LOS ANGELES -- As a teen member of the band U-KISS, Kevin Woo felt the hot glare of the K-pop limelight. His time in the band showed the California-born singer what life in the particular pressure cooker of South Korean fame meant, and how the expectations can be debilitating.
"In training, (the record labels) take a lot of privacy from you," said Woo, now a solo artist who will appear at this weekend's KCON convention in downtown L.A. "They take your phone away when you debut. You can't date, which was very shocking for me. They want trainees to have a certain figure, so you're dieting and there's pressure to get plastic surgery."
Record labels mold and cast band members when they're young, and exert total control over their lives and images. That can drive you to dark places. "I've seen artists who have been affected by that, when you feel like you're being watched too closely," Woo said. "You get scared of people, of going out. You constantly fear someone taking pictures. You can't live a comfortable private life."
For young fans of the genre, the pressures of modern life can mirror those faced by K-pop stars. We live in a social media panopticon, where one false move can destroy your reputation. Perfection is expected. Gigantic corporations have colonized our lives.
So it's no coincidence that some of the most interesting presentations and panels at this year's KCON L.A., a four-day concert and fan event that draws well over 100,000 people, deal with mental health issues in the scene. The main concert sports sets from rising stars like Ateez, Stray Kids and Loona, alongside a bevy of idol meet-and-greets, Korean beauty tutorials and dance workshops.
There's immense value in the connection K-pop creates between fans, many of whom come from marginalized backgrounds. But it can also be lonely and exhausting onstage for artists in such a rigid system. Fans' all-consuming devotion to their idols can turn threatening, both online and off-.
At KCON, fans and scholars are acknowledging that the scene is both an asset and a challenge when it comes to fans' and artists' mental health.
"When I was younger, I went through my own mental health difficulties, which just weren't talked about in my culture," said Janet Ly, a Chinese-American family therapist and hallyu fan who will speak at a panel on mental health and K-pop. The scene helped her "say whatever I needed to say, and validated my experiences. There's a strong emphasis on community because K-pop is not as mainstream in the U.S. That helps you feel connected to other people."
But also, Ly added, "Being anonymous through a screen is scary. You only see words, not the lives being affected. They can have a great impact on somebody."
K-pop's rise in the U.S. elevated the scene (long established in Asia) from an internet-driven curiosity here to a thriving subculture and, finally, into a multimedia juggernaut with bands selling out stadiums and signing to major labels. With it came an ultra-passionate fan base where young audiences' devotion to acts is unparalleled since the boy-band/"TRL" heyday of the late '90s.