Sulli, or Choi Jin-ri, signed on to a K-pop agency as an 11-year-old. As a trainee, she worked towards making it as a K-pop idol. She debuted as a singer in the popular all-women’s group f(x) in 2009. Sulli officially left f(x) in 2015, citing physical and mental exhaustion; she had also been extensively cyberbullied. In 2018, she released a solo debut single Goblin, in which she played a character with multiple personality disorder. In the sanitised world of K-pop, where female artists are meant to be adorable—aegyo in Korean, where you display toddler-ish behaviour, she stood out for speaking her mind, whether it was about not wearing a bra or mental health. On October 14th, Sulli was found dead. She was 25. Authorities have stated that there was no sign of external force or injuries.
To outsiders, the world of K-pop might seem mystifying, but to those in it, it is all-consuming. Over the years, K-pop has made inroads in India, from Shillong to Delhi to Mumbai. Fans in India identify with the songs of K-pop and worship its artists and most often choose to turn a blind eye to the cracks behind the shiny, happy façade.
Earlier this year, Rimi Jain flew to Singapore to watch BTS live on their Love Yourself tour. She spent Rs 18,000 on the tickets alone, to get access to the ‘pit’ area. There were, she guesses, some 43,000 fans at the concert. An ardent BTS fan watching a three-hour long concert by them had long been on her bucket list. A lawyer by day, Jain, 29, is also a contributing writer for the K-pop website Seoulbeats.com. For the uninitiated, BTS, or the Bangtan Boys, is a K-pop boy band featuring seven young ‘idols’, as the artists in K-Pop are called. They’re arguably the world’s biggest boy band, one of the most prominent figures of ‘Hallyu’—the Korean wave or the Korean invasion.
Sunayana Roy, 37, a publishing professional and a ‘second generation’ K-pop fan, tells me she first learnt of K-pop’s rise in the Northeast in 2010-2011. “K-pop, K-dramas were shown on local channels. CDs and DVDs were available on the black market. The clothing trends of South Korea were available in markets in Manipur, Mizoram etcetera.”
BTS is a K-pop boy band featuring seven young ‘idols’. They’re arguably the world’s biggest boy band
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BTS started life in 2013, truly breaking through to the mainstream by 2015-2016. In that same period, K-pop gained popularity beyond the Northeast. Delhi played host to one of the earliest K-pop gigs, a showcase featuring young groups—including Bestie and Imfact—performing at a packed Siri Fort Auditorium. (More recently, KARD did a couple of gigs in India and IN2IT has performed as well.) The crowd featured thousands of screaming young teens, who cheered every twirl and flourish by the artists. Among those in attendance was Revati Ramesan. At the gig, the singers often addressed the Delhi crowd, a few times even in Hindi. They were kind and generous and interactive throughout, expressing their gratitude multiple times. That’s a hallmark of K-pop.
Revati is now 25 and has been a fan of K-pop and K-dramas for the past seven years, and she remembers how, before she discovered the website Soompi and other K-pop resources, she and her roommate would constantly refresh Allkpop.com for updates.
The kind of fandom that K-pop engenders isn’t only because of the music, polished as it may be. K-pop is an entire living, breathing entity designed to capture the imaginations of youth worldwide. Each idol in a group has their own signature style but also telegraphs a strong chemistry with fellow members. Fans, at times even sasaeng fans or stalkers, obsess over variety shows, ‘survival’ shows and behind-the-scenes footage of idols just doing their thing. Idols develop a strong relationship with their fans by thanking them repeatedly with earnestness and sincerity. There’s an emphasis on living a good, virtuous life and maintaining a squeaky clean image; any diversion from that path and idols are banished from the spotlight. It’s all part of the game. Sulli, perhaps, paid the price for not toeing the line.
