While the K-pop industry has long touted a more wholesome image than its western counterparts, there were still rebels even in its earliest days — namely Yang Joon-il, who was a divisive pop star during his initial run in the early ’90s.
Best seen in his performances of his single “Rebecca,” Yang embodied the era with a genre-blending sound akin to Prince and virile choreography à la Michael Jackson, mixed with a fashion-forward, androgynous look similar to modern-day K-pop icon G-Dragon. Still, Yang faced heavy criticism as well as xenophobia as an American trying to enter the industry. One outdoor festival saw audience members throwing rocks at him onstage.
While he attempted to push on with his career, Yang had record labels tell him he was too big a risk to invest in and later had issues renewing his visa. “Like when Madonna came out and she really shook things up, I was too controversial for tastes,” the now-50-year-old singer tells Billboard. “It’s a conservative country, the ruling class thought I was a bad influence, and there was a severe split between the people who liked me and the people who really disliked me; and more people seemed to dislike me.”
After a brief comeback attempt in the early ’00s via a rock group, Yang receded to a life away from music in the United States. But nearly three decades after his initial foray, the music found him again as he was working as a server in Florida.
Korean music program Two Yoo Project Sugar Man reintroduces overlooked musicians of the past and re-creates their hits for today. While the show is three seasons in and has had chart-toppers like TWICE and Red Velvet put their spin on old hits, Yang’s episode generated an unusually hot reaction both from viewers and on social media, with young people wanting to know more about this supposed K-pop rebel. The demand for Yang became so high in Korea that he decided to face his past — but with a new attitude.
Now living in Seoul with his wife and son, Yang Joon-il can sell out concerts and fan meetings like other top stars, but he isn’t here to snatch back a celebrity life. “I don’t live by fame. I could go back to serving tomorrow,” he says. “I’m really glad for this opportunity, but I’m not trying to maintain my popularity.”
Instead, he’s looking to bring his newfound attention to causes he believes in and thank the fans who have found him after all these years — including his current manager, whom he says used to host fan meetups with him at a Burger King. “Sincerely, I’ll be here as long as the fans want me to be,” he adds. “If they don’t anymore, I’ll leave the next day. I don’t want to be jaded; I want to be sincere.”
While he has plans to re-record and modernize his past albums, as well as pursue opportunities in the fashion world, Yang Joon-il’s latest project was publishing his first book Maybe in February. In the memoir, he recounts his personal setbacks and experiences that gave him the “nothing-to-lose” perspective he has today. Read on for Yang expanding more on his memoir, newfound K-pop fame and the G-Dragon comparisons.
A lot of comments online say you were an original K-pop star who paved the way for artists today. Were you aware of how the Korean music scene had been growing since you left?
No, I stopped listening to music altogether when my kid was born. I didn’t have time to watch TV, I didn’t have time to listen to music; it wasn’t about me being cultural or not cultural, I was just trying to exist and wondering why I exist…when YouTube started and people started uploading my old videos, I was actually thinking, “Oh no, please don’t upload those, people are going to start cussing me out again.” It had taken so long for people to forget about me, I didn’t want to become an issue again. A few years later even, I still was feeling the effects of my name being looked down upon — it makes you want to stay home.
But I had finally gotten to the point where people forgot about me and my life was much more peaceful — and then YouTube started. But a new generation just had a different opinion about the videos. Kids were actually clicking the videos thinking I was G-Dragon and [I would see comments] like “Wait, he looks like GD but it’s not him? Is this a new artist? This was 30 years ago, how is that possible?”
Why else do you think you got such a big reaction now?
One of the reasons is because I was not in Korea. It almost becomes more mysterious because they couldn’t find me. I was in Florida and the Korean community is very small there. I was completely out of reach. And truly, I didn’t see myself as an artist, an entertainer or anything else — I had a mental block that I couldn’t get over. Even when I was on TV back then, I felt like I was a tissue that they would use and throw away.
But I had other sincere reasons I couldn’t go to Korea anyway. My wife doesn’t speak any English, she doesn’t drive and we have a young kid — they can’t stay at home for two weeks [if I tried to promote again in Korea]. And I probably won’t be able to pay rent because I’m a server, we don’t get vacation time and if you leave a busy restaurant they replace you automatically.
What’s it like being back onstage today?
It’s like taking a shot of Monster; an energy surge that pushes me back, forward and lifts me up. It’s hard to express, but the kind of attention and affection they give me [today] makes me feel like one of the X-Men. But coming off the stage is what’s difficult. It’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation — I don’t recognize that guy who’s on stage. I try to do a mind trick to calm myself before going on stage because when I get off the stage, I actually start shivering because it’s such a difference in energy.
Do you have plans to sign with a Korean entertainment company?
I didn’t make any of this happen. If I had been trying, it probably wouldn’t have happened. If I try to follow a formula or figure out how and why this happened, it’ll all fall apart. That’s why I’m not signing with any of the companies here. If I signed with, let’s say JYP Entertainment because everyone knows them, does JYP have a formula for making their artists famous? They do. Do I fit into that formula? No, I don’t. Nobody made this situation and I don’t fit into any existing situation. It’s ridiculous to try to fool me into that.
What’s your daily life like here in Seoul?
Every day I wake up and I’m like, “Where am I? Is this really still happening?” Even when I was performing on Sugar Man, when I went on stage I said, “I’m going to bust that stage wide open.” The writer was even like, “Where do you get this confidence? You haven’t been on stage in 30 years.” And it’s because either I bust the stage open or I get busted. I’m not nervous because I don’t have anything to lose. My manager asked me if fame has changed me and I said “no because when I lose it that means I’m going to change again.” Why go through the pain?
I used to work at a wholesale store and when you’re the new guy you have to take out the trash. I’ve used that phrase a lot about “taking out the trash” because for the longest time I felt like trash from how people treated me. I needed to learn to throw those feelings away, but even in the trash I know there’s still something precious in there that you learn. You take out the trash, but you need to leave the jewel behind. And now it’s the opposite: Now they’re calling me a star and I’m taking that trash out but there’s still a jewel in all of this that I need to find.
Have you found that jewel with this new stage of life?
One of the things I have found is that I’m a source of attention. The other day I went to a school for the disabled and I met this eight-year-old pianist who is blind, born with no eyes. Me visiting him caused a lot more people to see them and realize they need our help. But what was most interesting is that he asked me if I had a purpose for visiting — and it was to deliver funding to the school — but I think my purpose was to meet him. I asked if I could watch him play the piano, I would freeze if I was seated at that piano but he was so disciplined to learn piano that he’s free on the piano. I found out his parents put him up for adoption when they learned he was blind and I didn’t want him to carry that with him forever. But it hit me: He isn’t precious he plays the piano — he’s precious because he is precious. Being able to bring attention to that is a jewel, but it’s also something I could hold too. This is all bigger than me.