When it was first introduced, Produce 101 was nothing more than a laughing stock, one that shone a light on an industry everyone pretended to not see and desperately tried to conceal. It was painted as entertainment, but beneath its shiny veneer was murder, character assassination of the highest degree.
Produce 101, the nation’s very own Hunger Games.
101 trainees from all sorts of entertainment companies were sent, bearing the pride of their companies on their backs. Despite its sheer number, they were a micro representation of the bright-eyed hopeful kids that had hoped to become someone. They fought for recognition, pinning all their hopes on catching just one person's attention to secure their loyalty. But all it took was for a smile to drop for a second, for greed to overcome their sweet disposition for them to be ruthlessly slaughtered by malicious netizens and everything would come crashing down. The trainee’s once uncertain future, the company’s reputation; all gone in a haze of smoke.
Hundreds of groups debut a year. There’s only one Big Bang. There’s only one SNSD. Everyone else falls through the cracks and gets forgotten.
In just one year, IOI became the nation’s girl group against all odds. They were legendary, a flame that fizzled too soon, one that rivalled the status of SNSD themselves.
It was impossible to overestimate their achievements as IOI snagged the prestigious Rookie of the Year award. To their name, they had over 20 endorsements.
Enthralled with their success, Mnet revived Produce 101, issuing a call for its second season, one of which where they desired to conquer the title of nation’s boy group.
Numerous companies, recognising the impact, the unprecedented frenzy, sent their trainees as tributes to fight for a chance to debut in a project group chosen by the nation that would last for 2 years. This time, with the entire nation on them, sinking companies eagerly sent in their trainees, prepared for them to bear their entire weight on their backs for a shot at success. Uncaring that one wrong move would result in them getting torn apart by the nation and destroy their future permanently; leaving their only future behind a desk thirty years on and left in a state of wistfulness.
Only eleven will get prestige and glory.
As one of the contestants that made the top 22 last year and also LOEN’s pride and joy, Park Soyeon is in charge of giving Jimin one last pep talk.
“Oppa, you know you’re representing the company right? Depending on your performance, you could inspire people to audition for our company. They can’t afford to be let down. You must at least make the Top 22 like I did,” Soyeon says brightly. Then when Jimin’s manager walks out, Soyeon’s expression immediately shifts and she begins detailing very explicitly what will become of his fate if he fails.
Jimin is both terrified and impressed by her creativity.
She’s a lovely girl.
LOEN proves to be an early bird once again this year when Jimin enters and there’s only a handful of trainees. They leap up immediately when he enters, bowing deeply as he hastens to do the same. The problem with coming from a relatively known company is that expectations are already set and set high. An unfair standard, but one that works both ways as Jimin himself will be judging the trainees from companies like his as well. He tries to monitor his breathing but being in front of a camera wasn't something that could be understood until you were sitting directly underneath one’s unrelenting gaze.
The pyramid is even more intimidating up close. White, gleaming, each seat numbered in gold. Even the 101st seat. What a joke, the only ones that deserve that honour are the seats from 1 - 11. Or more accurately, the thrones. Jimin doesn't even register the tip of the pyramid, instead, he takes wobbly steps towards the seats that have been already claimed by the trainees, not wanting to sit alone. Would that immediately depict him as haughty? Barely two steps and he’s already playing the game of Produce. Jimin hopes that he leaves still recognising the person in the mirror.
“How old are you?” the trainee from Illionaire Records asks, his voice pleasantly deep.
“I’m 22,” Jimin responds immediately, twisting his fingers on lap so he doesn't fidget.
“Oh, I’m 23, that makes me your hyung. I’m - Kim Namjoon,” the trainee says cheerfully, dimples appearing, tugging on the front of his shirt with the sticker bearing his label and name.
“Illionaire Records? Isn't that a hip hop label? I didn't know they have idol trainees,” Jimin marvels. The world is a big place beyond his company.
“I’m the first of my company.” Namjoon grins.
“So no pressure right?” Jimin giggles.
“No pressure carrying on Park Soyeon’s legacy either right?”
