Kulture Kolumn: Holland and the Power of an Idol Who Understands
There’s a lot that needs to be done to mend the world right now, so with each artist who takes the step to speak out, the ripples of positive change will be undoubtedly bigger
These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject of bullying. Whether it’s memories of the glaring isolation from my own school years or the rampant cyber-space attacks on celebrities we’re seeing online, I’ve found that you never really escape from it; it’s a battle we fight lifelong in the many different forms it takes.
So when South Korean pop star and queer icon Holland dropped his brand new single titled “Loved You Better” on Wednesday, it seemed like a sign to that I needed to write this. The track is his first release since March’s “Nar_C” and explores a darker, more vulnerable side of the singer with a music video to match. While his previous lead singles have been brighter, celebratory of love and the LGBT community, “Loved You Better” is more like his lesser-known release “I’m So Afraid,” and addresses a loneliness born out of society’s rejection of who he is.
The video begins with Holland alone in his bedroom, sporting bruises and wounds which could possibly be from being bullied. He’s alone throughout the entire video and roams the empty premises of a school at night, at points even running from something unseen that’s chasing him. There are clips of him lingering by a bridge and screaming in frustration before he is alone again in his room. He stares at his own reflection in the mirror for a few moments before lifting two fingers, symbolic of a gun, putting them in his mouth and ‘shooting’ himself. Glitter erupts from the back of his head instead of blood, and there is a drastic shift in the tone of the video; the next few scenes see Holland putting on black lipstick and jewelry, then dyeing his hair a deep crimson. As the beat drops into the track’s valiant pop synth chorus, he discards his quiet persona and emerges confident, dancing boldly through a bright amusement park at night with his head held high. The video ends on a bittersweet note; he wakes up the next morning, brown-haired and on the floor of his bedroom, blankly surveying his reflection in the mirror again.
To many who have faced bullying in their lives, this is a hauntingly familiar scene; you go through the motions of life each day, not quite sure where you fit in and wondering what the future holds for an existence that seems so hopeless at the time. Like we see with the bold, red-haired Holland, there are moments where you dream of who you wish you could be, of breaking through and flourishing despite what people say or do to you. However, reality comes–much like the morning as we see in the clip–and you have yet another day of pain to face. On Twitter, Holland explained, “My new song ‘Loved You Better’ is about my past experience of going through school bullying. This piece was made to share and heal wounds of my fans and myself, who have been exposed to many violence as well as loneliness just by being different.” The video and his words really resonated with me, because the most painful part of the years I was bullied, was the crushing loneliness of it all. I remember so many days sitting by myself at school, long after everyone else had left, and it made no difference whether the building was empty or not–there was no one there who really cared about me anyway.
I found refuge in music and artists who weren’t afraid to be themselves–much like Holland did. He told me when we first spoke last year, “I had a really tough time during my middle school years.” He had confessed his feelings for a fellow male student and was then bullied for being gay. His only source of comfort and strength at the time were artists from other countries who voiced their strong support for the LGBTQ+ community. “There were many [Western] pop stars that were talking about human rights and supporting minorities. I really admired that.” It made him want to become a similar source of support for people in the same situation as him, a beacon that reassured many that they weren’t alone in what they were going through.
While at first it would seem that “Loved You Better” is addressing a past lover or friend, but (for me) an underlying meaning emerged when Holland said, “Ignore their stares, just look ahead/That’s your way, that’s the answer/Now I treat myself like a queen/Now I’m going to give myself everything.” The lyrics go on to express a sense of regret, adding, “There’s just one thing left to think about/So many ways that I wished I loved you better,” which made me look back at who I used to be: that lonely emo girl with frizzy hair, so desperate to be loved and going overboard trying to please whoever paid attention, then getting taken advantage of. I repressed more and more of who I truly was so that I would be accepted into popular circles and it was all to no avail; it just made me an easy target for people to laugh at and broke my confidence instead. I hated myself at the time, angry that no matter what I did I still wasn’t good enough, that I was too nerdy, too wrapped up in my world of music and writing and anime to be taken seriously. The process of learning to love myself and value who I am was long; I had to understand that letting my inner self blossom was the only way I could truly be happy. My self-worth is still something I question at times, but I’m stronger and more capable of fighting for myself now. It’s a hard-won state of mind that I’m not about to let go of any time soon.
Holland and I met for the first time this year in Seoul and it was like coming home. There was comfort in knowing that he’d accept me for me, and it came from the fact that we’d been through a lot of the same things. We hugged for three minutes straight–tears be damned–and I felt like I’d known him all my life. We don’t often get the privilege of meeting our heroes, so I’m thankful I got the chance to meet one of mine and tell him he made a positive difference to my life by sharing his story. It made me feel less alone and forged a connection I never thought I’d have with him: friendship. It was a new shield in my arsenal that made me stronger and ready to face the lifelong-onslaught of negativity we all have to endure, and I’m thankful for him.
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So this finally, FINALLY happened! 💛 @holland_vvv, I love you so much and I’m so proud of you. Getting to spend time with you is a privilege and you will always be so, so special to me. You’re the best and we need to see you in India ASAP! Congratulations on #Nar_C and thank you for everything, hon 💛🌈
“Loved You Better” and its video come at a pretty important time in idol culture. Over the past two of months we’ve seen the deaths of two strong, independent female artists in Korean entertainment, Goo Hara and Sulli, who faced cyber-bullying and media-led ridicule for several years before it finally led to a breaking point. They were both powerful voices in the fight for women’s rights and refused to be suppressed, using their platforms to better the world for women. Losing them was a heavy blow to us all. At the moment, the only person Holland follows on Twitter is K-pop group SHINee’s member Jonghyun, one of my personal heroes who also died by suicide in December 2017. He is someone I looked up to immensely for his unwavering support for women and the LGBTQ+ community, and as his second death anniversary approaches, I can’t help but think about how each and every one of these idols fought for kindness, positivity and eradication of bullying and harassment. They took a stand and made a difference with their platforms, changing the lives of thousands of fans in the process.
Like Holland, there are several other artists in K-pop who have used their platforms to discuss their experiences with depression, loneliness and cyber-bullying; BTS’ Suga, Bang Yongguk, Big Bang’s G-Dragon, Bae Suzy, IU, Super Junior’s Heechul, GOT7’s Jackson Wang and Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon are a few examples. More recently, artists like Twice’s Mina, Seventeen’s S.Coups and Stray Kids’ Han have made the move to halt official activities and take some time off to take care of their mental health and it has led to bigger conversations around how the youth of today deal with anxiety, depression and panic attacks.
It’s a little hard to absorb that our idols aren’t immune to feeling the same sort of pain we do; they seem strong and happy, almost invincible with bright smiles on their faces. But often, there’s a lot more beyond that glittering surface. It is important to listen when an artist does speak up, but it’s also equally important for more artists to take a stand and bring issues like bullying to the fore for discussion. A lot of the time an artist’s pain is a mirror to the trials we ourselves face, so finding solidarity in one another can change lives. It also changes the way the world perceives K-pop stars as a whole, seeing them as individuals with voices and opinions, capable of creating movements among youth. I’m grateful to Holland and several of the other artists mentioned here for making the choice to make a difference; there’s a lot that needs to be done to mend the world right now, so with each artist who takes the step to speak out, the ripples of positive change will be undoubtedly bigger.