Flashy and achingly hip, this insider take on K-pop trainee life is def for the dedicated.
Months ago I got an excited message from a coworker saying she ordered copies of the upcoming K-pop YA novel K-pop Confidential by Stephan Lee for our bookstore, but really specifically for me. I’ve established myself as the K-pop bookseller at work and that means I absolutely had to read K-pop Confidential as soon as possible. But once I started reading I had the same feeling that I get when I hear a new comeback song I’m not sure about: do I actually like it, or am I just a devoted fan? Both?
K-pop Confidential is what every Asian American teen in love with K-pop dreams at one point: passing the highly competitive audition process and earning a trainee spot in one of the biggest music companies in Seoul. Our protagonist, Candace Park, starts out as the average American sophomore: miserable in her small town, dedicating her life to hobbies her mom pushes her into, and dreaming of something more. At the beginning of the book Candace doesn’t even really like K-pop, what stans would call a “filthy casual,” but she ends up going to the audition anyway for the joke; the joke ends up being she realizes becoming a trainee is her only chance to pursue her actual love, singing. And while the company and its idols are fictional, the stakes feel as real as it gets.
Candace has one summer (excuse me––one summer?! Uhm, Johnny Suh would like a word) to train as if her life depends on it to debut in the world’s most anticipated girl group. She can’t afford any distractions, not that she has much time for anything between her singing practices, dance rehearsals, language classes, manner lessons, and maybe an hour of sleep. But there are, of course, distractions; like the cute trainee boy in her language class or the ultimate boy band of the moment, aka her label mates, including her ult bias who starts to notice her. But as Candace gets pushed to her limits working to achieve a one in a million dream, she has to question how much she’s willing to sacrifice to live that life.
I know exactly why my coworker thought I’d love this book, I know exactly why I expected to love this book––it has everything a tried and true K-pop stan wants: an “inside look at idol life,” a fierce protagonist, a swoon-worthy cute boy, and K-pop references all over the place. But what should be a perfect formula feels flashy and gimmicky on a first read. The real-world references to current groups and songs feel relatable (special shout-out to Lee’s references to all the amazing girl groups, they never get enough credit), but the hip fan lingo Candace uses date the book. Echoing “kpop twt” is a risky move and here I think it pulls away from the earnestness of the story. Candace is out here, a sixteen year old kid from New Jersey, working for the possibility to officially become a star in Seoul and I felt like the sincerity of her struggle got lost. It was only after finishing the book and thinking back on Candace’s journey when I realized I liked the story.
Reading this quote from Lee’s interview with writer Jae-Ha Kim also changed my perspective on how I think about Candace’s experiences: “Western media often exoticizes the K-pop trainee system. But I think there’s something universal about young people being put in extremely competitive environments, no matter where they’re from.”
I never felt as if K-pop Confidential fed into the “dark side of K-pop” narrative that’s oh so popular in Western media. For better or worse, everything she went through was roughly what I expected after hearing stories from idols and seeing talent survival shows like Produce 101. The difference is how Candace reacts and processes what happens around her, recognizing its faults and working through her honest feelings. Candace’s observations and frustrations at female trainee expectations are valid: spend years of your childhood working, the pressure to always be innocent and meek, maintain impossible beauty standards, and be able to make the hardest performances look effortless. That’s the image of “celebrity perfection” and the lengths management companies (fictional or real) go to maintain it reaches the ridiculous in satire, dehumanizing in practice.
And while I understand the point Lee’s making, there were two specific references I don’t think worked well: one about former Girl’s Generation member Jessica Jung and another about who could either have been Sulli or Goo Hara. While well-meaning (and in the instances of idols who passed away, respectful) to hold up as examples of harsh female standards, in the moment of the plot it felt poorly timed. I don’t think Lee is being opportunistic when he makes these references; I question how referencing real-world stories without fully explaining what happened serves the story. If it’s too vague and new fans don’t know what he’s talking about, what will the reader learn?
Ultimately, K-pop Confidential tells a good story while pointing out the ridiculous expectations surrounding intense celebrity pressure. Of the three K-pop focused YA novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really reminded me “oh hey, these are just kids.” Everyone in the book, just like every trainee in Seoul, is under the age of 18. In a story focused on K-pop it’s easy to fixate on the perceptions of the idol world, but looking past the glitter lies the real point K-pop Confidential gets at: achieving your dreams shouldn’t come at the cost of who you are.
For whatever other qualms I had with the book’s pacing, character development, or language style, K-pop Confidential really is that comeback song you keep listening to after it gets stuck in your head a few times. For me, it’s NCT 127’s “Punch”––jarring at first, but in the end the concept worked through charisma and sheer force of will. K-pop Confidential had its highlights and shining moments, but it’s definitely a book for the fans, the ones who will get all the inside jokes and nods and criticisms. The ones who’ve been around for a while and want to see something totally shake up the K-pop world, even if it’s only fictional.