K-pop idols are made, not born. In the popular boy band BTS’s 2017 hit single “DNA,” the seven members dance in bright pops of neon, tangling and untangling their arms in a pulsating formation that mimics a double helix structure. The lyrics proclaim that true love is fated, but “DNA” can also be read as an extended metaphor for the K-pop industry as a whole: something that is meticulously crafted yet entirely natural, with the inevitability of genetic code. For their legions of loyal fans called ARMY, short for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth,” K-pop is a source of delight so strong that it cannot help but expand into the Western music world.
A genre of music that came of age in the 1990s, K-pop has already filtered into the background at grocery stores, gyms, and restaurants in the United States. K-pop is known for its tightly choreographed singing and dancing acts and slickly produced visuals. It is purposefully engineered by an international team of music producers, choreographers, and artists themselves as ear worms and eye candy that catch your attention and don’t let go. At first, you’re listening to “DNA,” and then you’re on YouTube watching the music video that goes along with it. Before you know it, you’re tracing the steps to the choreography and you can identify the seven members of BTS (an acronym for Beyond the Scene and also Bangtan Sonyeondan: Bulletproof Boy Scouts) by their names and individual talents: RM is the de facto leader and the spokesperson of the group who is fluent in English; Jin is the exceptionally handsome “visual”; Suga is an accomplished producer; J-Hope and Jimin are masters of dance; V is the jokester and social butterfly; and Jungkook is lovingly referred to as the “golden maknae,” the youngest member who is skilled in all areas.
As a graduate student in the humanities, I turned to BTS because I wanted a break from the negativity of work. Suffocated by competitive, stressed-out academics lamenting the decline of viable careers in the arts, I was elated to find that BTS and their fans communicate with one another on social media using a tone of overwhelming positivity and support. On Twitter, the members often share snippets from their daily lives and always thank fans for their support, promising they will work even harder for praise and success. This extremely palatable and intimate form of address is reciprocated by the fans themselves, who self-organize charity and volunteer events and are even vocal in progressive politics, derailing a Donald Trump rally and staging Twitter hashtag takeovers in support of Black Lives Matter. Fans regularly attribute their motivation for all these activities to the positive influence of BTS.
When I come across coworkers and students who are fans of BTS, there is always a moment of recognition and sheer excitement over being able to mutually share in the BTS phenomenon, which currently boasts the largest and most active fandom on Earth. There are many K-pop conversion narratives just like mine, such as from David Perry, a self-proclaimed “Jewish political reporter focusing on violence and oppression” who, after being suddenly welcomed into the BTS Twitter fandom, calls it “the nicest place on Earth.” Finally, I thought. Here is a place full of genuinely happy people who are also engaging in fabulously productive work.
The current ubiquity of K-pop in the West didn’t always seem inevitable. While a multitude of K-pop groups gained steam in the 2000s in Asian music markets, they failed to make significant inroads in the American music market. The artist Psy racked up billions of views on YouTube with his irreverent “horse dance” in his song “Gangnam Style,” but his popularity was largely considered to be a one-off. A 2012 New Yorker article by John Seabrook that covers the rise of K-pop in the West is simply entitled “Factory Girls” and asserts that K-pop is ultimately too derivative of Western pop music and too reliant on flashy yet empty aesthetics to have much staying power. As Seabrook writes, “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is no way a K-pop boy group will make it big in the States.”
With the unprecedented global recognition of BTS, however, it’s clear that K-pop is no longer a passing fad. BTS debuted in 2013 with a hip-hop concept under the auspices of Big Hit Entertainment. Since then, BTS has been featured on most major American talk and variety shows, from America’s Got Talent to Saturday Night Live. They have been nominated, won, and performed at major music awards shows including the Billboards, the American Music Awards, and the Grammys.
Journalists and critics have likened BTS’s massive popularity to Beatlemania. BTS has set twenty-three Guinness World Records, including the most streamed group on Spotify, the most viewed video on YouTube in a twenty-four-hour period, and the most user engagements on a Twitter account. In addition, they have often been cited as a gateway group that has brought more opportunities in the West for other South Korean musicians. In April 2021, HYBE Corporation (the new name of Big Hit Entertainment) acquired Ithaca Holdings, which is responsible for managing artists including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato, in a billion-dollar deal. BTS’s hit singles increasingly incorporate collaborations with well-known American artists, including “Boy with Luv” with Halsey, a remix of “Butter” with Megan Thee Stallion, “My Universe” with Coldplay, and “Permission to Dance,” written by Ed Sheeran.