Jimin scrunches up his face. It’s not uncommon for the trainees to banter together in the beginning and Namjoon seems nice. He’s by himself as well, everyone else seemed to be arriving in groups of five, essentially an idol group waiting to debut. Jimin bites hard on his lip. There are only a few male trainees back at his company and they only joined a few months ago, skills no where near polished enough to be sent with him to Produce 101. Jimin tries to suppress the surge of reflux that flips his insides upside down and inverts them. Not now. Not when there’s literally a camera by his feet. Huh, he should make sure the angle isn't unflattering. A large monitor announces each trainee with their label as they arrive.
“Woollim Entertainment… urgh, every new trainee that enters just gets taller and taller and more … handsomer.” Jimin pouts, poking at his own face. The trainee that enters is dressed simply in black but hints at designer origins. Privileges of being in a known company with a steady bank. The trainee looks intimidating, glaring up at the trainees above him.
“Woollim… Woollim… ah! Infinite! Are they already preparing a successor?” Namjoon muses, leaning back in his seat.
“But there’s only him…” Jimin supplies, hand resting on his face.
“So either an ace that the company wanted to impress with or they sent whatever trainee they have.”
It sounds callous and it is with the way they’re speaking. Like they're talking about products to purchase in a store instead of actual human beings. Idols cease to be people upon their debut. But in Produce 101, every trainee is treated as if they’ve already debuted. From the moment they stepped through those doors, they ceased being themselves and became objects. It’s a life that only they know and intimately understand.
Hoseok enters, catching his face flash before the screen with his estimated rank. WM Entertainment’s Jung Hoseok. 1st. He finds that he’s not too miffed about them revealing what was meant to be confidential. They’ll know he’s someone to be taken seriously. He can feel fifty pairs of eyes size him up and he holds their stare, not backing down. Boldly, he skips past the seats on the bottom and begins determinedly marching towards the top. He can hear some catcalls and hushed breaths as he nears closer and closer to the elusive 1st throne… and perches himself on it like it belonged to him. It feels like it does, it feels like it was made for him. Hoseok smiles to the camera next to him, sure of his guaranteed screentime. Hopefully his company will see it and feel discomfort at keeping him locked up.
“He sat on the throne!” Jimin hisses, pulling at Namjoon’s sleeves where he had twisted it between his fingers in stress. “He sat on the throne!”
“I should’ve done that! When no one was around… no, we should be humble and gracious,” Namjoon says, shaking his head.
“WM… WM…” Jimin looks to Namjoon for help.
“That’s the same company as B1A4 and Oh My Girl.”
“Oh? They’re really diversifying aren't they? But they only sent in one trainee like Woollim… would they be more protective of their aces?” Jimin ponders.
“Are you LOEN’s ace?”
“Me? No! Of course not! How could you say such a thing!” Jimin shrieks, garnering the attention of several trainees around them.
“okay, okay! I’m sorry! Ow, stop!”
Jimin settles back in his seat, fuming slightly, almost missing the next trainee that comes in.
From way up above them, Hoseok hurts his neck doing a sharp double-take. The trainee that enters is breathtakingly beautiful. Hoseok finds himself spacing out as he takes him in, dark eyebrows over sparkling eyes and full rose lips to match his blushing cheeks.
And … shoulders.
At that point, Hoseok’s mind may have just become pure static. Is he an angel?
Kim Seokjin. Music K … Kim Juna came from them as did The Ark, gone aflame before their time… Is he another impeccable vocalist? Hoseok straightens up in his seat. He’ll make sure to keep an eye on him… and apparently the other trainees had that same thought in mind as they tittered amongst each other in sudden fits of lowered self-esteem.
“Tell me… am I above average?” Jimin mourns, clutching at his face in the very portrait of woe.
“I haven't seen your performance yet so I can’t say that you have other talents,” Namjoon says sympathetically, earning himself a sharp slap.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Jimin huffs, tugging his jacket around him and pouting.
“But even in your eye, he’s beautiful. So beautiful,” Namjoon sighs dreamily.
“God you’re right. How is he tall as well? Life is unfair.”
