Lessons Learned from Queens of K-Music

"You have to become the 'first of yourself' instead of trying to become the second of anyone."
- BoA

This quote comes from one of the most popular pioneers in the K-pop music industry, who holds the title of having six consecutive studio albums all ranked at #1 on Oricon music charts.  BoA is known as the “Queen of K-pop” with overwhelming success all throughout East Asia. Due to her age, she has been the subject of much criticism undermining her creative-versatility and addictive spine-tingling chart toppers. Despite negative response, she remains unbothered and continues to be an idolized success story.

Often women in stardom are made to shine behind the shadows of their male counterparts. Their flaws and imperfections make first page news whereas their successes are seemingly “less interesting” stories receiving minimal coverage. They have certainly felt the wounds inflicted from being pelted by double standards and unrealistic expectations. However, this is about none of that. Rather, the focus is the resilience of women in the Korean music industry that refuse to be or accept anything less than the best. Here’s to the stars who don’t receive the praise they deserve for keeping true to themselves in a society that wants to form them into a copycat mold.

1.) Ailee

Think back to your most memorable win. Maybe it was during a video game battle, sports championship, or perhaps finally getting that promotion you’ve been dreaming about. Everyone in attendance could agree that your potential for even greater success was undeniable. Now imagine that even after receiving overflowing congratulatory cheers, they told you, you still aren’t good enough…if only you had lighter skin, a smaller number on the scale, and perhaps some surgical additives. Then only then, would you be the best. How would you respond? That was the case of our first Queen in K-pop, Ailee.

Ailee is best known for her daesang win crediting her extraordinary vocals accompanied by heart-wrenching lyrics written for the OST chart-topper “I will go to you like the first snow” from Yu Huiyeol's Sketchbook.

As popular as she is on the K-pop scene, she soon would gain greater attention after exposing the ugly truth about K-pop fad diets singers are forced to undergo. Sadly, the music industry shines more of the spotlight on visual appearance in comparison to talent and ability. In many cases, including Ailee’s, it often results in artists being shamed and some not being permitted to perform if they do not reach society’s unrealistic picture-perfect standards. She tears up during an interview on Hidden Singer as she recalls only being allowed small pieces of fruit and vegetables as a meal to reach insatiable beauty standards just to perform on stage. Nevertheless, she goes on to triumphantly say, “I decided not to care about how I look. I am happy now, and it is more important that I am satisfied with my singing. The most important thing is to love your own body.”

Ailee didn’t allow the negativity to consume her. Rather, she knew she was more than just a face on a screen. She is a world-renowned singer, performer, four-time Golden Disk Award winner, and above all, she is herself. Her story teaches us not to allow others to squash you into a mold and minimize the power of your abilities, but to instead use that negativity to motivate you to show them what you’re made of.

2.) Soyeon

“Why isn’t she eliminated yet? She doesn’t have the face of an idol I picture in a girl group.” ... "If soybean paste soup or fermented bean paste soup was a person, it would look like this”“She can definitely sing and is talented, but there’s an obvious reason why Cube Entertainment isn’t going to allow her to debut.”

Hopeful rapper Soyeon faced constant biting criticism from K-pop fans on her looks. During her trainee days, many of the hate comments she faced not only attacked her visuals, but also shattered any dream of a successful career with her appearance. She sighs as she wonders, “Would more people watch me more if my face looked fine?” After reading the malicious comments she also confesses to feeling angry at the sight of her own face.  That was one of the darkest moments in her life; but with a bright and vibrant personality, perseverance, and a killer rap flow to match, she is an ardent flame that cannot be extinguished. Many of us can relate to self-imposed insecurities but to be told by others—even those who don’t know you—that your existence is disturbing, is on another level and can cause severe mental-duress. So, to overcome a trial of that magnitude speaks volumes on your grit.

In 2016, she showcased her talent on Produce 101, a reality TV competition program pinning 101 K-pop trainees against each other for a special 11 to be selected to form a K-pop group. In the same year, Soyeon also participated in Unpretty Rapstar, a similar televised survival show aimed at female aspiring rappers. She made it to semi-finalist of Unpretty Rapstar, but was unfortunately eliminated from both programs. Being in front of the camera in that environment where the sole purpose is to be judged by millions, exposed her to a lot of criticism. However, every failure is not a loss. Her passion for music and newly-acquired enduring spirit coupled with training received on the survival shows, she would make the perfect leader.  