What is it about BTS that has made K-pop so massively successful in the present moment? Critics and fans often describe BTS as incredibly authentic, positive individuals whose artistry is marked by exceptional depth and resonance. As they claim, the members of BTS are upfront about pressures faced by the young, such as social conformity and mental health, even as they maintain a hopeful, encouraging tone. For example, BTS’s “Love Yourself” album series was a moniker they utilized in their UNICEF campaign where they advocated for ending violence against children as well as one they utilized in their 2018 United Nations speech about the importance of persevering in difficult times.
The notion that BTS’s popularity stems from them being outstanding role models tuned in to current affairs isn’t incorrect, but it is a broad generalization. I believe that BTS’s appeal is more precisely linked to their self-reflexive protest of the need to generate so much uplift for their fans in the first place. BTS’s positivity initially seems as natural as a DNA helix and as spontaneous as the joy I felt in witnessing their interactions with fans. Upon closer examination, however, BTS’s discography reveals these moments to be extremely difficult emotional labor. All idol groups, not just BTS, are required to remain positive to generate ever-increasing profits for their management companies. However, BTS is the only idol group who binds a self-conscious commentary on emotional labor into their very development as artists. Not only do the members of BTS expose perpetual positivity as work in and of itself, but they are also candid about how ambivalent they feel toward this work. By both confirming emotional labor as personally meaningful but also speaking out about how emotional labor can easily morph into depleting (over)work, BTS has captured the zeitgeist of how ordinary citizens experience life under late capitalism today.
In using the term “emotional labor,” I refer to the sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s theory of how modern-day jobs, often in the service industry, rely on displaying certain kinds of emotions for their customers. For example, take a flight attendant who keeps calm in front of nervous passengers, or a hotel receptionist who must remain smiling in front of disgruntled guests. Emotional labor is not only demanding work with unclear personal boundaries—companies who train their employees in emotional labor push them to invest their “whole selves” into their jobs—but it is also often poorly compensated. Just think of the many nurses, teachers, and nannies who were deeply devoted to their jobs and provided crucial care work for others during the pandemic.
“Emotional labor” typically isn’t a term we apply to celebrities. After all, not only do celebrities get to pursue a career they love, but they get to do so in ways that are full of opportunity and audience adoration. No matter how messy celebrity lives get, from the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp divorce trial to Britney Spears’s long string of personal woes, it is still relatively easy to view them as not “like” us. After all, they’re so well-to-do. In short, celebrity lives seem to exempt them from laboring in the same ways that ordinary people, who have far less resources, do. However, both BTS’s training in the K-pop industry as well as the ways they discuss this training in their music reveal the parallels, rather than the differences, between the work of celebrities and the work of ordinary citizens. BTS fixes a penetrating spotlight on how being a celebrity who seems perfectly positioned to “do what you love” doesn’t render you immune from exploitation, the need to constantly be working regardless of personal wellbeing or material renumeration.
More importantly, for K-pop groups like BTS to engage in the extremely publicized process of communicating their love for their work, no matter how demanding this work is, demonstrates how they have internalized the commercial values that drive the K-pop industry in which profit must come at any cost. Under Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor, workers become alienated from their own emotions because a difference exists between their “authentic” feelings and the feelings they are trained to display for their customers. However, BTS’s discography shows us that it’s difficult to differentiate how the members feel from what the K-pop industry is training them that they should feel. The positive emotional labor that they undergo on behalf of their fans eventually becomes part of their own personal credo that they can and indeed should be overworked.
As documented by journalists and academics, the years-long process of becoming a professional K-pop musician reveals how idol hopefuls are indoctrinated into a system that requires them to engage in constant emotional labor, making themselves available for fans both on- and off-stage. The nuts-and-bolts process of forming K-pop groups was originally inspired by the management behind financially lucrative Western boy bands like Motown groups, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys, who scouted members for their potent blend of youthful good looks, talent, and winning personalities. However, the formation of Western boy bands has often been improvised, limited to the discretion of specific individuals like Berry Gordy Jr., who based his successful Motown Records off his experience working on the Ford assembly line, or Lou Pearlman, who initially trained the Backstreet Boys in a blimp hangar. In contrast, the formation of K-pop groups evolved to be much more centralized than anything you can find in the West. Lee Soo-Man, the founder of SM Entertainment who is also credited as one of the pioneers of K-pop’s global appeal, envisioned K-pop groups as high-risk, high-return investments that needed careful cultivation by an entertainment company from start to finish. In his original manual of “cultural technology,” he outlined a plan in which the casting, training, production, management, and marketing of idols would all be handled in-house, overseen by a single entertainment company. It’s near impossible to become a K-pop idol today without going through established music agencies and taking part in a domineering academy system that surveils seemingly every aspect of your life, even locking you into what the media commonly refer to as slave contracts in which you must spend years paying off the costs associated with your training.