“I’d say, don't give up hope just yet. He’s wearing a blazer, we might get another flapping jacket performance 2.0 this year. Ariyoshi Risa was beautiful too.”
“Oh god.” Jimin cringes.
Namjoon finds that he’s more interested in the trainees that come alone rather than in a group. This time, trainees from smaller companies seem to hold an undeniable presence over ones from larger companies. A cover he shouldn’t judge but you couldn't feign a stance of indifference and unwavering power. Aside from the interesting trainees from Woollim, WM and Music K, there’s a blond trainee from Mystic Entertainment that looks to be around Jimin’s height but the way he lopes to his seat … Namjoon feels nothing but anticipation. Just when he thought he’d taken enough hits to his self-esteem, a trainee from Plan A steps in and … instantly, the walk to his seat becomes his runway. His skin is golden, his hair styled carefully out of his eyes looking more like a model than an idol trainee. Namjoon takes a sip of water to prevent answering Jimin’s whines.
Jung Hoseok is still in his throne when the Nation’s Representative walks in. As she introduces herself, he steels himself in determination. He will not let one performance invalidate his years of training.
It’s a nervous waiting game. Jungkook has been pacing the same spot that the producers have to tell him to stop, worried that he’ll wear a hole through their floor. He settles for breathing deeply and moving his hands to the dance that he has prepared. He takes a peek at the audience beyond the door and that proves to be a fatal mistake. Instantly, he feels faint, hands clammy. He doesn't recover when the PDs tell him to step out.
“Hello, I’m Woollim Entertainment’s Jeon Jungkook,” he says, and hates the way that his voice falters halfway through that has half of the judges snapping up their heads to look at him. There are more eyes on him than in his entire lifetime combined. His hands are beginning to tremble and the voices sound like they’re being squeezed through a tube. His eyes find the floor as his sanctuary and his head suddenly feels heavy and he can’t look up.
They must be curious. A trainee from a company with a successful group known for their knife-like dancing. One that debuted 7 years ago at that. As he’s trying to regain control, he misses the first beat of the song he has prepared, Infinite’s The Eye. He manages to catch himself, his voice sounds thin even to himself but he continues, remembering the sacrifice he had paid in order to get this far. How he had practiced to the extent that he had ground his bones to dust.
When he strikes the ending pose, breathing heavily he can’t look up. The blood is pounding in his head, clouding his vision. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. The training didn't prepare him for this. He’s supposed to represent his company. How will people audition for them after such a mediocre performance? Jungkook swallows thickly, this is why he hasn't debuted.
Distantly, he’s aware that one of the judges are asking him a question.
“How long did you train for?”
“Five years,” he barely manages, the hoarseness of his voice makes him sound hostile and the camera circling him looks like a shark calling for his blood.
The judges exchange a glance, discussing amongst themselves.
“What did you think of his performance?”
“I think he was trained well. Dance, vocals, rap all good. His skills are all A class and he’s handsome isn't he? But … “
“His confidence is a bit lacking. He didn't look up once the entire performance. What I liked is that although he made a mistake, he recovered quickly.”
“Is that enough to drag him down?”
“How nervewracking,” Jimin shudders, watching as the judges all continue to deliberate with each other. “I don't envy him at all.”
“This is how fate is decided,” Namjoon agrees. “I think he’ll be given A.”
“i trust your instincts,” Jimin says, surprising even himself.
“A… Woollim Entertainment Jeon Jungkook. Congratulations. We hope that you’ll gain more confidence in the future.”
Jungkook makes a valiant attempt at eye contact, “Yes, I won’t let you down.”
It seemed like for every good performance, there was a slew of bad ones to make up for it. There were only two pathways to screentime. A stellar performance and on the flip of the coin, a dreadful one. No surprise as to which there was a higher ratio of. Jimin has vivid flashbacks to the girl who ruined IU’s 3 octave note and tries not to hide his face in his hands at yet another bloodcurdling voice crack.
“Well if everyone was good, then no one is good,” Namjoon says reasonably, patting him on the shoulder.
“Err… I don’t think thats how it works,” Jimin refutes. “Looks like many companies are saving their aces this year.”
“Or they sent all they’ve got.” Namjoon shrugs.
