Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if nobody attempts it, and that’s what motivates Korean singer Holland to do what he does. It may take a few years, but the 23-year-old is bringing a new voice to the K-pop scene and hopes his impact will be felt for years to come.
As the first publicly out “idol,” a term utilized in the Korean music industry to refer to young pop stars generally managed by labels and whose musical careers are typically bolstered by dedicated fanbases, and one of the few publicly gay entertainers in the Korean entertainment scene, Holland has gained a sizable following, known collectively as Harling, in the first year and a half that he’s been putting out his inspirational brand of pop music.
Making his way in the world on his own for now — although he has a business partnership with tour provider My Music Taste and says he is looking for an agency — the singer stands out as a source of representation in the K-pop world where relationships are idealized in songs and fandom spaces, where same-sex “shipping” is a key factor behind much fandom behavior. But stars often suffer for actual romances, and in the larger South Korean media scene, where heteronormativity dominates in a reflection of the generally conservative approach in the country towards its LGBTQ community and equal rights. Holland hopes his existence as a performer will help normalize LGBTQ storytelling in South Korean media, and with each release, beginning from his first song “Neverland” in January 2018 to his most recent song, March’s “Nar_C,” he is aiming to do just that.
Shortly after the release of “Nar_C” and his self-titled EP on March 31, Holland sat down with Billboard in Seoul to discuss his music, his career and what he hopes to achieve as a rare LGBTQ+ voice in South Korea’s media.
You most recently released “Nar_C.” How do you feel about it?
It’s so exciting. I’m a little bit nervous. I’m really busy but I’m really excited about seeing the reactions from fans. With my debut there was a huge reaction, and now the response isn’t as big but I feel like my story is something that fans are connecting with so I feel really happy about that.
How do you feel about it getting a smaller reaction?
I’m fine. Because it’s not the same promotion or production as with a large company, I’m OK with that kind of reaction.
Is it hard to do what you’re doing without a company backing you?
To be honest, under a big company I wouldn’t be able to have the same kind of voice. I’ve seen some contracts and they really don’t allow that. I’m accustomed since my debut until now to be working on my own. Even though I’m looking for a company that can work with me to maintain my voice, I’m happy at the moment to be working on my own. Because I have that freedom, I am able to make the music I want and tell the story I want to tell.
Has it been difficult to fund your career until now?
I crowdfunded this release, and at the moment I’m trying to figure out what to do for the next thing I want to release.
What inspired “Nar_C”?
The title refers to narcissism. I started with the concept of self love, which is something that I have in all of my songs. I had a relationship for a long time, and through that I noticed both people became similar to one another. But I also noticed negative aspects of myself through it. In terms of loving myself, I want to show that through a relationship you have to love yourself first and then love the other person.
The music video depicted a volatile relationship. Why did you want to depict that sort of story?
I wanted to show how in relationships you have good and the bad. I wanted to show all aspects of that. With the mirrors and the daffodils, which represent narcissism, I wanted to express the reality. I hoped to show it based on my own experience.
What was that like, acting out these emotions based on your own life and relationship?
The first day of filming was the most emotional part so I was kind of awkward and I feel like I could have done more. But because there’s a good relationship between me and the actor playing the other man in the couple, it was comfortable.
You used social media to tell the story along with what was depicted in the music video. What inspired you to do that?
Like reading a book, I wanted to delve deeper into the meaning of the music video. Sometimes when you watch music videos, they’re so full of meaning that it’s difficult from the fan’s perspective to grasp everything, so I thought the posts would be a good idea.
Was there any concern that fans may misunderstand the posts and believe that the music video and the posts are about you and somebody you’re actually in a relationship with?
Of course, the fans want to stan it. There isn’t anything there, but if there is any opportunity… Right now I’m looking for a boyfriend [laughs].
In the past you featured a very positive representation of same-sex relationships in your videos and now you turned the focus onto darker moments. Do you feel that it is important for you to show a wide range of emotions and stories since you’re the only one depicting same-sex romances?
In Korea, there are many stereotypes about what it means to be LGBTQ+ and the conversation about it is generally very dark. I hope that my music and videos spur dialogue and the reality comes to light more. I want to not only show one side but a whole variety so that these conversations can occur, and it’s not something kept quiet or behind closed doors.
Aside from your own life, where else do you get inspiration from?
As you say, I mostly take inspiration from my life, but I do watch a lot of movies, a lot of LGBTQ+ content — not particularly from Korea, but just in general, to see how they frame the relationships.
How do you view your relationship with your art? Not only what you’re doing to promote dialogue, but on a personal level how do you interact with your music and videos?
My inspiration largely comes from my experiences facing discrimination in school, and so one aspect of my making my art is because I feel that there needed to be representation since there was no queer icons I was seeing visibly, in pop music or Hollywood. I wanted to be that for people who are struggling with their sexuality. When I experienced that discrimination, I was really hurt. Even though I grew up, the pain still exists. But through the interactions with fans and seeing the reactions to my art, it’s a healing process as well.
What has it been like then to have such an intense response to this music that is part of a very intimate process for yourself?
Honestly, I’m surprised and thankful that there is such a good reaction from the fans. Not just as a celebrity, but on a friendly level. I felt that there was even more so a need for representation based on the way fans were responding. They shared many meaningful stories and concerns. I don’t want there to be a big disparity between myself as a celebrity and my fans, but more of a friendship where we can continue our dialogue and can support one another.
You have a particularly sizable international following. How does that affect, if at all, how you approach your music and how you interact with fans?
I don’t really see too much of a difference between my Korean and international fans, but I do post on social media in English a lot intentionally so that I can interact with fans who may not understand Korean. It’s been a learning experience for me, and fans are often kind enough to tell me about errors I’ve made. I have a desire to learn English as well.
My fans are diverse across the board, and there are obviously many people who support me and many who don’t. My whole essence is about being positive, so I was concerned about the fans feeling hurt. That’s why I really wanted to address that situation.
It’s been just over a year since your debut, so do you think there’s been any positive change in perceptions towards LGBTQ+ representation in the Korean entertainment world that you’ve seen in the time based on your music?
No, it doesn’t feel like there’s a huge change. But in terms of the industry, directors, producers, collaborators… The fact that they want to work with me and support me is something that I consider an important step of this whole process. It’s just been a year so I haven’t seen a huge change but hopefully in five, 10 years… In Korea, it’s very conservative and very constant in its beliefs. But within the entertainment industry, I think that the business and the impact of the culture of K-pop is something that might help my music to make an impact.
Are there any artists you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
In Korea, I’m not sure who exactly wants to work with me. I do like Baek Yerin, though, so working with her would be nice. Outside of the country, maybe Troye Sivan, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber? I’d also like to incorporate some hip-hop elements into my music, so I’d love to collaborate with some hip-hop artists who are interested in telling the same stories I want to tell.
You mentioned that you’re not sure who would like to work with you in Korea. Do you feel like an outsider in the industry here?
It’s not that I feel like I’m completely ostracized, but I do feel that everyone and everything is very cautious here.
What else will 2019 bring for Holland?
Right now I’m working on trying to set up a tour. I’d like to release a full album since I’ve already done a few different singles. I’d like to explore who I am as an artist more, and right now I’m trying to figure out the team I’d like to work with to do that. I’m in the process of putting that team together.