BTS, Blackpink, Aespa, NCT. If these seem like random letters and colors to you, then you may be behind the times. In the modern era of contemporary music here in South Korea, these are the commercial pop powerhouses that have spread their influence across languages, countries, and generations through a phenomenon known as the Hallyu or Korean Wave, and an industry known as K-Pop or Korean popular music.
Following the genre’s origins in the late eighties and early nineties, it has developed from a regional entertainment source into a hyper-produced international powerhouse of financial profit and attention-seeking almost-too-perfect acts designed to be profitable with short catchy choruses and sculpted professional identities. Yet, not even photoshop, audio editing, and even plastic surgery are enough to satiate the levels of perfection expected by modern day consumers.
When faces, voices, body, fashion, hair, lyrics, dance, and instrumental quality must all be at the forefront of perfection, something beyond perfect, where can the industry turn to? Younger generations? That’s already been attempted for decades with “idols” debuting as young as middle schoolers no older than 14 like Taemin of SHINee, BoA, and Wonyoung of IZ*ONE. Medical interventions are often undertaken to further perfect the stars with many idols unrecognizable when compared to their younger appearances as a result of trying to create the face with the most “it” factor or “ulzzang,” whatever that factor may be during the trends of their era.
As human beings are organic, not artificial, creatures, there is a limit to which they can be cultivated into the ultimate marketable celebrity. Push them too far and they break. In the words of popular girl group (G)I-dle’s leader, Soyeon, “Do you want a blonde Barbie doll? It’s not here. I’m not a doll.” Thus, the corporations behind these Korean pop acts are finding new methods through which to further perfect the media marketability of their acts: viral TikTok challenges and dances, provocative lyrics (TOMBOY by (G)I-dle), exotic concepts, and … artificial idols.
Her name is Yuna. She is the prodigal daughter of the K-Pop forefathers’ dreams. Her life is squeaky clean, free of scandals, and her mind is too, open to influence from any sources ready to provide directions. When she dances, her lines are long and sharp, her body naturally thin because, as she might say (if she could), “that’s how she’s designed.” Skin pale and without any discoloration or distinguishing marks like tattoos that might foul public perception, the only aspect left is her face and voice. Once again, Yuna is made by design, and her face is that of one with proportions that could only be gifted to her by an artist: large expressive eyes, a long, tall nose, and a pouty yet small pair of lips which blossom into a smile during gaps between her performances. Her voice is clear and without deviation from how the producers and composers intended it to hear over the track. She is Yuna and she is the first Metaverse idol.
Designed by Seoul Stars as a “Virtual K-Pop Artist”, Yuna is marketed as an influencer that exists within the metaverse, or online world, unrestrained by the limits of humanity and real life. With images of her being coded into 10,000 non-fungible tokens or NFTs for trading on the market, her creators, Jameson, Hang, Steve, and renowned digital artist, Songbly, have profited via cryptocurrency from her image alone. Now, they are pushing forward projects like her debut songs, “Kiss Me Kiss Me,” “Lonely,” and “Flower,” and designing a 3D model of Yuna that matches her backstory as that of a contemporary Korean dancing major with a penchant for singing and a deep passion for Girls Generation, Aespa, and Blackpink. Ironically, Aespa also created their own virtual idol counterparts to the real-life selves as part of an effort by their company, SM Entertainment, to push a cross-artist “Gwangya” metaverse concept in much of their music videos and performances. Riot Games, creator of the widely popular video game, League of Legends, also produces a virtual girl group using their already existing video game characters known as KDA. The female body and performance objectified and commodified to this point, however, may be a slippery slope for the industry, pushing the exploitation of art for profit and blurring the line between reality and fantasy.