Eventually, Jimin has to line up, leaving Namjoon lonely and slightly bored without someone to cringe with through the voice cracks and stiff dancing … not like his was any better, but still, it’s the principle of the matter.
“I’m Park Jimin from LOEN’s Entertainment,” Jimin announces.
At the mention of LOEN, the judges sit up attentively.
“Park Soyeon made it to the Top 22 last year, do you think you can follow in her footsteps?”
“I think I can make the final 11,” Jimin says confidently but the blush on his cheeks give away his bravado and he hears several of them mutter cute under their breath, smiling indulgently at him.
The opinion is soon changed when he dances almost aggressively to History’s Might Just Die. He doesn't shy from making intense eyecontact with the judges even as he’s on the ground, performing the infamous hip thrusting on his knees. He sees their eyebrows raise in surprise, several hiding their faces through outstretched fingers. From exertion, his singing is becoming slightly strained, too airy from the original. Vocals weren't his strongest suit however. It’s just him dancing now, him in his element battling against the trainees that stand between him and his dream.
When he stands before them, they carefully leaf through his profile.
“It says that you spent some time training in contemporary dance?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Could you show us?” A song, a piano flowing like a river, plays before he has the chance to respond.
Jimin wonders how much of him is being seen right now. Is he good enough for even a second worth of screen time? Or is it those that are comedic that are going to make the headlines? Jimin casts the doubts aside and gives himself up to the music once more. He lets it control his movements like a puppet on a string, emptying his thoughts and barrelling through the air, sensuality abandoned for a form of raw emotion that had everyone hanging on by the edge of their seats. If his earlier performance was of him inviting the audience in, for this, it’s almost as if he’s engaging himself as the audience and excluding everyone else, not making eye contact and feeling the song breathe through the essence of his being.
The dance instructor looks radiant in particular, he can barely catch their words as they debate where to put him. Jimin casts his thoughts back to last year. Please not C, not D. It was the trainees from A,B and F that got the most screen time. Either at the top of the field or barely clinging on for dear life. How appropriate.
“Park Jimin from LOEN Entertainment. B.”
“You may be one of the best trainees in dance for this year. But dance isn't the only thing to be an idol. There were times in your performance that you were a bit pitchy and your voice thin. In B, I hope you work on stability,” the dance instructor voices.
“B…B … Is anyone going to get an A?” Namjoon mutters as an entire company gets thrown ruthlessly into F. In answer to his prayer, the trainee from WM walks to the stage.
It seemed like an insult to refer to it as a walk. Rather than walk, he seems to glide. Movements sinuous like flowing water. So not a ballad group like his seniors, Namjoon deduces. He hasn't performed yet but Namjoon already knows that he’ll be given an A. He sits back in anticipation of an entertaining audition that will energise him.
“WM’s Jung Hoseok. I’ll do my best!” the trainee announces.
Namjoon is taken back. Jung Hoseok seems to be the living cliche of an idol - mass-produced and robotic without bearing a soul, solely created to rake in cash for the company.
“You were sitting on 1st?” the Nation’s Representative asks curiously.
“Yes, that’s right.” Even now, he remains stoic, not blushing like Jimin had done, not revealing a single dimension of his personality apart from what they can see.
“Was it because it was the last seat left?”
“No. I believe I’ve trained enough to deserve it,” Hoseok says. His words cause an immense stir, the trainees staring at each other gobsmacked. Some clapping, impressed. They’re beginning to whisper amongst themselves, forming a ripple along the base of the pyramid.
“The difference between two trainees with a similar training period is innate talent. We’re looking forward to your performance.” The Nation’s Representative smiles serenely. She almost seems unconcerned at the very real possibility of an overconfident trainee humiliating themselves.
Namjoon expects a vocalist, given how vocally-driven the groups at WM were, what he didn't was a rapper. That was who Jung Hoseok was. Namjoon loathed dance with a passion but seeing Hoseok perform … he realised it was a massive oversight on his part. It was through his knowledge of his own body that he manipulated intonation with ease, elongating syllables for emphasis, almost singing before abruptly changing his style and raising tones syncopatedly. This was a trainee that possessed raw talent and under pressure, made into a jewel that shone.