Far beyond the round-the-clock training in technical skills including dancing, vocals, and foreign languages, however, is the training that idols undergo to broadcast a family-friendly persona of positivity and virtue to attract as many fans as possible. In the world of K-pop idols like BTS, not only are behaviors including drinking, doing drugs, dating, or swearing off limits (at least in public), but their positive personae must be cultivated through their every word and gesture. In a YouTube clip where the members of BTS visit a newly debuted idol group named TXT, J-Hope teaches one of the TXT members that the proper response to a question like, “What’s in your bag?” is “The love from our fans!” One of the most iconic gestures of K-pop—one that is recognizable even to those who might be unfamiliar with South Korean popular culture—is the “finger heart,” which you make by crossing the thumb and index finger over one another. This universal symbol is one that K-pop musicians and fans rely on to instantaneously communicate their support for one another despite language barriers. It’s no wonder that K-pop performers are referred to as idols—deliberately trained to inspire idolatry from their fanbase.
It’s easy to get hooked on the world of BTS and their millions-strong fanbase when the possibilities for engagement, or what media studies scholars call “parasocial interactions,” are seemingly endless. You can view behind-the-scenes videos of their activities on their YouTube channel, BANGTANTV, which is updated every week. You can watch them play games with each other on their own variety show, Run! BTS. You can attend livestreams on VLIVE where they eat and casually chat with fans, and you can read individual members’ updates on Twitter and on HYBE’s exclusive social media channel for fans, Weverse. For an additional fee, fans can access even more content: concert recordings and films; episodes of BTS’s television series like Bon Voyage! and Into the Soop, in which the members go on bonding vacations; album and DVD packages that revolve around special themes; and an official membership in BTS’s global fan club. At BTS’s in-person concerts, the audience is invited to participate in fan chants and fan projects in which there are dedicated moments to sing along and express encouragement to BTS. You can even buy a lightstick—a custom flashlight engraved with dedications to BTS and ARMY capable of displaying different colors and lighting effects—to wave at concerts. When fans call BTS “authentic,” it is because we are given so much of them that the distinctions between their public and private lives blur to the point that they can seem as familiar as our friends, family members, or even potential romantic interests.
The positive emotional labor that K-pop idols like BTS engage in means describing even their difficult working conditions through rousing, affirming language. It’s shocking to see how commonplace burnout, illness, and even injury is for the members of BTS in the thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes footage of their activities. In their 2018 documentary Burn the Stage, which covers BTS’s sold-out world tour WINGS, we witness the members working past their breaking point. Jungkook almost faints from exhaustion before running onstage to perform as if nothing is amiss. Jimin’s muscle spasms are so severe that he is unable to dance and must sit to the side of the stage. He weeps, feeling as if he has disappointed the fans. With seven members, multiple costume changes, and songs that require complex, sometimes risky choreography, rehearsals at each new concert venue go on until the members are satisfied that every detail is perfect. Still, as the members assert in their taped debriefs, even if their work is brutally difficult, it’s all worth it in the end for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform on some of the biggest stages in the world. From this documentary and many others like it, it’s clear that the bread and butter of K-pop, what inspires such intense worship and loyalty from fans, is idols’ public displays of love and positivity toward their work, no matter what their working conditions are.
My point here is not to claim that BTS are mere puppets of the K-pop industry who must mask how they “really” feel. Rather, I am suggesting that the emotional labor that idols engage in of excusing their overwork is not solely a function for their fans, who are only too happy to have access to even more content about their favorite idols. Rather, the positive emotional labor they are trained in also becomes a way for idols to excuse their overwork even to themselves, aligning themselves to what Jia Tolentino deems a late capitalist landscape in which “selfhood has become . . . [the] last resource” and one must constantly work on “exploiting attention and monetizing the self.” We can turn here to Michel Foucault’s work on how discipline works in the modern day: asking idols to adhere to perpetual positive emotional labor is not so much corporeal—curfews and chaperones—as it is ideological and works at the level of language itself. Get trained to repeat that you love the hardships of being an idol over and over again to others, and soon you’ll believe it yourself.
