across the world, and their fans, the BTS ARMY.

With over 1,200 active K-pop groups currently, the industry has grown to become a multi-million dollar one. The three largest talent agencies/record labels in the industry are JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and SM Entertainment – all of which are homes to the biggest groups in K-pop. JYP Entertainment created Wonder Girls, and now houses large groups like TWICE, ITZY and Stray Kids. Similarly, YG Entertainment houses BLACKPINK, and SM Entertainment is home to NCT and aespa.

The K-pop industry, however, puts an evident socio-economic strain on those wishing to enter the industry. Trainees are expected to train for a majority of the day, and often have to give up education and work to do the same. They also pay exorbitant fees to agencies, and are forced to sign long seven-year contracts (called “slave contracts”) with the agency to become artists, wherein they often give up most of their freedom.

JYP Entertainment, for example, puts a three-year long dating ban on newly-debuted groups. The leader of TWICE, one of the biggest groups in K-pop currently, trained for ten years with JYP Entertainment before she was finally given a chance to debut.

This poses the question – who can afford to give up ten years of their life training for a small shot at fame? Moreover, who can afford to do that without the pressure of financing the training as well as the rest of their lives if this career option doesn’t pan out?

Also read: Netflix Movie on Blackpink Ignores the Dark Side of the K-Pop Scene

It is increasingly becoming more and more evident that those who choose this path are financially secure, and come from families that are high enough on the socio-economic ladder to finance these dreams. Nine-member girl group TWICE’s Mina, for example, was born into a wealthy family – her father is a respected surgeon and professor in Japan. This wealth allowed her to train as a ballerina for years before she joined JYP Entertainment, and the training gave her an obvious advantage over other trainees.

Jake from Enhypen, another group that was born out of BTS’s parent company, HYBE Entertainment, went to Dwight School Seoul, an international school in South Korea that costs upto $27,000 per year. All of BLACKPINK’s four members were born into wealthy families, and TWICE’s Tzuyu is from a family of self-made entrepreneurs in Taiwan, and even played a role in the Taiwanese election.

YG Entertainment’s BLACKPINK and JYP Entertainment’s TWICE, however, are members of “third-generation” K-pop, and have been in the industry for years now. They both debuted at a time where it was rare for K-pop idols to be affluent, when the audience was more familiar with rags-to-riches stories among artists.

Recently, however, “fourth-generation” K-pop has emerged, consisting of groups that have debuted in and after 2017. Within these groups, it is increasingly obvious that almost all members come from families that are wealthy, including even hints of nepotism muddled into the industry.

Also read: K-Pop’s Dark and Tragic Underbelly

ITZY is one such fourth-generation group. ITZY’s Lia attended North London Collegiate School Jeju, one of South Korea’s most expensive schools, with a yearly tuition and accommodation fee of over 60 million won ($50,000). Another member of ITZY, Chaeryeong, was spotted with a Gucci handbag years before her debut, and is the sister to K-pop idol Chaeyeon, who was part of I*ZONE, another large K-pop group. Giselle, who is the main rapper at aespa, SM Entertainment’s newest girl-group, has also been traced to a wealthy family, with rumours that her aunt is Joohee Cho, an acclaimed reporter in South Korea.

This begs the question – will K-pop lead itself to becoming a highly exclusive, elite space only for those born into wealthy families, which will hence encourage further nepotism and corruption in the industry, and perhaps compromise quality? Rather, will it follow Bollywood’s path?

Needless to say, one’s positionality in society can offer them the opportunity to chase their dreams. But is that now a luxury only offered to the rich?

Tara Awasthi is a student that wishes to explore the intersection of gender and economics through her education and writing. You can find her on Instagram @tara_awasthi

Featured image: ITZY/Twitter