“Take a deep breath
Until both sides of your heart get numb,
Until it hurts a little...
Let out your breath even more,
Until you feel
like there's nothing left inside...”
— Kim Jonghyun1
5:23 a.m. It was another sleepless night. Kyungchul listened to the sound of rain pattering melancholy on the window. Another gloomy day. The last time he saw the sun seemed like weeks before. He returned to the dormitory barely two hours ago, drenched, from filming a solo music video in the wintry rain. The dampness and exhaustion conquered his body, giving him an agonizing headache. Unwilling to disturb the rest of his fellow group members, he just sat on the bed facing the wall and tried to will his pounding headache away. Whether from pain or from fatigue he couldn’t quite recall, but consciousness withdrew from him at last, and he was left alone in the world of darkness.
8:17 a.m. Kyungchul woke up to the sound of his ringtone — one set up especially for his boss. No, not now. Excruciating pain shot through his head as he tried to prop himself upright. His aching muscles protested, and he crumpled back onto his bed. He only had enough strength to reach a shaky hand over and answer the call.
“Kyungchul, come to my office at nine this morning, I want to have a chat with you.” The other end sounded serious.
“Actually...Mr. Sookwang,2 I’m not feeling that well—” Before he could finish his sentence, his boss hung up.
Kyungchul looked out the window. The rain had stopped, but the grey clouds lingered, covering up any traces of sun. He sighed heavily, and with difficulty, got dressed in front of the mirror. How deathly pale he looked. It must be the lighting. Quite disturbed by the sight, he hurriedly left the dorm.
The taxi driver greeted him with a “The weather’s nice.” Thinking just the opposite, Kyungchul dismissed the comment. “To SK Company,3 please,” he said. He glanced down at his wristwatch. 8:34 a.m. In a busy city like Seoul, the roads are paralyzed with traffic after eight-thirty. He would have taken the subway or a bus instead, but disguising himself took too much effort and appearing in public was too risky. Taxi was his only option. Kyungchul checked the time once more. The minutes seeped away ruthlessly, and time was running out. He had heard rumors that his boss disliked having to wait for people. The clouds seemed to have descended lower, pressing hard upon the city, making his breathing a little heavier. His aching head pounded even more at the thought of his boss’s disappointment, except there was nothing he could do but worriedly stare in the direction of the SK Company building.
The clock standing on his boss’s desk read 9:05 a.m. His boss, leaning in his black leather chair, glared at Kyungchul as he pushed through the door with difficulty and almost tripped over himself. The sofa in front of him appeared cozier than ever. I wish I could just lay down there. But he stood unsteadily nonetheless.
“Sorry, I’m late.” He lowered his head, vacantly staring at his sneakers.
“Have I been so nice recently that my employees dare to make me wait?”
Kyungchul remained silent.
His boss shook his head. “Remember that if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be standing where you are now. Look at yourself—leader of one of the most popular boy groups in all of South Korea! So many people would kill for this title, but I gave YOU the opportunity to fulfill your dream, I gave YOU fame and popularity.” ...and took away my humanity.5
“Kyungchul, I wish you could see it from my perspective. Recently you have been slacking. It is unacceptable. If you keep this up, it will be harmful to both of us. I thought you already knew this well enough, that there are thousands of people just as talented as you. So, if you don’t put in more effort, your competitors will surpass you in no time — I’m only trying to help you maintain your status! I’ve listened to the new songs you composed, and let’s just say that you can do better.”
Kyungchul laughed bitterly to himself. That one simple sentence coming from his boss negated all the effort he had put into those songs, all those sleepless nights he spent in his room, playing chords and scribbling down notes, trying to create songs for a new album.
“I will try harder, Mr. Sookwang.”
“No, you will not just try, you will promise me that you will do better,” Mr. Sookwang demanded condescendingly. “Look, I’m trying to help you out. Let me get straight to the point. You’re turning twenty-nine in a few months. Both you and I know what this means. Just look around you, learn from the experience of others! So many K-Pop stars crumpled to nothing after serving their mandatory two-year term in Army!6 This will be your fate if you don’t make one last hit to secure your fandom.”
Kyungchul looked out the glass window just behind his boss. The rain started drizzling. The Army. After two years I’ll be a by-gone K-Pop star. Kyungchul knew that after two years in the army his strength would leave him; he would lose his youthful appearance. His voice would lose its energy and clarity, and he would be so out of practice that he would be unable to perform the intense routines his group demanded.7 And no one would pay him the slightest attention anymore because there is always a new generation, full of vibrancy, unaware of the punishing future ahead of them and the price they will pay for their fame like he once was.8 They will learn that with time, all of their hard work will be forgotten. And so will they.
