The (Human) Cost of Building a K-pop Idol Group

“You should look decent, pretty and not stupid.
It’s all about the image.”

Ah, motherly advice.  These words were actually spoken by a manager of the idol group 9 Muses.  (Coincidentally, looking “not stupid” is something I also strive for every day.)  Idol, BBC World’s shortened cut of the new K-pop documentary, 9 Muses of Star Empire places expectations like these from the mainstream Korean music industry on full display.  But if I had to sum up a description into a single word after watching the film, it would be “exhausting.”

9 Muses of Star Empire

9 Muses of Star Empire
Credit: 9musesmovie

9 Muses of Star Empire, a year-long chronicle that follows a journey of an all girl pop group “9 Muses”, portrays the every-day life of nine girls, relentlessly pursuing their dreams in a world of jealousy, betrayal, and scandal. “9 Muses” is an emerging girl group, aspiring to perform on a national stage and gain world-wide fame just like millions of others. For that, the girls have decided to set everything aside and live as one of the Muses for “Star Empire”; the entertainment company which created and coordinated every move. What’s the price they must pay for their dreams?

There will be emotional moments that make your arm hairs stand up on end, and even a spine-tingling segment where the company literally pulls out binders full of women when looking to replace a group member who ran away.  Do I even need to stress how ridiculous that previous sentence was?

Character Driven

The film is exhausting not only because of the actual physical and mental effort that the girls have to put out every day at practice, but it’s exhausting as a viewer because you begin rooting for them early, and feel the weight of the pressures and expectations that constantly bring them down.  It wears you down too.

The official Facebook page for the 9 Muses of Star Empire documentary makes this distinction between the full film and the shortened version:

Ryu Sera

Sera: “What’s left for me? I don’t have anything else in life.” – Credit: 9musesmovie

“The BBC cut is focused on how the bands are made, managed and how the industry works whereas the original feature edition is more driven by the characters, their motivations and emotions…”

I’ve yet to see the full version (it’s still currently being screened at international film festivals) but I haven’t noticed any real shortage of emotional connection in the BBC cut.  There are plenty of moments that hit you like a truck, moments that make you want to yell at the screen, and moments where you just want to give someone a hug.

And if you’re not a fan of Ryu Sera by the end of this movie, I hope this will be the year your heart grows three sizes come December.

9 Muses Manager: "Open your moth, show the uvula, Ah!"

You’ll need true grit to face this every day.

True Grit

I’m convinced that what will stick with you after watching the film aren’t the images of bright stage lights and revealing outfits or even the sounds of managers yelling at the girls and scolding them to reach perfection.  After all, the K-pop industry is a cutthroat business and the managers and girls ultimately aim to reach the same end goal – success.  Instead, the takeaway will likely be the absolute grit that some of these girls show throughout the process of becoming idols.  It’s a daily reality that some aren’t ready to face.

Ryu Sera: "You think Snow White or Cinderella were married happily ever after? They would have probably divorced eventually."

Some of you may remember that I’ve previously written about K-pop and simplified some of the norms expected out of these groups in order to become successful in the South Korean mainstream music business.  After watching this documentary, you’ll notice just how much of a simplification it was.  When all you’re used to seeing are 3 minutes of a group’s stage performances and their scheduled variety show interviews, it’s often easy to forget the human cost of the idol equation.

Do you think the managers are stepping over the line?  Or should the girls expect this kind of treatment when they sign on to become idols? Leave a comment below!

——

Full documentary trailer:

9 Muses performing their recent comeback single, “WILD”:

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2 Responses to The (Human) Cost of Building a K-pop Idol Group

  1. Pingback: The PSY Phenomenon: What I see as a casual K-pop fan in America | The Internaut

  2. stump3d says:

    I tried watching the whole show I but I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think that this kind of process is too different from what’s happening in any show business – whether it’s K-pop, Hollywood, Bollywood, or whatnot. I guess that you could say that that’s the price of fame. I’m on the side of the managers, especially at the first parts. When you’re practicing or rehearsing, you always give your best, especially so, when your manager is watching. I’m not sure what’s going on behind the scenes whether there are more factors that are contributing to the girls’ depression. I can guess that they’re still struggling with their insecurities and their self-image. I think that it’s common in this industry wherein image is your main commodity. These public personalities are slave to the demand of everyone around you. You rarely get to create your own image. It’s dictated upon you. That can get tiring. (Wow… what a long reply… :D)

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