Books: ‘K-Pop Confidential’ and the Reality of Idol Life

Cover art of ‘K-Pop Confidential’ by Stephan Lee. Copyright goes to Stephan Lee and any artists involved in this design.

Hi! It’s Annie!

Before I go further into this post I want to say that not only will this post contain MAJOR SPOILERS for ‘K-Pop Confidential’, but also its sequel ‘K-Pop Revolution’. I also want to place a TRIGGER WARNING here because of the trauma depicted in these books specifically when talking about eating disorders. With that out of the way, I really wanted to talk about this two-book series that tries to take a very realistic look into the lives of K-Pop idols. Now whether both books do a great job of this is a different question that I will absolutely get to. But the first book tackles trainee life and what that is often like for idols while the second book tries to take more of a look at the treatment of idols in their idol lives. We know that the K-Pop industry can be brutal, especially in the treatment of those involved, and it’s absolutely great that more media has been getting into the reality of it. ‘Imitation’, a K-Drama featuring Yunho of ATEEZ, set out to make some of these realities known and those bits were some of my favorite parts of the entire show. So how well did these two books really do in pushing the reality into the limelight?

ANNOUNCEMENT: As of next week we will be on vacation for two weeks, but then we’ll be back with regularly scheduled posts. See you soon!

K-Pop Confidential:

This book is mostly focused on the trainee lives of idols rather than having a small training section and rushing to the debut of the K-Pop group. Showing the glamorous life of a K-Pop idol is not the point of these books. This book specifically details the lives of the artists and the tough circumstances surrounding the realities of it all. When Candace first auditions in the US for the company, she does it more out of an obligation or proof for her friends than doing it because she actually wants her life to be that way. We see her battle with that as the book goes on and find the determination to stay, because it is all too easy to want to quit. And while I absolutely loved this book and really liked how in depth it went, I still had some issues here.

The Good- Obviously, this book really succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. From the beginning we see that Candace is dealing with very stone faced corporate individuals rather than ones who really seem to care about her. We learn that with some of them that isn’t true; but with some of them she is very much viewed as a commodity rather than a human being. When Candace is first being given a tour of the facility she will be training in, she sees a group of very young elementary school kids being trained and knows that they will eventually go into the same program she is going into. In fact, it makes her aware of how many of her fellow trainees have been training since they were small children. “But doesn’t this break child labor laws?” Yes, but not until recently. Very recently a law was passed in South Korea that means that idol companies will no longer be able to train minors over a certain amount of time a week and must allow all minors to attend school full time. This law has rocked the K-Pop world, forced many companies to completely rearrange the way they work, and is just the first step in what many hope is an ongoing battle to protect minors in entertainment. After seeing this, Candace is led to her trainee floor where her and the other trainees are essentially locked in and not allowed out except on weekends. However, in this book and in many real life companies, trainees are not allowed out during the first month at all in the hopes of stifling early urges to quit. No, I am not joking. The book goes on to talk about the panic attacks that trainees go through frequently, including fear that they will be punished and not allowed to leave to see their families. It talks about dietary restrictions and how taking away the little food they already have can be used as a way of punishment. Female idols get way less to eat than male idols who already barely get anything at all. The book details how trainee programs pit the girls against each other as well. Candace is bullied by a girl named Helena who was encouraged to make Candace want to leave by an adult telling her that they’d likely only debut one American-born Korean in a K-Pop group, so it had to be either one or the other. Candace even bears witness to another trainee group being told that the company put them on hold and that half of them would be eliminated immediately. The author pulls no punches. We see the weight measuring in front of your entire group in ‘Imitation’, but this also mentions how certain idols are encouraged not to swallow their spit and to stop drinking water in order to lose weight. You might think that all of this is unrealistic and absurd, but the sad fact of the matter is that this is all pretty common in trainee programs. In some companies more than others, but common nonetheless. And this book delivers all of this through an engaging plot that still manages to keep things a bit lighthearted without veering the book straight into depressing. I get pretty emotionally affected sometimes when reading books or watching media, and this book managed to not tap into that too deeply while still getting its point across, which I appreciated.

The Bad- If this book has one thing that it suffers from most, its character development. One thing I will say is that it tells you a lot that I still really loved this book when I am usually more character driven than plot driven. The plot was that fantastic! But the characters did feel a little lackluster. While Candace was an interesting main character to follow, it felt as though she remained stagnant throughout the book. She would learn lessons and become more determined, but her inner dialogue never really seemed to change with those new lessons and views. And I think part of that was because we saw that Candace was determined to prove her parents wrong, but Candace had a shorter amount of time to really demonstrate who she was beyond singing and proving her parents wrong. The other characters in her group are focused on minimally and only when they are major plot point relevant. This book has a love triangle, and I know I’m biased because I’m not a huge fan of love triangles, but I really wasn’t a fan of it here. One of her love interests is also a trainee who we know she thinks of as cute and lighthearted but has little time to demonstrate even that. When they start dating it feels like it comes out of nowhere because they’ve only had a conversation maybe twice, and the author tries to subvert this by putting in a time jump. But then the audience has no connection to the couple because we didn’t get to truly see the couple form and get closer. Then the author has this character called One.J who is the maknae and writer of the most popular K-Pop group of all time and is extremely popular internationally. (He’s basically a mix of Jungkook and Namjoon with more Jungkook.) And One.J is looked down on by the main character for a couple of meaningless things. Like kissing her when sasaengs could be a problem or yelling at somebody who wouldn’t give them privacy when he was literally trying to warn her about something pretty bad. He had also asked this person to leave very nicely like three times beforehand. She literally treats him like he’s not a human who’s allowed to show emotions and it drove me insane. Because too many people treat idols like that already. Overall I did really love this book! These things feel small compared to all the good that the book covers.