Contrary to popular belief, K-pop is not strictly a ‘genre’ of music. It may have started with roots in new jack swing, a sound which draws from R&B, hip-hop and dance-pop. But, over time, K-pop has evolved into a cultural movement, an industry aggregating various styles of music and an internet-age spin on performance art. Nayanika Mukherjee, a 21-year-old journalist who first discovered the music back when she was in middle school, says, “There isn’t a strict, adhered-to definition for K-pop yet, especially since it mixes several popular genres, but I personally see idol culture as a useful way to distinguish K-pop from general Korean music.”
IT BEGAN IN the early ’90s and has steadily expanded through the years. Initially, the movement spread to parts of Japan and China, before the wave reached the West and exploded on a global scale. Groups such as SHINee, BIGBANG, BTS, Super Junior, Exo and Twice have all been big successes. K-pop became a household name internationally in 2012, when Psy’s Gangnam Style and its iconic horse dance went viral. The songs are mostly in Korean, with the odd English refrain or chorus line thrown in—often for sing-alongability—and tend to incorporate various genres, with pop, R&B, soft-rock, dance music and hip-hop making frequent appearances.
Propping up these acts is an entire machinery. There are the so-called Big Three, the three most recognisable entertainment companies that act as label, management, mentor to the young idols: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. There’s a case to be made for adding Big Hit Entertainment to the list too, responsible as they are for the mesmeric rise of BTS.
From the outside, an aspect of K-pop that invites both curiosity and ridicule is the love, even obsession for the idols. Fans will, every couple of weeks, commandeer sites and turn them into fanzones. Most prominently, this tends to happen with ARMY—Adorable Representative MC for Youth—the official fan club of BTS. Deeksha Yadav, 25, an assistant professor at Delhi University, tells me about dedicated fan clubs in South Korea where you have to pay to become a member, as well as fan cafes where you get to interact with idols.
In the case of ARMY, there’s an Indian wing called Bangtan India. On Twitter, they have close to 50,000 followers, with multiple regional admins mobilising the fans. Twinkle Choudhary, 21, is one of the admins from Maharashtra, and she tells me how the group organises a meet-up, a mini-party, every time one of the members (of BTS) has a birthday, for which they book a space. They’ll charge a nominal entry fee to the100-120 attendees. Twenty-one-year-old Choudhury gravitated towards K-pop during adolescence. The first BTS song she heard was No—“It talks about the education system and how hard it could be. I’d just completed 10th grade, from an all-girls school and moved to a co-ed. It was a rollercoaster ride, so many things were changing. No helped me then.”
Relatability is a persistent strain in the nature of K-pop fandom. Farheen Khan, a 19-year-old college student from Mumbai, is a big fan of BTS, NCT, SHINee and EXO. She’s part of WhatsApp groups where fans discuss latest news as well as fan stories and edits. She says K-pop fills a void in the lives of its fans. “I have a certain belief that to fill yourself with art, you need to be empty. I look at myself as an empty person, all the fans are empty. They can be filled with art. Us people, the ones who ‘stan’ K-pop with its lyrics focused on self-love, we’re depressed and ready to be filled with love.”
A few of the people I spoke with, especially those past their early twenties, termed K-pop their ‘guilty pleasure’. Some of the more superficial criticisms levelled at K-pop include the homogeneity of the form—where everything ends up sounding and looking similar. Or the manufactured quality of it. But with a certain demographic, it seems more acceptable to like K-pop, to defend it through a lense of ‘poptimism’ and to criticise its critics. The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between, but even sceptics do believe it has a charm.
Take Tanvi Kapoor, a 29-year-old freelance editor from the National Capital Region. Kapoor, by her own admission, was “disdainful” of the form and tried it out of academic curiosity during a vulnerable period. She watched the video of Spring Day by BTS, inspired by a short story by Ursula Le Guin, which stayed with her. “Going into it, I felt very snobbish. It was an exercise in shedding that snobbery. We consume culture as identity markers and I thought I’d never be able to use it for that. There was a quality to it that I enjoyed in the solitude of my room, from an academic point of view,” she says.
