K-pop industry needs a Taylor Swift revolution—openness on failed romances, mental health…

K-pop industry needs a Taylor Swift revolution—openness on failed romances, mental health...

 

K-pop singer Goo Hara would have turned 33 this January, had she not left this world on her own terms in 2019. This week, a New York Times article revisited her death—and her success story. Goo’s difficult childhood and subsequent K-pop fame made for a capitalistic fairy tale, until her premature death at 28 undid it all.

 

K-pop industry needs a Taylor Swift revolution—openness on failed romances, mental health...
The NYT article’s headline, “A K-pop star’s lonely downward spiral”, angered her fans and the K-pop community, reducing her life to a tragedy. But the story is a break from the norm. It reignites a necessary conversation that otherwise surfaces only when a K-pop star takes the extreme step. Mental health should be a perennial discussion, not just when pressures of stardom and media-public scrutiny claim a victim—especially in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rates among wealthy nations.

The shocking 2017 death of Jonghyun, a member of South Korean boy band Shinee, briefly brought the K-pop fan community together to bond on the subject of mental health. To this day, fans celebrate Jonghyun’s life and music as if he is still among them.

A lot seems to have improved within the K-pop industry since it lost some of its brightest stars to suicide. Today, K-pop artists liberally take mental health breaks from their hectic schedules. Shinee has been performing as a trio since their June 2023 album, Hard. Leader Onew, who has publicly spoken about mental health, announced a break from the dizzy, flashy world of the Korean pop scene to focus on his health. In a now-deleted Instagram post, he said the decision was taken in order “to properly protect what I want to protect, and because the future is more important”. Months later, photos of a healthier, smiling Onew at a yoga retreat in Bali emerged.

From the inception of K-pop in the early 1990s to its explosion into a global cultural juggernaut by the 2000s, the K-pop industry mastered the art of creating celebrities. Central to the construction of these bewitching K-pop “idols” is secrecy and mystery. Companies ferociously guard the private lives of their artists, and carefully cultivate public personas that may or may not reflect reality. So while a star like Taylor Swift can churn out hit songs by drawing inspiration from her failed romances and freely talk about it, K-pop celebrities operate light years away from such openness. In the self-contained K-pop universe, an artist dating news becomes a “scandal”, and the paparazzi seldom catch couples together. The industry is unable to do away with these dark aspects.

The same cryptic allure that creates K-pop stars makes the news of their death doubly shocking. It’s devastating for the fans to know that their ever-smiling stars were drowning in darkness and barely holding it together behind the glossy scenes. But it’s also a reminder that the problems plaguing the biggest cultural factory are steeped deeply within South Korean society and most of us are just bystanders.