Her sweet and twenty was unwelcome
That day was just like any other day for Songsun, now in her fifth year as a K-pop trainee, she was in the basement practice room. A sixth-grade girl in elementary school who had just joined the entertainment company was running about the corridors between practice rooms. The manager of the company called on Songsun.
“You shouldn’t leave the kid clamor and mess around like that inside the company.”
“I’m still young, too…” the words lingered at the tip of her tongue. Songsun had just turned twenty a few months ago. “Now that you’re a grown-up, you should start looking after the kids” said her manager.
The girl running around the hallway was seven years younger than Songsun. Yet, they were both K-pop idol trainees all the same.
An entertainment company scouted Songsun when she was in the final year of middle school, back in 2012. The following year, she became part of the so-called the ‘debut group’, referring to a group of trainees who undergo intensive training to make their debut. The debut, which seemed so imminent, did not happen and meanwhile, more and more trainees younger than her had joined her in the practice room.
“Idols tend to start very young. Ever since I came of age, that in and of itself… gives me the feeling that I can no longer be an idol because I’m too old for it…”
The vast majority of K-pop idol groups make their debut when they are still minors. Idol hopefuls in their teens are scouted to go through a camp training-like process until the most talented ones finally make the debut; and this is one of the preeminent features of K-pop industry today.
“Unrivalled idol groups like Blackpink and BTS have the presence they have today because they too, went through similarly rigorous training for four to five years. It is totally unprecedented. In Europe, regulations on labor involving children are so strict it’s impossible to nurture a teen into an artist. Japanese music industry, on the other hand, is not as competitive because it can sustain itself without venturing out abroad. Korea is the only country geared with a production system where the full package is ready well before any group debuts.” (Dongyeon Lee, professor at Korea National University of Arts)
Idols start to ripen in practice rooms
Last fall, Songsun announced she “couldn’t take it anymore” and left the practice room, it was her ninth year as a trainee.
“I’ve been doing this for so long…stuck in the practice room all day. I couldn’t go anywhere, let alone go out to grab some food or go shopping just like my peers. Because everyday life revolves around the group, there are disadvantages even if one of us is not present. Making the debut was the only pursuit I had, but then I just wanted to take a break.”
Idol groups tend to have practice rooms in the basement with high ceiling because of the loud music and intense choreography, which sometimes even includes tumbling. Next to the large practice room where group dance practices take place, is a smaller room, about 3.3~6.6m2, used for singing practices. They come in the morning as if they ‘commute to work’, then everything that goes on till late in the night - from physical training, vocal lessons, individual and group dance practice, Korean and foreign language lessons - happens around these rooms. The only time they are able to enjoy a little sunshine is when they come and go to take lessons outside.
At the end of each month, idol trainees are subject to regular evaluation. In the practice room, they are tested on the progress made during the past month in terms of their singing skills and dance moves. A few poor evaluations in a row can even get them kicked out of their ‘life in the basement’. Evaluation for the debut group, handpicking those who can set their eyes on the debut out of untold number of trainees, is understandably even more competitive.
Last September, Songsun was in the debut group after being chosen about six months ago, but at the same time there was no end in sight for the Covid-19 pandemic. The foreign members who trained with her in the debut group couldn’t come back from their home countries after they had left Korea to sort out visa issues. In the absence of some members, practice sessions were all but productive. Above all, they couldn’t practice group dances in synchronization, one of the most critical elements for idols. There were more days when she had to practice alone. It felt like she was dragged back to her high school days when she always practiced by herself. Debuting as an idol, which had been pushed back so many times already, was slipping away again.
During her vocal lesson, Songsun spoke her mind to her vocal trainer, J.mee Kim.
“I want to quit. All I want is to make music. I don’t have to be on television, I just want to do music. I can be a singer-songwriter, and I don’t have to be an idol anymore.”
‘I can’t convince Songsun otherwise,’ thought J.mee. A former girl group member herself, she knew the life Songsun had endured day in and day out. She couldn’t advise Songsun to tolerate further when every morning routine involved sending a photo of the weight scale, and instead of indulging in the most dazzling days of her life, the only goal before her was to make the debut that no one could promise.
“I asked the manager if I could ride the girls to Han river for some fresh air and get some coffee, but even that was out of the question. Just in case people take photos of them. Imagine living like that for years… ”
Walking out of the trainee residence, Songsun got herself on the express bus to Pyeongtaek, 70km south of Seoul, where her family lives.
“I just wanted to live a life like everyone else, without overloading my head.”
Breakfast―½ apple (70Cal), 5 almonds (35Cal)
Lunch ―Boiled chicken breasts 120g (200Cal), ½ bowl of brown rice (150Cal), Stir-fried onion and mushrooms (150Cal)
Snack―5 cherry tomatoes (10Cal), 5 almonds (35Cal)
Dinner―2 boiled eggs (155Cal), Tofu vegetable salad (100Cal)
Back when she was in the ‘debut group’, these were the kind of numbers that would be tagged on every meal. There were members who need to lose weight, and those who should gain more. Calorie intake allowed was pre-determined for each one. Every morning, they would go on the smart scale to measure their weight, muscle mass, and body fat.
The day Songsun returned home, she ordered fried chicken. She slept in, had homemade meals with family and went out with friends searching for nice restaurants - things she couldn’t dare do for the last eight years as a trainee.
