Is Kpop Equipped to Handle Real Tragedy?

A little over a month ago now, the biggest story in Kpop was a feisty rapper named Kemy, from a rookie group called A.Kor, leaving a diss track for 2NE1’s embattled Park Bom.

Fan reaction was, of course, understated:

"This Kemy girl who is dissing Park Bom is seriously seeking her own funeral.. Bye b*tch!!"
"Kemy i hope you die. We blackjacks will seriously burn you. I swear to God there will be time you'll die."
"Kemy, I just you to know that I will fucking cut you into pieces and burn you as well. Fame whore.”

And those were the nicer tweets.

We covered the story extensively in a post we titled, Kpop #trending: The Sad Story of Kemy and Park Bom. We called this a sad story, and it still is. Wishing death on a human being, especially a young one, is never a worthy endeavor.

Fast forward a month, and the Kpop world, already reeling from news of EunB’s death, just yesterday has learned that fellow Ladies’ Code member, RiSe, has passed away from her injuries. Here it is, real death, in a story that isn’t just sad, heartbreaking in every way, but undeniably tragic.

In an industry so new that its veterans, like Lee Hyori, are only in their thirties, real death is not a topic broached with regularity. American pop, which has had so many stars (mostly far too young), die and then lionized, has a national narrative in place to mourn the loss of their artists. But Kpop, regarded as safe and relatively airy, does not have that same experience with grief.

U;Nee Suicide

In fact, death in the industry has been scarce, but not unheard of. Solo artist U;Nee’s suicide in January of 2007 was met with sorrow, but her management company still released her third album, just five days later. Iris’ lead vocalist, Lee Eun Mi, was murdered, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, in June of 2011. Before either of their deaths, way back in June of 2000, the boy band NRG’s Kim Hwan Sung passed away from viral pneumonia. There have been tragedies before and since then, but Kpop and its idols have thankfully lived in relative security, something the industry and the fans often take for granted. Because tragedy is inevitable.

The Sewol ferry disaster of April 16th of this year shocked Korea, the death of nearly 300 people, mostly secondary school students, brought the entire nation into a prolonged mourning period. Instead of responding to the tragedy, Kpop came to a screeching halt. Music shows were cancelled, releases delayed. It was a classy move done out of respect for the many victims, but the message was clear: Kpop has no narrative to handle real tragedy. Kpop is merely pop.

Sewol Tragedy

Now, if Kpop is really as light and ultimately inconsequential as it is supposed, how should the industry react to these deaths? What responsibilities does it really have? No music shows were cancelled with Ladies’ Code’s accident, though idols responded with condolences, many attending EunB’s memorial. The media, for its part, responded with a customary lack of restraint, valuing sensationalism over dignity in the many pictures and videos that were published. We’re sure RiSe’s passing will be met with the same grace from idols, but also the same vulgarity from the press. We’re almost surprised that there haven’t been more gruesome pictures released of the accident, but maybe we’re speaking too soon.

And the fans? The same ones that wished harm on Kemy a month ago must face a new precipice. Though the community of memes and gifs and MV reaction videos may make up much of the Kpop narrative, the simple fact is that Kpop does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of the world, and the world is full of real life tragedy and uncertainty. If this year has done anything, it has served as a stark reality check for many fans. Kim Hyun Joong’s abuse case seems to have intensified, with photos and texts released that further incriminate him. GLAM’s Dahee will likely be seeing prison time for attempting to blackmail Lee Byung Hun. While obviously not on the same scope of EunB and RiSe’s deaths, these incidents further highlight the absurd melodrama surrounding formerly high-profile “scandals” that have more to do with idols’ sex lives and feelings being hurt than anything of real consequence. Sulli’s dating who? Who’s leaving what group? Who insulted Park Bom? It all seems so silly now, doesn’t it?

Sulli Dating

Kpop fans will have to come to terms with reality broaching their fandom, and they will have to evolve in their discourse and knowledge to truly respond to substantial issues like blackmail, abuse, and death.

