Kpop idols debuting at a young age is becoming the norm in K-pop, raising huge questions and concerns among fans.
Controversies around having an idol debuting at a young age have been going stronger than ever, especially as underage idols are becoming more prevalent. Apart from mental and physical health concerns, questions surrounding the reason behind this trend of debuting young are also being raised.
Lower debut age
In the early days of K-pop, idols were cast on the streets or through auditions open for all. Some stars were chosen purely because of their appearance alone, not their demonstrated skill set.
At the time, trainees were rounded up into long-term training classes that hone their ability to become idols. Inexperienced trainees strove forward with nothing other than hope and aspiration.
In the past, BLACKPINK Jennie became a trainee when she was 14. She auditioned with the song “Take a Bow” by Rihanna. At first, the idol was considered for the main vocal position but was appointed the rapper of the group because of her English ability. Similarly, Rosé never danced before in her life, but with hard work, she became a member of BLACKPINK. Lisa was the only member with prior experience in dancing thanks to her dancing class in Thailand when she was 4.
The era of “idol academies”
Now that K-pop has entered a new era with “idol academies” sprouting up, more and more young adults pay a load of money to get trained and realize their idol dream – to become the idol they see on screen. They go through vocal training and strict choreography training before getting into an audition.
After taking classes in those academies, their “students” are up for auditioning with the skills that trainees from traditional training systems took years to master.
For example, BABYMONSTER all has prior experience before they become trainees for YG Entertainment.
Among them, 21-year-old Ruka has been receiving dance lessons for around a decade. Chiquita, the youngest member of the group at 14 years old, has also been participating in dance groups for about 7 years. Rora, another member, debuted for the first time at the age of 9, in the children group U.SSO Girl, which also included NewJeans Hyein.
On the other hand, LE SSERAFIM member Eunchae also made her debut at age 15. Despite being a relatively new trainee at Source Music, the female idol actually spent years at Seoul’s famous dance studio, Def Dance. It is known that this studio also assisted many other stars, one of which being TREASURE Doyoung, who was 16 years old when he debuted.
Agencies risking it all to maximize profits
With the extensive time and effort required to train young singers, it’s not surprising that companies would seize the opportunity to debut idols as early as possible.
Big Hit Music revealed that they spend nearly 100,000 USD per trainee annually. Recruiting promising individuals, providing them with specialized training, and debuting them as early as possible can save millions of won for each music group.
As agencies benefit from debuting young idols, however, fans’ concerns over the difficulties of idols growing up in a high-pressure environment, continue to rise. In particular, despite not yet being mature, many of these idols are pressured to be perfect at all times, which can lead to heavy consequences such as depressing, anxiety, or even suicide.
When Moon Bin (ASTRO) passed away at the age of 25 in his own home in April, many US newspapers criticized the Korean idol industry. In particular, The New York Times referred to Moon Bin’s case as another instance of famous Korean celebrities dying suddenly in their 20s.
“Moon Bin is the most recent of a series of Korean celebrities in their 20s to have died suddenly. In 2019, the deaths of two other K-pop stars left South Korea soul-searching over what had gone wrong in one of its most popular cultural exports”, the news site stated.
Meanwhile, The Guardian criticized the harsh training system of turning trainees into K-pop idols. In particular, the British newspaper stated that idols join companies when they are very young, sometimes as early as the age of 11. They are tightly controlled, spending all day in practice rooms for singing and dancing.
All of these elements can be detrimental to idols’ mental and physical well-being, and coupled with negative opinions, either from the public or anti-fans, lead them to feel extremely trapped.
In 2018, Minwoo, a member of the group 100%, passed away in his own home due to cardiac arrest. Just over three months prior, Jonghyun, a main vocalist of SHINee, also passed away at the age of 27.
Being held to strict standards and being subjected to online criticism without the ability to respond is partly what leaves these stars feeling trapped and heading towards a dead end, the newspaper added.
Finally, The Guardian points out that South Korea is a country with a high incidence of suicides among idols and even among ordinary individuals, compared to the regional and international averages. Statistics also indicate that in Korea, most deaths under the age of 40 are due to suicide.
Source: k14, The New York Times, The Guardian