The death of another young K-pop star reveals consequences of “perfect” industry
TW: This article contains discussion of suicide.
Today, it was announced that Choi Jin-ri, known by the stage name “Sulli,” had taken her own life at the age of 25. I knew Sulli as a member of the Korean pop group f(x), a now-defunct quartet whose songs like “Four Walls” and “Red Light” brought a unique, mature, and even androgynous perspective to the heavily feminized genre. Unlike many other K-pop groups, particularly those with female members, f(x) was known for their involvement in writing their music and directing their visuals.
In 2014, Sulli went on hiatus from f(x) due to the physical and mental effects of cyberbullying. Sulli’s hiatus ended a year later, with a formal departure from the group. While Sulli did ultimately record a solo artist, fans speculate that continued cyberbullying contributed to her death.
As devoted fan of the K-pop genre, it was chilling to read about another young artist who had chosen to end their own life. In 2017, Jonghyun of group SHINee was founded dead of apparent suicide at age 27. Friends and family suggested he had long battled depression. Earlier this year, idol Goo Hara, 28, attempted suicide amidst a public legal battle with her allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend. This list is far from exhaustive.
While each individual case may be riddled with unique complexities, the industry connection is impossible to ignore. Particularly when the industry is known for ruthlessly exploiting its performers (or “idols”) with low wages, exhausting training and performance schedules, restrictive diets, and extremely strict lifestyle restrictions, including dating bans.
These conditions are all open secrets. You don’t have to be an ARMY frothing at the mouth to know that the industry that produces artists as in-sync and flawless as BTS or Girls Generation is a grueling one. It’s worth arguing that the rigor is part of what makes the world of the music so special and so unique. These individuals must truly give themselves and their lives to their art — and you can hear it and see it in the music and performances.
For the last three summers, I’ve immersed myself in this world. I’m not sure if there’s any correlation between my politics becoming more radical and my love of Korean pop music deepening, but in an increasingly chaotic world, K-pop has served as a sonic balm. In early 2017, I was recommended “Knock Knock” by 9-piece group Twice, while laying alone in my hotel room, avoiding my coworkers down at the bar — the perfect time to spiral down a YouTube hole that lasted into the wee hours.
While I do not speak Korean (yet!) and only sometimes read full translations of each song I listen to, I have found that the world of the music is so immersive that anyone can experience it in a full and real way. Some may say the themes of songs like “TT” by Twice (whose name is literally a reference to a text emoji) or “Boy With Luv” are conceptually shallow. Look at the top songs on the Korean pop charts and they are likely big, bold, synth-filled anthems about love.
Yet in these simplistic themes — pure feelings of love and hope and joy — I have found a surreal path to escape. In K-pop there is no room for war, or famine, or white supremacy. Everyone is loved and capable of achieving their dreams. In the course of three minutes, one can experience the highs of first love and the beauty of a perfectly synchronized dance break.
To find this type of joy in music is rare, particularly in our current moment. K-pop is a starkly optimistic antidote to the chart-topping music of Western artists. Individuals ranging from Post Malone to Charli XCX to Billie Eilish make music for a sad and stoned generation. They make music that reflects the existential dread of our moment. Even if their songs never directly address it, to listen to Kanye West’s discography is to know a certain socio-political climate.
To listen to K-pop is to forget that any of that ever happened. We were never fucked up by our parents and our first love never abandoned us. We are infinite. It is this truth that betrays the industry’s darkest implications: a lack of room for the pain and passion of its artists. While there’s no doubting that near-impossible demands are regularly placed on people like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, their autonomy and individual creative input is also a critical element of their success and appeal — a level of autonomy that would never be afforded to a K-pop artist.
In finding wholehearted escapism in the fantastical realm of K-pop, I neglected that it came at the expense of a real personal life for individuals like Sulli. For these idols, living your life as a character version of yourself, whose image is completely at the whims of the company you work for, is damaging and dangerous.
Sulli’s death is a reminder that K-pop, like every other tool we use to temporarily forget our pain, is limited. Relying on the endorphins that K-pop provides is merely another coping mechanism — one that doesn’t ultimately soothe our suffering, but makes even greater space for the artistic suffering of others.
I know I will continue to find joy in Korean pop music. I think it would be impossible not to, given that’s what it’s designed to do. But I think, as the industry becomes more globalized and accountable to an international fanbase, it will also need to become more accountable to its artists. For Sulli and all others who have suffered similarly, I hope so.