Man. What to even say about this? The thing I still can’t shake is the fact that my memory of him as that bright-eyed eighteen year old kid still feels so fresh. I don’t know if there’s been another celebrity death that can really compare to the heartbreak of seeing someone debut and watching him, literally day by day, grow from an innocent, well-behaved teenager to a fiercely independent adult, only for it all to come to a screeching halt right when he was beginning to create and perform and live exactly the way he wanted to. It almost makes you mourn more for that eighteen year old kid whose dreams will forever remain partially unfulfilled.
This week has been a good exercise in grief for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never suffered the loss of anyone incredibly close to me, and it feels wrong to say that Jonghyun’s death has been one of the biggest personal tragedies I’ve ever experienced. But objectively, it makes sense — out of the small handful of people I’ve known who’ve passed away, I feel like I knew Jonghyun the most. You don’t spend eight years as a fan without forming some sort of attachment, after all.
Seeing the other members serve as his chief mourners and pallbearers was an even deeper punch to the gut. No one that young should have to bear the burden of carrying out funeral rites for a friend. Shinee was the model example of everything that was good and right about K-pop. Like, they were almost too perfect. They were just about to become one of the few groups to make it to their tenth anniversary completely intact. They were supposed to be each other’s groomsmen or the godfathers to their children. Now that joy, that idealism, that light has been irreparably shattered. Everything feels so wrong.
I hate that the Western media reaction to Jonghyun’s suicide has gravitated towards pointing fingers at the K-pop industry and blaming it for being inhumane or abusive, while also using this tragedy to, once again, gawk at K-pop as this bizarre, foreign enigma that fulfills every preexisting Western stereotype about Asian culture as being mechanical, uncreative, oppressive, whatever. There are lots of things about the K-pop industry that are deeply problematic, but it’s just so typical for non-Asian folks to impulsively write off an entire culture or system as being inherently flawed, rather than recognizing the distinct pains and struggles of the individuals within that system. (Or really, recognizing them as individuals at all.)
It’s a bit baffling to see Western folks claim that Jonghyun’s depression was purely symptomatic of being in the K-pop idol system, when Westerners are usually the first to advocate for the fact that depression is a neurobiological illness, not a situational consequence. Anyone could’ve seen from Jonghyun’s very public, very obvious battles with depression that this wasn’t just a man who couldn’t withstand the pressures of idol life. This was a man who couldn’t withstand the pressures of life, period.
I think the reason why the news articles linking Jonghyun’s death with the “insane K-pop industry” (i.e. this garbage article from the Guardian) anger me so much is because of how painfully obvious it was to me that Jonghyun’s struggles with depression were a true sign of mental illness, not a side effect of being a K-pop idol. Depression comes in different forms for different people, but its one unifying characteristic is that it makes people fragile and stubborn. Romans 7:15-20 describes it pretty perfectly, I think:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
I’m wary of projecting my own experiences onto Jonghyun, but reading his suicide note made me re-realize that depression is something so insidious that even the sincerest kind words and loving gestures are somehow neutralized against it. It’s not always about self-hatred or low self-esteem. I think about the cloud of melancholy that creeps into my own mind during birthdays and vacations and happy moments; that belief that happiness isn’t meant to last in this world because people die, children grow up, relationships end. The perpetual fear that all happy memories will eventually be marked only by tragedy. I think that’s also the reason why I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch a single old Shinee video since Jonghyun’s death.
Sigh. What a loss. I know it’s all sorts of insensitive and inaccurate to say that depression is just a facet of one’s personality, but I do think that certain folks with certain traits and life experiences have a harder time coping with it. I didn’t really know what to do with myself after hearing the news on Monday, so I dove into this project of recording a cover of “Breathe,” which Jonghyun wrote for Lee Hi’s album last year. The moment I started to sing, I found myself crying for the first time all day. It was weird, like it was purely a biological response rather than an emotional one. I think there’s something about singing that extends beyond mere emotional expression; it’s almost as if the physiological action of singing makes you access a guttural, wordless part of your soul that is typically sealed off to everyone, including yourself. But for those who sing, that part of your soul completes you. You can’t do without it.
I think that part of his soul defined so much of who Jonghyun was, and it was why he suffered as much as he did. It was also why he was so beautiful.