About K-Pop, BTS and Listening
I’m probably going to get into some trouble writing about this next topic only because it’s extremely popular and with popularity, it can be so easy to tread on toes. But in light of the recent World Mental Health Day, I thought I’d like to share my thoughts.
I’m going to be writing about….K-Pop (Korean Pop). To be more specific, K-Pop artistes. For those of you who don’t know, K-Pop is a MASSIVE industry in South Korea that is currently taking the world by storm for its music, flashy choreography and increasingly, the socially-conscious messages in their lyrics. It also generates billions of dollars of income for the country and is a bit of a cultural showcase.
This little background might give you a bit of a sense of what it means to be a K-Pop artist (they call them idols). While it does look glamorous, the journey to becoming an idol is gruesome, and the lifestyle of an idol rising to the top can be brutal. If you think that once they’ve reached the top and became successful that their lives would be better, then you might want to think again.
There are huge expectations and pressures to be role models, to look like you’re doing well, to look good, and to have all your shit together, all without any personal space to speak of. You’re under constant public scrutiny and have to walk within the tight lines of your very restrictive contract with your agency. Once you’re at the top, these kinds of pressures would also reach their peak.
I have often wondered about the mental health of these idols – often very young men and women (or perhaps I should call them boys and girls) – under the weight of their careers. They are only human but required to be super-human, almost like gods.
So I did a search and came across these articles (see link below). It seems that there are quite a few K-Pop idols who ARE struggling with mental health issues, or had done so in the past. I’m not surprised. In fact, a part of me went “ah-HAH!” or “Cha-ching!”
Another part of me deflated a little bit - with guilt and shock. I do enjoy watching and listening to K-Pop (and people's reactions to this genre), but in the process I've overlooked (perhaps willingly) that these idols are human beings who are struggling.
I suppose my guilt came from recognizing my unwillingness to see them as such, preferring to stay on the surface and enjoying the glitz and glitter. It's like seeing the emotional pain in my barrista's eyes, for instance, and pretending not to see it. The shock came from reading how bad it could get for some of them.
So, maybe I should take a serious and honest look. Take for instance, the world-wide sensation K-Pop band – BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bangtan Boys). Almost everyone – even those who don’t like K-Pop – has heard a little bit about this band. Most who are hardcore fans would also know that several of their members have been quite open about their own mental health struggles.
From what I know, one of them – their rapper called Suga (real name Min Yoongi) – describes himself as an introvert who suffered from depression and social anxiety. For someone who has social anxiety, fronting up to even one person is a frightening task. To front up to the world (I don’t mean 500 people but millions of fans) would be like a ride through hell. And yet, this young man has done so. Suga appeared to have come out of his shell, but I can’t help wonder what it costs him to be so out there. He would have had to really stretch himself way out of his comfort zone to get to where is today.
Then there is his bandmate – dancer and vocalist Park Jimin – a seemingly well-adjusted young man who has developed an excessively perfectionistic tendency as his career took off. He apparently beats himself up for the slightest mistake and in some videos, speak about the guilt and ruminations that haunt him whenever he makes even one tiny error in his performance. Jimin also described how he used to forgo food and sleep to practice his parts – presumably so that he could pull them off perfectly. How did he become like this?
Don’t get me wrong, I do like K-Pop for how it showcases the brillant work ethic, dedication and music of Asia (but I’m not a hardcore fan). But really I ask again, what is the cost to these young people?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that behind the glitter and glamour, that these are young people who have been thrown into a very tough lifestyle which is a bit like a trap. The more famous they become, the greater the pressure on them.
From what I could see, not a lot has been done to support these young people emotionally, besides the “toughen up, suck it up, and carry on” mentality of the industry. Maybe it’s also a prevasive Asian attitude towards emotional struggles. I notice the same attitude (albeit more watered down) in my own home country of Singapore as well.
When I read something like this or watch videos of these idols talking about their struggles, my first reaction is almost always to think, “If only someone would REALLY LISTEN to their struggles instead of going straight into problem-solving or the standard keep-calm-and-get-on-with-it responses I often see them get.”
Listening might not seem like much, but believe you me, it can make a hell of a lot of difference to someone who feels alone in their struggles. And I get a sense that these young idols are feeling pretty isolated.
Which leads me to this idea of Listening.
What exactly is Listening?
This is not a “Duh~ Stupid!” kind of question. Because while it might seem obvious that listening entails using your ears, there’s more to it than an anatomical function. If you just use your ears, you’re merely hearing.
Listening (with a Big “L”) means to take in the whole person and their experience as fully as you can. It means using as many of your senses to help you understand what they are trying to convey, beyond the words that’re coming out of their mouth.
It also means putting aside your own ideas or assumptions about the person and what you think they need. It further means getting on top of your own emotional reactions to what they’ve got to say.
All of these requirements make Listening an extremely difficult practice, and hence very rare and valuable.
So…If there’s anything that I’ve learnt from k-Pop and BTS, apart from the music, it is this:
Take a look at the young people around you, and also the people in general around you. Notice (not just on World Mental Health Day for every day should be this day), the kinds of pressures they might be on. Notice also how you might be the one putting the pressure onto them.
Now, instead of plying on more or telling them how to solve their struggles (as if you’re in the best position to do that!), could you just…Listen?
Could you aim to understand them and do what it takes to convey that you’re trying to understand them?
Could you ask people who are pouring their hearts to you, "tell me more?"
Could you maybe start with the people around you?
Even for a little bit?
P.S. Let me know if you want me to talk more about Listening or correct me about the K-Pop industry.