K-pop, as an industry, has mastered the art of fan-idol interaction, as Sadhana C, 27, a journalist from Hyderabad, points out. “A lot of idols keep saying, ‘We are who we are because of you.’ They constantly do VLives [a live video streaming app from South Korea that allows artists to interact with fans], variety shows. So I think the ‘superfans’, they’re very interested in these relationships.” Deeksha Yadav suggests the fan response is a direct result of the effort the idols put in crafting these relationships, and fans feel the need to return the favour.
Then there’s the way they’re presented to the audience. “The first and foremost thing to understand,” says Rimi Jain, “is that idols are marketed as your boyfriend or girlfriend, they’re very much sold as that. Even BTS, they’re completely clean, no word of anyone smoking, they’re not supposed to date. Fans rely on them emotionally, invest a lot of time and money, they stream videos, vote in competitions, buy merchandise, attend fan meetings. You invest that much time and energy, you’re relying on them so much for your emotional and mental well-being. They debut so young, so their fans grow up with them, you watch them growing up as their lives are on camera.” The music, as Kapoor tells me, often talks— in the case of BTS especially—about the loss of innocence and the struggles of mental health and adulting. Nayanika Mukherjee speaks of the accessibility of idols: “Where a Beyoncé feels intimidating, a giant K-pop star is still seen as more accessible, humble and family-friendly, like they could be your friend or mentor. ”
THE SINCERITY AND ardour of the fan does seem to set K-pop apart from most other musical movements, with fans making an effort to engage with Hallyu and Korean culture intellectually. The internet is filled with radiant theories and analyses of every song, every video frame, even minute facial expressions and moves idols make. Many of the fans I spoke with are learning to write and speak Korean.
Rimi Jain writes about K-pop, while Sadhana C is starting a new podcast on Hallyu. Nayanika Mukherjee wrote her college dissertation on K-pop, titled The Influence of K-pop on Indian Media Culture, in which she looked at its coverage in the Indian press. She says, “The production quality, editing and visuals easily surpass Western standards for me. Then there’s the focus on choreography and fashion; it’s interesting to see the influences they incorporate. Every comeback keeps you guessing. Then in terms of lyrics, you get to know of so many cultural references, beliefs and ideas that you otherwise would never have come across. I find it an accessible way to understand contemporary sociopolitical conditions, humour, since music is a universal outlet for emotion.”
But there is an underbelly to K-pop, which is also found in Western music. Labels have been accused of exerting far too much control on artists, often tied into allegedly punishing long-term contracts (also called ‘slave contracts’) at a tender age as ‘trainees’. The group TVXQ even took their label, SM Entertainment, to court over the terms of their 13-year contract, though it was deemed to not be a ‘slave contract’ in the end. (Now, contract lengths have been limited to a maximum of seven years.) The idols are trained extensively across all disciplines and there’s often a manufactured quality hiding behind the supposed spontaneous outpouring of inspirational art.
Malvika Patil is currently taking a gap year and also researching for a paper on K-pop as a neoliberal venture. “It gives you the illusion of intimacy, reality, glamour, of the individuality of the idols, but at the end of the day it’s nothing more than children tied up in contracts and their personalities being sold to fans. The idols are a product.” Treating the idols as lacking in individual thought, though, would be unfair, since plenty of them do speak out, especially through their lyrics, while in some cases idols have spoken out in support of their agencies. But from the outside, the system can feel exploitative.
There’s an insistence on idols being flawless, wholesome and ‘perfect’, but periodic scandals have disrupted that utopian construct. From Jonghyun’s suicide to the more recent ‘Burning Sun scandal’, which involved prostitution and drug trafficking, the dark underside of K-pop does sneak out. However, what works in K-pop’s favour—beyond the spectacle itself—is the mutual appreciation, respect and love between artists and fans and its messages of love, improvement and self-belief.