[Trigger warning: Depression.]
[UPDATED 10/4/12: Before commenting or sharing, please read the note at the bottom of this post.]
I’ve noticed that Onew has become a perpetual favorite for fans to observe from a distance, metaphorically picking his brain with whatever fancam-derived evidence that they can find. He’s an interesting guy, but to an extent I think that this behavior can be a little bit misguided. After all, it’s not as if we actually know these people — like really know them, to the point where we can interpret their every offscreen action and guess their every thought. Of course, this is somewhat acceptable purely on a fandom-based level (otherwise fanfiction would suck immensely), but it’s dangerous for us as fans to impress our own hypotheses on a person’s character and relationships and convince ourselves that these hypotheses hold true in reality.
I find Onew interesting, but I run heavily on the side of caution when it comes to watching him and trying to figure him out because, well, there’s a good chance that I’m wrong and I have no right to tell a person who I think they actually are. Nevertheless it’s tempting, because trying to figure out how a person works from a distance is fun. There’s lots to analyze and lots to think about.
But sometimes you see something and your mind just goes blank.
I don’t usually make a habit of getting emotional over K-pop, but I could feel my heart twisting as I watched this. K-pop idols cry on stage all the damn time, to the point where public emotional displays by idols have become trivialized if not fetishized, but never like this. You don’t cry like that when you’re sad, or when you’re happy, or when you’re particularly moved by something. You cry like that when you’re exhausted to the point when you can feel the life draining out of you and it hurts.
I think I’d be significantly less worried if Onew were the type to be open about his feelings and acknowledge his weaknesses despite the risk of being labeled as “emo” or “weak.” It’s not to say that idols who talk about their depression openly are any better off than those who don’t, but there’s a big difference between those who acknowledge and accept their depression and those who suppress it. It’s a difference that could mean life or death.
Now more than ever, K-pop depends heavily on personal relatability between idol and fan. Idols are encouraged to express their “real emotions” (though never opinions!) on variety shows, and instances of idols crying on music shows become hot news articles within hours. We pay for idols to make themselves human to us; we want to hear about their struggles and we want to see their tears, if only so we can express close, personal empathy for those with whom we have no real personal connection. But as far as reality is concerned, it can make us uncomfortable.
There are times when Leeteuk really rubs me the wrong way as a person, but I cringe every time someone knocks on him for being “emo” or self-absorbed when he talks about his own problems on television. Leeteuk’s revealed enough of himself publicly to make it painfully obvious that he has issues, and it’s almost cruel for us to say that he’s doing it solely for the attention. If anything, it says a lot about how the public really thinks of celebrities: if they choose to reveal any imperfection, any sliver of humanity, anything that paints them as less than perfect, they are not being genuine about it. If they were really being genuine about it, they would be so ashamed of it as to not let anyone see it. Pity is the currency of cheap fame.
In many ways, Onew is not even allowed to be open about his depression. For one, it’s not expected of his quirky, silly on-stage persona, nor of his characteristically “angelic” voice. It’s not expected of him as the leader of SHINee, a group that is old enough to own the stage but not old enough to show any signs of fragility or weakness. It’s not expected of him as the oldest hyung in his group, the emotional cornerstone of four other boys that are only younger than him by mere months. It’s not expected of him, the student who graduated second at the top of his class, with no personal tragedies or difficult family situations to complain about. Even if Onew did have depression, it is not the kind that presents itself as a battle wound from a difficult life. Rather, Onew’s depression would not be called depression. It would be called “being chronically sad for no reason,” and as a leader and a person with many responsibilities, he cannot openly admit to being chronically sad for no reason because that is the worst kind of publicity stunt you could ever pull.
So you hold it in until you burst.
While many choose to be private about their depression, few recognize that “going public” with one’s depression is a way of coping. Leeteuk does this. I do this — not because I want people to feel bad for me, but because saying it out loud is the only way I can keep myself from thinking that my illness doesn’t really exist and that the only reason why I am depressed is because I brought it upon myself and I deserve it. I am public with my depression because it’s my only way of acknowledging a big part of myself, which then gives me the means and the willpower to get better. I, like many others, need to be vocal about how I feel in order to prevent myself from falling back into the pit of numbness and non-existence — a hole that I’m constantly trying to cover up, trying not to let the dirt escape from my fists.
As I watched Onew, my heart hurt so much because I knew, firsthand, the kind of exhaustion that was pouring down his face. At the same time, I felt so guilty that I have the privilege of speaking up freely about my depression while Onew probably can’t even acknowledge his depression privately to himself, for fear that merely acknowledging the existence of weakness would give way to a greater, unforgivable downfall. K-pop idoldom is no stranger to depression and mental illness — the array of celebrity suicides in South Korea within the last decade should have been reason enough to start asking questions. Indeed, there have been numerous academic studies on civilian suicides in Korea, but it seems as if tragedies wrought by celebrity deaths are good for nothing more than a news article and maybe some short-lived political action — and these are only seen in the cases of well-respected, nationally-adored actors and actresses. Idols, on the other hand, don’t even have that — they don’t have enough respect outside of their fanbases for anyone to care about them, their working environment is inhuman, and hate to say it, but their fans are practically useless to them in that many of them contribute to the mental trauma of these idols, and if oppa is crying it’s only because he loves his fans so much.
Which puts me in a difficult position because, as much as I like and care about Onew, semantically speaking I am nothing more than his fan. I can’t help him in any way that could be considered meaningful. I can’t even claim to understand what he’s going through because I do not know him. Even as I see him suffering in a way that rings so painfully familiar to me, I do not know him. Idols depend heavily on the fans for their own happiness and personal validation; it’s the only thing they can stand to take when the industry demands that they give and give. But the fans are helpless, useless, powerless to the path of destruction that these idols are walking on. It’s almost as if we need to wait for [another] tragedy in order to even have the slightest hope that change will finally happen.
진기씨, 피곤하더라도 자학하지 마세요. 혼자가 아닙니다.
NOTE (10/4/12): I’m aware that this post has been floating around the K-poposphere lately. Firstly, thanks for your interest and for reading; I had no idea that this post would reach so many people. I’m glad to see that there’s been some great discussion going on in the comments section, but in light of recent events, I also feel the need to ask for some discretion when sharing or commenting on this post.
I originally wrote this post as a piece of K-pop commentary, but there are elements of this post that are highly personal. While the idea that sparked this piece was the video embedded at the top of the post, the reason why I felt the need to write it is stemmed in my own personal experiences and struggles. This post is every bit as much about me as it is about Onew.
I write about K-pop often, and my posts on K-pop are almost always up for discussion and criticism. But with this post (as with any other post on this blog that has been filed under the tag “heart to heart”), please use your discretion when commenting or sharing. Please also understand that depression continues to be a very real and very difficult struggle in my life, and while I have chosen to make it public by posting about it on my blog, I ask for your respect and sensitivity, human being to human being. Moving forward, I will be screening comments on this post and will remove any insensitive or triggering comments at my discretion.
Again, thank you for your interest, and I hope some of y’all continue to stick around :)