Origin story: His name was Jonghyun

Kim Jonghyun

SM Entertainment photo

By Nadine Kam l 11.15.18 I

It happened on Dec. 18, 2017.

A friend mentioned in passing that a prominent K-pop star had killed himself. It wasn’t the first time a high-profile Korean celebrity had committed suicide and with distance, the news didn’t register in my circle. We didn’t know Jonghyun. We didn’t know his group SHINee.

Eleven months later, here I am, starting yet another blog, this time K-pop related, and dedicated in memory of Jonghyun.

I started learning about him after deciding to get back into shape in February 2018. I hate most forms of exercise so my vehicle of choice was K-pop dance. It was creative, active, and most of all, it looked like fun.

I love a challenge, so with no dance background to speak of and a pronounced lack of motor skills in that regard, I dove in anyway.

I knew none of the groups or their songs, so when our teacher asked for requests, I just said, “I don’t care, I’m just here for the exercise.”

Jonghyun’s name came up a month later when a substitute teacher decided to teach a SHINee dance in tribute to him. “Who was this guy, why did he kill himself,” I wondered in passing.

A month later, I was at a Korean pocha where K-pop videos appeared on two screens. SHINee’s “Lucifer” was one of them, and a friend asked, “I wonder which one of them died?”

Because Jonghyun’s name kept coming up whenever people talked about the higher rate of suicide in South Korea and in Korean entertainment, I finally decided I should find out who he was.

That night I went home and the first thing that pops up when you look up his name is news and videos of his funeral. Watching the funeral procession of the sad faces of his fellow SHINee members had me in tears, especially seeing Key cry on Onew’s shoulders. Even though I didn’t know any of them at the time, I felt their extreme loss, pain and sorrow.

? Listen: “Before Our Spring”

Oh, and it got worse. The second thing that comes up is the text of his suicide note. I started crying about three hours a day thinking about his words, the pain he felt, and didn’t stop for three months. I woke up asking, “Why, Jonghyun?” Before falling asleep, I asked the same question. It hurt me to learn that he died thinking he was talentless and worthless.

I can imagine the pressure he felt going into his 10th year with SHINee. He knew other bands were coming up. Their contract was set to expire. (The other members all re-signed with their label SM Entertainment five months after his death.) His life was about to change when he entered the military. He had a grueling schedule coming up with a Tokyo concert in February and anniversary celebrations in May. He was tired. It probably all seemed daunting and maybe he didn’t want to go through with it anymore. In his suicide note he said that idol life was hard and he was never cut out for it.

But the comeback wasn’t a difficult one. They were scheduled night and day, but their dance routines were simplified, and being together and feeling the love of fans, I think, would have been reinvigorating. In their music, SHINee reached artistic heights with “The Story of Light,” that would have made him very happy.

He suffered from seasonal affective disorder in winter, and I can’t help but wonder whether he would have survived if he had just made it to spring, and past that fated age of 27, when other high-profile musicians like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain have died.

I started streaming SHINee music and watching their variety shows from the time that they debuted in May 2008. Through videos, I got to know Jonghyun’s personality, his intelligence, his talent, his sense of humor, his soft side, his savage side. He was personally shy and awkward and toward the end of his life preferred to stay in his dark room rather than venture out and meet people. But he was also a charismatic Aries, born on April 8, 1990, and pushed himself to be gregarious and dynamic on stage.

Kim Jonghyun, poet artist

Many of the songs he wrote and produced in his solo career were meant to comfort people in their darkest hours, letting us know that we are not alone in our lowest moments. I had lost my husband to lung cancer five years earlier and since then had suffered from insomnia ever since, but I found Jonghyun’s music, though often sad, also comforting, and I could sleep easier listening to his voice at bedtime. I wished was that somehow I could have known him before and could have tried to save him. I know that depression is not easy to conquer, but it is certainly not conquered alone.

Kim Jonghyun

At the time, I told the friend who delivered the initial news, and she said she cried for about five months but that the sadness would pass and I would discover living K-pop idols worth celebrating.

I told her, “No, I only like SHINee.” But she turned out to be right.

To this day there are certain SHINee songs I cannot listen to and videos I cannot watch without tearing up, but I did find much more to like elsewhere. While I am open to so much more K-pop music than before, SHINee and Jonghyun will always hold a place at the center of my heart and are the reason this blog came to be.

Even as Korean society tries to sweep away his name and legacy as part of their collective guilt and shame, I don’t want him to be forgotten.

Watch: SHINee “Get the Treasure”