K-Pop

‘Poet | Artist’: Jonghyun’s Final Album, the Premature Death of an Idol & the Stigma of Mental Illness in South Korea

Jonghyun Poet Artist SM Entertainment

“Always be with you.”

I’ll be the first to admit, as I find it tacky to feign fandom after a famous person’s death: I’m not a Shawol, or even a SHINee fan for that matter. Not because I don’t like their music, but because I’d never invested my time in the group properly to begin with, beyond having a peripheral awareness of the boy band’s sheer popularity.

When SHINee’s Jonghyun took his own life in mid-December last year, however, I was devastated.

Again, it’s not because I had a particularly strong attachment to his artistry – although I do know now that he was an exceptionally talented entertainer. (And so beautiful, too!) Watching old performances and listening to his music over the past few weeks makes me sad that I wasn’t already a fan.

But to me, Jonghyun’s death represented the loss of a piece of something I’ve loved, and found solace in from the outside, for years: an idol operating within the shiny, seemingly perfect confines of the K-Pop industry, who was cruelly taken away by something darker than what was presented on the surface – as is all too often the case. And in seeing the artists I’ve loved for years grapple with their own personal struggles – whether they’ve overcome, like Britney, or sadly succumbed, like Amy – I strongly empathize with those who tragically lost their favorite pop star in December.

I watched his funeral that week, although I’m not sure I should have. Seeing his SHINee brothers carry out the casket was unbelievably sad. The way they broke down in each other’s arms still haunts me. His poor mother. Taeyeon sobbing in the background – it all felt so surreal and horrifying.

Not that I’m surprised by the far-reaching impact of Korean pop music in this day and age, but it was nonetheless remarkable to see the extent to which Jonghyun’s loss was felt across cultural and language barriers: the outcries of grief on social media, the coverage on news outlets in every country, the vigils hosted in cities worldwide, the charity initiatives set up in his honor.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on mental health in South Korea – or Korean culture in general, really. I do know, however, that reports indicate that mental illness remains a deadly stigma: as of a 2014 New York Times op-ed by Young-ha Kim, South Korea maintained the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world for eight consecutive years.

I’m not sure if that awful statistic continues to this day, but the numbers remain bleak: a health policy overview of Korea by the OECD stated that Korea lags behind other countries in terms of mental health services and reports the third-highest excess mortality rates from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the bloc of 34 countries, the Korea Herald reported last year, just months before Jonghyun took his own life.

“I am damaged from the inside. The depression that has been slowly eating away at me has completely swallowed me, and I couldn’t win over it,” Jonghyun wrote in his goodbye letter.

The difficulty of surviving the industry is already well-documented in countless “Why I Left K-Pop” YouTube videos and documentaries spotlighting the grueling training and promotional demands. Then there’s the tricky challenges that come along with fame – let alone being part of one of the world’s biggest boy bands. It’s enough of a battle in good mental health. But with personal demons? One can only imagine.

Some idols have been bold enough to speak out in the weeks since his death as well: Apink‘s Eunji addressed the lack of care: “I hope that the idol and entertainment industry will grow to encourage physical and mental health so that something like this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

I’ve wanted to write about Jonghyun ever since the horrible news broke, and also tried to find ways to donate to suicide hotlines or mental health awareness initiatives in South Korea, but came up with nothing. (If there are South Korean resources to contribute to in his honor that I missed, please let me know in the comments.)

There is one new way to help, which provides direct relief to those in need: on Tuesday (January 23), S.M. Entertainment released Jonghyun’s final solo album, an 11-track record called Poet | Artist.

It’s not a cheap, posthumous cash grab, either: “All the profits from the sale of this album will be given to Jonghyun’s mother, and will be the foundation for the establishment of an organization to help those who are living in difficult circumstances,” the agency announced last week.

I haven’t listened to the album yet before writing this, because I don’t think that’s what matters. I’m quite sure it’s an excellently crafted pop record, and a bittersweet showcase of talent taken away too soon. But purely because of where the profits are going, I’ll be buying the album in physical form as soon as it hits Koreatown next week.

My hope is for a few things moving forward: I hope his loved ones can find peace. I hope K-Pop fans carry with them the memory of how the entire community united to mourn. I hope they can maintain the decency to respect idols as the human beings they are, as opposed to treating them like workhorses or chess pieces in made-up fandom wars that don’t matter. I hope agencies reassess their expectations and the quality of life of their roster of artists.

And I hope that, if anything positive at all were to come out of this horrible situation, that Jonghyun’s tragic loss may ignite a real conversation in South Korea that leads to actual change: destigmatization, improved mental health awareness, resources and treatment. I hope that if that does happen, someone who is similarly struggling in the future might make a different choice.

Rest in peace, Jonghyun. You worked hard, and you did well.

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Poet | Artist was released on January 23. (iTunes)