THE KOREAN WAVE

WITH A BOOM IN TALENT, SO BECKONS THE DARK SIDE.

In the pre-2012 world, before the explosion of Psy’s Gangnam Style into the world’s music charts, the K-pop (Korean Pop) music scene was little known outside the realm of Asia.

Rooted in South Korea and branching out across Asia, the K-pop industry has propelled Korea’s music scene to an unprecedented $5 billion. But this industry is little known in the West and understood even less.

The media has fallen into the trap countless times of viewing the K-pop industry as a brutal machine which plucks young people out of their normal lives only to push them through gruelling training regimes. Western outlets latch onto the existence of tragedy within the industry, opting to paint a picture of a ruthless industry destined only to churn out meaningless talent for mass consumption.

There is undisputedly room to argue that the K-pop industry is not for the weak-hearted; with “idols” (the individual men and women who are artists within the industry) signing long-term contracts at ages as young 12 – Known colloquially as “slave contracts” – which demand long working hours and often require that idols earn little to no salary before they are able to pay back their training fees in full, idols are often very restricted creatively.

As many publications have attempted to do before, it could be reasonable to approach K-pop in a clinical way. But this would still fail to achieve the one thing that many people are missing in their understanding of K-pop: personalisation. Putting names to the pristine faces of flawless performers who occupy the minds of K-pop fans worldwide. Who are the artists? What do they do?

Perhaps the most quintessential example of a Korean idol would be the so-called “idol of idols”, Lee Taemin, known mononymously as ‘Taemin’. As the youngest male idol to ever debut – through his group SHINee in 2008 at the age of just 14 – Taemin is perhaps the perfect example of an individual whose career has spanned across every facet of the K-pop industry in just 12 years.

Fresh-faced and the youngest amongst his peers, Taemin’s career didn’t start off as he had perhaps hoped, with him expressing his distaste towards SHINee’s debut song ‘Replay’ due to his lack of lines but it is clear from the very beginning that this young boy, still in school at that, had something special. With dance skills to impress even the greatest performers out there, Taemin had a captivating stage presence, a certain elegance unmet by anyone else in the game. He was far more than another in a long line of young people to be churned out by an entertainment beast.


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As a member of the popular five piece, SHINee, Taemin saw a great deal of success. The group formed of Taemin, Kim Kibum, Choi Minho, Lee Jinki, and Kim Jonghyun are pioneers in combining contemporary R&B with a plethora of other genres (their live shows even including a brief stint of opera) as well as being one of the first K-pop groups to incorporate the infamous complex dance routines into their performances. And having an individual with skills as tightly honed as Taemin’s certainly helped them on their way to stardom.

The path to where SHINee are today, however, has been less than kind. In December 2017, the world said goodbye to Jonghyun after a long battle with depression. To the utter frustration of fans the world over, Jonghyun’s passing was used as an opportunity to feed into the narrative that the K-pop machine is brutal and unforgiving with little regard for what he, as an artist, brought to the table.

As the genius behind music from some of the biggest K-pop acts including EXO, IU, and SHINee themselves, Jonghyun’s work is just one example of the sheer talent that has been coming out of entertainment companies for over a decade now. As well as being a writer, radio host, and vocal supporter of LGBT+ issues in a country where these are not at the forefront of people’s minds, Jonghyun is an example of what K-pop idols can be.

It is safe to say that, without Jonghyun’s influence, Taemin’s career would not be what it is today. Jonghyun, along with the other members of SHINee supported him on their way to the top, especially given that he was so young. Jonghyun even contributed tracks on his debut solo album ‘Ace’ in 2014. The preconception that K-pop companies are filled with corporate men in suits churning out bubble-gum pop songs by the bucket load is, once again, proven false.

In 2020, Taemin is only on the way up. With his new album ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’ catching the attention of critics the world over, Taemin proves that there is plenty of room within K-pop to push boundaries, promote individuality (as he, himself, expressed in a recent Forbes interview) and challenge what it means to make pop music today.

So, while is it true that the K-pop world is harsh and is a far cry from the perfection, glitz and glamour it professes to be, it is not to be ignored for this reason alone. It is far too easy to see idols who have been engineered to perform like soulless robots when it would instead be more reasonable to view K-pop like this: idols have trained for their entire lives to perfect skills in music production, dance, and performance. Which means they are top of the range. And their training doesn’t take away from the value of their music. And the music is worth listening to.


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