“I will stop here,” said Mr. Sookwang. “Spend some time thinking about all that I have said. I want you to present me with your next song in three days. And this time you won’t let me down again. You may take your leave, good day.”
Kyungchul bowed his head, and let his feet carry him out of his office. All he wanted to do right now was to get some rest before the concert tonight, but he remembered his three-day deadline. If I don’t start today, I won’t be able to finish, much less compose something that satisfies my boss’s tastes, he thought, as he forced his way to the music room. The familiar setting brought back memories. Seven years ago, he had almost wished he could live in this room; he was so thrilled to be here. The instruments were still in the same place they were seven years ago, but they had lost their sheen through the years. Kyungchul sat down by the piano and caressed its keys. It was a bit out of tune and its strings rusty, soon to be replaced by another brand-new one. He wondered where it would be disposed of after it was replaced, and what would happen to it then.
The buzzing of his phone drew him back to reality. The lock screen showed 11:52 a.m. In the group chat, his manager informed the group that the members were going to gather for rehearsals at 1 p.m. for the concert tonight. When they first debuted, the five of them were like brothers. But soon, the contract for their group would end. Although none of them brought the topic up, all were aware that they would part ways the day they disband.9 Already everyone was busy with their own schedule; rarely a day passed with the five of them present all at once. They were no longer as close as before. An invisible wall quietly established itself between them. There was now a sense of competition among the members to see who had more popularity. He shivered at the thought of brothers turning into enemies.
For four hours straight, they rehearsed. Kyungchul felt like a robot—his limbs were dancing on their own. The music thundered as they practiced one choreography routine after another, taking only water breaks. When practice finally ended, they went to the company’s buffet to get dinner. After so many days of separation, the reunion was an unfamiliar feeling. They almost felt like strangers to each other.
“So, what have you guys been doing these days?” he inquired. “We haven’t eaten together like this for a long while.” He suddenly wondered how the conversation flowed so easily seven years ago.
The room was silent for a while until someone finally replied. “Nothing much, just some photo-shoots or variety shows here and there. Unlike you, Kyungchul, we’re not as popular. I wish I could be you. You must be leading a life of luxury and enjoying every second of it. Group leader, lead singer, and a recognized composer. On top of all that, you have good looks, talent, and fame, which ultimately lead to a steady income — You have nothing to worry about, everything is perfectly in place!”
“Yeah, to be honest, I kind of envy you,” chimed in another member. “When we perform our songs onstage, the fans scream your name the loudest whenever it’s your line. And afterwards, backstage, your desk is the one piled with gifts and love-filled fan letters.”
Kyungchul was suddenly at a loss for words. Even after seven years of living together, they still failed to understand him. All they saw was his achievements and possessions. They never saw the tears and despair, and all the things he had sacrificed to reach where he was today. But as the group leader, he had to stay strong and be there for his group members, so he mustered up a smile and said, “Remember how seven years ago we all chose this path for ourselves? Rather than complaining, why don’t we just enjoy it while it lasts? Let’s put our best efforts into the concert tonight and perform like this is our last stage performance together. Let’s cherish each moment!” Easier said than done. A lightning strike flashed across his eyes and thunder soon followed.
8 p.m. Kyungchul drank a bottle of energy drink and took some headache medication before he went on stage. The thundering intensified, but it was drowned out by the screaming of fans as Kyungchul and his group appeared onstage, wearing tight-fitting sequined clothing, with their faces plastered with makeup. The concert carried on just the way they rehearsed it. Finally, it drew to a close, with Kyungchul singing his big solo number. He walked to the center stage. He could feel the anticipation of the crowds—they were expecting this. By this time, his headache had returned, and the loud noises made him a little dizzy and sick to his stomach. The slow music started, and he grabbed the microphone stand as if he was hanging on for dear life, and began his solo with a hoarse voice:
“It's alright if you run out of breath
No one will blame you.
It's okay to make mistakes sometimes.
Because anyone can do so.
Although they comfort by saying it's alright.
But those are just words...”
“I’m so lonely so lonely
I feel like I’m alone
I don’t want to make it obvious to you
I’m used to just holding it in
“Leave me alone...”
The sad music and lyrics tugged at something deep inside Kyungchul, and tears started pouring out of his eyes, streaming down his face and blurring out his vision. The audience exploded with heartfelt applause, and many had tears in their own eyes. They must have mistaken this as a genuine love for the music, but they didn’t know it was a poor man feeling too overwhelmed by hardship and solitude.