“I want him to dance,” the dance instructor declares, leaning forward in her seat and pinning him with a stare that had the trainees before him shaking.
When the first note reaches his ears, Hoseok smirks.
He dances like he’s in the midst of war. Passionate, like every unguarded moment would result in his death and he’s fighting for survival at every breath. His slender frame beguiled a great strength and Namjoon was sure, if he were to attempt the same, he’d dislocate his shoulders. Both shoulders. Despite his robotic entry, Hoseok was dynamic. Immensely expressive and engaging. The stage is his world, a world that has denied him happiness for too long. He fires a bullet at the judges and takes a low bow.
The cameras catch Namjoon with his jaw hanging open and every trainee pressed against their seat over the intensity of his dance.
“He’s like a newly debuted idol, isn't he?” the Nation’s Representative muses. “It’s almost unfair that he’s here.”
The dance instructor looks pleased, possibly adding a few stars next to his name on her notes.
“You’ve trained for 7 years?”
“WM has had a trainee like you for 7 years?” the nation’s representative says, surprised.
“Why are you here?”
“My company told me to have patience. They didn't have any other plans, so i asked them to send me to Produce 101 so I could show everyone my skills,” Hoseok replies. At that, the slightest crack seems to form in his mask. 101 people saw the utter agony in his face before his walls shoot up, concealing him from view again. Deep below that bravado, was the person that shared the exact fear that they all did. Why their worth wasn't enough.
“It’s time to give you your rank. WM’s Jung Hoseok… A.”
“Thank you very much.” As Hoseok leaves, the trainee from Woollim catches his eye. He wonders if it’s a case of company-rivalry in the way that those large eyes trace his movement. Didn’t matter.
They are both at Produce 101.
They are both failures.
After that the rappers took centre stage. The trainers were from the underground rap scene, forced to abide with idol rapping. Their criticisms were harsher than the vocal instructors and even refused to have several of them to perform a secondary rap. In all, it was a long series of Fs until it came to Mystic Entertainment.
Min Yoongi had blonde hair, and couldn't have been taller than Jimin himself. He looked … cute, non-threatening. Jimin was sure that he was a vocal until he begun to rap. He entered like a bull into a china shop, growling into the mic and loping the stage with an ungainly gait like an untamed beast. His presence was undeniable. He’s unhinged in the best way possible. They give him C for being unable to produce a dance.
Namjoon shares a similar fate. Dance has always been his achilles heel this is the day that it severely crippled him. Jimin watches with wide eyes when he performs a softer rap in contrast to the other trainees. It’s smart, a surefire way for him to stand out. His deep voice casts a mesmerising spell over them and even not moving, they’re all riveted. The rap instructors are impressed but agree that without dance, C is the highest that he would attain.
The next trainee hushes them all with his looks alone. He’s tall, thin, a face perfect as though carved from marble. Plan A’s Kim Taehyung. In his dark coat that almost reaches the ground, he bears remarkable resemblance to the desired male lead in a drama. To gain marks just for being born with the right genetics, their industry is cruel.
“Could you … could you please take three steps back?” the vocal instructor requests.
Taehyung complies, stepping backwards, much to the collected sigh of the judges.
“Look at the way the light hits him. It’s almost unreal.”
They’ve had too many visuals who’s sole purpose is to remain quiet and just be beautiful. So they marvel him like the fine piece of artwork at he is at the museum with every intention of moving on. They get pleasantly surprised.
Kim Taehyung’s voice is like coffee. Warm, luxurious and comforting on a cold day. He’s not a dancer in the way that Jimin is, but utilises his height to his advantage and forms pretty lines. The judges question whether his register would work within the confines of an idol group. They discuss it back and forth before…
“Plan A, Kim Taehyung … B.”
Kim Seokjin refuses to disappear.
If there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he cant show fear. It’s not over a hundred people watching him today. It’s thousands. The cameras are on and any mistake he makes will be highlighted, repeated several times beating the dead horse into mince and he’ll have little chance for a redemption. Music K can’t afford that kind of flagellation. Imagine that, if Seokjin so much as fucks up a note, he’ll send his company into bankruptcy.
