Non-Stop K-Pop: These idols keep getting younger

Like many, I was shocked when I learned that HYBE Entertainment’s new girl group, NewJeans, was made up of members all born in 2004 or later. Hyein (혜인), the youngest member (the maknae), is turning 15 in April. 

In terms of K-pop, people attack HYBE because they are one of the “Big 4” entertainment companies that dominate the K-pop realm. NewJeans’ debut was a pretty big deal for a corporation that previously succeeded solely on boy groups, serving as the home company for BTS, TXT, SEVENTEEN and ENHYPEN. But HYBE was not the first entertainment company to debut idols at such a young age. 

One of my current K-pop obsessions is CLASS:y, a seven-member girl group managed by M25. Although they’re rather unknown — 161 thousand followers on Instagram and nearly 300,000 monthly listeners on Spotify — they’ve been releasing music for almost a year and have an impressive discography. At the time of their debut in May 2022, their maknae, Seonyou (선유), and their second youngest, Boeun (보은), had both just turned 14. 

Young idols started popping up around third generation K-pop, the nomer given to artists who debuted during the early 2010s. BTS debuted Jungkook (정국) at 15 in 2013. Jisung (지성) from NCT DREAM debuted at 14 in 2016. Jiheon (지헌) from fromis_9 debuted at 14 in 2018. Ni-ki (니키) from ENHYPEN made his I-Land appearance in 2020 at 14. The issue is not that there are now young idols, but rather the frequency with which they are debuting. 

It is my personal opinion that it’s fine to have idols that are so young. Hear me out.

In the United States, we have a shameful history of exploiting young teens and children for entertainment. Take “Toddlers & Tiaras” or “Dance Moms,” for example. These are scripted shows that dramatize children for adult viewers. Although it is more common for K-pop idols to come out of survival or reality shows, they are nowhere near as intrusive or falsified as many in popular Western media. We do it much worse.

If a child has the dreams of becoming a pop star at the age of 13, they should be able to pursue those dreams. However, there are valid concerns about the K-pop industry in general that apply more intensely to idols under the age of 18.  

Many people take issue with the relentlessly revealing outfits that female idols typically perform in. Similarly, a lot of K-pop choreography, although usually pretty innocent unless aiming for a certain aesthetic, can have sexual implications. 

My counter to this point is: Idols are not responsible for the reactions of their audiences. This ideology can be applied to general life as well — if an outfit or costume is not inherently sexual, don’t make it sexual. For this statement in particular, I ask my audience to watch some of CLASS:y’s stage performances. Yes, the girls are usually in slightly cropped tops or tank tops with some form of a skirt or shorts, but there isn’t anything sexual about it. And the same goes for their dancing. Just don’t make it sexual. 

People may retort that companies should be protecting their idols from people with malintent, and that if we know there’s going to be sexualization, then precautions should be taken to protect the performers. The world sucks, absolutely, but it’s going to suck regardless of if Boeun shows her whole arm or just the elbows down. That is to say, if someone has the intention of sexualizing a young girl who’s dancing her heart out on stage, they’re likely going to do so regardless of what she’s wearing. 

The bigger issue aside from dance and costume is the toxic culture that K-pop idols are forced into. Diets, cosmetic surgery, the constant pressure of being on camera all the time — that’s what I think is more draining. 

This toxic culture is a bigger industry problem, not just something that affects younger idols. Rather than focusing on the toxicity that may affect a young artist, it’s better to try and advocate for broader change, or at least for recognition of the intense and borderline horrible working conditions. 

But what about school? What about their education if becoming an idol doesn’t work out? One, most, if not all, idols continue their education throughout their training and debut while still in school. Although training, performing and being an idol in general most definitely makes the process more arduous, it’s part of the job description. It’s also not fair to expect someone to go to college when that’s not part of their goal. 

If a young teen and their family decide they want to put themselves through the rigorous life of a K-pop idol, then that’s a valid decision. Many kids dream of becoming superstars, so it’s fair to give them that shot. 

I truly believe that as long as a management company is able to treat and compensate their artists well, then there isn’t really an issue with this aspect of the industry. It’s been happening for years, it’s just that now it’s happening more frequently. 

Daphne Yaman is a sophomore writing about K-pop. Her column, “Non-Stop K-Pop” runs every other Wednesday. She is also an opinion editor at the Daily Trojan.