For many Western audiences, their first taste of K-pop’s impact came in 2012 when Psy’s video “Gangnam Style” went viral.
It seemed improbable at the time that a mostly non-English language track from South Korea would catch fire stateside, but K-pop in the U.S. and worldwide has since proven itself as anything but a novelty.
Today, acts like BTS and Blackpink are notching Billboard hits. They’re hitting every major late-night and awards show. Not to mention the magnitude and influence of their fandoms have pretty much given a cultural reset on what a fandom is.
It’s little wonder why the rest of the world finally caught on to K-pop bands, with their ultra sticky tracks, ornate stage and music video visuals, and intensely intricate choreography. But what is of some wonder is what it actually takes to get all of the above.
It’s a topic journalist Stephan Lee dives into with his debut YA novel, K-Pop Confidential.
When 15-year-old Korean American Candace Park is chosen to enter a K-pop trainee program in South Korea, she leaves behind her life in New Jersey to chase her dreams of being selected to form a new girl group. But between the culture shock of her own heritage she knows little of and the brutal restrictions on what trainees are allowed to do, say, and eat, Candace is immediately thrust into the pressure cooker of what it takes to be a K-pop idol.
Although K-Pop Confidential is a work of fiction, the grim reality of how taxing the Asian music industry can be has manifested in real life with apparent suicides and extreme public apologies for high crimes in the K-pop and J-pop worlds—like dating. As the title suggests, Lee did have some intel on what goes on in K-pop trainee programs, but he didn’t want to write an exposé about the industry’s dark side. While he doesn’t shy away from its more problematic aspects, he does get at the heart of why trainee programs operate the way they do and wraps it all in a coming-of-age story that’s as much about finding your voice as it is about finding your heritage.
Fast Company: K-Pop Confidential is your debut novel. Is this the story you always wanted to tell?
Stephan Lee: I have more of a background in adult publishing, because I was the books editor at Entertainment Weekly for a long time. I was working on an adult novel for a very long time. I’m one of those people who has been writing one of those semiautobiographical novels my entire adult life. After [I graduated from the New School in 2018 with an MFA in creative writing], David Levithan, who is a great author and the [editorial director] of Scholastic, reached out to me because we had met before through my job at EW and he asked me, “Hey, do you have any ideas for a K-pop YA novel?” And I was like, “No, not really.” He sent me some thought starters, and I was like, “This isn’t really right.”
FC: What wasn’t right?
SL: This book started out as IP [publisher-generated intellectual property]. It’s really big in YA where a publisher kind of comes up with an idea and then hires a writer to do it. . . . but the ideas that they had—these are clearly not K-pop experts because it was all about K-pop stars dating each other. And one of the biggest rules in K-pop is no dating. It’s incredibly strict. So I came up with my own idea. It was a big back-and-forth, but I made sure it wasn’t IP—that it was fully my idea. The tricky thing is I was still on an IP deadline, even though it was totally original. So I had three months to write it.
FC: What made you say yes to something that wasn’t your original idea for a novel?
SL: I’d been a K-pop fan for several years at this point. And I completely had the thought before that someone should write a K-pop YA novel because it’s just so well-suited for it. Specifically the K-pop trainee life, which not that many people know about. Basically to be a K-pop star, you have to go away to a record label’s trainee camp, and then you’re subjected to insane rehearsals, lots of scrutiny, lots of pressure, and lots of rules. That just felt like a really interesting environment for a YA novel. I just never really thought I’d be the one to write it.
FC: In addition to shifting the original idea away from K-pop stars dating each other, how did you shape this into your vision?
SL: The theme of the book came to me right away because I think emotionally. It was really about how to withstand constant criticism or extreme pressure to change who you are, even physically, because I have heard of people being encouraged to go on diets or even get surgery sometimes. So I was thinking about how one teenager who may not even think that she’s all that confident could stand up to those types of pressures. And I also definitely wanted the story to be from a Korean American point of view rather than a Korean point of view. I wanted the reader to be with the narrator as kind of an outsider in this situation. And just from my own experiences of spending time in Korea, it was always really jarring because that’s a place where I might look a bit more like the majority there, but I also feel very foreign there. So I really wanted to capture the sense of someone feeling like an immigrant in the States and feeling like you have to be really perfect to excel and then to find the same thing in that country of your heritage.
FC: In K-Pop Confidential, you created the fictional K-pop management company S.A.Y. Entertainment, that’s meant to be a version of real-life companies like Big Hit Entertainment or YG Entertainment that manage BTS and Blackpink, respectively. And as the title of your book suggests, it seems you may have some intel into how these K-pop management companies operate. What real-life scenarios informed your novel?
SL: A lot of Western reporting about the K-pop trainee world feels a little bit like it exoticizes it. I did as much research of that nature that I could, but a lot of stars don’t really want to linger or give too much detail about that period. I think because they’re not supposed to, and it’s just very personal. But I also have a friend who was an ex-trainee of one of these companies. I will not divulge their name! I got some of their takes, but I also, like you were saying, didn’t want to base this on a particular company. But I wanted to get certain details right. I wanted to get the crazy schedules right. I wanted to get some of the rules right. But I also wanted to use a lot of my imagination. I think teenagers have a lot of commonality no matter where they’re from. So I wanted to capture the day-to-day feeling of the young people being in a very competitive environment. So for inspiration, I didn’t specifically just focus on K-pop stories. I drew inspiration from any accounts of kids in competitive sports, like gymnastics or cheerleading, or even kids who were trying really hard to get into colleges—just that enormous amount of pressure being put on you by adults.
FC: The music industry in general has a complicated history with how artists are treated, particularly young female artists. But one thing I found interesting in K-Pop Confidential is how much that drive for perfection is rooted in national pride. Not to justify the actions of some of these managers, but they really are putting these artists through the paces because they look at them as representing the whole of South Korea on a global stage.
SL: I’m so glad you put it that way, because I didn’t want this to be the “dark side of K-pop.” I wanted it to be very balanced because I do think that the system they have, while flawed, is not really any more flawed than any other. It’s really admirable how much pride Korea takes in its culture and spreading it. Back in 2014 for EW, I went on a long research trip to Korea. What I really took away from that trip was what a concerted effort spreading K-pop was. It seemed like even though each company, each group, or each star was very ambitious and everything like that, there was this kind of collective desire to show a good face to the world. I think that it has to do with Korean resilience. Korea has historically been through a lot and bounced back amazingly quickly. And I do think that culture is a huge part of that. Just like how Korea is killing the coronavirus fighting game. There is a sense that the whole is more important than just individuals. That’s really admirable; that’s what a lot of people around the world see when they learn more about K-pop and see the way the groups interact with each other.
FC: The K-pop industry is notoriously tight-lipped about its operations. Not to mention, the K-pop fan base is no joke: It has the power to amplify something or decimate it. How do you think K-Pop Confidential will be received?
SL: I’ve had many, many, many sleepless nights about this. But I think that everyone realizes it’s fiction. I’ve had hard-core K-pop fans read this and just think it’s really fun and light. I tried really hard to make sure that none of the fictional characters were based on anybody in real life or would make people think too clearly about a real K-pop idol. I’m really glad that I had to write it so quickly because I think a lot of these doubts would have made it really hard, because if you cater to what you expect K-pop fans to react to, you’d be very limited because it’s pretty unpredictable. But at its heart, I have so much respect for the artists. As long as my intentions were pure, there’s nothing I can really do about the reaction, which is kind of Candace’s realization, too, throughout the whole novel.