Because maybe Kpop will not respond to these things. Maybe Kpop is really so unimportant that it is ill equipped to tackle the actual world we live in. The industry that shut down during the Sewol tragedy, will likely give condolences and offer video retrospectives on their music shows for EunB and RiSe. And then?

And then, quite possibly, nothing.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Because we believe that Kpop can and does mean something. We believe that Kpop can be substantial. We believe that Kpop can help us mourn. We believe pop doesn’t have to be a slur. We watch Ladies’ Code’s “Hate You” and “Kiss Kiss” and what do we see? Young artists. Yes, pop. But also: Immortality.


  1. I don't understand the point you are trying to make by saying that Kpop is not equipped to handle death. For starters, is anyone equipped to handle death? Death, although an every day occurrence, is by no means ordinary and is the most painful event anyone can experience. How can anyone be well prepared for it? And the way it was handled, by Kpop as an entity and by Kpop as individuals, is no different from the way similar industries and people handle death elsewhere. Idols and fans voiced their condolences via social media; award shows created montages; Bora mentioned it while accepting an award; loved ones attended her wake. How would anyone else handle it? When Robin Williams died, stars and fans voiced their condolences through social media, the MTV Music Video Awards created a montage for the actor, loved ones gathered at his funeral. What exactly is the difference? If someone like Britney Spears passed away tomorrow, how would the "national narrative" differ from the aforementioned? What else would be done? Kpop is not a creature of one mind, it is a collection of individuals that come together to make and sell music, and the way that they mourn or handle death is really very limited, as is the way any other similar industry handles death. Should awards shows have been cancelled? Should people have stayed home from work? Should there have been a national mourning period? When Kurt Cobain died... what was the national narrative then? There was a public vigil, people expressed their condolences... Really nothing more or less than what Kpop has offered, and really, nothing more or less than what anyone or any industry can really do in the wake of such events. So my question is really, and I don't mean it in a defiant tone but more as a plead to be enlightened, what should "Kpop" have done in order to properly mourn the death of one of its own and be considered "well equipped" handle death?? If anyone, by way of what was expressed in your article, is ill-equipped to handle the death of a Kpop idol it's the fans that think their "oppas" and "unnies" are... immortal.

    1. Thank you so much for leaving such a thoughtful response. You make some really great points and tie in the fact that there are many similarities between the way we all grieve with these high profile deaths. I believe there are some key differences here though that go beyond individual feeling. I do believe there is a national narrative of high profile deaths in America, in particular young pop star deaths, because of the frequency of their occurrence.

      My point of their lionization could have been more elaborate (and perhaps, better worded), by bringing up the "27 Club" and the many stars that have died around that age (Amy Winehouse is a more recent example). There is an odd glamour associated with people that have died tragically and young that stretches as far back as James Dean dying at 24, in 1955, and the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens' deaths in the tragic airplane crash in 1959. Though Korean musicians and celebrities and their deaths are obviously not new, I do think that looking at the relatively new Kpop and the relatively few deaths, will garner as many similarities as there are differences. I don't think it's unfair to ask if Kpop is equipped to handle real tragedy like this. Viewed by many as providing light and mindless music, one can wonder if the response will be serious or ceremonial. I think it can be hard to argue that the media response has been very insensitive and at times undignified to the surviving members of Ladies' Code. Having their pictures plastered on various Kpop sites seems more sensationalistic than healing. And while the candle light vigils and condolences have been very appropriate, I wonder if some real issues, like the possibility of idols being overworked, perhaps the safety issues of rushing to one event to the next, will be addressed, not just by idols, as I've seen, but also their agencies. When U;Nee committed suicide, was their a push, as a society and as an industry to confront depression? How come U;Nee is never mentioned anymore but Kurt Cobain's suicide by depression always a constant memory? Is it simply because Kurt Cobain was more popular? I think there might be more to it than that.

