I have been following Korean idol pop since about 2013, and looking for reasons not to follow Korean idol pop since, oh, about 2013. In 2013 new fans who didn’t speak Korean could still figure out quickly enough that the idols might not be having such a good time offstage as they pretended to be onstage: Nine Muses of Star Empire was a search away, after all.
(Also the spring of 2013 was when Infinite was actually venting in interviews, with anonymous complaints about how they were treated as trainees and reports of drinking too much and Sungyeol talking about his hair falling out from stress on Beatles Code 2. That period was over by the fall, and the group hasn’t had its like since, but that’s a story for another time.)
But one could at least naïvely hope that things would get better eventually, or look for evidence that one’s own faves were not as exploited and exhausted as the industry norm seemed to be—I still remember Kay Thompson, then one of the smartest people writing on Korean idol pop at the time, including praise for WM Entertainment’s seeming management strategies in her essays on B1A4. (Kay has long since stopped writing about Korean idol pop, which says something in and of itself.)
I’m just me, I don’t do surveys, but: I don’t know how you follow idol pop of any kind without at least some concern for the idol’s well-being. The whole system is so dependent on parasocial affection that the fan has to believe that the idol isn’t faking it. And by “it” I don’t mean return of the fan’s affections, no matter how many times idols declare their love and throw hearts; that gets old, but you can still appreciate the gesture. No, by “it” I mean investment in idoldom, in finding value in some reward for all this risk. If the fan enjoys the idol’s work and goes to the idol’s concerts and expresses joy to see the idol perform, but the idol doesn’t actually get joy from working, the fan’s affection, however well-intentioned and sincerely offered, is a trap.
In January 2019 I went to see Oh My Girl, a group whose music I’d been enjoying since their debut, in concert. It was only an hour and a half, start to finish, but there was time during one of the ments for Arin to talk about having to stay up through the night one night to learn choreography, and I felt a twinge of guilt as the audience said “Awwww.” I came home and told my husband, who is only interested in idol pop so much as it pleases me, and he shrugged and reminded me that he had had to work through nights back in the day for his father’s construction company, and both of us had pulled all-nighters for academic work. (I pulled one the night before defending my dissertation proposal; I’d forgotten about that until just now.) The rewards to Arin to work all night might be worth it, was his implication.
A couple months after that concert the #BurningMolka news broke, and I packed all the idol-pop merchandise I’d bought up to that point (mostly, but not exclusively, Infinite-focused) and put it in storage, and decided I was not going to spend any more money on Korean idol pop until I could be more sure I wasn’t contributing to a situation where idols performed less for the joy of it and more because their industry was heavily influenced by criminal organizations, and quitting might be more dangerous and financially taxing than staying. Which is to say I lost faith in my ability to tell the difference between Arin’s having to work all night and, say, Nine Muses’s Sera being threatened with physical violence by the CEO of Star Empire.
I didn’t stop spending my time, as much as I tried to talk myself into stopping. I kept looking for evidence that the members of Oh My Girl (or CLC, or Lovelyz, or Twice, or Mamamoo, or Dreamcatcher, or Saturday) were still doing work they wanted to do, even as I told myself to quit trusting my own judgment.
“Dun Dun Dance” may be the kick in the pants I need to finally give up on this industry. Not because I don’t like the song—I do like the song, actually. It goes too high in the chorus, but makes up for that with some nice melodies in the verses. At points it reminds me of 4Minute’s “Is It Poppin’?,” but “Dun Dun Dance” is more complex and more rewarding. The problem is: I think whatever the members of Oh My Girl are required to do to do their jobs goes beyond hard work and into genuine health damage.
