If you were paying attention to pop music in 2017, you likely noticed the increasing popularity of K-pop, the South Korean genre that first made waves in North America in 2012, when Gangam Style went viral. But unlike Psy’s one-hit wonder, the current K-pop invasion is wide-reaching and, from the looks of it, has serious staying power. This year, BTS made their North American debut with appearances on The Late Late Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Ellen, in addition to winning a Billboard Music Award and releasing their first Top 40 Hot 100 hit (the Steve Aoki remix of “Mic Drop,” which features rapper Desiigner)—both firsts for any K-pop group. But the wins weren’t restricted to BTS. The fashion world has increasingly taken notice of stars like Exo’s Oh Sehun, while devoted fan clubs have popped up in the most unlikely places (Kpop Dallas, a Texas-based Facebook group, has grown from 50 to 6,500 members in the past five years).
But there’s part of the story that newbie fans may be missing: as an industry, K-pop is notoriously brutal. Everything about the genre is manufactured, from the songs to the videos to the stars’ personas. Aspiring singers receive years of intensive training, sometimes referred to as “boot camp,” before they even make their debut. “A trainee goes through the regimen for two years. I’m not sure other countries or labels have that patience. Every time they perform a song, it’s got to be perfect,” Yvonne Yuen, then the VP of international marketing for Universal Music, told Spin magazine in 2012. Trainees spend that time living in record label-owned apartment buildings alongside their peers; as you might expect, it’s hyper-competitive. And even once they achieve stardom, K-pop talent are at the mercy of entertainment companies that can lock them into restrictive contracts, control almost every aspect of their schedules and discourage them from dating, or doing anything that might tarnish their public image.
That’s why, when news broke earlier this week that Jonghyun, the talented singer-songwriter and lead vocalist of K-pop boy group Shinee, had passed away, speculation that he had taken his own life quickly followed; police ruled his death a suicide the following day, with a source from Gangnam police saying: “The results of our investigation decisively conclude that he died by suicide, and therefore we will not be performing an autopsy. His family wished for an autopsy to not be conducted.”
A note from Jonghyun reveals he was struggling
According to the Associated Press, the 27-year-old was found unconscious in a hotel in Cheongdam-dong, a neighbourhood in Seoul’s Gangnam district, on the evening of December 18, after his sister alerted authorities that she had received troubling text messages from the singer, which said “Final farewell” and “I’ve had difficulties.”
Even more telling, one of Jonghyun’s closest friends, Dear Cloud’s Nine9, posted a letter from the singer to her Instagram in an attempt to give fans closure. The note, which can be found fully translated here, seems to indicate why Jonghyun decided to take his own life.
“I am damaged from the inside. The depression that has been slowly eating away at me has completely swallowed me, and I couldn’t win over it,” reads the translation. “I hated myself. I tried to hold on to breaking memories and yelled at myself to get a grip, but there was no answer.”
The translation says he was struggling with isolation and feeling like he wasn’t enough; it also says he then ended the letter by asking for his fans’ understanding and forgiveness.
“It’s a miracle I lasted this far. What more can I say? Just tell me I worked hard. Even if you can’t smile as you let me go, please don’t blame me. I worked hard. I really did work hard. Goodbye.”
An industry designed to control its stars
Being a pop star is a high-pressure job anywhere in the world, but perhaps nowhere more than in South Korea, where the entertainment industry is one of the most competitive and cutthroat businesses in the country: there are more than 100 active K-pop groups right now, and the entire industry is worth $4.7 billion, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story.
Of course, manufactured pop groups happen on this side of the world, too—the Spice Girls famously formed via an ad in a trade newspaper called The Stage, while the young men who’d become the Backstreet Boys answered an ad in the Orlando Sentinel. More recently, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik became One Direction only after individually auditioning for X-Factor, then being thrown together by Simon Cowell. But there’s a particularly financial incentive for South Korean management companies to keep a tight rein on their talent, which is why there’s a level of music label involvement in K-pop that just doesn’t happen here.
Hence K-pop’s famously draconian contracts. Often signed when a performer is in his or her early teens, they’ve been referred to as “slave contracts,” and, according to a recent Guardian story, can apply for a maximum of seven years, though that’s an improvement on the 13-year terms that were previously allowed. They’re also rife with moral clauses—dating is discouraged, and “band members’ diets are closely monitored,” the Guardian goes on to say, detailing how in 2012 girl group Nine Muses “revealed their ‘paper cup diet,’ where their meals had to fit inside a tiny paper cup.” K-pop stars are also expected to perform through illness or injury. And if a performer wants to break a contract, they must pay their management company a fee, which can range from $86,000 to $120,000 USD.
(South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission did order management agencies to “stop forcing unfair contracts on their trainees,” Variety reported back in March. But it’s unclear how much has changed since then.)
Mental health stigma in South Korea
Suicide has been a hush-hush problem in South Korea since the 1997 Asian financial crisis—the country has one of the highest suicides rates amongst developed countries, something a recent Berkeley Political Review article links to unreasonable professional expectations and a cultural stigma against treating mental illness. And according to some experts, the government isn’t doing enough to combat the problem.
According to the Berkeley Political Review article, “the South Korean government has taken some measures to combat the high suicide rates, but none have been very effective… Part of the problem is that South Korea spends an infinitesimal amount of money on improving the mental health of its citizens. In 2016, only $7 million was spent on mental health, and 64% of that money went to hospitals and other mental institutions. Contrast that with Japan, which has a similar problem but has started spending $130 million each year on suicide prevention and awareness.”
And while children ages 10 to 19 and seniors 60+ are most at risk, adults—and even celebrities—are not immune. Jonghyun is one of a small number of K-pop stars to take his own life in recent years, but South Korea has seen many high-profile suicides, including former president Roh Moo-Hyun in 2009, actress Jang Ja Yeon in 2009 and singer/actor Park Yong-ha in 2010.
Jonghyun’s management company, SM Entertainment (which also represents K-pop mega-groups like Super Junior, Girls Generation and EXO) offered their condolences to his family and fans via a statement, saying: “Jonghyun was the best artist who loved music more than anyone and always worked hard for his performance. It is devastating to deliver such sad news to fans who gave him great love.”
A three-day funeral at Seoul’s Asan Medical Center began on Tuesday; hundreds of fans gathered at the hospital to mourn the pop star, while his peers, including his Shinee bandmates, Onew, Key, Minho and Taemin, and members of BTS, Girls Generation and NCT, have come to pay their respects. Based on the many comments and tweets from his fans to his songs topping the music charts once again, the singer is on everyone’s minds.
But as fans get a glimpse into what went on behind the scenes, many hope that Jonghyun’s story will begin a greater conversation about mental health and the K-pop industry—critical discussions that are long overdue.
If you or someone you know are struggling and need someone to talk to, there are resources that can help. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis right now, though, call 911 or go to your local hospital immediately.