5 Things I Love and Don’t Love about the K-pop Industry

5 Things I Love and Don’t Love about the K-pop Industry

Autumn Jefferson
Media Staff

My K-pop origin story all began with a YouTube React video. One day, one of those “YouTubers React to K-pop” videos popped up on my YouTube recommended. It intrigued me. Not long after watching said video I hit up my cousin—a well-known fan of the genre at the time—and asked for a few recommendations. The rest is history. It’s been 7 years since the start of my K-pop journey and I have seen many sides of the industry—the good and the bad. So, here are some things I love about K-pop, and some things…not so much.

I love…


1. The Performance

I could watch—and have watched—someone dance for hours with a look of awe frozen on my face. Those who know me, know that I’ve been teaching myself K-pop choreography ever since I got into the genre. I’ve even joined a K-pop dance crew here at UVA—APEX. Something about watching others dances scratches a satisfying spot in my brain, and something about moving my body also brings me joy. 

When it comes to K-pop idols though, they don’t just dance, they perform. They serve vocals, choreography, and face—all of which are difficult to do individually, let alone all at once. I have grown a lot since my freshman year of high school, from attempting to learn girl group songs in my tiny bedroom to performing them on grand stages. And from my own experience, I have learned just how hard it is to perform like an idol. Like I said, facials are not easy. But, there is a special connection created when you mimic the moves that impressed you when your favorite idol first performed them.

Their commitment to their dream is demonstrated through their craft. As they dance, you can see how much it means to them. So many of them have dreamed of dancing and singing on stage, training for years to debut. However, while all idols start as trainees, some carry that extra spark. Some are born performers, they exude a special confidence and joy. Seeing an idol smiling and dancing their heart out, despite dripping with sweat and exhaustion, makes me want to get up and dance with them, so that I can enjoy the moment too. And sometimes it’s just nice to watch and admire raw talent.


2. The Concepts

new jeans get up

When it comes to promoting a song, K-pop has got it down. A group’s “comeback,” which is essentially a new release, is announced weeks—sometimes months—in advance. While each group and each comeback is different, there are almost always concept photos. These photos showcase the members wearing different clothes—different “concepts”—that correlate to the different versions of the album you can buy. Not only do I love the option of choice, I am always blown away by the creativity that goes into each Instagram post and physical album design. One of my favorite genres I can only describe as ethereal; anything related to mermaids or fairies, especially underwater photoshoots, I find breathtaking. The first time I saw Yunjin from Le Sserafim’s photos for their “Easy” album, I genuinely had to catch my breath. Not only do these albums feature such well thought out photobooks, but CDs, photocards, stickers, lyric books, and other extra goodies as well. Photocards are a particularly hot topic. These small cards feature a member’s selfie and are placed randomly in each album.

blackpink born pink

Thus, fans open their albums in hopeful anticipation of pulling out their favorite member’s cards. Because the demand for these photos is so high, fans often participate in trading cards with others, whether it’s simply switching with a friend or spending hundreds of dollars online. 


3. The Concert Experience™

One thing about a K-pop concert is that it’s not your typical concert. K-pop concerts are an entirely new level of production. 

Imagine, you arrive a few hours before the doors open—surely early enough, you think, to snatch a good spot in line—only to discover thousands of fans already in line, dressed extravagantly in all kinds of outfits, all modeled after the group’s concepts. 

The lines for merch seem never ending, and yet many fans already have the group’s signature lightstick on them. And these sticks don’t just light up. Oh no, they are specifically designed to represent a certain group and programmed to match the beat of the music playing. 

Mesmerized by all the lights, glitter, and excitement, you finally enter the venue and sit in anticipation of its beginning. The group’s music videos play on huge screens, and you sing along with everyone else, cheering loudest when your favorite member—your bias—appears. The singing continues until the screens darken, and the singing transforms into intensifying screaming. Your anticipation reaches its climax as the stage floor rises and your idols are poised upon it. You begin to scream even louder than you thought possible. You feel dizzy and nauseous. Your brain can’t quite process that the human beings in front of you are the people you see through a screen every other day. But it’s them. They’re real and they’re right there.

