Dr Colette Balmain discusses the controversial debut MV from Korea’s “first openly gay” KPOP idol.
“Never lose self-esteem and be confident” (Holland, 2018)
On 22st January 2018, at exactly midnight KST, Holland released his debut single and MV “Neverland”. Since its release, “Neverland” has racked up over 6 million views on YouTube and Holland has received international recognition and acclaim as the “first openly gay” KPOP idol.
Written by Holland himself, “Neverland” takes as its theme the difficulty of having a gay relationship in South Korea where there is no anti-discrimination legislation (outside of the Human Rights Act) for sexual minorities and there is widespread oppression of non-normative identities as a result. In addition, Article 92 (6) of South Korea’s military criminal law not only defines consensual intercourse between men as ‘reciprocal rape’ punishable by up to a year in jail and also extends to criminalise conduct and identities which are construed to be non-normative (Han, 2016). As such, Holland’s decision to explore his own coming out in “Neverland” and to create a narrative around his own sexual identity was extremely brave.
Skinship, fanservice in context
The inclusion of a kiss with between Holland and his ‘boyfriend’ (actor and model Cho Youngshin) meant, however, that the MV was rated 19+ rating in South Korea which has arguably limited domestic visibility and impact. This might at seem contradictory given South Korean popular culture’s obsession with encouraging male idols to kiss, dress up as woman and engage in other homosocial rituals. However such rituals need to be understood as a combination of skinship (skinship is a konglish term that when used to refer to any sort of tactile encounter between two people) and fanservice (performing skinship for fans) rather than signalling any type of non-normative sexuality on part of those involved.
At the same time, the enforced separation of female and male idols as well as the imposition of no-dating contracts by management companies results in strong homosocial bonds, particularly within male groups. This can be traced back to Neo-Confucian ideology which privileged marriage and procreation over desire and passion. During the Joseon dynasty, this was achieved by separating boys from girls at the age of six until they were able to fulfil their social and familial roles through marriage. This helps to explain why physical intimacy between KPOP idols of the same sex is viewed as appropriate while homosexuality is not.
Those netizens who try to call out KPOP for being ‘gay’ or seek to label specific idols or groups as ‘gay’ lack cross cultural understanding as well as subscribing to a dominant and outdated stereotype of homosexuality. Writing about cross-dressing in K-Pop, Chuyun Oh and David C. Oh argue that not only is “Male singers’ cross-dressing […] particularly beloved by (mostly female) fans” but that “[i]n K-pop, androgyny and male cross-dressing are considered neither an absence of masculinity nor homosexuality” (2017, p. 10).
Queerness in KPOP MVs
There are, as already mentioned, other KPOP idols and artists who have addressed non-normative sexualities and identities in their songs and music videos. However it is possible to view most of these as extensions of fanservice rather than deliberate confrontations with homophobia and oppression. It is also little surprising that the dominant queerness portrayed in MVs is that of lesbianism, e.g. “Because of You” (Afterschool: 2012), “Touch” (Anda: 2016), and “Wish Tree” (Red Velvet: 2015). In all these cases, there is a disjunction between the lyrics and the images. As such, the performance of queerness here only functions to reinforce heteronormativity.
This is also true for MVs that take male same sex attraction as their dominant theme, e.g. “Please Don’t” (K. Will: 2012) and “Sweet Dream” (Heechul and Kyung Hoon: 2016). Mad Clown’s “Love is a Dog from Hell” (2017), featuring Suran, deals with a relationship between a woman and boyfriend who is revealed towards the end of the MV to be a transwoman / transsexual, even though the lyrics are subject to interpretation.
However, representation matters and, whatever their purpose was, images of other forms of sexuality can act as a form of authentication for viewers who are struggling with their sexuality and/or gender. Even if we choose to see such representational strategies as signifying the commodification of queerness (and/or queer identities) in contemporary culture, it could be argued that such momentary queering of dominant heterosexuality can be interpreted as opening up a space for what queer theorist, Alexander Doty, terms “queer moments”. Writing about mainstream Hollywood cinema, Doty writes: “heterocentric texts can contain queer elements, and basically heterosexual, straight-identifying people can experience queer moments” (Doty, 1993, p.3).
