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The Reel Me or The Real Me?

CW: This articles talk about suicide and mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.

Mental health is a topic many people are still unaware of. Years back, people did not even realize how important mental health can be and how adversely it can affect your day-to-day life. Feeling of anxiousness, confusion, depression, were either shrugged off or not even brought up as a serious issue. Rather people felt a bit embarrassed to talk about mental health and mental issues.

These mental health issues are not only something that affects the normal people, celebrities who are often seen smiling on camera are also deeply affected by it. It is a known fact that celebrities tend to live 2 lives – the “reel” and the “real” life. This leads them to being afraid of their inner self being seen by the public.

During the pandemic, people from across the world, started using K-Pop and K-Dramas to cope up with the Coronavirus blue- a term describing the anxiety being caused due to the pandemic. From K-Dramas ranking in the Top 10 Netflix list, to K-Pop artists topping billboard charts, there was nobody online unaware of the K-world.

During the time when everything was on a pause, K-Pop, the South Korean genre of music became a global phenomenon, with people praising artists and using it as a source of motivation. But is the K-world flawless? Does the fame really bring happiness to the artists?

The flaws

In the year 2017, the lead singer of the famous Korean boy band SHINe, Kim Jonghyun, committed suicide. In his last letter to his family and band members, he talked about how he was “broken inside” and he “couldn’t fight” the depression anymore. In the year 2019, K-Pop star and actress Sulli committed suicide aged only 25 due to mental health issues. Sadly, these are just 2 names from the long list of idols, actors and actresses who chose this path instead of talking to someone about their mental health.

Many Korean artists are scouted at a very young age through auditions organised by entertainment companies. The audition itself is very competitive with a big room filled with participants. Euodias, a former K-Pop trainee shared with BBC that she had to wait for 6 hours, while being seated on the floor, till her turn came. During the auditions, the participants are not only judged on their talent for singing or dancing, but also their looks. After being selected the “lucky” trainees are trained rigorously for years. During these years they work on their dance, music, coordination, and many other things with tight schedules organised by their respective labels, and also have to handle school life. The saddest part is that only a handful of these trainees actually debut, while the others remain in their shadow, never getting to see the spotlight, leading to depression and anxiety issues.

The problem doesn’t stop here. Each idol is expected to portray a certain image and persona. Often this “reel” persona is not entirely authentic and makes the artists question who they really are. This leads them to be confused and feel disconnected from their own true self. Amber Liu, former member of the South Korean girl group f(x), mentions-

K-pop and mental health

K-Pop is known for its catchy, upbeat music, along with stylish performances accompanied by intense choreography. K-Pop is never really associated with issues like self-identity. The group of teens and young adults who are still navigating through life and still getting to know themselves, are asked to create a persona of themselves according to what people would want, desire, and appreciate.

Another harsh reality is, that it’s not only their companies putting the pressure on the artists to maintain their reel persona, but also their own fans. When the artists hear from their own fans, that their persona has changed and they might leave the fandom, and how a particular member of the band is not the same anymore causing troubles for the other members, these words leave an imprint on the artist’s mind, leading to self-doubt and anxiety which ultimately leads to depression.

Fortunately, mental health has become a topic of concern in the recent years, leading to various K-Pop artists and K-drama actors openly speaking about their own struggles with mental health and their identity as a person. Though this topic is not new, arguably the K-Pop band BTS started popularizing the use of it as a concept. The song “persona” by RM beautifully talks about the “persona” issue while exploring the different versions of himself to find his true self. RM talks about the different personas he has for the world, for people he is close to and a persona which only he knows about. He talks about the expectations that the people have about him, and that there's a version of him the others created. The confusion arising from different persona make him question "Who the hell am I ?". The whole song is composed around him trying to find his self-identity which he's lost.

K-Pop idols have now started talking about such issues through their self-composed songs, pouring out all the difficulties that they go through as an idol, and how they start losing themselves in the process of becoming an idol others would love. Whether they talk about it openly, or through their music, the question "Who Am I ?" will always be existential for them and also for us.


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