K-pop idol emerges from decades past thanks to social media

2020-03-20 05:51:10 GMT2020-03-20 13:51:10(Beijing Time) Sina English

Thirty years ago his floppy hair, make-up, and flamboyant fashion sense outraged audiences, who threw stones at him as he performed on stage and threatened to beat him at shows.  

Today, 50-year-old Korean-American singer Yang Joon-il is enjoying an unlikely comeback, re-discovered by the YouTube and social media generation through online clips and hailed as a forerunner to today's K-pop stars.

The K-pop industry is now estimated to generate $5 billion a year and many of its male stars are celebrated at home and abroad for their gender fluidity, while Yang - who was once shunned for exactly that - is often compared to current idol G-Dragon, lead of hugely popular band BIGBANG.

Standing in front of a 2,000-strong crowd at an appearance in Seoul, the middle-aged singer felt speechless as they cheered: He had never experienced such mass adoration.

"There are no words to describe what that moment was like. I felt like I could not breathe," Yang tells AFP.

He is "extremely surprised" by his new-found popularity, he adds. "I'd like to ask them: 'Why do you like me?'"

It was a marked contrast from his early music career.

In the early 1990s, the South was emerging from decades of military rule, but a nascent cultural renaissance had yet to influence social values and neither his appearance nor performance style conformed to Korean norms of the time.

Nationalist sentiment was widespread and his culture-crossing background - he was born in Vietnam to Korean parents who later emigrated to the US - was unwelcome.

Yang made a few appearances on the nation's top pop television shows - displaying moves that would not be out of place in a K-pop video today - but struggled to find mainstream appeal as many found his approach too "effeminate" and "foreign."

"I just felt that Korea and I were incompatible," Yang says.

Yang quickly faded into obscurity, working as an English teacher until he moved to the US in 2015.

He struggled to make ends meet with a wife and toddler son to support and confesses to feeling suicidal until he secured a job as waiter in Florida, working 14 hours a day.

Keung Yoon Bae, who researches film and media at Harvard, says Yang first emerged when "an explosion of Korean pop had to coexist with a still-conservative social climate."

Within a few years of Yang's brief moment in the spotlight, emerging stars including Seo Taeji and Boys, a band considered as innovators who marked the start of modern K-pop, were laying the ground for its expansion to global popularity, now epitomized by septet BTS.

"I didn't really think I was ahead of my time," Yang insists.

Yang's big break came three decades after he first began performing.

In 2018 South Korean television stations started streaming long-archived pop TV shows on YouTube, and millenials discovered him.

Word spread until it was picked up by mainstream media, and in December 2019 he made his comeback television appearance.

The singer's rise to fame comes at a time when intergenerational conflict is mounting in South Korea.

Citizens now in their 50s and 60s worked for and benefitted from rapid economic growth and value endurance and conformity, but many Koreans in their 20s and 30s refer to themselves as members of the Sampo, or "three sacrifice," generation - forced to give up marriages, relationships and children in the face of intense job competition and expensive housing in the country's cut-throat economy.

"Before discovering Yang, I'd never met anyone in their 50s who made me think, 'Wow, that person is cool, that's how I want to be like 20 or 30 years from now," said Lee Young-jun, a 35-year-old YouTuber who creates fan content about Yang. 

"But Yang is different."


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