Archive for May, 2018

I Can’t Live Without You: Jung Yonghwa’s Special Forces

Resolve

CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa’s latest solo single, LETTER, dropped on May 21 last week, which is a bit odd considering that he’s been in the army for the past couple months, but the circumstances surrounding his enlistment in early March were anything but ordinary. He entered the military under a white-hot spotlight but still managed to keep his dignity and poise despite the intense scrutiny he was under the time. This is evidenced by the release of this latest single, which for all intents and purposes probably would not exist without Yonghwa’s resolve and strength of character.

Happier days

2017 was a fine year for Yonghwa and CNBLUE, full of music and accomplishments, and the band seemed to be leaving the ugly spectre of 2016 behind. In the beginning of January 2018 things continued to go along smoothly, with Yonghwa’s successful variety show Island Trio just completing its first season and another, TalkMon, just starting. Yonghwa was appointed an honorary ambassador to the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics and had booked several dates for his solo Asia tour into the early spring. There were hints of a CNBLUE comeback in South Korea as well as in Japan and CNBLUE members were riding the wave of each playing leading roles in popular Korean dramas the year before.

Character assassination

Then out of the blue on January 18 came a blind item in the South Korean media accusing the leader of a popular idol band of receiving preferential treatment in admissions to graduate school at Kyung Hee University. After several hours of frenzied speculation the idol turned out to be Yonghwa, but his purported crime was almost laughable. Instead of taking his entrance interview on campus at KHU, due to his busy schedule one of the college’s professors went to Yonghwa’s studio at FNC Entertainment, his agency, and interviewed him there. No big deal, right? Unfortunately the press played this up as a sin on the level of killing and eating the president’s daughter on live television and Yonghwa was vilified for several days for what was essentially a clerical error. The press dug up and revealed his confidential entrance test scores (he did pretty well, actually, getting a 98 out of 100 on the practical score because DUH he’s a professional musician), Korean netizens ruthlessly scrutinized his intentions for wanting to go to grad school, and the general public assailed his honesty and assassinated his character by suggesting that he went through the back door in order to gain admission to KHU. This despite the fact that out of the eight people who applied to the program, all eight were admitted, and that KHU had to ask Yonghwa several times to apply since they were short of students. All of this speculation took place over a few days and in the meantime Yonghwa’s character was viciously attacked and his professional reputation was seriously damaged. He was edited out of a couple television shows he’d recorded earlier and the last two shows of his solo tour were cancelled.

And to add insult to injury, on January 26 Yonghwa announced that he was enlisting in the army effective March 5, so all of his future events were effectively ended. Whether punitive or not on the part of the South Korean government, this clearly was a surprise. As an ambassador for the Pyeongchang Paralympics, which began March 9, Yonghwa would surely have been prominently featured.

Pre-shitstorm

The chain of events was astoundly swift and the shitstorm was intense. It seemed like one minute Yonghwa was posing for pictures with the president of South Korea and the next he was being accused of cheating, lying, and avoiding military service, all within about a week.

But although the judgment in the press was rapid and cruel, Yonghwa didn’t waste a lot of time moping around. Apparently once he knew of his enlistment date he went into creative overdrive, with the results being a pair of completely revamped concerts held in Seoul the weekend before he entered the army and the recording of five new songs, complete with music videos. These songs are scheduled to be released one at a time until his enlistment ends in early December 2019, and LETTER is the first of these. He also participated in the creation of a photobook, wrote the lyrics for a song for his labelmates AOA, recorded 90 short voice messages to be released weekly for fans, and recorded at least one new song with CNBLUE. In some ways this rigorous work schedule must have been a respite from the insanity of the Korean press savagely slandering him every day. It was probably a relief to retreat to the bliss of his studio where he could create music in peace instead of having to deal with the endless recriminations of the relentlessly pursuing media.

LETTER, the new single, is a lovely and understated track, with Yonghwa’s controlled yet emotional delivery carrying the song. It’s deceptively simple, with a spare arrangement of strings, piano, drums, percussion, and vocals, but the song’s structure and build are outstanding. Yonghwa sings the song’s plaintive first verse to a straightforward piano accompaniment, then jumps immediately into a hooky earworm where he belts the refrain, alternating the English phrase “I can’t live without you” with Japanese lyrics. The somewhat lower pitch of the song adds to its melancholy, especially in the last line of the chorus, which features a particularly sweet and melodic vocal run ending in a subtle octave jump. Yonghwa’s rich, husky vocals are spot on as he easily hits the chorus’s high notes after purring the softer lines of the verse, throwing in a bit of delicate falsetto as well as some growly lower tones. He knows exactly how to express emotion with his voice without resorting to gimmicks or over-singing.

The song’s lyrics outline an ill-fated romance between a couple who alternate between affection and quarreling, yet at the end of the song Yonghwa affirms his commitment to the relationship despite its troubles. This reflects a maturity and growth in thinking from his past compositions such as COLD LOVE (2014), which laments a lost relationship without hope of reconciliation, or LALALA (2013), which expresses regret for a recent breakup. The ambivalence of the love story in some ways reflects Yonghwa’s love/hate relationship with the South Korean press and public, with his agency, and with his career, all things that benefit him but which also have hurt him terribly.

