Holland Shares How His Journey From Violent Bullies to Self-Love Led to New Single 'Loved You Better'



"It's something that the K-pop scene rarely talks about and I wanted to share a message for people with similar experiences."

Before sharing the first viewing of his new music video, Holland squirms in his chair and lets out an exasperated "So tough!" It's nerve-wracking for any artist to share new music for the first time, but especially when it takes them back to a painful past.

The 23-year-old K-pop singer-songwriter -- currently one of the very few out LGBTQ+ idols in the industry -- released his new single and music video "Loved You Better" on Dec. 11 with the rawest look into his backstory to date to show how his experiences with violent school bullies and mental-health struggles eventually led him to an empowering declaration of self-love. Billboard sat down with Holland and his team in Seoul for the first look at the single, video, and hear the star exclusively share what inspired opening up in this way.

While Holland was originally planning to release new music for Halloween this year, a casual meeting around the time of the KCON Los Angeles festival this summer with producer Tom Meredith (who worked on the debut album of "2002" singer Anne-Marie) led him to the song that would eventually become "Loved You Better." Originally composed by Meredith along with Scottish songwriter David Gibson (Mika, Liam Payne) and Nashville singer-songwriter Calynn Green, the track was being considered by the latter as his own single, but "hitting it off" with Meredith led to Holland and his team at MyMusicTaste to secure the dance-pop production. Holland wrote the Korean lyrics all himself.

"I really tried to include the past but also the present of who I am: the regrets I had for not loving myself and the present Holland loving myself," he explains of "Loved You Better" via translator, clarifying that the you refers to himself. "The lyrics just poured out of me. The opening lyrics are a message I wanted to tell the bullies who gave me a hard time and still don't like me to this day, but the middle section -- about flipping your hair, going your own way, treating yourself like a queen -- that's the message I want to tell my fans."

While he's increasingly embraced his role as K-pop's beloved, relatable, perpetually single queer icon, the process to treating himself like a royalty wasn't easy.

Holland has previously opened up about the violent school bullying and harassment he experienced in school (which has included a harrowing experience where a tormentor tied a rope around his neck and dragged him in front of laughing school mates) and originally wrote the treatment for the "Loved You Better" music video to revisit these experiences.

"Rather than use symbolism, I actually wanted the music video to share the exact details of what actually happened to me," he explains. "I talked with the music video director and addressed this, but after discussing he suggested that showing something so graphic would actually be too hard for me to emotionally play out and also too shocking for fans as well."

Instead, Holland opted for a video that represented his journey to loving himself. He's alone in every scene (his room, a tennis court an amusement park -- all representing places he says show him "isolated but safe") with his visible bruises meant to be open to interpretation for fans to connect their own experiences. "All the interactions, fan letters, hearing their stories, I realized how many of my fans had experiences of harassment, school bullying and domestic violence," he shares. "I didn't personally experience domestic violence, but for me to have gone through similar things at school, I wanted to talk about my story. School is a jungle, right?"

Holland says sharing his feelings to a male class mate -- his "first love" -- in middle school led to "everybody at this big school" learning about his sexuality which led to bullying. He adds he dealt with severe depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

A powerful, potentially triggering scene in "Loved You Better" when the viewer sees Holland's hands seemingly mimicking shooting himself in the mouth but instead leads to an explosion of colorful glitter and confetti to show, as Holland explains, "being reborn to who I am now and my self-identity awakening." The rest of the video sees a newly confident Holland applying dramatic makeup, decorating his hands in fierce jewels and confidently stomping through a lit-up amusement park.

"I want to share that a story like mine exists," the singer adds. "It's something that the K-pop scene rarely talks about and I wanted to share a message for people with similar experiences and pasts to relate. It's not a commercial song, it's not meant to be a song for a lot of people to love, my intention is the same as with [my debut single] 'Neverland,' which I wrote thinking that I really need to tell my story."

Today, Holland is telling his story. He has a professional team supporting him (a stark difference from his first Billboard interview when he was self-managed), close to two million followers on social media (closing in on one million on Instagram alone), and big fashion and editorial brands reaching out to him on the regular (he says to look out for something with Gucci). His ambitions are growing with hopes that 2020 will be the year he releases a full-length album, comes to the U.S. for a tour and appears on the Ellen show. Just like the final scene of "Loved You Better" -- where Holland's back in his bedroom with his bruises healed, a sunny warmth enveloping the room and he's smiling back at his reflection -- the star speaks with a smile, even through his painful memories.

Thinking back to what he'd tell his younger self, he thinks carefully and takes the longest pause of the interview. "It might sound a little corny, but I really want to tell him to treat himself like a queen," he says. "I really want to tell him to stick to what he believes and keep moving forward." With bigger aspirations than he may have even considered when he debuted two years ago, no doubt he'll keep moving forward -- and smiling. 

Holland is currently on his 1st World Tour Ep.1: Invitation From Neverland that's traveling throughout Europe this month.