Why relationships are taboo in K-pop

With its distinctive blend of catchy melodies and perfectly in-sync dance moves, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. From 2015 onwards, the Korean music genre has become increasingly visible in the U.S., thanks to successful exports like BTS, the first K-pop band to top charts in the U.S., and Blackpink, who made history by reaching one billion views on YouTube. Per Bloomberg, by 2017, K-pop had exploded into a nearly $5 billion dollar industry. But while K-pop idols may look like they lead shiny, happy lives on the surface, all that fame comes with a hefty price tag. One big sacrifice they make is romance.

A 2018 CNN piece reported that “unlike their Western counterparts, for whom making their romantic lives public can be a key part of promotional activities, … K-pop stars are often forbidden from disclosing personal details, with some even having a ‘no dating’ clause in their contracts.” One member of K-pop band Great Guys confirmed this with Insider, telling the outlet, “We agreed not to have a girl in our lives, so we can focus more on our mission.” Here’s the real reason why relationships are considered to be taboo in K-pop.

Labels see K-pop idols as business investments

Bernie Cho, a Korean music industry executive, told CNN that “K-pop bands not only endorse big brands but become big time brands themselves.” She added, “Individuals in such bands are viewed as investments.” As an investment, these stars can’t engage in anything that’s perceived as scandalous, including drinking, drugs, or even dating. Cho added, “Many of the biggest Korean music management companies are also publicly traded stocks on the Korean stock exchange. Sensational headlines can take a serious hit on the bottom line.”

For example, look no further than K-pop artists HyunA and E’Dawn, who were suspended by their record label, Cube Entertainment, after coupling up in 2018, according to CNN. Fan backlash over the pair’s relationship caused Cube’s stock price to drop several points. As a result, the label said, their trust in the artists was “broken beyond repair,” per Korea Herald. While the furor over the scandal has since died down, dating is still a taboo for K-pop idols and trainees, said Lee Jong-im, a researcher at the Center for Culture & Society, via Korea Herald. “Trainees have been conditioned to refrain from dating in order to succeed,” Lee said.

In some cases, dating bans are openly acknowledged. JY Park, CEO of JYP Entertainment, wrote of a three-year ban at the label, during which trainees are restricted from dating and instead encouraged to focus on practicing and rehearsing.

Fans don't like when K-pop idols have partners

One essential rule of K-pop is that “being single makes [idols] appear more accessible to their fans,” according to Insider. “This, the theory goes, means more devoted fans, which means more income for the group and record label.” Because the K-pop industry is powered by its devout fanbases, “fans get the idea that they should have some say over the idol’s actions and personal life,” as Jenna Gibson, a Korea specialist at the University of Chicago, told CNN. Understandably, this can have extreme consequences. In 2008, fans protested how close Girls’ Generation had become to the members of boyband Super Junior by forming a “black ocean,” refusing to wave lights or cellphones and staying silent for the duration of the performance, CNN reported.

To combat the intense scrutiny on their personal lives (or lack thereof), K-pop stars have taken to fiercely guarding their privacy. Big Bang member Taeyang dated actress Min Hyo-rin in secret for two years before the pair announced their relationship in 2015 and eventually married in 2018, per CNN. Others aren’t so lucky. The outlet reports that Block B’s Zico and AOA’s Seolhyun broke up after a few months due to “immense public pressure.” Angry fans also threatened to boycott Super Junior after member Sungmin married actress Kim Sa Eun.

A grueling schedule leaves little time for dating

Even if their labels do permit them to date, K-pop idols often choose not to for a simple reason: time constraints. “Gym, studio, bedroom – that’s my life circle,” Great Guys’ Ho Ryeong told Insider. “We are now preparing for our new album and are actually quite busy.” He added that they “don’t have much time for eating” — let alone dating! Way, a former member of K-pop group Crayon Pop, also spoke with Insider about the nature of the grueling workouts and routines, saying that they used to rehearse with nearly nine-pound sandbags on their feet. “Our teacher wanted us to get used to the sandbags, so without it our dances would look lighter [in the performance],” she said.

Idol trainees often sign with labels in their teens, taking part in intense training and performance routines that can leave them burnt out and isolated, per CNN. But there’s a silver lining to this tale! As the once uniquely Korean K-pop genre goes mainstream, Western fans are reacting negatively to stories like HyunA and E’Dawn’s and criticizing their label for censuring them (via CNN). If K-pop continues growing at the speed it has, it’s inevitable that more change is coming.

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