Life as a trainee is like a rite of passage for all idols, successful or not. Members of the girl group Blackpink shared their thoughts in a Netflix documentary.
“I think what makes K-pop K-pop is the time that we spend as a trainee… They need you to be at their standard in every single subject.” (Jennie)
We ‘d get a day off every fortnight, and then practice again for another 13 days… It was just days on end with just a bunch of girls not knowing where this was going.” (Rosé)
Head producer (PD) Teddy at YG Entertainment, which conceived Blackpink, had the following to say.
“It’s not easy, the repetition. But at such a young age, they are able to absorb all the techniques and the tools that they’d need for their next 10 years,.” (Netflix documentary ‘Blackpink: Light up the sky’)
Talent is not the silver bullet for debut
Asked why Songsun’s debut was delayed for so long, Shinsadong Tiger, the executive producer of the company, said, “It may sound irresponsible, but it really wasn’t her fault, it truly was a matter of bad luck.” He had created another debut group in 2019, which Songsun was also a part of. Recording for the album was complete, but the lack of long term financial investment in the team made the whole project come to a grinding halt right before they could debut.
Accomplishing the pending debut may be a trainee’s biggest dream, but achieving success after the fact is the real objective for entertainment companies. The minimum investment needed to produce a new K-pop idol group is said to be 1 billion KRW (approximately 900,000 USD). Debuting a group is just the beginning though, it takes at least three years of unwavering support to generate a solid fan base. In some cases, a 3-year project may require massive investments over 10 billion KRW (8.8 million USD). In the world of K-pop idols, scrambling for a debut lacking talent and capital then only to fail, does not lead to a ‘consolation match’. From Shinsadong Tiger’s standpoint, it seemed like a harsher decision to debut the idol hopefuls without a robust investment plan in the pipeline.
After eight years of endurance, Songsun’s opportunity finally came. Consistent funding and support were anticipated from Universal Music, a global label and music distributor, which came onboard a new girl group project titled ’TRI.BE’. Through a rigorous assessment of the debut group, Songsun was drafted as the team’s main vocalist. She practiced like it was her very last chance but in the face of yet another delayed debut, she had decided to leave the practice room.
Back at home while taking time off however, Songsun realized that there was nothing she wanted or could do, other than sing and dance.
“I want to go back to doing music again.”
Songsun sent a text message to J.mee. A month had passed since she left the trainee dorm.
Songs were created to match Songsun’s vocal tone as she was the lead vocalist and recordings had been completed already. Finding an alternative was not easy given the fact that Songsun was like an emotional anchor for the team all along. Against the principle that ‘trainees who voluntarily left are not allowed back’, Shinsadong Tiger took her back.
After her return, Songsun and the members began an endless practice of their debut song, ‘Doom Doom Ta’. Idol groups’ ultimate goal in dance practice is to show ‘a perfectly synchronized group dance without any accompaniment, even if they are woken up in the middle of sleep’. In the world of K-pop idols, just one or two mistakes on stage can brand the team as a ‘lousy group’.
In February, the imminent debut came like an epiphany to Songsun just days ahead of the debut showcase of the girl group ‘TRI.BE’, comprised of seven members.
“A slight realization that I’m about to debut came when I got the scripts for the showcase. Before that, I kept thinking that members could always change in the back of my mind…because it happened so many times. Even though this time everything was finalized, I couldn’t help asking myself ‘Is this really happening?’”
The competition of the ‘Perfected’ begins
On May 18th, TRI.BE showcased their second single album on stage at the ‘yes24 Live Hall’ located in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul.
The only audience on-premise for the online event was members’ families. Songsun’s mother followed the stage from the shadowy space on the second floor, yet with one hand holding her smartphone she incessantly touched the heart icon on screen, which was live-streaming the event.
Songsun’s mother was reserved to speak of her daughter in front of the reporter. In doing the interview, she seemed extremely cautious not to cause any trouble to her daughter who just made her debut.
Sohn Ilnak, honorary professor at Cheongju University, has a son who is an idol star (Sohn Dongwoon of ‘Beast’, “Highlight’) who also debuted after dedicating all his passion as a teen, just like Songsun.
“I was shocked to see that the group choreography these days was even more intense compared to the days when my boys were on stage. It’s a staggering evolution in so little time. Before the debut, I saw (another member of the group) Gi kwang, had soles missing in ten of his Nike sneakers. All his soleprints on his feet were gone too. That just shows how hard he’d been dancing, rubbing his shoes to the floor,” he said.
“One day, Dongwoon came home after practice, and just collapsed on his bed unable to wash or do anything else. I took off his socks and found his feet were covered in blood. For the first time, I gave him a massage while he was asleep. I remember thinking, ‘That’s all that matters. This proves how much you strived for this, achieving fame is not the point.’”
Songsun just debuted, which is a big aspiration for all K-pop idol hopefuls yet such a rare opportunity in and of itself. She is no longer a trainee but that was a whole nine years in the making. The cold and hard reality though, is that TRI.BE is just one of many rookie K-pop girl groups, who just finished promotion for their second single.
Innumerable idols that make their debut are already ‘on the verge of perfection’. Who, amongst them appeals with the most charm, will set the stage for a totally new competition altogether.
July 20, 2021