The Other Side of KPop

Over the past few years, the international music scene has been set ablaze by the rise of BTS (Bangtan Sonyeodan). BTS is a boy group comprised of seven members from South Korea, but their local success slowly trickled into the international stage. Korean Pop, or KPop, whilst already popular in the eastern market, became a staple in the Western market. The highlight on BTS made the spotlight inevitably shift towards South Korea and KPop. More groups, such as NCT 127, Monsta X, Blackpink, Itzy, are increasingly becoming household names and people are listening to their songs despite the foreign language. What did it take to form these groups?

In 2020, Jessica Jung, a former member of the KPop group Girl’s Generation made her literary debut with Shine. Shine is the story of Rachel Kim, a seventeen-year-old female trainee. She was born and raised in New York City. However, before she entered her teenage years, she and her family moved to Seoul in the hopes of fulfilling her dreams of becoming a K-pop star. She had just been recruited by DB Entertainment, one of the largest K-pop labels in South Korea. Despite her mother’s apprehension, she relented and let her daughter train, albeit with some concessions.

The path to stardom, however, is no walk in the park, as Rachel would soon find out. Before Rachel and her fellow K-pop trainees could debut, they must undergo a rigid and intricate training with the ultimate goal of polishing every facet of their character, talents, and skills. Rachel is contending against a vast of equally talented girls for the chance to debut on a girl group. Time is also not going in favor of Rachel. She has been given a moratorium by her mother. It didn’t help that debuting past the age of eighteen is a rare feat in K-Pop. Can she defy the odds and make it on top?

Is it worth it? That’s a question I ask myself every day. All the training, the lost weekends, the family sacrifices. The constant feeling of never quite belonging somewhere you desperately want to be. All to fulfill my dream of becoming a K-pop star.

~ Jessica Jung, Shine

Jessica Jung is, herself, a K-pop idol. Together with eight other girls, they debuted as Girl’s Generation under SM Entertainment, one of the largest K-Pop labels. SM Entertainment is widely regarded as the home of K-Pop for it debuted the first K-pop boy group (H.O.T.) and girl group (S.E.S.). Following the footsteps of their trailblazing sunbaes (seniors), they debuted in 2007. Success, however, wasn’t instantaneous. The climb to the zenith of acclaim is littered with various obstacles that they had to grapple with. But once they reached the pedestal of success, there was no looking back. At the height of their fame, Girl’s Generation was recognized as the Nation’s Girl Group; no other group has since come close to usurping them from their perch at the top.

With her extensive resume as a K-pop idol, she is speaking from a well of experience and drawing inspiration from a vast canvas. Celebrities writing about their experiences is also not uncommon. However, when news of her impending debut as a novelist, many a K-pop fan’s interest was piqued. Jessica worked as Girl’s Generation’s lead vocalist. However, her time as a K-pop idol has been marred with some incidents and scandals. It makes one wonder. What story does she have in store? Whilst the story of K-pop is certainly piquing many a fan’s attention, is there a score she is trying to settle?

One of the novel’s strongest achievements is its depiction of the tedious process behind debuting a K-pop idol group. It commences with the scouting process. A potential idol can be scouted through a variety of ways, ranging from actual auditions to merely being picked up on the streets. What follows the scouting process is an even more rigid training process. The aim of this strenuous process is to polish various facets of being a performer, from vocals, to dancing skills, and to other aspects of being a celebrity such as handling media questions and projecting ones’ self to the camera. In the end, a well-rounded performer is produced.

Being scouted or recruited, however, is no assurance to debuting as a K-pop idol. The sad reality is that there is a vast number of trainees competing for a limited number of spots in a group. Each trainee’s progress is monitored through an elaborate monthly evaluation process. It comes no surprise that competition is stiff and competition. The length of training period is also no guarantee. Debuting requires an equal mix of talent, tenacity, and hard work. Some K-pop idols trained for nearly a decade such as EXO’s Suho, Twice’s Jihyo, NCT 127’s Johnny, and Red Velvet’s Seulgi.

“Head up, legs crossed. Tummy tucked, shoulders back. Smile like the whole world is your best friend. I repeat the mantra in my head as the camera pans across my face. The corners of my lips turn up in a perfectly sweet “don’t you want to tell me all your secrets” pink-glossed smile.”

~ Jessica Jung, Shine

Beyond the glitz and glamor of the stage, the flashy and intricate dance moves, and the vocal colors are stories of trials and tribulations, happiness and sadness, relief, and pain. The life of K-pop trainees and K-pop idols are defined by contracts. They also must abide by several rules, both spoken and unspoken. Dating, for instance, is a taboo. Kang Jina, a member of a legendary girl group also managed by DB Entertainment, once advised Rachel to not date anyone if she wants to debut. “Having a boyfriend isn’t just difficult; it’s dangerous”. Even post-debut, dating in public is frowned upon because idols are often projected as public properties. Dating ban is a recurring term amongst idols and fans alike.

One sad reality that idols had to grapple with is that they are being commodified, and worse, objectified. This inevitably resulted to the proliferation of sasaeng fans, obsessive fans who go as far as stalking idols during their private periods. Weight and diet are sensitive subjects, both pre- and post-debut. Apart from their performance, an idol’s weight is also monitored. The calorie count of each food idols ingest is closely monitored. It has been exposed time and again that body shaming is a constant in an idol’s life.

