Time and time again, the Hallyu wave has taken the world by storm. Kpop is just one strand of this vast cultural phenomenon. With a potent presence on international music charts, Kpop is an ever-evolving genre of music. Idol, a word that is no stranger to fans of Kpop, might need a little contextualizing outside of that space. Idols are essentially Kpop performers who are well versed in dancing, rapping. Their youthful persona and aesthetic appeal to a wide range of viewers and especially a younger demographic. Idol culture normalizes men in makeup, embellished accessories and occasionally feminine clothing. However, ‘out and proud’ queer representations are scant. Holland, born Go Tae-seob, is the first openly gay Kpop idol. His fight for a more inclusive world has made waves. Daring to be himself is precisely how Holland is redefining Queer Representation in Kpop.
Neverland; a historic moment for representation
Neverland, Holland’s debut single, was released in January of 2018. It tells the story of the desire to seek refuge in a place where one is accepted. Holland’s Neverland is a place where he can be his true self. Against puffy clouds drifting across clear skies, a melancholy Holland sings of flying away to his utopia. A place where he can hold his lover freely. His sorrowful singing is interspersed with scenes of him and his lover cuddling and playfully conversing with each other. Neverland essentially becomes a representation of the world inside and outside the closet. In a landmark moment for queer representation in South Korea, the video also featured a kiss shared by the couple.
Billboard released a video about his single and called his work “groundbreaking”. This cemented his already growing presence outside South Korea as well. In an interview with SBS Pop Asia, Holland mentioned that he was aware that the kiss scene would inevitably lead to an R rating. His video could not be televised because of the rating. The director of Neverland told him beforehand that this was bound to happen. This simple comment struck a chord with Holland. He included the scene regardless, as believed that it was important to engage the public in conversations around queer acceptance.
Hopes for a queer-friendly future
He stated that he wasn’t expecting any sudden changes, when he was asked about his vision of a more progressive South Korea. Instead, he hoped that people like him would gradually come out in public and normalize being queer. Despite his single doing well on the charts, both in Korea and internationally, he didn’t get to make as many media appearances as he had hoped. He stated that this was due to his non-normative sexuality. This was still a major taboo in South Korea and the journey to change that dynamic would be a long one.
While responding to a fan-submitted question on a Rolling Stone India interview, he mentioned that one-day LGBTQ+ idols will be accepted in South Korea. He believed that South Korea was undergoing rapid cultural change. According to him, this change would lead to seeing queer love as just love and nothing different. It is something that he not only aspires towards but contributes to as well. He also talked about his first time at a pride parade and giggled about wanting to perform the next time.
Loved you better and the new Holland
Holland released his latest single, Loved you better, in 2019. The video shows a drastic transformation. A gloomy Holland shoots himself. As his head explodes into confetti, Holland is reborn. It truly is a phoenix rising moment. In an article on the single, them. wrote, “Holland then emerges from the darkness with a newfound assuredness, strutting through a fairground now donning a fabulous, sweeping coat, black lipstick, and fiery red hair.” The message is out and clear. The old and hesitant Holland is long gone. We have instead someone that has come into his own and is unabashedly gay. He thus invites the world to look at being queer through both queer relationships and the concept of self-discovery.
On the whole, his work is a microcosm of queer experiences in a heteronormative world. Not only is Holland redefining queer representation in Kpop, artists like himself are the building blocks to a more inclusive world in general. By carving out spaces for themselves, they invite others to do the same. After all, a future that we want to be a part of must be a future that we actively work towards.