Kyungchul looked around himself. All he could see were light sticks. Behind each one of them was a fan, intently waving it and screaming his name at the top of their lungs in a show of their admiration and obsession with him. He reflected on what a fellow member had said earlier. He had so many fans; he should feel so accomplished and happy. He laughed mockingly and thought, How many of these fans are actually willing to get to know the real me? They are just as fickle as fame! Everyone will turn their backs on me as soon as I enter the Army. My hope is gone… He sighed and shook his head slowly. There’s nothing more to look forward to. I’m pathetic. Almost unconsciously, he murmured out loud, “This is the end.”
Kyungchul stumbled offstage aimlessly, leaving the fans behind as they were demanding an encore. Backstage, not a sound could be heard from the stage. He splashed water onto his face, scrubbing off his makeup from the right cheek. Kyungchul looked up and stared into the mirror. Forever goodbye to Kyungchul. He washed off the makeup from the other side as well and saw a 28-year-old with dark eye circles staring right back at him, with emptiness written all over his face.
He left the concert hall and decided to walk back to the dorm. Seoul at night boomed with vitality but was full of lonely souls. Kyungchul walked in the rain without an umbrella. He didn’t bother disguising himself. No one on the sidewalk would recognize that this slouched figure walking by himself in the dark was the Kyungchul who had achieved so much fame. Every step he took was harder than the last, and when he finally made it to his front door, it was almost midnight.
The heat and coziness of his room added to his drowsiness. Kyungchul took a long hot bath, a luxury he couldn’t normally afford. He could barely keep his eyes open any longer. When he got out, he put on his most comfortable pajamas. I am beyond tired, he thought, as he trudged toward the bedroom. He realized that he had been in denial for months about the extent of his fatigue. It felt like a relief to acknowledge this. The weight on his chest lightened a bit. He hadn’t gotten a good sleep for so long that he had forgotten what it felt like to dream. Without realizing how he got there, Kyungchul stood in front of his bedside table. He opened the first drawer and took out a small, cylindrical bottle. He had done this many times before but had always put it back. This time, he poured the content of the bottle out. One by one, Kyungchul put the pill in his mouth and swallowed it. When the last one disappeared, he got onto his bed, turned his alarm off, and tucked himself in. The clock read 11:58 p.m. Kyungchul hoped that tomorrow would be a good day.
1 Kim Jonghyun (April 8, 1990-December 18, 2017) was a South Korean singer-songwriter, record producer, radio host, and author. He was the beloved main vocalist of the South Korean boy group ShiNEE under S.M. Entertainment. Jonghyun began a solo career in January 2015, and his first album peaked at number one on both the Billboard World Album Chart and the Gaon Album Chart. He remained musically active until he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in December 2017.
2 With respect to Lee SooMan, founder and CEO of S.M. Entertainment.
3 With respect to S.M. Entertainment.
4 A South Korean group consisting of young boys, usually in their teenage years or earlier twenties at time of debut, who are accomplished in many aspects including singing, dancing, rapping, modelling, and etc. In South Korea, potential idols are commonly cast by agencies via auditions or street casting in order to become trainees. The trainee process lasts for an indefinite period of time, ranging from months to over a decade, during which the trainee receives lessons on how to become a better idol.
5 Besides practicing singing, dancing, recording songs, and producing albums, K-Pop idols also have to think about marketing and promoting their work in terms of public appearances. Some idol groups’ schedules are packed with filming commercials, attending photo-shoots, appearing on variety shows, and showing up at special events, and etc. As a result, the extreme deprivation of sleep could cause serious health problems.
6 Conscription in South Korea has existed since 1957 and requires male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform about two years of military service. These citizens have to enlist by 30-years-old, male K-Pop idols usually enlists when their contract with the company ends. During the two year period, K-Pop idols are expected to put aside all of their promotions, and as a result of not making any public appearances, they will be forgotten.
7 More effort and thoughts are put into K-Pop dance routines in order to capture more attention. Korean dance routines last a whole song and idols are expected to sing while they dance. These knife sharp and fast paced dances are practiced until every single movement is uniform among group members.
8 Around forty K-Pop groups debut annually, providing a lot of competition within the K-Pop industry.
9 There is a myth circulating within the K-Pop industry that idol groups would only last no longer than five to seven years without undergoing a member-change or worse, disbandment. Since the early days of K-Pop, many groups have fallen victim to this curse largely due to the period of their contracts as well as strong competition. The Korean music industry is filled with agencies that continuously produce idol groups several times a year, therefore weaker groups that fail to stand out end up disbanding.
10 A sasaeng fan is an over-obsessive fan of a Korean idol, or other public figure, that has engaged in stalking or other behavior that constitutes an invasion of privacy. Numerous Korean idols have gotten into car accidents while being followed by sasaeng fans.