Jonghyun's death: The price of K-pop perfection?

The sudden death of boyband SHINee member Kim Jong Hyun casts the spotlight on the pressures in the K-pop industry

Singer Kim Jong Hyun from K-pop boyband SHINee, who died on Monday, was suffering from severe depression, according to a note he left behind.

He had given it to his close friend, Jang Hee Yeon, also known as Nine9 from South Korean band Dear Cloud, with instructions that it be made public after his death.

"I'm broken on the inside. The depression that slowly gnawed away at me eventually devoured me," it said.

Popularly known as Jonghyun, the singer was found unconscious in a rented apartment in Gangnam, Seoul, at 6.10pm on Monday. The police had earlier received a call from his sister saying he had sent a text message indicating that he was going to kill himself.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 27.

No autopsy will be conducted, Seoul police said. "We've decided not to (do an) autopsy as it is certain that the deceased had taken his own life and the bereaved families did not want it," an official from Seoul Gangnam Police said, according to The Korea Herald.

In the note announcing his death, SM Entertainment, the music company that discovered him at the age of 15, praised the singer as "the best artist who loved music more than anyone and always worked hard for his performance".

(Kim’s) death speaks volumes about the pressures that South Korean artists face as the industry is so competitive. New artists are constantly replacing the old ones.

MR ALAN CHAN, director of home-grown talent company Big Boss Asia, which is behind Singapore’s first K-pop group SKarf

A quiet and diligent artist who delighted in performing and meeting his fans.

MR JAMES KANG, a former marketing director at Warner Music Singapore, who worked on two SHINee fan meets here

Jonghyun has a really powerful and soulful voice that I really like and he’s also a very good songwriter and musician. Rest in peace, Jonghyun.

LOCAL SINGER-SONGWRITER JESSICA IRAWAN, who is a fan of boyband SHINee, which Jonghyun is a part of

  • HELPLINES

  • Samaritans Of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    Singapore Association For Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    Institute Of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222

    Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

    Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

    Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788

Music industry insiders point out that Kim's death puts the spotlight on the pressures piled on young Korean pop stars as they chase after success and fame.

Kim alludes to the pressures of living in the spotlight in his note: "I guess I was not meant to lead a life in the public eye. That's why it was hard. Confronting the world, and being in the public eye. Why did I make those decisions. It's ridiculous."

Back in 2011, rapper G-Dragon talked about being depressed after he was accused of plagiarism while singer and actor Jeong Jin Woon from 2AM revealed that he suffered from depression after his group's American tour in 2010.

Says Mr Alan Chan, director of home-grown talent company Big Boss Asia, which is behind Singapore's first K-pop group SKarf: "(Kim's) death speaks volumes about the pressures that South Korean artists face as the industry is so competitive. New artists are constantly replacing the old ones."

He adds that many South Korean artists suffer from depression and that the suicide rate among them seems higher compared with their counterparts from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

"I guess one way to overcome the pressure is to leave the industry or find some way to relax. But this is easier said than done."

Mr James Kang, a former marketing director at Warner Music Singapore, says Kim was "a quiet and diligent artist who delighted in performing and meeting his fans" and "seemed cheerful and sparkled on stage".

In 2010, he worked on two SHINee fan meets here as well as other activities to promote the band's EP, titled 2009, Year Of Us.

"In my opinion, there are too many unknown factors behind an artist's suicide," he says. He is now director of Mode Entertainment, which has brought in K-pop artists Eric Nam, Baek Ji Young and Kim Jong Kook.

"Pressure from the industry could definitely be one of them, as they struggle to manage the market's expectations of them, as well as their own expectations of themselves."

He adds that artists should always have someone to speak to about stress, be it their management, peers within the industry or friends and family.

"The artists must always feel that they are not alone," he adds.

As the official SHINee social media accounts changed their profile photos to black squares or circles, fans online shared their grief by writing tributes and using hashtags such as #RosesForJonghyun.

Many are still stunned by the news of his sudden death.

The members of a local group of SHINee fans who call themselves Forever_SHINee recall seeing the singer in a good mood when he was in Singapore last month.

The group's spokesman, who wants to be identified only as Ning, says: "When SHINee visited Singapore for the Shilla Beauty concert last month, we had the opportunity to meet them at the press conference and watch their stage performances.

"Jonghyun was extremely friendly, smiley and talkative. As fans who have watched him for the past eight years, we know he does not like the summer and being in the hot weather, we were surprised that he kept his enthusiasm till the end for Singapore fans."

Several of the group members also travelled to Seoul to watch his solo concert on Dec 9 and 10.

Local singer-songwriter Jessica Irawan, 34, says she is still in "shock" and "disbelief" at the news of his death. "His music is one of the reasons I got hooked on listening to K-pop," she says.

"My siblings and I have been huge fans of SHINee for so long. Jonghyun has a really powerful and soulful voice that I really like and he's also a very good songwriter and musician. Rest in peace, Jonghyun, and stay strong, SHINee and shawols."

Fans of SHINee are called shawols.

 

A private funeral, which takes place tomorrow morning, will be attended by his family and staff from SM Entertainment.

Fans who wished to pay their respects were directed to the funeral hall of Asan Medical Centre in Seoul.

The executive director of Samaritans of Singapore, Ms Christine Wong, says that there are usually various factors that lead to a person taking his life.

"Very often, suicide is due to a combination of events which happen at the same time or in quick succession, which wears down a person's coping abilities. There may be a precipitating or 'last straw' event, but suicide is rarely due to a single factor."

She adds: "Suicides which involve celebrities or high-profile individuals are of especially great concern. The potential for imitative or copycat suicides are greater in such cases, especially for those who admire or look up to the person as an idol."

Ms Wong stresses that anyone who has thoughts of suicide has to seek professional help and needs strong support from family, friends and the community.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'The price of K-pop perfection'. Print Edition | Subscribe