“Hello, I’m Kim Seokjin from Music K Entertainment!” Then like a demon had possessed him, his hand moved of its own accord, blowing a kiss to the burly Don Mills who seemed to smile almost bashfully as the other judges laugh in shock. That seems to have awoken them from a daze. A few other trainees’ frosty expressions seem to thaw, blowing their own kisses as well in bemused exaggerations.
“Music K… oh! The same company as Kim Juna last year… do you specialise in vocals?” The Nation’s representative asks curiously.
“Yes, but not like her. No one is quite like her,” Seokjin responds modestly. “When she sings, angels fly. But when I sing… fairies do.”
“We’ll check your performance before we talk again okay?” The Nation’s Representative is smiling, looking more alive than she did five minutes ago, Seokjin draws strength from that.
Seokjin walks to the centre, leaning his head back. He lets the music wash over him, his voice as crystal clear as a bell. When he chances a glance at the judges, what had been dark expressions from the series of disappointing performances are now alit in enjoyment. That’s all he needed to finish his performance on a high.
They clap enthusiastically, faces bright as Seokjin bows.
“I found your vocals very refreshing but …” the Nation’s Representative pauses dramatically before she smiles wider and with definite challenge lacing her words, “I want to see you do a more complicated dance, can you do that?”
“Of course!” Seokjin says immediately. “I’ll get A if I can do it right?”
She seems to call his bluff, “If there’s anything I like, it’s confidence.”
Don Mills speaks up then, possibly in slight revenge for flustering him earlier, “Let’s choose a more difficult song. Please play track 17.”
All the judges and trainees learn forward, leaning on their hands in anticipation as Seokjin circles the stage nonchalantly.
“If he can dance, he’s A for sure right?” Jimin whispers, slapping Namjoon’s arm.
“Huh?” Namjoon turns to Jimin looking slightly punchdrunk. “Oohh … yeah. Like SNSD-sunbaenim says, lipstick, high heels, hairstyle, check. He just needs dance now.”
Jimin stares at him. “That both made sense and no sense whatsoever.” They quieten, eagerly watching the Music K trainee for his next move.
Seokjin can dance. Or he can follow directions to. in a group, he doesn't look out of place, which is the sole point here. But freestyle? Clearly he can’t impress them. not like the one from WM. So he does what he does best; appeal to his charms.
Seokjin knows he’s handsome. The company that recruited him knows it. The casting agent for Produce 101 knows it. The guy that he walked past that did a double take when he saw him on the street knows it. So he’s pretty sure Korea knows it too. But a pretty doll does camera time make. So he’s about to unleash beyond his demure deposition that his company had begged him to keep and are now biting down on their fist.
Seokjin pulls off the greasiest expression known to man and sort of swivels his hips a bit. The judges’ laughter rings across the room as do a few scandalised screams and to hell with it. Seokjin winks at them before bowing, trying to contain himself by pressing his lips together but failing futilely.
The judges are laughing so hard they have to take a moment to retain their composure. They’ve had absolute jokes as well as idols disguised as trainees but never was there one that was a perplexing combination of the two. It seems to defy reality and one judge has to pinch herself to make sure it wasn't a fever dream.
A footnote on Seokjin’s profile catches the Nation’s Representative’s eye. “It says that you were scouted by SM?”
“Yes, thats right.”
“So why did you sign with a smaller company?”
Seokjin laughs, slightly sheepish. “I was approached by someone from SM when I was on the street. But I thought they were going to scam me so I ran away and hid. I auditioned for Music K myself.”
The judges seem to be constantly on the brink of laughter where Seokjin was involved. “He’s interesting. I think this rank would suit you well.”
“A… There is none,” the Nation’s Representative wheezes. “B, Kim Seokjin.”
Seokjin bows again and a fire of determination lights within him. When he raises his head, the first thing he sees is the top of the white pyramid. He wants that seat, that seat that the WM trainee had claimed.
The beginning of the end was here.
Kim Seokjin won’t be forgotten.