BTS Is Making Millions Of Dollars On Their Career But Groups Are Sharing Stories Of The Abuse Rampant In The K-Pop Industry

By this time, the popularity of bands such as BTS, short for Bangtan Boys, should not come as a surprise. This group was formed in Seoul in 2013 and has seven members. They originally had a preference for hip hop rhythms, but they have adapted to basically any genre that is successful at the moment. Their name derives from the Korean expression Bangtan Sonyeondan. The literal translation is “Bulletproof Boy Scouts.” If you think about it, it is a pretty boys-rule kinda name for a band.

Among global popular culture phenomena, K-Pop (short for South Korean Pop) is one of the most fascinating and surprising ones. Korean boy bands and girl bands have broken not only into the English-speaking market but also in regions such as Latin America. Peru, Mexico, and Brazil are among some of the countries where groups such as Blackpink have a bigger following. However, worldwide fan communities should also be aware of the toxic masculinity issues that exist in the South Korean pop music scene, which is a highly industrialized and some claim exploitative system similar to classic Hollywood, where studios basically owned stars. Just in 2017, the K-Pop industry was worth $4.7 billion USD and stories of abuse and overworking were rampant.

BTS is arguably the most successful and widely known K-Pop group in existence.

Credit: bts.bighitofficial / Instagram

The boyband is not just successful from a popularity standpoint, they also make a lot of money. A recent breakdown of their worth has the band’s cumulative net worth at $60 million.

J-Hope is the most wealthy of the group with a net worth reported at $12 million. The rest of the members all come in with net worths of $8 million, according to Seventeen Magazine.

The formula is sort of magical: you get five or so individuals that embody different personalities (the brat, the nerd, the sexy high schooler), then add a mix of different music genres (rap, hip hop, pop, rock or anything that is en vogue at the moment, including reggaeton), and splash a few lyrics in English so global audiences can get it. Success is almost guaranteed.

K-Pop is not only a musical trend but part of the actual government project in South Korea. As Korea, a public-relations magazine published under the auspices of the Korean Culture and Information Service, has stated: “But girl group fever is more than just a trend: it’s symbolic of a cultural era that is embracing the expulsion of authoritarian ideology.” In other words, South Korea is not only a powerhouse in producing electronics and cutting-edge Internet technologies, but also in exporting cultural products. K-Drama, their own version of telenovelas, is another huge industry that has generated fan communities around the world. 

K-Pop is joyful and produces some amazing artists and songs, but it is also quite problematic for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the intense vibes of toxic masculinity involved in the business, from how it is operated to the way that stars behave and treat women. 

Remember, y recuerden bien.

K-Pop operates on a survival of the fittest model.

Credit: Giphy

K-Pop is a serious business and an industry that is bound to be kind of problematic due to the money involved and how rigorous the production line of new talent is. As scholar Sun Jung stated in an academic paper: “K-Pop is a carefully manufactured hybridized pop product that combines both East and West as well as global and local cultural aspects. The main reason for such strategic cultural hybridization is to meet the complex desires of various consumer groups, which maximizes capitalist profit.” Many young Koreans try to become K-Pop stars, but only a few subsist. There are documented instances of nervous breakdowns and even instances of suicide attempts and deaths by suicide that are a product of the hyper-competitive environment in which most dreams are crushed and some aspirations come to fruition. 

BTS, by the way, is a carefully crafted product from Big Hit Entertainment, one of the few companies that hold a near-monopoly over the K-Pop industry. 

It is reported that K-Pop tends to objectify young women.

Credit: Giphy. Anonymous. Pictured: Girls Generation

In terms of the representation of gender, K-pop is also arguably problematic, as Stephen Epstein and James Turnbull state in “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop”: “Instead of nuanced views of gendered social identities, Korean girl group music videos and lyrics, albeit with key exceptions, reinforce a dichotomization of male and female”. Girl groups often cater for the male fantasy of how a young Korean woman should look and act like. The authors continue, saying: “management companies have targeted varying audiences through product differentiation, with Girls’ Generation and kara at one pole, epitomizing the stoking of male fantasy, and at the other 4Minute and 2ne1, who strive for identification from young females”. K-pop groups have very particular purposes, one of which is to provide satisfaction basically for muchachitos calenturientos o viejos raboverdes, which speaks poorly about an industry that on the surface seems to empower women. 

It’s alleged that K-Pop businessmen use sex workers as a bargaining chip with investors.

Credit: e32d214a-80ef-11e9-bda2-8286175bc410_image_hires_111545. Digital image. South China Morning Post. Pictured: Yang Hyun-suk, founder of YG Entertainment.

It happens in almost every industry, but that does not mean that it is OK in any way: male bosses use sex workers as bait or bargaining chips with other male businessmen. As part of a recent wave of sex scandals involving the K-Pop entertainment complex, the boss of YG Entertainment (sort of like the Disney of K-Pop in its powerful position) has been accused of hosting a party in which at least ten sex workers serviced eight men from Thailand (a key market for K-Pop’s expansion into Southeast Asia). A spokesperson for YG Entertainment told The Korea Times: “Yang was there because he was invited. But he did not mediate prostitution”. Le creemos?

There have been recent sex scandals involving male K-Pop stars, women’s rights groups call the industry “rape business cartel.”

Credit: Giphy. Anonymous. Pictured: Seungri

These scandals mainly focus on escuincles idiotas filming women without their consent during sex. As an echo of the #metoo movement, which gained worldwide traction last year, thousands of women denounced having been captured on video during intimate encounters. One of the main culprits is singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young, but the scandal also involves powerhouses such as Seungri of Big Bang (pictured here), Lee Jong-hyun of Korean boy band CNBlue, Choi Jong-hoon of FT Island and Yong Jun-hyung of K-Pop outfit Highlight.

There is also sexual abuse and police corruption being investigated within the K-Pop industry.

Credit: Giphy. Anonymous. Pictured: Seungri
Credit: 9d2d3f2a-4a00-11e9-8e02-95b31fc3f54a_972x_050051. Digital image. South China Morning Post. 

Additionally, as The South China Morning Post reports, there are investigations happening on policemen taking bribes from Seungri, who is accused of sexual abuse, sex trafficking and giving date-rape drugs to female customers at his nightclub. Una fichita el hijo de la chingada. The list of those implicated is sadly long, and as the proverb goes, this is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Women’s coalitions in South Korea are livid over the lack of judicial action against the accused, saying that “The result of this investigation shows how male power operates, and how easily women’s calls for justice are silenced.”

So, what do we do?

It is hard to answer the question: how to enjoy and consume products from an industry that systematically protects abusers and silences or disregards victims? Is the death of some aspiring singers worth the production of a few successful bands? It all comes down to individual ethics and choices.

READ: Meet the Korean-Mexican Heartthrob Topping The K-Pop Charts

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