Your idols have prepared three or four outfit changes, new choreography and dance breaks, solos and other “special” stages, as well as crowd interactions. Before you know it, almost two or three hours have passed and your throat is raw. But you’re not ready to leave yet; devastation washes over you when your idols say that the next song is their last. They all say their farewells and set up in the final starting formation. 

But, if this is not your first concert, then you know that this is not their last song because once they leave the stage, they’ll be changing into their own concert merch for their encore. Even knowing that they are supposed to come back out, you still chant alongside all the other fans, hoping your voice will urge them to return faster. 

A few minutes later, they return to sing a few more songs, and the moment feels incredibly bittersweet. There will be no second encore. These really are the last few moments you have together. Those moments fly by and suddenly the main lights come back on. You are left only with an empty stage, blank screens, and a sore throat. 

If you have read this far and enjoyed your little y/n moment, then I hope you enjoyed spending time with your idols. Perhaps now you understand why I love K-pop concerts. 


I don’t love…


4. The Fanservice

While an industry geared towards fans seems smart in theory, the actual fans themselves often make it dangerous and toxic for the idols and the community. Ever heard of a parasocial relationship? Just wait until you meet a K-pop fan. In addition to concerts and other stage performances, idols host a multitude of events that are smaller and more personal to individual fans. For example, fansigns or online fancalls require fans to buy a certain amount of albums to gain entry. At these events, fans ask idols to answer specific questions, do challenges, make cute faces, and many other—often demeaning—tasks all with a smile. Not to mention the flirting. Fans often walk away after two minutes thinking they had a special connection, and it is in the kpop idol’s job description to fuel that delusion. 

This dedication to fans leads to extreme dating restrictions for idols, out of a fear of making fans upset. In fact, some of the biggest scandals are because an idol was seen with someone of a different gender, or had a significant other in the past. For example, SM Entertainment’s new boy group RIIZE is currently promoting as 6 members because their 7th member, Seunghan, is on indefinite hiatus after fans found pictures of his girlfriend before he became an idol. While “scandals” such as these have consequences, fans’ delusions regarding their idols are pervasive even in everyday comments discussing their hypothetical devastation at the prospect of their bias dating. Like please, Jungkook is a 26-year old man, do you seriously think he’s never talked to a girl before? Unfortunately for Jungkook, he is a part of an incredibly popular boy band–BTS–which means he is under constant scrutiny. He, along with many idols, has to deal with toxic fans and media outlets stalking him everyday. His “work” life as an idol invades his private life, which makes it difficult for him to have a life outside of K-pop at all. 

Don’t even get me started on the hypocrisy of “shipping.” Dating scandals often entail two people of different genders, but when it comes to interactions between members of the same group, their fans not only tolerate, but encourage, the behavior. If I had to spend almost every waking hour with the same people, I would have no choice but to know all about them. And yet, many fans take this too far, romanticizing every glance, every touch, every word. For these fans, fetishizing same-sex relationships is allowed because it doesn’t threaten their own chances with their favorite members, but any real relationship with someone of the opposite gender could lead to a member’s permanent expulsion from their group. For their own sake, I hope my favorite idols are secretly living full lives because their joy brings me joy—unlike other fans who expect their favorite idols to be catering their lives and behavior for their own entertainment.


5. The Beauty Standards

Of course, the beauty standards and expectations placed on idols are incredibly gendered–boys are hot when they sweat, girls are not, girls are expected to dance in tight skirts and heels depending on the concept–but all idols undergo the pressure of “proper” diets and exercise. Companies enforce strict diets on specific members and intense dance practice schedules, often leaving trainees and idols little choice in the matter, unless they internalize this behavior to continue on their own. The darker side of The Performance is that idols often have to overwork themselves to accomplish perfection. Not only are they working out to build stamina and flexibility, they are working towards an idealized body image the industry places on them. K-pop performance involves elaborate, often revealing, costumes, which puts an idol’s body on display as part of the “concept” or aesthetic. 

Because their body is part of the performance, fans–and anti-fans–believe they have the right to objectify and sexualize their idols. Whether the comments are sexual or fatphobic, they cross a line into dehumanizing very real people, including teenagers. And while I could explain the difference between this dehumanization of male and female idols, sexism in the K-pop industry–and fandom–would require an entire thesis. For now, I leave you with the tip of the iceberg.