Prodigious

Like many very talented people Yonghwa makes what he does look effortless. But unfortunately the flip side of this is that people don’t appreciate the amount of work it actually takes for him to do what he does, so a lot of his labor goes unrecognized. As an example, even during that dire month or so when the South Korean press was excoriating him on a daily basis he managed to produce a huge amount of work. Yet judging from the quality of his final concerts just days before enlisting as well as the beautiful simplicity of his new single he managed to keep up his superhuman standard of excellence despite the immense stress he was under. In part his prodigious amount of work during that time was probably a coping mechanism during the chaos of those final six weeks after his enlistment was announced, as a balm against the haters who were attacking him as well as an FU to those trying to destroy him. Rather than backing down or giving up he instead doubled down on his creative output.

Yonghwa enlisted on March 5 and after he finished his five weeks of basic training he did well enough to be recruited for South Korea’s special forces, an elite commando regiment that trains much more intensively than standard troops. In recent history only one other South Korean celebrity, Lee Seung Gi, has qualified to be admitted to the special forces, although another notable alumnus is current South Korean president Moon Jae-In. While most idols are content to spend their mandatory military service in the regular forces, Yonghwa instead committed to this much more difficult and rigorous regiment, which is stationed right near the border between North and South Korea and which is a part of South Korea’s first line of defense against any threat’s to the country’s security, including that of its restive neighbor. This is no cushy desk job or civil service position—it’s hardcore military training in the coldest part of the country, not far from the DMZ, and under harsh and exacting conditions. By choosing the special forces Yonghwa is shutting down anyone who slandered him during his recent controversy or who doubted his desire to serve his country.

The real deal

It may be surprising to the casual observer that a Kpop idol would choose such a difficult path but Yonghwa is very driven and this gives him the chance to further test himself to his limits. Also, according to some accounts serving in the regular South Korean military can be a bit monotonous, filled with a lot of tedious physical tasks, whereas the special forces is the real deal. Yonghwa is an intense person who is easily bored so he might prefer hard training as opposed to just killing time in the regular military.

I also wonder if Yonghwa is harboring a little bit of rage at how he was treated by in South Korea before his enlistment. It couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow all of the abuse he endured, but he’s not the type to lash out at others, so this gives him a socially acceptable outlet for any anger or frustration he might be feeling, allowing him to forget his past troubles and to focus on the special forces’ intensive training.

Stronger

The special forces will also make him physically stronger, which can be interpreted as a way of making himself less vulnerable in order to defend himself against the crazy industry he’s in. Maybe he’s also figuring out that being the good boy and playing by the rules is no protection and that it’s useless to try to be perfect—respectability politics never work so he has to learn to fend for himself.

It couldn’t have been easy for Yonghwa to go away in the middle of such a fruitful period in his career. There is not enough time in the world for a person like him to accomplish all he wants to do and to have his time cut short so abruptly is a cruel blow. As a creative person I know the utter frustration of having to abandon a project halfway through, or to have something cut short without coming to fruition. It’s almost like a physical pain, a halt, an abrupt and unnatural end when something can’t be completed, and Yonghwa’s two-year military service may seem like a long hiatus for an artist in the midst of making work.

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Military man

But two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Fashions in pop music go by in an instant but those with true talent withstand and transcend trends. Yonghwa and CNBLUE have already proven that they are more that just a flash in the pan and they have the drive, the skills, and the ability to be around for a long, long time.

Will Yonghwa be the same lighthearted person he used to be once when he comes back from the army? Onstage he radiates an infectious joyousness—will he lose the playfulness that makes his live performances so magical? Will the military make him stern and hard-bitten? I think not, but he may carry with him some of the grief and sadness from his recent hardships. But although the bright-eyed boy may disappear, the man to come will be stronger and bolder and will shine more incandescently than ever.

UPDATE: As of Aug. 7, 2018 the other three members of CNBLUE have enlisted as well. CNBLUE becomes the first Kpop group to all enlist together in the same year and by doing so they’ve made sure their hiatus is only about two years. There has also been some kind of re-calculating in the South Korean military that’s shortened the time for all those currently serving, so Yonghwa’s return date has moved up about a month, to early November 2019. The other three members should be back shortly after that, around March 2020, so it won’t be too long before CNBLUE returns to the stage together. Great news all around.

UPDATE 2: To put Yonghwa’s whole university admissions brouhaha into context, here’s a bit of background. It was basically a made-up controversy to cover up the real political scandal when former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was about to be arrested for corruption, right around the time that South Korea was ramping up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the world’s attention was about to focus on South Korea the country’s powers-that-be wanted to divert attention away from any taint of political scandal, especially since President Park Geun-hye had just been arrested and charged with corruption the year before in 2017.  So as is often the case with idols and Kpop stars when the public needs to be distracted from various wrongdoings by the government or the wealthy business sector, South Korea’s media threw Yonghwa under the bus.

UPDATE 3: On October 8, 2018 Yonghwa’s agency FNC Entertainment announced that he had been cleared of any suspicion of guilt or wrongdoing in the investigation of charges of preferential treatment. Of course the damage had been done long before during the initial witch hunt in January but it’s still nice that he was officially vindicated after all that. Ultimately it was the South Korean media as well as the netizens who so gleefully dragged Yonghwa who ended up looking shady, as their initial condemnation of him has proven to be unfounded. Not a good look for them at all, while Yonghwa’s character and ethics again stand up to a harsh and unnecessary test. I hope these fiery trials are helping to forge and strengthen his resolve, and that he’s able to emerge stronger and more brilliant than ever once his enlistment ends.

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May 26, 2018 at 7:38 am 9 comments


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