It’s hard to overstate just how important representation is in media, especially when it comes to minority groups. And with South Korea among the more socially conservative Asian countries, members of the LGBT community rarely see themselves within its idol and actor driven entertainment industry. When representation is present, it’s usually treated as something of a gag. Compare this to the rampant same-sex fetishization (ie: “shipping”) of k-pop idols among a large subset of fans, and you’ve got a really interesting dichotomy. On the surface, the k-pop industry feels rife with subversions of traditional gender norms, stylizing its male idols with full make-up and cute, aegyo appeals that would certainly raise a few eyebrows in the West. But this all seems to begin and end on the stage.
Enter, Holland: the first openly gay idol to promote in South Korea. And he arrives not with some glitzy performance piece, but with the understated Neverland (네버랜드). This is a huge moment for the industry, soundtracked by a song that couldn’t be more subdued. And in a way, this juxtaposition is kind of brilliant. Neverland feels like the aural equivalent to an indie, art house film. It unfolds in a slow — almost dreamlike — haze, driven by a deep strings riff that creeps forward with gorgeous resonance. The song’s production is its biggest strength, supporting Neverland‘s slight melody with a lavish soundscape that works as a terrific foil to Holland’s unique vocals.
Ultimately, Neverland is too muted to make much of an impression as a song — especially at first. But further listens pull out more of its laid-back charms, and Holland’s comfortable delivery soon becomes surprisingly addictive. It may not be the kind of throw-down-the-gauntlet debut we’d expect from a rookie, but the song (and video) will likely remain k-pop’s most important moment of 2018.