It Runs In The Family: Stella Santana Releases Debut Album

Jul 31, 2016
Originally published on July 31, 2016 10:20 am
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ELISE HU, HOST:

I'm filling in for Rachel Martin this weekend, but usually, you'll find me out in Seoul, South Korea. It's home of Korean pop music, or K-Pop, which is quickly becoming one of Korea's biggest exports. It's a multibillion-dollar industry that, for the last decade, has been dominated by girl groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME GUSTAS TU")

GFRIEND: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: Management agencies churn out groups that look alike and embody a girlish, doe-eyed innocence. But critics say there's a dark side to the bubblegum images being spread around the world, and it's especially hard on Korean women.

PARK BO-RAM: Hi (laughter).

HU: Park Bo-Ram is considered a classic K-pop success story, in a lot of ways, a poster child for an industry ideal. She was a teenage girl who went through various contortions to become what she is today.

PARK: (Through interpreter) I went through a trainee process of four years, and I learned how to dance and sing and how to act. And I also groomed myself more, my external appearance.

HU: She changed her hair, her face and, most notably, her body - dropping 66 pounds. Now she's singing about it. Her semi-autobiographical debut single is called "Beautiful," but it translates to "I Became Pretty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL")

PARK: (Singing in Korean).

HU: In a video with more than 7 million YouTube views, Park is shown weighing her food and as the tiny, spinning dancer in a music box.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL")

PARK: (Singing in Korean).

HU: Lyrics include a line about eating only a banana and egg each day. One lyric says overdoing it was worth it. She believes it.

PARK: (Through interpreter) I think a lot of people, after listening to the song, were motivated to exercise more and lose weight and diet. And I think a big reason is because I put my story in it - like, one banana, two eggs, eating just that, and you see the result in me. And that was motivating for people.

HU: Park went through these changes with the encouragement of her management company. Entertainment conglomerates groom modern K-pop groups and their singers, spending years scouting, training, producing and, finally, marketing the groups. It's worked like this for decades.

HEATHER WILLOUGHBY: They were models, basically.

HU: Heather Willoughby is a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. She specializes in Korean music and culture. She and other critics worry that the companies give performers too little control over their identities and that K-pop sends a message to girls that their worth comes from what's on the outside.

WILLOUGHBY: There is a much more deep-rooted sense of still viewing women as objects, and I think that reflects very poorly on the society.

HU: Willoughby says a focus on looks is especially extreme in Korea, possibly because everything's mediated through screens. It's the home of the world's fastest internet speeds, and mobile phone penetration is actually above 100 percent. There's also Korea's traditional East Asian influences.

WILLOUGHBY: You still have a very, very collective society. And so, in order to fit in, you have to be within a norm. And so I think where you have a much more individualistic society in parts of Europe and the United States, but in Korea, I think there's a lot more pressure to still fit in.

HU: The pressure to fit in could explain why as many as one third of women in Seoul have gotten cosmetic surgery procedures.

JAMES TURNBULL: Because of K-pop, there's a big cosmetic surgery tourism industry, there's a huge beauty products industry.

HU: James Turnbull is a lecturer at Dongseo University who's been blogging about Korean feminism for the last decade. He says the strict beauty standards of K-pop are reaching far beyond Korean borders. The Korean government has a ministry now in charge of exporting Korean entertainment.

TURNBULL: The Korean government has a big culpability and responsibility in this state of affairs because it does have a vested interest in exporting and promoting K-pop's soft power overseas.

HU: There are some idols bucking the trend, like Amber.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE THAT BRASS")

AMBER: (Singing) Here we go, hey.

HU: She branched out from her original girl group. She carved out a tomboy identity and now enjoys a huge fan base.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE THAT BRASS")

AMBER: (Singing) Shake that brass (singing in foreign language).

HU: And it didn't take too many calls to find British-Korean Sophia Pae...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER YOU")

SOPHIA PAE: (Singing) Why you call me baby? (Singing in Korean).

HU: ...Who originally took the path of making it by appearing on a reality show. But she's now controlling her own sound.

PAE: I kind of have the freedom to write what I want. And luckily, they're pretty OK with just going with what I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER YOU")

PAE: (Singing in foreign language). (Singing) And I know...

HU: They are exceptions. The market is dominated by performers like Park Bo-Ram. She argues molding herself into the K-pop ideal built her confidence.

PARK: (Through interpreter) I want to show people a more perfect me, which is why I tried to change.

PARK: Just who's behind that idea of perfect? That's not a subject these artists are singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME GUSTAS TU")

GFRIEND: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.