Her determination paid off as she is now successfully the main rapper and leader of rookie K-pop group (G)I-dle that took the world by storm in 2018 after receiving their first win on The Show.  They set the record for being the second-fastest girl group to win at just twenty days after their debut date! Entering the scene with such powerful vocals, mesmerizing choreography, & strong raps demanding the attention, it was a telltale sign of their destined success.

3.) Amber

Have you ever worked so hard to reach a goal but wondered if it was still worth it? Or how about after finally achieving that goal and receiving the hard-earned results, many try to assure you that your future success is just an illusion. How do you feel? Is that your motivation to continue? Or maybe you think they’re right, so you give into the pressure.

Well, when life gives Amber lemons, she turns them into ammunition to fuel her spunky-ambitious, enduring spirit to fend off haters.

Singer, songwriter, rapper, llama extraordinaire Amber Liu is notoriously known as a tomboy fashion idol. In K-pop group f(x), she is often pictured with a cropped pixie-cut paired with comfy on-trend athletic streetwear whereas her fellow members are styled with the classic it-girl look including long flowy hair, glittery eyeshadow, & sexy-chic skin-tight fits. Many applaud her unique personality and non-typical female K-pop idol style preferring sneakers and sweats over makeup and mini-skirts. However, contending with trolls continues to be a daily stunt for her. Many of these anonymous trolls make harassing remarks on her appearance, including her small chest.

Her reply on her YouTube video “Where Is My Chest?” posted on her account sends the boomerang back to hit the haters smack dab in the face. Her sarcastic tone delivers a seeming “agreeing with the hate” attitude, silencing the negativity without use of tit-for-tat malicious tactics, which deserves a standing ovation from all the passive-aggressive underdogs of the world. Though victory is sweet, she honestly opened up during an interview with Forbes, “I always felt like I was alone and because people never understood me, I had to shut myself out from the world. Art and music was the only thing that could ever help me get over that.” Between attacks from netizens and rifts in her relationship with SM Entertainment, Amber honestly felt that pressure develop to an incredibly heavy force. Those struggles were detailed in her first single as a solo artist under new label Steel Wool Entertainment, “White Noise,” and “Lost at Sea” in 2018, where she could finally reach out with her fullest potential and reach U.S audiences.

The success of her single was followed by her Gone Rogue world tour fans described as “way over the top having no words to describe the excitement and emotions!” Amber built the confidence to take a risky step into a new solo chapter of her life and with the support of Embers (Amber’s fandom), it has proved to provide her with the praise she was more than overdo.

4.) Yoon Mirae

Yoon Mirae’s name cannot be said without being attached to being one of the best female rappers in Korea. Before her rise to fame, her bi-racial heritage (having an African-American father and Korean mother) threatened to end her career before it could launch. In homogeneous societies, people of other ethnicities are like elephants in the room. So, as a child she recounts times growing up in Korea, when kids would call her racial slurs which led to much of her childhood spent in isolation. Even into her late teens she was pressured to hide her African American identity to appease the Korean music industry and to limit prejudice she would ultimately face.

Release of hit song “Black Happiness” from album t3 in 2007, detailed heart-wrenching moments in her life where she struggled love her identity but came to celebrate her diverse heritage. Yoon Mirae’s unique sound and versatile pop, rap, and R&B hits gained a surprisingly positive response from fans, placing many of her tracks at #1 on Korean music charts. Along with her husband Tiger JK, the power couple set the K-hiphop scene ablaze in 2013 with the creation of their hip-hop label, Feel Ghood Music. They are free to produce hits under their own rules with their own creative flair, no longer under outdated societal norms.

Although your end-goal may not be to become a K-pop star, these artists still can teach us a lot about the resilience and determination required on the journey to success in any endeavor. In imitation of these star-studded ladies, don’t let negativity own you. Own it and use it as a motivating force to never give up on yourself.

What K-pop artist inspires you the most? Let us know in the comments!

Cover Image: BoA (SM Entertainment)
Written by Serena Jackson

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