K-Pop Revolution:

While I really liked the first book, this one definitely had its ups and downs for me. What’s a little odd to me is that this book in general gets better reviews than the first one. But this one feels more like a work of fiction or a more soapy K-Drama to me. It certainly has lots of drama in it! But what really got me about this book is that it still set out to do some good like in the previous book, but because of a series of events that happen in the book, these pieces of immense good just don’t hit as hard. Like I mentioned before, this is more or less after the debut of the idol group. This book instead details the hardships of the lives of K-Pop idols. Or some of them at least!

The Good- This book picks up right where the last one left off! Which I usually don’t like, but I felt it was good here. Especially because this amount of material could not have been covered in one book and this series ends after the second book. There’s not another cliff-hanger, this is just a two parter and it really makes sense where the author decided to divide the story. Candace speaks out against the K-Pop industry in the last book and is now facing being sued. Until her company asks her back after a change in the CEO and claims that they’ll be a new revolution for K-Pop, and the new face of making the industry more ethical and human-focused. What this book does right is exactly what it did right in the first book. Expose the realities of the current K-Pop industry. It talks about how idols have almost every facet of their lives filmed. And how in these variety shows, even though they are supposed to show us the unfiltered versions of our favorite K-Pop idols, they don’t really do that. While these shows often start out from a place of showing the reality of the situation, they often make K-Pop idols choose elements of their personalities and over-dramatize them. Which means they come from a place of truth, but still don’t feel completely true or comfortable to the idol. And being filmed all the time, especially during what’s supposed to be down time like vacations, can be even more draining because those are the times when you most want to be comfortable in your own skin. It also talks about the insane schedules. Trainees have to train all day and usually only get about three hours to sleep if they’re lucky. Idol life is no different. Their feet are often awful looking and nailless from having to dance so much and their schedules involve even more. We’ve been taught that the schedule of having one album release, a press tour, and a concert tour a year is reasonable. It is not. Companies in the US have been taken down by their artists for overworking artists for having schedules like that. K-Pop artists often also have to do things like release solo tracks, do press for those, do elongated tours, and film K-Dramas within that time. Not to mention they do more variety shows as part of their press tours. My favorite group is ATEEZ and this really slapped me in the face with how inhumane their schedules often are. Because they have done all of these things that I just mentioned above in only one year before. The book also talks about how all K-Pop looks exactly the same and acts exactly the same, and how it hasn’t been a safe place for idols who are different races or sexualities. This book has a Black character and a queer character, and it does all that it can to empower those two characters and the K-Pop group that they are in. Honestly, I kind of wish this book was about their group and their rise to popularity. I wanted to know more about them! I also loved how this book tackled how female artists are blamed for more than male artists, especially when it comes to love related scandals. Too real!

The Bad- This book seemed to decide that the reality of the situation wasn’t enough and that’s where it really broke down for me; because bringing out the realities is what this book series did best. So when the author felt that there had to be unrealistic twists and turns, I wondered why we couldn’t have spent more time on the other issues that idols face. We talked about sasaengs in the last book but we didn’t see them in this book. We didn’t even get fully into the close relationship between idols and their fans, which is something I really wanted to see from this book. Instead we got this master plot from the CEO who was hiding her true identity to make some of the girls drop out and sabotage the group so that she could run the K-Pop industry the way she wanted, I guess. A good chunk of this plot was hijacked by this sudden appearance of this mustache twirling villain, when the real villain should have been what it was in the last book. The unethical practices of the industry. And while many of the messages came from that, that’s not where most of the plot was. No real life agency is going to sabotage a group they think will do really well and already have proof that they would do really well. If it gets them money it stays, if it doesn’t it goes is how most business work. A real life CEO isn’t going to suddenly maniacally laugh and claim that she was the daughter of another evil character this entire time. Also, the love triangle came back for no reason in this book even though it was pretty well settled in the last book. For some reason, Candace finally discovered that One.J is (gasp) a human being! And so has a crush on him again. It doesn’t help that this book spends absolutely no time on her actual boyfriend. In both books it really felt to me like One.J is the better choice just because he’s the character who’s most developed in both books. But then again, the main character gets pretty egotistical and annoying in this book and doesn’t really grow out of it. So I’m glad that One.J didn’t end up with her. I actually liked who One.J ended up with (the leader of the actually progressive group) and I wanted to see their relationship instead. I just wanted this book to be about the other group instead; rising up from nothingness to changing the world. An underdog story, like BTS with more likable characters! There was always something going on in this book, it never took a second to breathe, but not all of it was realistic. It made it feel stressful for no reason. I wanted to like this one after the first book but, I’ll say it again, it felt like it was lacking something by not being more centered in reality.

If you want to go pick up these books, go ahead! It’s honestly pretty hard to read the first book without reading the second, at least the first time reading them, because you really are lacking a part of the story. But don’t expect the second book to hit as hard as the first one. It still hits pretty hard, but I feel like the blow is lessened by having more unrealistic things happen. It feels more like it could be a fantasy than the first book did. But still, these books bring forward a lot of really good points about the industry and a lot of realities I wish more people would know and understand. I just wish I had connected with the characters a little more! But connecting these realities to things I know groups that I like went through was truly heartbreaking. Good to know, but heartbreaking.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: