“It was very hard for me to get my name and music out there publicly. There’s no narrative, representation or programmes supporting the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea,” he laments when Miss Vogue meets him. “I think that because it’s a country that had to develop so quickly, that even though economically and financially it grew, culturally and socially it didn’t grow at the same pace. The entertainment industry is more open than others, yet LGBTQ+ issues are very taboo and conservative within other fields. It’s an issue that has to be recognised and publicly spoken about, but people don’t want to.”
K-pop has, for years, dictated Korean culture. Idols and celebrities dominate television screens where A-list celebrities appear on reality and entertainment game shows (think Dame Helen Mirren making a cameo on Countdown) and shop windows are plastered with celebrities advertising even the most mundane of products.
“To become a K-pop idol, you audition when you’re really young or get casted to be part of an agency. Then the agency formulates the idol group and train you for years – whether it be vocally, or in terms of dance, to match the style or concept of the group’s aesthetic. Then you debut as a group,” Holland reveals.
But Holland being the first openly gay musician in South Korea meant that no agency would sign him.
“Fan marketing is a lot to do with accessibility. Idols are marketed as boyfriends as they have to attract and create a fantasy for them. So, agencies ensure that idols are careful with revealing their personal romantic lives and that’s where I lack fan marketing in that respect,” he explains. “But it’s ironic. Male idols are presented as being gender fluid – they wear make-up, wear avant-garde clothes and are portrayed as pretty, effeminate boys, flirting with the idea of homosexuality.”
But despite being an independent artist – which is unheard of in South Korea due to the strict structure of the entertainment industry where agencies rigorously push for publicity, that in turn, funds albums and tours – Holland’s debut single “Neverland” gained over a million views overnight, catching the attention from Western media (again, unheard of for an artist to have a wider reach outside of their home country), was crowned the winner of the Dazed 100 list in 2018, crowdfunded his album that met its target of $50,000 within 48 hours, ultimately, doubling his target.
“Coming out publicly in Korea was incredibly difficult and I think people respected that. I don’t think it’s my looks, ability to dance or sing that people have connected with. But rather, they understand and relate to me on a personal level – seeing me as a friend as opposed to an idol they are in love with and in awe of. I’ve received so many positive responses from people, within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community, telling me that my presence has helped them get through accepting their sexualities and for thanking me for speaking out. But I do get lots of negative comments too – especially underneath articles where people have heated debates over me. But I try to ignore them because I’m happy that there are people who find comfort in my music and what I'm doing."
Holland’s crowd-funded, self-titled debut mini-album – his name taken from the first country to have legalised same-sex marriage – details his personal journey coming out as gay. His debut single “Neverland” – “a song I wrote for my 20-year-old, most vulnerable, honest and innocent self” – details a bitter, then sweet story. For Holland, being gay and loved is no longer a dream – Neverland no longer a utopia, but a reality. With (translated) lyrics, “I don’t know if I’m strange or who is strange” that progress to lyrics on self-acceptance, “what I had once thought is no longer, Wonderland is no longer far,” accompanied by mellow R&B instrumentals makes for an emotional listen.
The accompanying video – that Holland worked two part-time jobs to fund is wonderfully uplifting, staying true to the utopian, Neverland theme while depicting a queer love story. The video gained a million views in less than 24 hours – a watershed moment in Korean culture as it showed a kiss between Holland and his male co-star, but as a result, the video received a 19+ rating in South Korea for its queer content.
“I was so shocked to find out that it would get a 19+ rating, that I thought we had to do it. It was more necessary than an act of rebellion and the director felt that way too, understanding that it was my project and story that was being told.”
Following from “Neverland” are his twin singles “I’m Not Afraid” and “I’m So Afraid”. The former “a story post-debuting and coming out when I was at a different point in my life where I was loved by friends and supporters – not afraid of who I am anymore” and the latter, expressing Holland’s constant fear of the supporters forgetting about him as he lacks an agency’s support of pushing him into the public eye.
Latest single, “Nar_C” is a high-octane, pop song, the video depicting a breakup, with the message to love yourself. “It’s a song for fans who struggle with self-confidence, their sexuality or with who they are. I’ve learned that I can and deserve to be loved, that I don’t have to hide who I am, and I’m not hated for it. I just want people to know that too – that they have to love themselves before loving anybody else. It’s my main message and purpose as an artist right now. Maybe later along the journey it may change, but it’s important that I spread that message first.”
Though Holland is single-handedly shaping Korean culture and its history, he admits that he is burdened by the weight of an entire community on his shoulders.
“Even though it’s only been a year since I debuted, I don’t think I’ve achieved enough. I’m still a rookie and it’s a huge pressure knowing that any mistake I make, represents and affects a wider community in Korea. So, I’m always careful about everything I do. I’m hopeful that people will be more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. For now, my main goal is just to grow my core team, make more music and work with more professionals within the industry.”
And who does Holland want to work with? None other than pop’s wonder boy Troye Sivan and pop-princess Ariana Grande.
my harlings! i found a company to help me yeeeesssss❤️— HOLLAND (@HOLLAND_vvv) June 5, 2019
i can't give you the details, but I think i can do a lot of things in two or three months. of course, i am going to start making a tour and an album from now on🥺
i think we can start broadcasting and performing from the next album!! i believe in them and we will work together to figure out how we can be happier in the future🌈 i'd like to thank you all for believing in me and waiting for me so far. I love you so much my wendys— HOLLAND (@HOLLAND_vvv) June 5, 2019
sources: Vogue, Holland 1|2|3|4, Holland_vvv 1|2
happy pride month!