Earlier this month, Netflix released BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky, a documentary film, directed by Caroline Suh, about the journey of one of South Korea’s largest pop cultural exports: K-Pop girl group, BLACKPINK.
Next to BTS, BLACKPINK are it when it comes to a K-Pop band that’ve made their way into the mainstream. BLACKPINK is composed of four young women aged 23 to 25 years old: Jisoo, the eldest at 25 (called unnie or big sister in Korean), Jennie, 24, Lisa, 23 and Rosé, 23. Each of them came from various parts of the world, Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and Australia (we love our Aussie grown K-Pop star Rosé).
Despite debuting in 2016 and—before this month—only having one (1) album to their name, the girl group has performed at Coachella, collaborated with Lady Gaga, Cardi B and Selena Gomez, and, according to Spotify, are listened to by nearly 29 million users each month. But, it hasn’t been an easy road to get to where they are, as their recent Netflix doco only begins to reveal. Near the end of their 2019 world tour, Rosé, real name Roseanne Park, breaks down on stage, hugging her members, thanking them for being there for each other and sharing how proud of them she is.
For some context here, K-Pop artists aren’t like western musicians, they are perfectly crafted for your commodity. See, the way K-Pop works, talent agencies host auditions and select a handful of teenagers who undergo years of rigorous training to become the perfect K-Pop star. Each month during this period, they’re graded for their efforts in dance, rap and vocals, as the talent pool is cut down. Those that stay say goodbye to life-long friends, those that leave, leave their career dreams behind.
They work excruciatingly long hours, get little time off and are told they aren’t allowed to drink, date or even get a tattoo. In a recent interview on Korean TV show Love Intervention, former 2NE1 member Dara admitted that YG gave her a “five year dating ban” while she was working for them. It’s heartbreaking and sucks, even more so when BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky introduces us to our four members and the lives they lived before training.
For Rosé, early footage of her shows that she was always a musically-gifted young girl. Growing up, she was hooked to the piano and guitar, writing songs and excelling at school. One day, her father saw that a talent agency was recruiting for a new K-Pop group, so he recommended she go audition. Two months later, she was on a plane to Seoul where she spent the next five years in a new country, surrounded by completely new people, and without her support network. As she revealed in a talking head later in the film, “I never finished high school.”
It’s here that the four girls bonded over their shared experience of alienation, isolation and hard work. They joke that the fact they all roomed together was fate. Lisa and Rosé admit they instantly connected with each other and grew to one another like sisters. BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky implies that this is the end of the struggling part of their journey. That because they’ve made it and are touring around the world, they’re dealing with all the same problems as Billie Eilish, Lizzo and other mainstream pop artists and have creative control. It couldn’t be any further from the truth.
For a quick TLDR, the company involved with BLACKPINK, YG Entertainment has been met with various controversies over the years. Last year, its former CEO, Yang Hyun-suk, stepped down after various allegations of gambling, corruption, drug use, sexual assault and prostitution. YouTube video essays emerged claiming that the company was intentionally setting its new girl group up to fail, giving them less opportunities. According to Billboard, only one of the band’s members, Jennie, has had a solo single, despite Hyun-suk, before his termination, assuring fans in a YG Life blog post that they’d see solo singles for Rosé, Jisoo and Lisa. It’s all quite messy—tbh, as all K-Pop stan culture is—but informs us that BLACKPINK have had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they are.
Their journey, both shown and hidden, makes that moment where Rosé cries on-stage more moving. And, it makes all of the awkward silence in interviews and glimpses of these young women holding back unsaid stories more telling. In a sense, BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky does what it sets out to do: introduces people to one of the biggest girl groups in the world right now and their story, and attempts to pull the rug under the K-Pop industry to reveal the toxic foundations that keep it afloat, but is met with resistance.