      My final point was whether Kpop itself can help with the healing. Don McLean's famous song, "American Pie," is a good example of taking tragedy and delving into its resonance. Though the song is personal in its basic story, it uses the ramifications of these stars' deaths to hit upon the universal themes of loss of innocence.

      With Kpop, so far, there seems to be an avoidance with confronting these heartbreaking tragedies, and since the music is considered by many to be inconsequential, it may seem odd to delve into these real issues. Time will certainly tell, but I don't think it's unfair to ask.

      I personally don't believe that Kpop is unimportant, nor does it need to necessarily have a song dedicated to RiSe and EunB. Watching their music videos, listening to their songs, can keep their memory alive, and in that way I believe other young artists have achieved some sense of immortality. Thanks again for your response, and I hope this very long response gives more light to my perspective. I think there are many different perspectives that can be formed with this tragedy, and I appreciate reading yours. Take care,


    2. I definitely agree that the way the media has handled this situation leaves much to be desired. But I think the industry has very little say on what the South Korean media decides to publish and how "kpop sites" (ran by fans and kpop music lovers, not idols or companies) handle the situation and whether or not they do so with decorum and sensitivity.

      I think we have to make a distinction between Kpop the industry and Kpop the fandom.

      Tragedies, such as U;Nee's, are very seldom spoken of, not because Kpop the industry has not handled them properly (though it’s entirely possible they didn't), but because Kpop the fandom has moved on. Kpop the industry is partially to blame. Isn't the way it works something like, "we churn out one group and hope they do well, if they don't we'll keep them in the basement and churn out another group and hope they do well and if they don't..." and so on and so forth? How many rookie groups debut a month? How many of them make it big? How many of them are ever remembered or mentioned again? Sadly, you are right- the reason Kurt Cobain is mentioned and U;Nee is not is because one was popular and the other one wasn't. Because the Kpop industry treats them as products then the fandom tends to view them as something other than humans as well. But… do they? It's the reason why fans are so quick to say " I hope you die" when a "nobody" disses their bias. It's the reason why idols get so much backlash when their relationships are exposed. It's the reason why people bashed Sulli for "not completing her duties with her group promotions (which, incidentally, only came about by all of the negativity received from fans after the revelation of her and Choiza's relationship) but still having time to take a walk with her boyfriend.” Because even though fans love their idols, they're not fully human to them- they're not allowed to have personal lives, they're not allowed to make mistakes, and if you're a "nobody," then you're even more expendable. They should work hard and show up to entertain me, because it’s their responsibility to do so. In this very site, someone asked if Super Junior was even still relevant after a two-year hiatus, which is about the time that artists in the West take in between new releases. Why is it we expect so much in order for hard-working people to stay relevant?

      I find kpop akin to the whaling industry. There’s an industry because there’s a demand. If people stopped consuming whale meat and oil then there would be no whaling industry. What I mean is not that fans should stop loving idols and their music, but that they should come to accept that their idols are humans instead of worker drones. It would be great if companies stopped abusing their artists (I definitely agree they do), but it would also be life-changing for these artists if their fans started considering them as people with the right to live their lives, go on dates, have opinions and be themselves. Because if this becomes acceptable to the fans, I am of the opinion that the companies will take notice and act accordingly.

      I hope this also shows a certain type of devout fan that spews hatred and death threats that death is very real and permanent, and that these people are very much mortal. Starting fan wars, wishing others gruesome outcomes, all because of the delusion that they have to "protect" their idols is childish and shows kpop at its worst.

      In conclusion to my also very long reply (haha), I think both industry and fans need to take a hard look at themselves and fix the things that each are responsible for.

    3. I totally agree that both the industry and the fans need to take a hard at look at themselves. And I think comparing Kpop to the whaling industry is very apt. Thank you for responding with such thoughtful comments! They really got me thinking at these issues in a different light, which is always a good thing!


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