Breaking new ground
Prior to “Neverland”, there have been MVs whose performative queerness directly challenges heteronormativity lyrically rather than just visually, e.g. “Rainbow” (Planet Shiver & Crush: 2015), “Party XXO” (Glam: 2012), “Abracadabra” (Brown Eyed Girls: 2009) and “Don’t Look at Me Like That” (Song Ji Eun: 2014), but these are few and far between. In addition Holland is not the first “openly gay” KPOP idol. There is Maman, who got dropped by her label when she admitted to being gay, MRSHLL (Marshall Bang), a Korean-American rapper, who came out in an interview with Time Magazine in 2015 and most recently Hansol from TOPPDOGG who came out as asexual in September of last year.
However Maman, MRSHLL and Hansol were already part of the KPOP scene when they came out, while Holland’s sexuality is front and centre of his debut. Further, “Neverland” is the first one to explicitly address the taboos surrounding male homosexuality both lyrically and visually.
Holland’s personal story
In “Neverland” rather than performing queerness and/or skinship, Holland presents his own authentic experience to the viewer in unambiguous terms. The lyrics of “Neverland” tell of Holland’s journey from being marginalised and oppressed because of his sexuality – “I wonder if I am strange or who is strange” to self-acceptance: “Now, we don’t have to listen. I think we can do that”. In an interview with Star TV, Holland discusses how he first came out to his best friend at school and the horrific bullying which resulted from his confession leading to a suicide attempt. Talking about “Neverland”, he said “The lyrics are all from my own experience. I didn’t learn writing lyrics professionally but I want it to contain my honest thoughts” (Holland, February 2017). Holland’s journey from a place of darkness to one of light, from self-loathing to acceptance is expressed visually in the colour palate of the MV in the contrast between dark and light, night and day, and interior and exterior spaces. This journey begins with a long shot of a dimly lighted tunnel and the road leading away from it as the camera pulls back. Next shots of a blue but cloudy sky and waves crashing on the shore suggest that this journey is will not be an easy one.
In the subsequent shots which frame Holland, we move from exterior shots of Holland on the road to interior ones inside a house where we also move between sadness and happiness, caught through the images of Holland on his own which are juxtaposed with those of Holland with his “boyfriend”. The use of different temporal moments (whether these are “real” or “fantasy) in the same space is important as space and time, like identity, is not fixed but rather is mutable and transformative. While we spend childhood searching for our identity, constrained by norms and conventions, the movement into adulthood can be become a positive space of self-determination free from societal restrictions about appropriate sexuality expressed through fixed gender binaries. Holland’s lyrics foreground this movement towards self-acceptance, and through which he directly addresses the viewer “Would you take my hand out of the window? Looking for a rainbow to fly”. The use of rainbow here is clear in this context, as is his plea for the viewer to take his hand, rather than be alone in “Neverland”.
Neverland as Utopia
“Neverland” is a direct reference to J.M. Barrie’s fantastical place which he first introduced to viewers in the play Peter Pan: The Boy who wouldn’t grow up (1904). Neverland is a tropical island where Peter Pan, Tinker Bell live and the Lost Boys reside and “where all children but one [Peter Pan] grow up” (1904). Significantly Peter Pan, who remains an eternal child (in Barrie’s texts, he is a one week old baby and not the young boy that we know from popular culture), is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality in Neverland. It is a place that does not exist or a non-place that remains “concealed and elusive” from adults (Oţoiu, 2012, p. 237).
Neverland in the MV can be interpreted as a reference to the manner in which the LBGT community in South Korea is forced to remain closeted, existing outside of mainstream society, in a similar way to Neverland functions in Barrie’s work. The brilliant blue sky, crystal clear water and sandy beach that provide a stunning backdrop for the relationship between Holland and his lover are almost too perfect, too beautiful, signifying a utopian non-place, that can only exist in fantasy. The reality is communicated through dark skies, crashing waves and an endless road which signify Holland’s isolation and oppression. Indeed, it is not clear whether their love overcomes the obstacles put in their way but what is clear is that conceding to societal outdated rules and regulations will only lead to heartache and sadness.