I can think of no working public figure today who engages in emotional labor on such a pervasive scale. BTS are part of a 24/7 reality show of positivity that other celebrities today either lack the budget or the personal wherewithal to withstand. One of the most watched YouTubers, Emma Chamberlain, periodically takes breaks from social media for her mental health, and pop singers like Katy Perry, who live-streamed her entire life as promo for her 2017 album Witness, or Taylor Swift, who released a Netflix documentary in 2020 about her career shift, do so at strategic points before retreating from the public eye. While a family like the Kardashians is known for being transparent about their lives, their footage often veers into infighting and petty squabbles that can alienate some viewers. During the time that I’ve been writing this article, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the members of BTS have posted a short, sweet note to fans online hoping that they have a good day.
Under the logic of K-pop, it’s not a problem for the members of BTS to go directly from a grueling stadium concert right into a live broadcast in their hotel room to chat with fans, or to take a vacation only to film a vlog about what they spent their “personal” time doing. During BTS’s speech at the 2018 MAMA awards ceremony in Hong Kong, where they won the Daesang, or “Grand Prize,” the members admit that they experienced so many difficulties over the past year that they considered disbanding. However, they keep the details of these difficulties vague and pivot, as they always do, to emphasizing how much they are buoyed by their fans’ affection.
What’s the problem with BTS’s overwork if the members themselves comment that they’re still happy and grateful, that they can’t wait to meet and talk with their fans? At BTS’s in-person concerts, fans can always rely on being comforted by the members’ displays of deep emotion where they cry tears of joy for achieving widespread popularity even in the face of overwhelming setbacks. When reflecting on BTS’s upbeat “do what you love mentality,” I realize that what I said earlier about academia’s negative work culture isn’t completely accurate. It’s really the positivity that gets to me. BTS’s upbeat language uncannily mirrors the language that has been used to justify my own precarious circumstances in pursuing a career in academia: the near-poverty wages graduate students are paid, the long hours we spend teaching and advising students, and the uncertain path toward professorships. This language is not only used by others—“You love what you do!”—but it is also a language on which I myself rely—“These hardships are okay, since I love what I do.” However, I worry that displaying such a stoic disposition to others relegates my struggles to the interpersonal rather than to the structural. It’s not that my work isn’t pleasurable, but that expressing this pleasure has become compulsory, rote, and even public. For BTS, for me, to what extent is relying on positivity less a marker of my dedication to my job and my bravery in the face of uncertainty, and more an adherence to the message of production at any cost that I have absorbed and deploy against myself? Am I simply authorizing the message that overwork can and must be endured rather than challenged? Do the labors of love have their limits?
It is by looking beyond BTS’s public appearances and turning toward their actual music that we begin to see their own reckoning with—rather than quiet acceptance of—the doctrine of overwork, along with glimmers of how we might all begin to approach overwork differently. Many of BTS’s songs speak about the necessity, but also the sheer difficulty, of asserting their own needs and desires apart from the demands of capitalism. In their debut song “No More Dream,” they implore listeners to “Go your own way / Even if it’s just for one day, dream your own dream,” yet they also acknowledge the extreme societal pressure to pursue money and status: “I want a big house, big car, and big rings.” By the end, RM dedicates the song “to all the youngsters without dreams,” implying that youth are unable to define dreams of their own. In his solo mixtape song “The Last,” Suga claims that although he became an idol because of his interest in music, he now contains a “monster [that] demands . . . more wealth,” one that “puts a collar on my neck / to ruin and swallow me with greed.” Even artistic passion is attached to a price tag and is wholly inseparable from the economic demands of the K-pop industry.
Other BTS songs explicitly criticize the amount of emotional labor they must provide for their fans. In “Outro: Her,” the rapline reflects on the experience of being an idol as constantly wearing a “mask” and “put[ting] on clothes I hate, excessive make-up / because your laughter and happiness is the scale of my happiness.” In a similar sense, “Fake Love” laments “trying hard to erase myself and make me your doll.” In the photobook for BTS’s album “Love Yourself: Answer,” the members are hemmed in by a mess of cameras, mirrors, eyeballs, screens, and walls. And in “Be,” many of the photographs show the members pointing cameras at each other, watching themselves being watched by others. In these songs and visuals, every part of the members’ selfhood is up for grabs by the public, such that they cannot fathom even laughing or being happy without first accounting for their fans. Any attempts to deviate from these industry expectations morph into the members celebrating their own discomfort, as in “Dope,” where BTS takes pride in the fact that “even if our youth rots in the studio / thanks to that we’re closer to success.”
