K-Pop, Creating Change, and YA: Guest Post by Stephan Lee

K-pop is no longer limited to Korea; its raging popularity has swept across the entire world. In this guest post on the Mackin Community blog, author Stephan Lee explores his journey to embracing K-pop, his new YA novel K-Pop Confidential that is centered around the music genre, and his hope that his work will empower people to create change.

Years ago, if you’d have told me that K-pop would become the most influential music genre in the world, that it would inspire global social movements, and that my American friends would be singing along to BTS and Blackpink lyrics without missing a beat, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m ashamed to admit this now, but as a Korean American child of the ‘90s growing up in a very white community, I would often downplay aspects of my own culture in an effort to fit in. K-pop felt so out of the mainstream. I felt so out of the mainstream.

Thankfully, the world has changed, and so have I. I couldn’t be prouder that my debut novel, K-Pop Confidential, is set in the complex and thrilling world of Korean pop. I first became a devoted K-pop fan in 2014, when I traveled to Seoul to research a magazine feature about the rising influence of Korean entertainment for Entertainment Weekly. I immersed myself in K-pop and K-dramas as I conducted dozens of interviews, and during my three-week trip, I not only became a hardcore K-pop fan, but I also learned so much about the country in which my parents were born.

I learned that just as the South Korean people banded together to turn a small, impoverished nation into a global powerhouse in a miraculously short amount of time, the K-pop industry’s immense success was no accident. Decades of hard work and innovation have turned K-pop into a multibillion-dollar industry that dominates social media and gives hope to diverse, socially conscious fans around the world.

I wanted to write a YA novel that delves into this universe from the point of view of an outsider: a Korean American teen named Candace Park, who is recruited by S.A.Y. Entertainment—the label behind SLK, the biggest boy band in the world—to travel to Seoul and train for a spot in the company’s first-ever girl group. Candace quickly learns that it’s more difficult than she ever imagined. The culture shock she feels as a Korean American in Seoul is overwhelming. The hours are grueling, her fellow competitors will do anything to succeed, there’s enforced dieting to maintain a “perfect” figure, and the rules for proper behavior are incredibly restrictive. She’s put under a “Dating Ban”—a real thing in K-pop—which becomes impossible to follow when she attracts the attention of a boy trainee, S.A.Y.’s biggest superstar.

In K-Pop Confidential, I didn’t want to shy away from the dark side of K-pop. The industry’s amazing success has come at a cost, and the immense pressure many K-pop labels put on young people is too much for anyone to handle. That needs to change, and I believe it is changing, thanks to the work of young artists and fans who are bravely speaking out. Western media often fixates on the most scandalous and tragic aspects of the K-pop industry, but its problems are not unique to K-pop—just look at Hollywood—and certainly not to Korean culture. Young people around the world are constantly forced to live up to adults’ unrealistic measures of success, whether it’s getting into top colleges, or excelling at competitive sports. K-Pop Confidential is all about defining your own self-worth in an environment designed to tell you there’s always someone more talented, beautiful, and popular.

K-pop fans and non-fans alike have related to Candace’s experience in K-Pop Confidential, and that’s been an absolute dream come true. The novel is ultimately a celebration of K-pop and learning to use your voice to create change. The popularity of K-pop isn’t just about the incredible talent, groundbreaking music videos, and irresistible music, which my novel definitely explores in great detail; K-pop at its best is also a manifestation of the resilience and generosity of the Korean spirit that’s bringing people together all around the world. Whether or not you’re already obsessed with K-pop, I hope you pick up K-Pop Confidential and see what it’s all about because K-pop isn’t a fad or a trend; it’s a revolution, and it’s here to stay.