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[Grace Kao] Six degrees of Astro's JinJin

June 25, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

Life is full of surprises, and you never know where it will take you.

This was the theme of my recent meeting and dinner with JinJin of Astro. JinJin is the leader and main rapper of the boy group. Hit singles included their bubbly debut song, “Hide & Seek,” and later songs such as “Crazy Sexy Cool,” “Blue Flame,” “After Midnight,” and “Candy Sugar Pop.” Most recently, Astro released the single “Circles” to celebrate the eighth anniversary of their debut.

He is a co-star in the musical, “Crash Landing on You,” playing Alberto Gu, the villain who later redeems himself.

JinJin recently formed the Jin Lab, which will release new music every month on various social media platforms. Project 1 of the Jin Lab is “Good Enough,” which is apropos of his goal of self-exploration and “finding my own true colors.” The first track was completed in conjunction with Subin Kim, producer and CEO of Aiming Music, who also introduced me to JinJin.

My conversation with JinJin first began at a studio, followed by dinner over Korean barbecue. Most fans who watch music videos or performances on entertainment shows might expect idols to act differently from the rest of us. In K-pop, you might at least anticipate that they’ll sport pastel-colored hair. For the record, JinJin’s hair is dark while mine is pinkish blonde these days. I would have never imagined that my life would lead me to dinner with an idol -- but then again, you just have to let life happen. He was down-to-earth and easy to talk to (despite the language barrier, he understood much of what I said). Luckily, my Ph.D. student Meera Choi was able to serve as interpreter.

In this three-hour conversation, we first talked about music. I complimented Astro MJ’s trot song “Get Se Yo” or “Is Anybody There?” which led to a discussion of my love for iKON member Yunhyeong’s “It’s Call” or something like, “I’m down with that.” I mentioned the new Trot trio “Troika” that I saw at Music Bank. We then talked about his composition of “Villain” for the group Trendz, which is a group I have met several times. Even my tangential relationship with the K-pop world made us realize how small the world was.

In the US, there is a game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Bacon is a Hollywood actor who has appeared in many films, most notably “Footloose.” The notion is that everyone is just six or fewer network connections from Kevin Bacon. This idea comes from social science theories and experiments -- one of which was conducted by Stanley Milgram (who is better known for his study on “Obedience and Authority.”) Milgram’s Small World experiment involved giving people a piece of mail addressed to a recipient that they didn’t know. Almost every piece of mail was delivered to the recipient in fewer than 6 steps. The world of K-pop seems even smaller than that.

Our conversation brought us back to his days as a trainee and eventually debuting in Astro. He told me about how the practice rooms had 3 cameras, and they had to practice looking at Cameras 1, 2, or 3 depending on the signal used. The trainees were assigned up to 5 songs a week to learn, and they could work in teams or as individuals to learn them. The trainees were given full evaluations every month, based on the performance of one of those songs. To avoid elimination, the goal was to choose songs that highlighted one’s strengths.

In Korea, idols are under constant scrutiny from fans and their companies alike. This makes it difficult to feel completely at ease anywhere except at home, so I somewhat jokingly asked JinJin if he was uncomfortable right now having dinner with us. He quickly reassured me that this wasn’t the case, but of course, all social interactions are work for everyone involved, and for idols, even more so. We talked about whether he had a dual identity -- one as an idol and another as himself. He had clearly thought about this for many years, and astutely explained that “he has to be on all the time.” Even at a relatively relaxed outing, someone with a camera could suddenly jump out of nowhere. Of course, these well-founded fears contribute to the mental health challenges faced by many idols.

At this point, Meera and I had to interject with a short sociology lecture on Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Goffman famously wrote that every social interaction is like a stage performance. While Goffman used this as an analogy for regular individuals, for idols like JinJin, it was their daily routine.

We eventually talked about his future. Would he continue with his career in musical theater? “Crash Landing on You” was originally a Korean drama, so might acting in K-dramas be something of interest? All of us agreed that the future was uncertain, so who knows what he’ll do in the coming years. He certainly will continue to produce music. JinJin said if he had never debuted as an idol, he would still have wanted to produce music. He also shared that he played the drums. Finally, he said that he has no regrets about being an idol but may have opted to start as a trainee at a younger age (he began as a trainee in 2013 at age 17).

While JinJin is only 28, he is wise beyond his years. We agreed that life is full of unexpected turns, and we just have to see where it takes us. After all, what are the odds that a Yale sociology professor and a member of Astro would meet for dinner? Now JinJin and I are only one degree apart.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer‘s own. -- Ed.