Following BTS’s international recognition, their songs do not reflect the epitome of self-actualization but rather their endless self-sacrifice. In “Airplane: Pt. 2,” BTS turns the high-flying lifestyle of celebrities on its head: being “sky high, sky fly, sky dope” devolves into the “same try, same scar, same work.” And in “Dis-ease,” J-Hope confesses that he “think[s] I should work till my body breaks” even though the members suddenly have more free time during the pandemic. RM even creates a pun between Korean and English about how being a “number one” idol” is not just a “job” but also an “illness.” In these startling lines about violence and harm, it’s unclear if there’s a difference between being able to do what you love and being damaged beyond repair.
If one’s deepest passions are liable to be hijacked by overwork that is both obligatory and under-compensated for both fans and celebrities alike, the solution BTS presents is to refigure the scale of one’s loves. In their album interlude “Skit: Circle Room Talk,” the members have a casual, irreverent conversation about their aspirations. V speaks about wanting to play the saxophone, and Jin says that he always wanted to be like his dad, who works in an office. RM responds that although Jin has a “normal” dream, “normal is best.” Similarly in their song “Paradise,” BTS describes life as a “marathon” of striving in which “your dream is actually a burden” and “a debt” that must be repaid through overwork. Instead, they suggest that “it’s all right to not have a dream,” to remain “small,” and to “become anybody.” Paradise is ultimately not a future goal that is “grand,” but it is “all the breaths you [already] breathe.” To dream a lesser dream, to treat dreams as a pastime or just a means of getting by is a radical statement. Although BTS was a group created for commercial success rather than a group created to drastically alter the idol industry, their message marks larger rebellions around work culture, like Simone Biles’s momentous decision to walk away from competing in the Olympics or China’s “lying flat” movement, in which workers have given up on competing for social advancement for more relaxed lifestyles. For figures like BTS to stress the importance of resizing one’s aspirations amid their own performances which occur on such an expansive, enthralling scale punctures the fantasy that individual passion always pays.
I find it deeply ironic that when idols are subject to the highly racialized criticism that they are produced in a “factory,” it is their very dedication to the K-pop industry’s expectation of endless emotional labor that makes them so like us. Cheering for BTS’s faultless personas, the way they rally again and again despite the countless times they fall down and fall ill, is also to see their flip side: their inconsistencies and shortcomings in which they feel that they can never keep up with the pace of work expected of them. As BTS communicates in their discography, loving your job doesn’t, in fact, make all the labor worth it in the end when the conditions of your work are unsustainable. To “Dream, Hope, Keep Going,” a popular refrain from BTS’s song “Epilogue: Young Forever,” is to recognize how the terms of labor we are subject to not only drive, but also limit, our most powerful loves.
After all the times I have put BTS’s music on repeat as I’ve barreled through another draft of my dissertation or pushed out a lesson plan only to be asked to give even more of myself, I can no longer take BTS’s positivity toward their work as musicians—or my own positivity toward the work of academia—completely at face value. It’s awe-inspiring to see how my colleagues manage to create works of great beauty in the midst of uncertainty and isolation. But I can no longer act like the mixed satisfactions of just being able to exist in these creative spaces is enough to get us all through. Now is as good a time as any to lose it all, or I dunno, just become anyone and take a nap.
At the end of February 2020, BTS filmed their new single “ON” in the middle of Grand Central Terminal for the Jimmy Fallon show shortly before the city’s lockdown began. “ON” contains some of the most demanding choreography the members have ever attempted, requiring them to move as a single organism that seamlessly weaves between a full marching band while executing perfectly synchronized midair jumps, kicks, and twists. It’s yet another song about fighting for your dreams, with lyrics that speak of being in a “beautiful prison,” “go[ing] insane to stay sane,” and the fearlessness with which the members welcome hardship and “pain.” When Fallon calls cut, several members immediately fall to the ground to catch their breath; later, Fallon tells them how impressed he is by their work ethic. I feel torn: although I am moved by BTS’s performance, I hope for a world in which viewers’ invigoration does not come at the expense of the members’ utter exhaustion. For this reason, my favorite moment in their performance comes at the end. In their final move, the seven members twist 180 degrees away from the camera and, linking arms, fling their heads back to look at some point off in the distance. We can’t see exactly where they are looking, and they can’t see the cameras, or us, looking at them. Where going “on” will lead is left a mystery.
The author wishes to thank Professor Beth Blum, Professor Anne Goldman, and Zoë Pollak for reading earlier versions of this piece. She also extends her gratitude to the K-pop fans whose English language translations made writing this piece possible in the first place.