When NewJeans debuted in July 2022 with their tune “Consideration” — a glowing R&B tune with a easy, ethereal groove — they struck a chord with Ok-pop followers on the lookout for one thing aside from typical girl-crush maximalism. The 5 younger members of NewJeans appeared shiny and effervescent within the hazy glow of the visible’s Y2K aesthetic, and as a millennial, I can not deny that 14-year-old Hyein’s colourful butterfly clips and the group’s informal, dishevelled model straight appealed to me. Their latest launch, “Ditto,” is equally steeped in heat, early-aughts nostalgia, with dreamy synths and wistful atmosphere.
That is the important thing to their unbelievable success: As teenage women who vary in age from 14 to 18, NewJeans are idolized by their friends and admired by older Gen Zers and millennials like me. Nevertheless, their indelible rise and international recognition has additionally sparked an essential dialog amongst followers, with many asking the query: “How younger is just too younger to be an idol?”
Within the case of NewJeans, the members are minors in Korea the place the authorized age of maturity is nineteen. They sing about heart-racing crushes and bruised emotions; their music movies, delicate and emotionally vivid, seize the glowy essence of girlhood. That picture has been masterfully curated by influential artistic director Min Hee-jin, who oversaw the group’s growth as the pinnacle of their label ADOR, a subsidiary of HYBE. Min has been recognized for her sharp visible eye and distinctive storytelling, usually discovering inspiration in varied depictions of femininity. However she confronted scrutiny shortly after the group’s debut when their tune “Cookie” was condemned by Western followers for sexually suggestive lyrics. Followers argued that the phrase might be interpreted as a euphemism for feminine genitalia.
To the typical Korean listener, nonetheless, the tune appeared innocent, and ADOR maintains that “Cookie” pairs the affectionate act of baking cookies with burning CDs, since each share the identical conceptual verb in Korean. Nonetheless, many followers assume the corporate ought to have been extra vigilant seeing as they’re concentrating on each home and worldwide audiences, and proceed to take points with Min’s visible aesthetics and “voyeuristic” reference factors. (On the identical time, it may be argued that artistic contemporaries like director Sofia Coppola and photographer Petra Collins have made complete careers out of portraying the intimacy of the younger feminine gaze, or “woman gaze.”)
The road between objectification and expression of teenage sexuality can oftentimes get blurred in a world leisure business that commodifies younger girls’s our bodies. In response to the criticism, ADOR shared its personal concern over how NewJeans has been unfairly categorized as an “unusually younger group… when different teenage teams have related lineups,” they wrote in an announcement. It is a legitimate level. Take a look at any of at the moment’s high rookie acts, and you will find no less than one underage member. IVE’s Leeseo was 14 when she debuted in late 2021; her group mate Wonyoung, 18, is steadily known as “God child,” a nickname she earned when she debuted as a member of IZ*ONE at 14. (She was solely 13 years outdated when she participated in Produce 48, the competitors present that put the group collectively.) NMIXX’s Kyujin was 15 when the group dropped their first single “O.O,” the identical age as LE SSERAFIM’s Eunchae when she made her debut in Could 2022. It is the identical with boy teams: ENHYPEN’s NiKi and P1Harmony’s Jongseob each made their debuts at 14, showing in a contest sequence that documented their exacting coaching interval.
For generations, younger idols have been the muse of the billion-dollar Ok-pop business, the place idol music is marketed towards teenagers and 20-somethings. (This is not distinctive to Ok-pop; teen pop is a extremely commercialized product all over the world.) By courting younger followers, firms are creating lifelong customers.
“There’s a component of relatability, like this individual might have been my classmate or this individual might have been my pal, that’s enticing [to young listeners],” says Melody, the creator of the YouTube channel KpopSociology, whose movies provide insightful essential evaluation of the Ok-pop panorama. “If you happen to like somebody who’s across the identical age as you, you age collectively, so there’s additionally a component of rising up collectively.”
A few of Ok-pop’s largest names began their careers after they have been barely into their teenage years. BoA, the undisputed “Queen of Ok-pop,” was 13 when she launched her first album, ID; Peace B, in 2000. (Of her youthful self, she instructed Vogue Korea in 2020, “I want I didn’t drive myself to the purpose the place I’d be in ache.”) Changmin was 15 when he debuted as a part of TVXQ. Taemin, in all of his floppy-haired glory, debuted with SHINee at 14. HyunA and Sunmi have been additionally 14 after they made their debut in JYP Leisure’s Surprise Women, as was Krystal, the face of f(x) and one in every of Min’s main muses throughout her 16-year tenure at SM Leisure. In his introspective solo monitor “My Time,” BTS’ youngest member Jung Kook, who debuted at 15, displays on his misplaced youth, opening with the rumination, “Seems like I turned a grown-up sooner than everybody else.”
Laborious work and sacrifice are a part of the job from the minute a teen enters the business’s notoriously rigorous trainee system. Trainees can spend a big a part of their adolescence on the firm, attending courses and month-to-month evaluations that not solely decide aside their expertise but additionally their picture. Park Jihyo entered JYP Leisure at 8 years outdated; she debuted because the chief of TWICE at 18. “I really feel unhappy that I don’t have any reminiscences throughout my faculty days,” she stated in a 2017 episode of Carefree Travellers. “When faculty ended, I’d go to the company immediately. Once I give it some thought now, I envy my pals who have been capable of eat tteokbokki and go karaoke.”
