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Pop religion

Members of the K-pop group Nine Muses rehearse in Seoul (Jean Chung/The International Herald Tribune/redux )


Pop religion

Korean pop industry boom may boost Christian mission work but it’s harming its young stars

Nine young women in sleek leather outfits and high-lace boots, porcelain faces winking and glowering, sing in Korean before breaking into an English chorus: “We bring the boys out, yeah. B-bring the boys out.” 

The nine make up Girls’ Generation (“So Nyeo Shi Dae” in Korean), South Korea’s most beloved pop sweethearts. They are part of the booming Korean pop (K-pop) industry. The music video for Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys” scored more than 56 million views on YouTube. About 380,000 fans commented, capitalizing the names of their favorite members and adding heart emoticons and exclamation marks. 

Fans may be responding to the catchy tune, or the dancing—in the video nine pairs of incredibly long legs sweep in sultry ripples, then perk into a foot-stomping dance—but at least part of the popularity comes from the group’s Christian image. At least two Girls’ Generation members publicly declare themselves “devout Christians.” Member Sooyoung always prays before a performance. Her co-member Tiffany quotes Bible verses to her fans. 

Other K-pop bands also feature Christians: Siwon, one of the more popular members of Super Junior, apparently never misses a Sunday service, even while touring in church-sparse Japan. When Siwon tweeted pictures of himself meeting other K-pop stars for Bible study, fans praised their faith. Sylvia Hur, a Korean American involved in weekly campus evangelism, thinks God is allowing the K-pop boom for the sake of a global Christian revival.

Beijing reporters have dubbed the Korean entertainment industry “Hallyu”—literally translated as “Korean wave,” which sounds like “Hollywood.” And like Hollywood, it is heavily packaged and manufactured, reflecting and influencing contemporary culture. Unlike Hollywood, Hallyu has ties to Christianity—but chip away the gloss and something not so pretty peeks from underneath the veneer. 

If you place one K-pop group next to another, most viewers wouldn’t be able to tell them apart: Members have egg-shaped faces, double-lidded eyes, milky-pale skin, and hair colors that change every few months. Jokes fly that these pop stars use the same plastic surgeon, and that isn’t far from the truth. Almost all K-pop trainees sign contracts that give producers the right to “alter [their] look or image if necessary”—a wordy euphemism for plastic surgery, which producers impose on practically all female (and some male) K-pop stars. 

The process of becoming a K-pop star is grueling. Entertainment companies recruit young teens and work them 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week. They take multiple language classes—English, Mandarin, and Japanese—so they can remix hit songs into different languages to reach an international fan base. They endure hours of dance practice with only two breaks for strictly rationed meals. They rarely see friends and family, living instead with other group members in a college-style dorm. When they’re not training, they appear in concert and on game shows—as many as three performances a day. Group members typically share between 2 percent and 10 percent of profits.

Jason Yu, who works in Korean media and gets backstage passes to K-pop concerts, said he’s seen exhausted singers: “They’ve got black eyes, and they’re really about to faint. They’re missing their steps and messing up lyrics. It’s not because they’re bad, but because they’re so tired.” Some K-pop stars told Yu they don’t want to be in the business anymore, but they are trapped since they signed 10 to 13 year contracts and can’t envision a future after they quit because they don’t have an education.

Yu says the K-pop industry hides the reality from its fans: “The public thinks K-pop is all fun and lollipops, but it’s really a ruthless business.” A national poll showed that 50 percent of Korean school kids want to be K-pop stars. Yu said he receives about 10 emails a week from aspiring bands begging him to send their music to Korean record labels. Kids from all over the world grab the chance to impress judges at walk-in auditions held in South Korea and foreign cities, including Los Angeles.

Spurred by its success in Asia, K-pop is trying to break into Western markets. Last year Girls’ Generation performed “The Boys” on the Late Show with David Letterman and Live! With Kelly. In 2011, online voters put K-pop star Rain on top of Time magazine’s 100 list of influential people in the world. The milestones brought national pride to all of Korea, which feels it has finally secured a spotlight in the world after centuries of being overshadowed by China and Japan.

The popularity of K-pop has boosted South Korea’s economy and tourism. More surprisingly, it has boosted Christian mission work. Pepperdine sociology professor Rebecca Kim said many South Korean missionaries say Hallyu has made Christianity—viewed as part of the Korean culture—more culturally digestible and appealing to the public. Kim calls it cultural capital: “If your culture or nationality is seen as cool, powerful, and desirable … you’re viewed as somebody worth listening to.” 

Christianity, Kim said, is “part of this whole package” of cultural “glamor and modernity.” It’s also part of a cycle: Some Koreans first accepted Christianity from American missionaries because of their idealized perception of America.

Korea in July celebrated a milestone: The country now has more than 20,000 missionaries working in 169 countries, a number second only to that of the United States. Perhaps that’s why many churches embrace K-pop, despite increasing concerns about K-pop’s “slave contracts” and behind-the-scene mistreatment. 

Jason Yu remembers his first Easter service in Seoul. The service was held in a soccer stadium instead of a church. As the service began, the pastor announced, “We’re going to have a special guest today! Can you guess who it is?” 

Yu guessed it would be a famous pastor. Instead, it was U-KISS, a seven-member boy band. About half its members are Christians. The crowd roared. Some 15,000 attendees chanted, “U-KISS! U-KISS!” as the band strutted out to perform its newest hit song and an Easter-themed hymn. 

“I was in shock,” Yu said. “It was pretty crazy to me how K-pop bands would come out to church. … I wouldn’t be surprised if some [fans] come to church just for celebrity sightings. These fans, they love K-pop bands like a religion.”

See also “Popularity of 'Gangnam Style' catches Koreans by surprise.”