A group of teenage girls is swinging their arms and dipping down to the floor on their knees in unison. They're on the third try of the same dance routine. "Make him whistle like a missile," the music blares—a famous line from K-pop's new girl sensation band, Blackpink (sometimes written as BLΛƆKPIИK). "Bomb, bomb."
At Def Dance Skool in Seoul's upscale, celebrity-studded Gangnam district, young girls from all over the Korean capital come to practice at "K-pop College," a training center for those who hope to make it in the country's uniquely intense pop music scene. Their aim is to be signed by one of Korea's three major labels—SM, JYP, or YG, often known as the "Big Three"—and turned into a K-pop girl idol.
Even if the girls are signed by a label, the training won't stop: Each of these labels has its own mega-training center, where budding K-pop stars will be put on intense daily regimens for dancing, singing, modeling, and working out. They'll be weighed every morning and night, the number reported to a master trainer each time, and their menus will be controlled. If they're lucky, they'll debut about six months later—but if not, the wait can take up to ten years.
"Rather than natural looks and talents, K-pop is about being furnished—it's a product," says Cho Shin, the assistant manager of international marketing at Warner Music Korea. "That product could be molded into something impeccable."
All of that molding takes time, Cho says. And money. One of the most well-known methods of transforming teenagers into pop stars in Korea is with plastic surgery; in Korea, there's no stigma attached to having your face changed to better your public image. "The first, most important thing is their appearance," says Kim Min-seok, a former master trainer with YG who now runs his own training center, Sandfactory. "If a girl has a bad face and a good body, the problem can be fixed with plastic surgery," he says matter-of-factly. Often, a hopeful star will get a loan from a label for 50 percent of the cost of the surgery, but she'll have to pay it back.
Kim says the emphasis on perfect looks began in the 1970s, when the K-pop industry was in its infancy. Back then, a girl could succeed on good looks alone. Often, big labels would scout Korean Americans from the US and bring them back to Seoul for a life of stardom.
Today, the well-known prospect of never-ending training and giving up one's life to a label doesn't deter the thousands of girls who sign up at training centers like Def Dance Skool. Def Dance Skool alone has about 1,200 students across its three branches, while Sandfactory has around 200. And there are scores of other K-pop training centers across Seoul.
Oh Jin-hwa, who teaches K-pop dance classes to about 240 girls at Def Dance Skool, says that it can be difficult to broach the issue of appearance. At the training center, she, along with other instructors, will never bring up plastic surgery with a girl. They will, however, advise them to lose weight—but she says explaining to these girls that they are venturing into public life is still easier than saying they might have to under the knife.
"Sometimes we have issues with girls not wanting to change their hair," Oh says. "It's easier to get into a label with long black hair because they can put a stamp on you right away." (Oh's hair is short and dyed silver.)
Male instructors at training centers, by law, are not allowed to tell female trainees that they need to lose weight, and regulations like this speak to the seriousness of the endeavor. Yang Sun-kyu, Def Dance Skool's CEO, says there are important limits—the government has also banned these centers from training too late into the night. "We look at a K-pop star and think lightly of that, but it's a real job title, just like a lawyer or a nurse," he tells me in Def Dance Skool's swanky recording studio over a bottle of cold grape juice.
"Within Korean culture, we value education at a very young age," says Yang, explaining why the Korean music system is uniquely centered on the concept of traineeship. "If someone's trained at a dance school, then they've chosen it over cram school [for academic subjects]—they've chosen a different path."
If a girl has a bad face and a good body, the problem can be fixed with plastic surgery.
It's a difficult one. The K-pop scene is expanding and changing at a breakneck pace. Cho Shin, at Warner, tells me that it's revolving more and more around the success of super groups: ragingly popular girl bands and boy bands, which SM began producing in the late 90s to set today's trend. Teens at training centers are vying for a place in a super group. "With smaller schools, it's all about networking. Teens are encouraged to attend these schools and use networks there to be picked up by the labels," Cho says.
Both boys and girls take part in these schools, but the demands are different. At Sandfactory—on the other side of Gangnam from Def Dance Skool—Kim comments on training groups of aspiring female idols. "Girls are more sensitive; boys have a stronger mind," he tells me at the training center's meeting room. "If you ask girls to do a certain thing, they might just start crying. They have a lot of jealousy, and they're harder to control."
Dance instructor Oh says that this is simply the nature of a cutthroat industry—and the girls are just trying to make it. "We see girls form their own groups, but this is a competition [among the students]. They have to compete and get out into a label." Def Dance Skool's manager, Woo Eun-young, adds that it's easy to see how passionate their girls are at making it in the K-pop industry—despite how frightening life can be with a major label.
Jenna Park, a savvy businesswoman who's partnered with Sandfactory to direct her own training center exclusively for foreigners—S K-pop Entertainment—says that "there's a bright side but also a really dark side to K-pop." She tells me that industry bigwigs are aggressively changing girl idols' appearances now to be more Western. "They're looking whiter," she says.
Park, meanwhile, knows that her foreign students probably won't make it into mainstream K-pop—the industry "isn't ready for a white face," she says. That's not her aim with her training center, though—for now, Park is cashing in on big bucks offering foreigners the Korean idol experience. With the surge in popularity of K-pop abroad—and the South Korean government's Ministry of Culture and Tourism actively promoting the music overseas—Park can charge a student $3,000 for a one-week training program. While Def Dance Skool isn't that costly, it still runs about $200 a month for a student.
"No one's here who's living on the breadline," says my translator, Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, a British expat and student at Def Dance Skool who came to Seoul to follow her passion for K-pop dance.
Girls from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia with the makings of a Korean girl idol and who can master the language, however, do have a good chance of making it into a super group, Park says. Labels are showing more interest in girls from other Asian countries to increase their groups' fan bases across the continent. Lately, they've even been holding overseas auditions around Asia. "I think it's possible for foreigners to make it in the industry now," says Kim.
Out of all the teens who train, it's difficult to say who will make it—though it's certain that few will move on to the big time pop scene. Kim says that of his 200 students, only about 15 will be signed with one of the three major labels, and he says girls have a better chance than boys. "Girls tend to want to be K-pop stars more, and there's a bigger market for girls," he says.
But the bigger problem for men getting signed is South Korea's mandatory military service—entertainment companies have to take responsibility for boy band members when they're required to enlist. "That's high risk," Kim says. Asia's most popular band—K-pop super-sensation Big Bang—might soon break up because of requisite military service.
The career of a female K-pop idol is also entangled with Korean politics, adding to the pressure—and to the rewards—of the career. K-pop is a part of what is often referred to as South Korea's "soft power," particularly when comparing it to the war-torn North. The government sometimes blasts K-pop over the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries as part of the South's morning propaganda broadcasts.
"I've seen on the news how North Korean women come to the border to listen to K-pop at the DMZ," says Yang. "K-pop is more meaningful if it softens someone's heart."
Yang also tells me that Def Dance Skool once had a North Korean defector come to train at the center—and that she's now a celebrity. She told Yang that when she heard a song by female super group Girls Generation in the North, she was inspired to make her escape.
"There won't be any girls that would be sad to hear of a North Korean making it South and saying, 'I heard your song in North Korea,'" Yang says.