Initially I thought Jiho and Seunghee looked the most unhappily thin in teaser pictures:
But upon seeing the music video I started worrying about Arin as well:
For contrast’s sake, here are screenshots of Arin and Jiho from the video for the otherwise forgettable 2016 single “Listen to My Word (A-ing)”:
Back to the present: I watched a bunch of “Dun Dun Dance” performances, trying to see if I could recognize evidence that might contradict my cranky mood. Hyojung looks consistently okay. YooA I don’t feel comfortable worrying about, if that makes any sense; she’s always been a dedicated dancer, and I do not know enough about dancing and the way to eat for it to be able to judge whether she looks healthy or not. Then why are you being so judgy about the other members? you may be asking. Because none of them have been quite as publicly dedicated to dance as YooA, with the possible exception of Mimi, and I’m hard pressed to make a call on Mimi too: she’s back to filming mukbangs, after all, and while mukbang videos are not proof in and of themselves of being able to eat for oneself, they’re more proof than not mukbangs. Plus I am enough of a Miracle (or a sucker) to subscribe somewhat to the narrative that Mimi is more prone than the average Korean idol-pop employee to insist on some autonomy.
But that still leaves Arin and Jiho, and for that matter Binnie:
And Seunghee still looks like she’s been whittled down to almost nothing:
Here’s “A-ing”-era Seunghee:
You are free to doubt my screenshots; screenshots are bad evidence. Stage mixes provide contrast between one music-show performance and another; the members post their own photos (Arin looks better in these); and furthermore, in case it doesn’t go without saying, I don’t know what’s going on when Oh My Girl reports for work at WM Entertainment, how they feel about themselves, how their bosses speak to them, none of that. I don’t have a leg to stand on. You have plenty of room to dismiss this all as unhelpful body-shaming.
I can’t, though. The problem isn’t just that some nonzero percentage of Oh My Girl might be damagingly thin; it’s also that their potentially damaging thinness is seemingly inseparable from the work they do—work to benefit me and other fans. Even if you think I’m off base critiquing how the members look in this particular round of videos, you’re hard pressed to deny that the standard for mainstream Korean female idol pop seems to require significant pressure to just not eat. The easiest example to point to is when JYP asked Twice’s Momo to lose seven kilograms in one week, but anyone who’s been following Korean idol pop long enough can give you plenty of other instances. To me it seems rather pointless: are we really all convinced that people with normal, run-of-the-mill proportions and weight distributions aren’t otherworldly enough or dedicated enough to be idols? I’ve seen Purple Kiss’s Swan in action; I beg to differ. But the industry, collectively, is where it is, and doesn’t seem inclined to change.
I know: you’d think I’d have learned my lesson back in 2013, when Ladies’ Code’s Sojung admitted to having developed an eating disorder… after the release of “Pretty Pretty,” whose promotional efforts included having her pose with donuts. (One of the few female-idol-pop-related developments of 2021 that has been enjoyable is Sing Again generating goodwill for Sojung, who deserves all the goodwill.) But again: I could tell myself the jury was still out. Korean idol pop in 2013 was expanding rapidly (it still is) and there were, or seemed to be, lots of different ways the industry could proceed. And I had eight months of evidence to draw from, not eight years.
But now it has been eight years. And the hullabaloo of #BurningMolka faded with absolutely no signs of change in the industry whatsoever. And some of the groups whose music and antics originally attracted me have been dissolved long enough that their members can talk of past cruelties. And of Korean idol pop’s two largest success stories to date, one is a female-empowerment veneer thrown over some of the industry’s seemingly worst offenders, and the other has been progressively watering down its musical and political messages, from a specific grounded narrative to “Love yourself,” and then from that to knockoff Bruno Mars. And Oh My Girl, a successful group from a company that does not have a reputation for being absolutely awful, recently acquired by another company lacking a reputation for being absolutely awful, and furthermore a group that already has had one member leave after developing an eating disorder, seems as vulnerable to the industry’s most destructive tendencies as do its less-established peers.
I’ll go ahead and cop to a lack of ideological and emotional consistency. If the currently unsigned members of Infinite open up a YouTube channel and start posting filmed shenanigans tomorrow, I will sign up after about three seconds’ thought. I will still want to enjoy good pop music performed by dedicated entertainers with some skill in presenting themselves as lovable goofballs. But… put it this way: a while ago I wrote, in reference to idol pop, “We don’t do this if it’s not fun.” And especially with regards to Korean idol pop, increasingly it’s not fun anymore.