A Double Dose of K-pop: “Shine” by Jessica Jung & “K-pop Confidential” by Stephan Lee

Shine, Jessica Jung (Simon & Schuster Books, September 2020); K-pop Confidential, Stephan Lee (Point, September 2020) Shine, Jessica Jung (Simon & Schuster Books, September 2020); K-pop Confidential, Stephan Lee (Point, September 2020)

Korean American K-pop star Jessica Jung may have gotten her start as a singer and performer with the hit band Girls’ Generation, but now also has a fashion line and has modeled for make-up lines and magazine covers around the world. Her branding is reaching into film and television. And now she has a debut young adult novel, Shine.

Jung’s Twitter and Instagram followings of almost 15 million and 10 million each certainly gives her the fan base. She’s hardly the first celebrity to delve into the teen corner of the literary world—Hillary Duff and Zoella tread this path some years back—but Jung hails from an entirely different cultural milieu.

Shine is not, as one might expect and possibly fear, a self-serving look at Jung’s rise to fame with a fuzzy love story gone wrong. Instead, she uses her platform to address sexism and the competitiveness of the K-pop industry.

Is the release of two such books in short succession a trailing or a leading indicator: an indication that K-pop will enter the English-speaking pop-culture mainstream, or that it already has?

Rachel Kim has been training for six years in hopes of becoming the next K-pop sensation. When discovered at the age of eleven, she moved with her family to Seoul from their home in New York City. But Rachel had more on her mind than just K-Pop star fame and fortune. An incident at age six led to a search for identity, and she realized Americans didn’t see her the way she saw herself.

 

There was one other Asian girl in my class, Eugenia Li. Even though she was Chinese, everyone was always asking us if we were cousins or twin sisters. I didn’t think much of it until one day when I got stung by a bee during recess. I was sitting in the nurse’s office, waiting for Umma to come and take me home, when Mrs. Li walked through the door. The nurse didn’t realize she had done anything wrong and instead was all smiles as she told me that my mom was there to get me.

 

Rachel discovers herself, solace and pride in her heritage from K-pop videos on her mother’s laptop.

After six years of training, Rachel hoped to debut, or become a bona fide K-Pop star; anything less than full stardom would make her parents’ sacrifices all for naught. Then Canadian Korean K-pop sensation Jason Lee walks into the picture. YA books commonly include a budding relationship that becomes threatened by a problem sometimes out of the couple’s hands. But in Shine, the central problem begins as a conflict between Rachel and her parents. They worry about the industry’s toxic environment and wanted her to quit to concentrate on college applications. Rachel is all too aware of the production company’s sexist double standards. Jason doesn’t get it:

 

“At the end of the day … it really doesn’t benefit them to treat the guys differently than the girls.”
      My throat is tight. Is he for real?

 

In this impressive debut, Jung writes as an insider about South Korea’s greatest export in a way that exposes the stress endured by the female trainees and celebrities. Given Jung’s stardom, it’s not surprising that Shine will be translated into more than a dozen languages and will be followed by a sequel titled Bright.

 

Whether or not there will be a sequel, Stephan Lee sets up his debut YA novel, K-pop Confidential, with a cliffhanger that invites more. Like Shine, Lee’s novel centers around a Korean-American teen who dreams of becoming a K-pop star to make her parents proud and to feel more in touch with her Korean roots. Lee is not a former K-pop star like Jung, but is well-versed in pop culture; he previously wrote for Entertainment Weekly and currently writes for Bustle.

And like Shine, Lee’s book includes the strict no-dating rule that prohibits Candace Park from openly hanging out with Korean American boy band trainee, YoungBae. K-pop Confidential goes into considerable detail about the training process: there’s great pressure to lose weight, get plastic surgery, and to train twenty hours a day. When Candace learns she needs to wake up at 4:00am for a workout and won’t go to sleep until her team practice finishes at midnight, she doesn’t know how she’ll survive.

 

My schedule changes up a little day to day–I sometimes have something called a “Behavior and Manners Class,” and on Saturdays I have a five-hour “Dance Class With Miss Yoon”—but the six hours of Korean language class and the nine hours of practice and the inhumane amount of sleep are every day except for Sunday. How am I going to survive one week of this, let alone three months?

 

Candace, unlike most of the trainees, was only supposed to be in Seoul for the summer, the end of which would coincide with the production company’s timeline of forming a new girls’ group. She never thought she would actually be picked, but figured it would be a fun opportunity. She sold the idea to her parents because it would give her something to write about for her college essay.

Shine and K-pop Confidential celebrate K-pop while at the same time pointing to the industry’s flaws, especially when it comes to the treatment of female trainees. Is the release of two such books in short succession a trailing or a leading indicator: an indication that K-pop will enter the English-speaking pop-culture mainstream, or that it already has?


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.