Not having that childhood socialization interval can take a psychological toll. “It is quite a lot of stress to placed on kids,” says Dr. Jean Kim, M.D., a Korean-American psychiatrist and author. “Sure, the outcomes are that they are phenomenally gifted performers, however what’s the fee?” Psychologically, Kim says, they might be extra vulnerable to melancholy and anxiousness and battle to “modify socially and know what they need for themselves shifting ahead.” Crucially, adolescence is the “identity-formation interval” when teenagers work out their sense of self by testing limits. “In the event that they’re caught in coaching mode the place everyone seems to be telling them what to do, they do not actually undergo that stage so they could get caught — these issues may occur later for them, or they could by no means absolutely develop autonomy.”
If everybody is aware of the system is imperfect at greatest and abusive at worst, it raises the query of why there hasn’t been extra widespread reform to guard underage artists from exploitation and abuse.
Ok-pop definitely isn’t the one business that income off the labor of its baby stars or favors youth and fresh-faced ingenues. In Hollywood, baby stardom comes as a cautionary story, and people who do maintain profitable careers into maturity are sometimes candid in regards to the sexualization, mistreatment, and exploitation they confronted as children navigating the leisure enterprise. In 2021, boy group Why Do not We sued their former supervisor alleging “psychological, emotional, and monetary abuse.” On Instagram, they posted a joint assertion, writing, “We have been 15 to 18 years outdated when Why Do not We began. We have been younger, impressionable, and trusting… We now have now matured to the purpose the place struggling in silence is not an possibility.” Their tribulations mirror related tales from acts like TLC, Backstreet Boys, and numerous different artists who’ve been taken benefit of by adults in positions of energy. Exploitation is, largely, an open secret.
In Ok-pop, nonetheless, it is extra specific. Followers on-line usually communicate out in opposition to firms. “If you happen to take a look at the American business, baby abuse happens in every single place. However I need to take a look at the way in which the business narrates [it]. All these abusive tales are utterly hid,” says Stephanie Choi, an adjunct assistant professor at New York College who research popular culture and consumerism in South Korea. “In Ok-pop, you will see how fairly often the businesses are demonized [by fans] and the way in which the abusive system is so clear… The narrative is that there is no variety firm in Ok-pop.”
If everybody is aware of the system is imperfect at greatest and abusive at worst, it raises the query of why there hasn’t been extra widespread reform to guard underage artists from exploitation and abuse, particularly since there are extra new teams now than ever earlier than.
Up to now, the few modifications inside the business have been regulatory: limits on working hours for minors below the age of 18; prohibiting minors to work previous 10 p.m. (with some exceptions for abroad schedules); and fairer contract phrases that bar artist agreements from extending previous seven years, cut back penalty charges for contract termination, and prohibit firms from overly surveilling the non-public lives of artists. There are additionally restrictions on what underage idols can put on throughout public broadcasts and contractual mandates that state firms have an obligation to assist with remedy for trainees and artists who develop psychological well being problems. Every firm, nonetheless, has its personal set of pointers for his or her idols, in addition to pay distribution fashions. Most artists are additionally anticipated to pay again their trainee debt, which many accumulate as teenagers.
The fact of being a younger Ok-pop idol at the moment means present in an excessive atmosphere, not solely bodily however mentally. Along with being below the microscope, they’re subjected to an awesome variety of on-line feedback, which analysis exhibits vastly impacts emotions of self-worth. Some companies offer mental health services regularly for his or her expertise, and Kim says that help is integral to a teen’s growth. “A part of nurturing children is to problem them and assist them meet their full potential,” Kim says. “There is a profit in doing one thing you like at an early age and being profitable at it.”
As NewJeans proceed to expertise unprecedented levels of success, with main model offers already in place, their picture is already being commodified and consumed. However the notion that they don’t have any say in how their picture is introduced is one thing ADOR denies. The corporate desires to dispel the notion “that younger persons are unassertive and uninvolved with the world round them.”
The extra I considered what that meant within the neoliberalist context of Ok-pop, the extra I noticed that NewJeans are in a singular place. They’re signed to some of the highly effective Korean leisure firms, and the members are taking an energetic function in dictating their very own tales (Minji, Danielle, and Hanni have already got songwriting credit). It seems they’re being given alternatives to flourish.
It appears to me it’s not a query of whether or not teenagers ought to be idols however slightly below what circumstances. NewJeans appear to be setting the usual for what some of these circumstances might appear like: Their concepts are being heard, and so they’re getting paid for his or her labor. Sadly, that is not the fact for lots of teenagers within the business, particularly these from smaller firms who aren’t afforded the identical degree of publicity and profession assurance. There must be systemic help in place to assist younger artists mentally modify to the trials of their atmosphere, financially put together for his or her futures, and nurture their very own self-expression. What wouldn’t it appear like if younger idols had the power to craft their very own picture? How far more expansive might Ok-pop be?
Era Ok is a column by author Crystal Bell exploring the traits and points affecting Ok-pop and its surrounding neighborhood.