Are Kpop fans very fickle on what is classified as old age? This short editorial explores idols who are ‘getting old’ and the complicated issue of ageism.

While watching numerous interviews, I have often noticed how young idols express a fear of getting old, regardless of whether they were born in the mid 80s or 90s. Sometimes they’ll say it as a joke though the worry is clearly there no matter how hard they conceal it. Is it the intense schedules that comes with the idol package which makes them more likely to think in this mindset, forcing them to ‘grow up’ in their career? It’s bitterly funny how fans think a specific age like say 20 makes you old but as I’ve mentioned here that’s not really true.

Sojin from Girl’s Day said in an interview how she was worried about turning 30 soon (she’s born in 1986). Netizens were shocked and reacted on the lines of, “Wow she looks so youthful. I thought she was in her early 20s.” Then again it’s like this with a lot of Asians. Depending by their lifestyle, many do look young for their age. I’ve been told the same thing regularly but often wonder if I can keep the ‘youthful’ image up before the wrinkles and grey hair worsen.

If we flip the tables here and go to the older idols who are still active in their career the general reaction towards them appears much more mixed compared to the current wave of young stars. When techno queen Lee Jung Hyun made a music comeback in 2013 with ‘V’, comments varied from “Has she had plastic surgery? She hasn’t aged” and “Her music is out of date. She needs to retire.”

Even Rain ‘s comeback received similar feedback. I’ve seen people call him a “washed out Ahjussi” which boggled my mind when I first heard that response because he isn’t even in his 40s or beyond yet. This man is a year older than me and while he did seem to be a lot slimmer than his previous years, Rain hadn’t completely lost his charisma or funky dance moves as MAMA 2013 showed (note the fanboying and fangirling from the fellow idols as they watched him on stage!).

Lee Hyori is much older than Rain and hasn’t been completely struck by the “she needs to retire” response, despite her married status. Her music comeback was met with a lot of praise, proof she still was one of those sassy Kpop divas you could not mess with. It seems Rain has received more negativity because of his recent military scandals rather than because he is ‘old’ and this certainly put a dent in his music comeback.

Legendary group Shinhwa have come under fire for being too old after returning as a sextet in 2012 with a new album. I think of them as a ‘man-band’ – reminiscent of my favourite British and American boy bands who have gotten older but occasionally perform on tour or at special events for various reasons. So I honestly don’t have a problem with Shinhwa and other than admiring how suave they have become over time, I also really appreciate the ‘vogue’ style in their song This Love.

I applaud the veterans who endeavour to make a comeback after a hiatus period. Trying to catch up with the latest music trends amongst the younger idols is certainly not easy if you have been out of the limelight for months or years and you still want to prove yourself, showing why you were a big name in the first place with your power vocals and/or fierce choreography.

But what about the women out there who have struggled with fulfilling their dreams after getting married and decide to become an idol when the opportunity is there? Take Girl Hood for instance. They’re described as an Ahjumma group who debuted in March 2014 and considered a mature version of SNSD. Frowning over the name choice I was not sure what to expect from these ladies because they did not have a conventional Ahjumma look and quite a few netizens had pointed this out as well. Are you sure they’re Ahjummas? some of them asked sceptically. Was it because they seemed too sexy to be married women?

The members are in their mid-30s, with the Maknae seemingly aged 29. I had to admit I was intrigued at first and thought great it’s been a very long time since I related to Unnie idols. Aside from my long term dedication to female vocalists in rock or metal bands, most of the Unnie singers I encountered during my early binge of Kpop have been soul or ballad-focused e.g. Gummy or Lee Soo Young.

“Darling, Honey I Love You” by Girl Hood talks about the women’s feelings towards a man. It’s a touching song when you look at the lyrics more closely, despite how the music video itself might come across as very boring because there’s not much going on as the women sing and dance. They are often standing next to a handsome (younger?) male and you realise this man possibly represents what these ladies cannot have (is it me or does this apply to fangirls dreaming about their idols?).

One concern I have with Girl Hood‘s debut is that the Ahjumma gimmick is possibly presented in a way that might make the cynical music fan think, “Wait, you’re too old to be doing those sexy dance moves” or “You’re too old to be doing Aegyo.” I could see where music fans are going with that train of thought as the few dance moves that express cuteness do come across as cringeworthy and not needed. Would that choreography just be better off with the younger female idols?

There’s no denying that these ladies are pretty but if you want to reach out to Ahjummas in the same age range and encourage them to reach for their idol dream, would they be better off sticking to trot/jazz/soul genres to present a mature image of an older woman as opposed to going with a risque MILF concept that might make the mothers of adolescent fanboys raise their eyebrows?

Even if Girl Hood did officially bomb, they have indirectly given me some inspiration to work hard to achieve any career goals and not let the current burn of ageism hit me as much. This isn’t to say I want to be an idol who is seen as a grown-up version of the sugary cute and/or sexy female groups out there (I do not have the creativity and artistry to back me up anyway) but just do what I can to accomplish something notable and worthwhile.

Now should I still be a young, ambitious Kpop fangirl aged between 18-24 then yes maybe I’d take a gamble and go for the global auditions organised by the big name labels. Who remembers the JYPE UK Audition? They had an age restriction printed on their website and flyers.

On the other hand, I get peeved with how companies treat female idols as useless when they decide to start a family or tie the knot. If they’ve proven they still have what it takes to dance and sing without trying too hard then what’s the problem? I understand the need for new faces when it comes to debuting new fresh talent however if the active veterans are ageing gracefully and showing little struggle in their performances, shouldn’t we let them be? Obviously it’s down to the individual (and their manager) to know when to draw the line or know when their body clock says it’s time to chill out and not overwork any more.

What of the older people who want to become an idol? Is it too late? Of course the well-known music companies prefer young people for trainees but if Girl Hood or Big Mama are anything to go by, they go to show that age doesn’t matter and neither does appearance. What is important is the marketing, namely towards those who are much older. Mind you, I enjoy listening to many Dong Saeng idols on a daily basis and go back to listening to veterans now and then but it is refreshing to see potential newcomers of the Unnie and Ahjumma variety that are near the same age range as myself. I hope older women who gain the chance to debut will succeed in breaking negative stereotypes.


About Author

**Jan 2013 - Jan 2015** British Born Chinese who occasionally self-reflects. Has more Aegyo than she should for 'old' age status. LinkedIn / Review Blog