The internet went mad this week for the story of Taeyang, the rags-to-riches star of K-Pop band BIGBANG.
It goes like this: Taeyang is born, and has a pretty okay life, in a pretty normal family. 13 years later, a financial crisis hits Asia, including his country of South Korea.
The exec summary of the crisis is that South Korea’s government was borrowing a lot more money than it could pay back, mainly because it were using that money to expand businesses into even bigger businesses that didn’t actually have much prospect of doing well.
When it turned out they couldn’t really pay back all the loans they’d taken out, South Koreans started feeling the effects. Their currency, the won, lost value (because no-one trusted South Korean business) so people earning in won suddenly could do much less with their money. Companies lost money too, which means people lost jobs.
So because Taeyang’s family’s finances and savings were pretty much depleted, he decided to quit school and move to the city to find a job and earn some money to help tide things over (at 13!) He landed a supporting role in a music video, and loved it more than anything - thankfully, he was pretty good at it too.
He approached the CEO and asked to be trained as a singer. Probably because it was such a cheeky ask coming from a lowly trainee, and he seemed to really mean it, the CEO said yes.
He met another trainee from an underground hip hop group in Seoul, and they worked their ass off making music together. Fast forward a few years, and with another trainee on board, they create BIGBANG - one of the most successful K-Pop bands, ever.
Obviously, everyone loves a rags to riches story. And sure, his was pretty direct: basically one big break that he worked really, really hard for. But in South Korea, it’s particularly extraordinary given how difficult it is for people to move out of the social ranking they’re born in.
Only one in five South Koreans think it’s possible to move up in your ‘economic status’ through your own efforts. When college students talk about finding a job out of uni in South Korea, they often bring up whether they were born with a ‘gold spoon’, ‘silver spoon’, ‘brass spoon’, or ‘dirt spoon’ in their mouths, as a pretty direct indicator of whether they stand a shot in the real world.
It’s not just in people’s heads - only two in ten households have become richer in the last few years if you discount the ones that came into lots of money via inheritance or increased their wealth by any other means besides working harder. The unemployment rate among young people is three times higher than among older generations. They’re “the product of an extremely unequal and unstable society that has concentrated all of its wealth and resources,” a professor in Seoul said.
So Taeyang’s story is pretty unique. He’s now one of the 30 richest celebrities under 30, and is likely to go down in K-Pop history for his story and his work. He knows it too - he did a masters in music, and wrote his dissertation about the influence that his own band has had on K-Pop. Pretty easy to write a dissertation when you’ve only got to interview yourself… but hey, if we had a story like his, we’d probably do the same.