“Hi, everyone. My name is Samara. I’m from Brazil, and I’ve been singing since I was five years old. I couldn’t be more proud to represent my country. I came from a poor family of poor reality, so this Dream Academy—it's literally a dream.” This is how Samara first introduces herself in her promotional video for The Debut: Dream Academy, the audition show put out jointly by HYBE and Geffen Records. In the short one minute, 11 second video, Samara talks about how she had previously tried out for another group, but after two years of work, she was told, “This is not the right fit for you.” She took some time to reflect after losing the opportunity, and came to a new conclusion. “Brazilians never give up. I will always try to show this side of me, this side of Brazil, to everyone who is always watching me. It doesn’t matter your color. It doesn’t matter where you come from. You can always go after your dreams, and I love you guys!”
This is what K-pop looks like here in 2023, but it’s also a look at what K-pop will look like moving into the future as well: a Brazilian-born woman talking about her dream of debuting in the US through a system pioneered by K-pop, a genre born out of Korea. For Samara, the call to action behind the phrase that lent its name to one of BTS’s tours, and one they also used in their speech at the UN in support of the Generation Unlimited youth initiative, has come true: speak yourself. For women like her who grew up listening to K-pop, the music is a way to talk about your life and make your dreams come true. Samara’s words—“It doesn’t matter your color. It doesn’t matter where you come from”—paradoxically remind us of the very real barriers of race, nationality, class, and more. And for Samara, K-pop is the dream that is helping her overcome them.
BTS member Jung Kook’s single “Seven” (feat. Latto) has been number one on both the Billboard Global 200 and Global Excl. US for six weeks running. The feat shows how far K-pop has come in the five years since BTS got their first Billboard 200 number one with LOVE YOURSELF: Tear. A video (“Art Film”) was released ahead of The Debut: Dream Academy airing, introducing the 20 candidates who will appear in the series. You don’t have to scroll far before you see plenty of users cheering on those aspiring artists who are from the same country as them in the comments. The new reality in the world of K-pop can also be seen in Dream Academy’s trailer, where the whole cast carries the flags representing their respective countries. Countless people around the world already listen to K-pop, even though it may differ from the culture and language they were raised in. The Debut: Dream Academy documents the next logical step: the era of K-pop listeners getting up to perform on the very same stage. Manon, another contestant, is from Switzerland. Her “dad is Ghanaian,” and her “mom is Swiss and Italian.” “I think it shaped me a lot,” Manon says in her video. “I think it’s very cool—I have so many cultures in my life.” It’s this group of girls, diverse in ethnicity, nationality, and cultural identity, who will be competing for the ultimate prize of joining a new K-pop group.
Most audition shows introduce a new challenge every episode where the contestants perform and their personal histories are explored in pieces. But The Debut: Dream Academy is different: The first assignment the girls will face was introduced through a “Mission Announcement” video, and following its release, each of the girls—Samara, Manon, and 18 more hopefuls—were featured in their own self-introductory videos. Arguably, this is a reflection of the viewing habits of people in their teens and 20s—the main consumers of K-pop—who not only are already so familiar with short-form videos thanks to TikTok and YouTube Shorts, but who also tend to click on short videos before anything else. Viewers can look up the self-introduction videos for any performers they find interesting after watching the mission reveal or performance video (released September 7 at midnight KST). And it’s equally possible that someone becomes a fan after seeing one of the girls’ intro videos and seeks out the performance video after that. Giving each contestant their own video is also the perfect way to give them the freedom to say exactly what they want. Each of the 20 performers has their own space to speak naturally about their lives with minimal direction and send whatever message they want out into the world. In a way, the Dream Academy isn’t unlike the Olympics, with contestants from different countries competing to be the victor of the various so-called missions. And like Olympic athletes, the girls have to put on excellent performances in order to make the cut amid the fierce competition. Viewers at home only have to sit back and enjoy the show, but just as every athlete has their own reason for competing in the Olympics, every artist-to-be on The Debut: Dream Academy comes with her own reasons for pursuing the stage. And while the audience could simply stop at watching what happens with the girls while they’re on stage, if they dive deeper into what goes on backstage, they’ll find out the candidates’ reasons for so earnestly wanting to be stars, and more about their lives and their personal views. The new series shows exactly what K-pop has come to mean for so many teenage women around the world: the dream of global stardom, and a way to express their truth to the masses.
In a press conference for the series held at IGA’s studio in Los Angeles on August 29 (KST), HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk announced the company has “embarked on this new journey to create an international, diverse, and exciting group of talented performers to be trained through the K-pop method that’s become a global phenomenon.” Thanks to BTS, K-pop has become a truly global genre, with fans spread out across the entire planet, and the contestants on The Debut: Dream Academy reflect that reality. K-pop is changing once again, and the time has come for the Korean labels that produce K-pop—or, more accurately, idols—to respond to these changes. If, up until now, K-pop has meant these labels investing copious amounts of time and money into nurturing its artists’ unique visions through their albums and other content, then it’s time for the labels to start integrating talent from different countries, races, and backgrounds—the very artists for whom experiencing K-pop made them want to achieve their own dreams—into their approach. And from this, a new kind of K-pop may be born. The Debut: Dream Academy no doubt opens the door for these 20 performers to have a shot at debuting in a group, but this audition show, styled to look like an international school, could also be a lesson for HYBE and the K-pop industry as a whole. Will Korea—the very birthplace of K-pop—and the labels operating there pay attention in class and learn to ride the wave of change?
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