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Article. Yunha Kim(Music Critic)
Idols are people, too. It's so obvious that it doesn’t even really need to be said, but if you stop and think about it, it’s actually easy to forget. But you can’t blame anyone for forgetting. Idols have built up a specific and unique image since the late 1990s when the word first came into common use. They’re certainly good singers, as can be understood from their performances and albums, but they’ve been treated differently from ordinary singers. Some idols have tried to become more approachable and friendly with the public than others in their industry, but separating the worlds of the idols and their fans is a huge, steady and impassable river as wide as the river Styx that divides the world of the living from that of the dead. The people who produce and plan for idols often make them out to be transcendent beings or like something out of a fairy tale, consciously erasing the parts of them that feel human.

I saw this one video about a high school senior staying up all night and studying for five and a half hours straight. Nothing particularly interesting happens. “Study with me” videos, where someone streams themselves studying without any flair, have already been popular on YouTube for years. The secret to the popularity behind this basic formula lies specifically in the fact that it’s so simple and real. In the same way that it’s easier to concentrate in school or at the library because it’s not as comfy as being at home, having someone by your side concentrating on a singular goal acts as a familiar push and serious motivation when you’re getting ready to take an important test. Your concentration also gets a boost from little ordinary sounds like flipping pages and taking a moment to stretch in the same way that ASMR does. The person in this particular video was special, however—it was Baek Jiheon of the girl group fromis_9.

Jiheon is a sub-vocalist for, and also the youngest member of, fromis_9. She was born in 2003 and debuted in September of 2017, meaning she was already pro by age 14. She’s actually got more on her resume from before she debuted. It’s common knowledge that fromis_9 was formed through an audition program on TV. Jiheon had uniquely settled on a career in the entertainment business long before her appearance on the show, gaining experience through different avenues like modeling in advertisements and doing some acting. In other words, she spent her teenage years immersed in working to become an idol and eventually succeeded in her goal. 

But the way we usually think about idols has become twisted. No matter how much the world has changed, while an idol should, generally speaking, shine bright with all their hopes, dreams, passion and energy in a place removed from the harsh realities of regular life, what’s actually unfolding in front of our eyes is a scene of an ordinary high school senior with only her bright pink hair visible as she keeps her nose stuck in her book and stays up all night to study for her exam. The comments on the video are filled with admiration for Jiheon, who’s living beyond the life that the public imagination expects of an idol by working incredibly hard at her job at the same time that she’s fulfilling her duties as a student. Comments like, “It’s not easy to work and be a student at the same time, so that’s cool,” and, “I’m a senior, too—let’s all work hard!” sympathize with Jiheon for her efforts, while she tries to spur viewers on at the beginning of the video by saying, “I’m not a student with good grades but I’m trying hard to not have regrets.” The video resonated in different ways not only with fromis_9 fans and fans of Jiheon herself but with the many people who are preparing for tomorrow.

Jiheon’s “Study with me” video not only changes the way people view teens who commendably work and study in tandem, but the way present-day idols are viewed as well. Many viewers weren’t just praising idol Jiheon simply for studying in a way that made her seem right next to them despite being so far away; rather, it was more that they were praising and encouraging this person who’s taking on a serious attitude and trying harder than anyone who’s going through the middle of her life and following through on the responsibilities associated with being a student despite also having to deal with all the difficulties that come with being an idol. In other words, idols now seem to be accepted by others and themselves as just doing their jobs or as people who simply receive a lot of attention from others rather than an in an unusual set of circumstance taking place in an entirely different world. Jiheon’s two identities—idol and high school senior—exist simultaneously without crossing over into one another’s domains, with the two proudly existing as individual pillars that uphold the life of Baek Jiheon as she lives the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being 18 to the fullest.
It's only natural, but it’s also new. Naturally, more than a few people have looked up videos of teenage idols getting ready for school or staying up all night to study, either for fun or out of curiosity. But the 1.5 million viewers who watched Jiheon’s “Study with me” video—well more than the 794,000 subscribers to fromis_9’s YouTube channel—likely spent those five and a half hours with her in a much healthier and future-oriented mindset than they had expected. Up until now, when the ideas of idols and ordinary people have intertwined, the focus has mostly been on the dark side of the industry or else been a hotbed of controversy. While it’s true that they do sometimes intersect this way, it would be better if such things didn’t steal the spotlight. Jiheon is now a pro idol, handling her job with aplomb, and as she passes through that tunnel unique to her age with her peers she’s living her life to the fullest, whatever labels may be attached to her. There are clearly people who live such lives and give strength to people that way. And some of those people are idols. They walk among us.