In K-pop, there’s superstars, and then there’s TVXQ.
The record-breaking, long-beloved Hallyu kings arrived in Los Angeles last week to perform at this year’s Korea Times Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
The band burst onto a blossoming, not-yet-global K-pop scene in 2003 and soon became a pillar of the genre’s expansion to the rest of Asia, most prominently Japan. The road here hasn’t always been sunshine and roses — the band famously lost three members in a contract dispute a few years back — but Yunho, 29, and Changmin, 27, now 12-year veterans of an industry that spins faster by the minute, have made it this far.
As idols, expectations of the TVXQ brand rise with each single. You would imagine it’s a kind of pressure unknown to most.
As the pair tells the Korea Times hours before the show, surrounded by busy staff and outfitted in sweats and jeans before stylists descend upon them, dealing with being TVXQ is all in the approach.
Pressure translates into gratitude for Changmin. Hundreds of new idols flood the K-pop landscape yearly. TVXQ are idols to those idols.
He hears it from them often, that they grew up watching him and the band. It’s inevitable that they did — the mid- to late-2000s brought TVXQ fever to both Korea and Japan, where their records hit top and solidified the band’s place in K-pop history.
And what a history it is, from unprecedented success in Japan’s largest concert venues to the most No. 1 singles on the Oricon chart. The band had, as of 2013, earned a whopping $1.2 billion from its record sales in Japan alone, according to Sports Seoul, ranking second not just among Korean artists but in the entire Japanese market.
“Whatever I end up doing, I want to enjoy it,” Changmin said. “It’s good to break records and all of that, but records will always be broken. I don’t want to cling to numerical values. Whether it’s big or small, I want to enjoy each stage so people watching can enjoy it, too.”
Plus, those moments act as fuel for Changmin, who was only 16 when he was thrust into the spotlight. More than a decade later, he wants to do better, to remain the artist others can look to, admire.
“I prefer not to think of it as pressure. I’m thankful to have that responsibility, and thankful that some see us as one of the trailblazers for the Japanese market,” Changmin says. “Pressure means acknowledgement from people, too. You want to do better when you’re complimented.”
“Instead of a relationship with our fans that involves them just watching us, TVXQ is about making a performance together alongside our fans,” Yunho says, calling himself a sungin-dol, or “adult idol.” “If we start to think of our position as one involving pressure, I think that starts to fall apart.”
Changmin may joke about personal goals of eternal health and long, long longevity (“We do have to live long,” Yunho agrees, nodding), but in some ways, that goal extends to the band.
“This is the only thing I’m good at,” Yunho says. “I used to go up on stage wanting to prove myself in the past. Now, with more experience and with age, I think what’s important is to provide stress relief, even during that short period of time we’re performing, to our fans. That change of thought came to me after I realized that we wield a lot of influence on a lot of people.”
There’s no doubt about influence — when it comes to popular culture outside the U.S. nowadays, South Korea’s got you covered. Thanks in large part to the wee Internet thing called YouTube, online communities and social networking, K-pop’s begun to infiltrate the pores of the world.
It’s not just the music. It’s the television, the fashion, the video games, the food. K-pop’s prime missionaries? Idol stars, of course.
The question is, why? Why have so many people found such pleasure in K-pop? Tell us an idol’s perspective.
The way Yunho sees it, K-pop’s always been around, just without the right tools for wider consumption. Whether it was the quintessential Korean folk song “Arirang” to the addicting tunes of ’70s Korean pop King Cho Yong-pil, it was only a matter of time for Korean music, he says.
Crediting TVXQ’s own international success with “Mirotic” (the explosively popular title track of their fourth studio album) to YouTube, Yunho says it’s a shame Internet culture couldn’t have been around earlier.
“Foreign artists are incredible, but I think people are drawn to the unique ‘han‘ Koreans have, and the impressionable way through which we express that emotion,” he says, in reference to a Korean expression for the feeling of unsolved injustice, an against-the-odds helpelessness that, unsettled, rests deep within a person.
“Younger artists nowadays understand that, too, and know about their influence,” Yunho says.
It would be a mistake to fence in the duo as only singers. Both are also fledgling actors. Whatever criticisms may be, for Yunho, forays into acting are about learning life lessons. For Changmin, it’s about learning to love the unpredictable.
Yunho’s first drama, “Heading to the Ground,” aired in 2009; he later took on “King Ambition” in 2013 and, most recently, “The Night Watchman’s Journal” in 2014. He’s slated to next appear on an upcoming web drama, “I Order You.” Changmin’s credits include “Paradise Ranch” in 2011 and “Mimi” last year.
“Acting’s a lot like performing on stage, except on stage, you have three minutes to express yourself. It’s about short impact there, but acting’s about taking steps with others for a long period of time,” Yunho says.
Acting’s also a lot like life. He likes it because each role lets him live a different one.
“Living another life helps me with this one,” he says. “If U-Know Yunho is someone with a lot of flash and pomp, Jung Yunho kind of stopped living his personal life after high school, when he debuted. The thought I had is that acting is necessary because it helps upgrade Jung Yunho’s life. I study life through acting. That’s why I do it.”
“We’re not in a position to say, ‘Acting is like this,’ but to me it’s about the charm in knowing that I can’t just prepare by myself and show up expecting fixed responses from my acting partners,” Changmin says. “It’s a different feeling from standing on stage.”
As far as music goes, the duo says there are no limits to what they want to try. Yunho points to last year’s single, “Something,” which introduced a classical element into the band’s repertoire.
“TVXQ could even do reggae,” Yunho says. “As long as we have the chance, we want to try new things.”
News of Yunho’s mandatory 21-month military enlistment this year have saddened fans, who will have to say goodbye to the star before 2015 is up, but they needn’t worry — he’ll be back.
“The hope is that what I do can be a gift to people who watch TVXQ,” Yunho says. “I do our shows hoping that my future kids will want to see them as well.”
And being back at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time since 2008?
“These are not empty words — I’m so glad I came to L.A.,” Changmin says. “I really don’t want to go back. Thanks to our fans and supporters, we want to do our best in both performing and in resting. We’ll be back.”
“Every time we come, it’s a motivation for us. It’s a chance for us to see the latest trends and to mingle with old and new artists. We’re handed new homework every single time,” Yunho says. “We’re so sorry that we don’t come more often, but are so thankful to our fans for not forgetting our promise and waiting for us.”
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