More and more groups are debuting in South Korea. The competition is becoming stiffer and competition for Rachel came in the form of Mina. Mina is also an allegory for the prototype of the ideal K-pop idol. Not only are these groups competing for fame and success, but they are also struggling to survive in a dog eats dog market. Despite the competition, there are still bright spots. There are people who pushes us to keep the fire aflame, people who support us through our endeavors such as Yujin, one of DB Entertainment’s trainers; and Akari, her best friend.

Despite the dating ban, the story has undercurrents of a budding romance. However, the story’s most tender moments were the moments between Rachel and her sister, Leah. These heartwarming moments also provided reprieve from the drama of trainee life. Leah is a representation of Jessica’s own younger sister, Krystal who is herself a K-pop idol who debuted in 2009 as member of SM Entertainment girl group f(x). This also exposes one of the novel’s weaknesses: many characters were either superficial or monochromatic.

Shine, however, doesn’t just reduce itself as a mere documentation of an idol trainee’s life. Juxtaposed on intricate depiction of the trainee life were the plights of Korean Americans like Rachel, and by extension, Jessica. While living abroad, Rachel was treated differently because of her appearance and her pungent food. In Korea, Rachel also experienced the same level of discrimination, treated as an outcast by her countrymen. The misogyny palpable in Korean society was also underlined in the story. Women and female idols are rarely treated as equals of their male counterparts. In the light of scandals, women are often sacrificed to protect the reputation of men.

“Through it all, there was K-pop. It made me feel understood, like there was a place in the world where I belonged, where people would see me for me.”

~ Jessica Jung, Shine

Jessica’s storytelling was consistent, and the writing was accessible. The narrative flowed smoothly, and the images came easily and clearly. Her depiction of the trainee life was definite and evocative. As a literary piece, it fails to make an impression, its impact ephemeral. Beyond the documentation of the trainee life, however, the story falls short. Its strength relied mostly on the weight of growing curiosity placed on the trainee life. Outside of it, the story is reduced into a well-written diary of a teenaged girl, complete with the love interest, the antagonist, and the love triangle. The novel is predictable.

Despite the palpable weaknesses, the novel brimmed with a hopeful voice. Rachel’s mother made her listen to Korean songs during the stormy phases of her young American life. It was her safe haven which eventually turned into her dream. She made good of it and fought for it, tooth, and nail. Even Rachel’s father never ran out of hope, pursuing his own dreams despite the odds and fear of failure. They are both cognizant that if you have a dream, then you can work hard to achieve it.

However, going after our dreams is no easy feat. It entails sacrifices, pains, and even injuries. It requires perseverance and hard work. Nothing comes easily after all. We can either go after it or give up. The choice is ours. Obstacles aside, dreams are our propellers that pushes us beyond our boundaries. As Rachel has proven through her journey, if we can dream it, then we can turn it into a reality.

Rating

57%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 14%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

I knew that Jessica Jung was releasing a novel in 2020, perhaps a first in the ambit of the vast world of K-pop. However, I was apprehensive about buying the book, having an inkling on the unceremonious way Jessica was removed, or perhaps kicked out from Girl’s Generation. Reading online comments pre-publication, I realized that the hype was mainly because of this and the perceived expose that Jessica is going to make in her literary debut. Some devout fans even tried to make the connections and uncover who the novel’s main characters are in Jessica’s storied career. To cut the story short, I ended up buying the book because of some positive feedback from non-K-pop fans. I must say I find the writing sustainable and the fact that Jessica underscored other societal issues was commendable. However, I find the novel more young adult fiction rather than coming-of-age. Outside of the glittery world K-pop, Shine is reduced into a predictable narrative. I heard that Jessica is writing a sequel for Shine. This novel, I assume, would underscore some of the prevailing issues in K-pop.

Book Specs

Author: Jessica Jung
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 344
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Synopsis

What would you give for a chance to live your dreams?

For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment – one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most poplar stars. The rules are simple. Train 24-7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy, right?

Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bend on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up. Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed… especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy, and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understand how badly she wants her star to rise.

Get ready as Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of Korea’s most famous girl group, Girl’s Generation, takes us inside the luxe, hyper-color world of K-pop, where the stakes are high, but for one girl, the cost of success – and love – might be even higher.

It’s time for the world to see: this is what it takes to SHINE.

About the Author

Jessica Sooyoun Jung was born on April 18, 1989 in San Francisco, California, USA.

When she was eleven-years-old and while on vacation in South Korea, she and her sister, Krystal were spotted by a member of SM Entertainment in a shopping mall. When she was casted during the 2000 SM Casting System, she moved to South Korea. Jessica attended the Korea Kent Foreign School. For seven years, she trained to be a K-pop star and in 2007, she and eight other girls debuted as Girl’s Generation.

Apart from being a singer, she was also casted into musicals and television series. In 2014, Jessica left SM Entertainment and Girls Generations to go solo. After going solo, she also launched her own fashion line, Blanc & Eclare. She has also been featured on the covers of magazines. She made her literary debut in 2020 with Shine.