By Usraat Fahmidah
Stephan Lee, author of K-Pop: Confidential dishes on K-Pop, identity, and revolution
Author Stephan Lee and I sat down last year in July to talk about his book K-pop: Confidential. As a brand-new K-pop enthusiast, I was super excited to interview him about his book that feels like a Bible for any K-pop stan who’s into books. I say Bible because it is a YA novel inspired by K-pop, and as such, is an easy read and has a glossary of all the K-pop jargon.
The book, K-pop: Confidential, introduces us to a quiet Korean-American girl – Candance Park – who travels to Seoul in hopes of debuting in a girl group at the same label behind the most popular boy band on the planet, SLK. For most of her life, Candace has played the role of a perfect daughter and student keeping her singing dreams to herself. But when the opportunity arrives to debut at the same label as the world’s most popular boy group, Candance takes it.
Talking about the inspiration for his debut book, Stephan Lee said that he “really wanted to tell the story of a Korean American kid going to Korea for the first time.” Even though the book is primarily set in a world that revolves around K-pop, he wanted to highlight “Candace’s personal journey to be about not feeling quite at home in either America, where she’s a racial minority, to Korea, where she might look like everyone else but is so different on the inside.”
When we had this interview, Stephan was still working on the sequel to K-pop: Confidential. The debut book garnered a huge fan base of K-pop enthusiasts around the world. With his sequel he wanted “to explore more issues of representation in K-pop.” K-pop is known for its catchy tunes, extravagant fashion, and intense storylines. But for many years the representation in the western media had been prejudiced and stuck on the same old narrative of being “evil” and “exploitative.” To some extent, the representation is deemed as xenophobic. And the author agreed.
“My sequel really explores who is included and who is excluded by the industry. And by the way, this problem isn’t unique to K-pop whatsoever – there are the same issues in Hollywood, but this is something I address much more in the sequel,” he added.
The sequel K-pop: Revolution came out this March. As Stephan said in our interview, the book “picks up right where the first book leaves off. You see how Candace deals with the consequences of her actions at the end of the first book, and how she’s able to move forward. You’ll see some characters from the first book come back whose stories you might have thought ended in the first book.”
When asked about how his love for K-pop started, he said that he was obsessed and always loved female pop stars, ever since he was little. And he would “spend hours listening to Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls.” But for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to explore Korean pop stars when he was a kid because, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he spent his “whole childhood trying to assimilate to white culture.”
And it wasn’t until he was an adult and started researching for a story for his job that he got obsessed with K-pop girl groups. “2NE1 was my first love, then followed by Girls’ Generation. My obsession only grew, and now I love to stan dozens and dozens of girl groups. It’s so meaningful to see Korean stars all over the media representing strength and freedom of expression,” he said. Lee, who worked at Entertainment Weekly, said that he was often assigned the Asian stories for being the only Korean-American on the staff.
And it was at Entertainment Weekly where he got to travel to South Korea for three weeks to work on a story about the K-pop industry. This was in 2014, when K-pop was taking off abroad and names like 2NE1, Psy, Exo, Girls Generation were gaining fame worldwide.
While researching for the story, his mom – a professor at the time – helped him find contacts. Although the magazine he worked for was popular in the West, it didn’t “have any contacts in the K-pop industry back then” said Lee. Despite not having any connections with the entertainment industry, his mom helped him with getting the interview. “Korea is a small country and everyone knows each other somehow,” he added. And with her contacts Lee’s mom managed to get him interviews with Ailee, Girls Generation’s Tiffany Young, and Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho.
“K-pop is more than just entertainment. The people in the industry are serious about their work and what they are doing”
Initially, the book wasn’t planned. But he had hoped to work on his book someday. And he had experience as an entertainment editor and interviewed a lot of celebrities. So, when his friend at Scholastic asked if he had plans for a YA novel inspired by K-pop, he said yes. “There were no books about K-pop. And I wanted to write a story about a Korean-American like myself.” And that’s how K-pop: Confidential came to be.
“In my own small way, I could relate my experience of debuting as an author to Candace’s experiences of trying to debut as a K-pop star,” replied Stephan when asked about his takeaways on working on his first novel. And working on a book about K-pop was daunting. “It was being on the same journey as the character Candace and that helped a lot.”
He was scared about how K-pop fans online would perceive it even though the book was written with well-intentions. “At a much smaller scale, I realized that achieving any creative ambition comes with conflict, self-doubt, and a lot of excitement. It’s always a tough experience when your dreams become a reality, because reality is never exactly what you dreamed, but it’s all worth it and so rewarding” added Stephan about following his dream.
K-pop has become a global phenomenon. BTS, Blackpink, TxT, NCT – all these have become household names now. This sort of popularity and representation would have seemed unimaginable to a 2014 Stephan Lee working as an entertainment editor for Entertainment Weekly whose K-pop piece got dropped because the editors didn’t think it was something people would be interested in.
“I wish people wouldn’t dismiss it as manufactured,” he replied when asked if there’s something he wished people knew more about K-pop. “There’s so much artistry and creativity that goes into it, and it’s such an important cultural asset to South Korea – it really represents Korea’s progress and its inspiring ambition to be seen throughout the world. There’s so much more to K-pop than meets the eye.”
The notion that K-pop is superficial has underlying xenophobic and racist connotations. There is still a struggle for Asian creatives to have their work taken seriously and get the recognition they deserve. And Stephan had to struggle with these stereotypes while writing the books. Like, his book was never picked up by his former work place for a review because they didn’t think it’d get people interested. “Even now, Asian creatives are marginalized and they don’t get the recognition they deserve,” he said.
For Stephan Lee, working on the books is a way of reclaiming his Asian-American identity, breaking the stereotypes, and sharing Asian voices in an intentional way.
“Growing up in Georgia, I never would have thought Korean culture would become so mainstream, or that I would work on a special issue of Entertainment Weekly with BTS on the cover. The popularity of K-pop and Korean entertainment in general helps me as a writer and creator as well. I’ve always navigated the world through culture and entertainment, and I’ve never felt so included,” added Lee on his books and the rise of K-pop.