At the centre of the MV is the kiss which is the first kiss between two men that I have seen outside of queer films and BL dramas. Certainly none of the other MVs that I have mentioned here, or the kdramas that I have seen, depict intimacy as honestly as it is depicted here (I would perhaps make an exception for The Lover [Kim Tae-Eun, Mnet: 2015] which does present the love story between Takuya (Takuya Terada) and Joon-Jae (Lee Jae-Joon) in a moving and matter of fact manner rather than fetishizing it or constructing a gay relationship in exceptional terms).
In terms of the song itself, I feel that the tone of his voice and the vibe of the song fit well together. Most importantly the lyrics come from Holland and his experience and are expressed in his voice and within his own terms. In terms of the KPOP industry, Holland has a voice that is unique and distinctive and I am certain that he could have debuted with a group and possibly been successful had he chosen not to come out publically. We need to keep in mind that being a KPOP idol is not easy: it is about hard work and dedication, continual hours practising and forever striving to be better and as Holland is showing us, it can also be about much more. From the quality of the cinematography and editing, you would never know that this was a self-produced MV and not one financed by one of the larger South Korean entertainment companies.
The significance: will you accept it?
There is no doubt that Holland’s debut has put South Korea’s attitudes towards homosexuality and non-normative genders and sexualities under the global spotlight and exposed the insidious heteronormativity of the KPOP industry. It is difficult to know how much of an impact that “Neverland” has made in Korea at the moment as much of what I see is being shared by international fans and Holland has not been on any of the main music shows yet. There is a fandom, called for the moment “Farlings”, and a significant number of followers who are anticipating Holland’s follow-up single/album. Supporting Holland as part of a movement towards greater visibility for the LGBT community in South Korea (and also in other cultures where visibility is limited and oppression pronounced) which will help in the fight for equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation in South Korea. This is important because suicide statistics amongst members of the LGBT community are stark as are incidents of abuse, bullying and violence almost everywhere in the world and are significantly higher in nations that prohibit homosexuality. No-one should be forced to live an inauthentic life out of fear and/or shame. In “Neverland” Holland metaphorically reaches out for the hands of those who, like him, have suffered because of their non-conformity to dominant norms of sexuality and gender. The question is will you accept it?
Dr Colette Balmain is a lecturer, film reviewer and writer who specialises in East Asian Cinemas and Cultures. She is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Media and TV at Kingston University. She also writes for easternKicks and Asian Film Vault.
Links and sources
Holland on Social Media
- Facebook: Holland official: https://www.facebook.com/hollandofficial/
- YouTube: HOLLAND OFFICIAL: https://www.youtube.com/c/HOLLANDOFFICIAL
- Instagram: Holland_vvv: https://www.instagram.com/holland_vvv/
- Twitter: @HOLLAND_vvv: https://twitter.com/HOLLAND_vvv
Interviews with Holland with English subtitles
- SBS PopAsia Interview: https://www.sbs.com.au/popasia/blog/2018/02/06/holland-talks-about-being-first-openly-gay-k-pop-idol
- Pran YouTube interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72u5wVQifE
- Star TV interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljieDD3ElAE&t=104s
South Korean LGBT Music Videos Lists
- Billboard.com, ‘10 K-Pop Videos for LGBTQ Pride Month’, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/7824609/k-pop-videos-lgbt-pride-month
- Koreaboo, ‘8 LBGT themed K-Pop MVs That Push The Boundaries of Korea’s Conservative Culture’, https://www.koreaboo.com/buzz/8-lbgt-themed-k-pop-mvs-push-boundaries-koreas-conservative-culture/
- KVille, ‘GAY & LESBIAN K-POP SONGS AND MV’S: (Updated)!’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gcD1qhFhV4
- Doty, A. (1993). Making things perfectly queer: Interpreting mass culture. U of Minnesota Press.
- Oh, C., & Oh, D. C. (2017). Unmasking Queerness: Blurring and Solidifying Queer Lines through K‐Pop Cross‐Dressing. The Journal of Popular Culture, 50(1), 9-29.
- Oţoiu, A. (2012). “Is Neverland a Children’s Utopia?” In: Tomoiagă, L., Barbul, M. and Demarcsek, M. eds), From Francis Bacon to William Golding: Utopias and Dystopias of Today and of Yore, Newcastle upon Tyne, Eng.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 236-54.