Singer-songwriter Jung Joon Il has released his new mini-album, Elephant, and it’s fantastic. The only problem? You probably will never hear it. Well, unless you dig or know exactly where to find it.
The title song off the album, “Say Yes”, has already been deemed inappropriate by major broadcasters MBC and SBS. MBC has also deemed the songs “Hell O” and “Whitney” as inappropriate as well. This ruling, which specifically states the lyrics contain inappropriate expression, means that three out of the five songs on this album cannot be broadcast on these major broadcasting stations. Keep in mind that the remaining two songs on the album are instrumentals.
This means that any large-scale promotion such as MV viewings, radio play or talk show appearances are not going to happen on two out of three major broadcasting stations in South Korea, which happens to be where his target audience is located. There are obviously other options, but they’re mainly online.
This also happened with his last album Underwater (2016) when SBS considered the lyrics for the songs “USELESS” and “PLASTIC” to be too pessimistic for broadcast . In turn, Joon Il’s label, Loen Entertainment, reduced the album’s release to a mere 1,000 copies because they assumed the album would be considered unrelatable by the audience and therefore unprofitable.
For this current album, the llabel has decided to not make any changes to the songs in order to meet the standards of the station or change the album’s release in spite of having more roadblocks for this album than the last. Good.
However, all of this still breaks my heart. Just like most of his songs have done in the years I’ve followed him.
We’re too different
You know that well
We aren’t able to embrace
Each other’s wounds
For those of you that may not be familiar with Jung Joon Il, he’s a former member of the trio-turned-duo rock indie band Mate and within almost a decade he’s released multiple singles, albums, heavily rotated OST (original soundtrack) songs, a live album and has been featured on numerous songs with some of the best talent in South Korea. All of this came from his ability to write, compose and sing some of the most emotional and poignant music you will ever hear. His music is a true example of how heartbreaking and uplifting a person can be with just a pen, a piano and a mic (which is optional).
Please just stay by my side, please remain here,
Don’t let go of my hand as you’re holding it in yours,
If this takes you a step further away from me,
All i have to do is take a step closer, isn’t it?
This is not a guy that writes songs that are meant to shock or offend you. This is a guy that writes his unadulterated, raw truth set to euphoric notes. How and why is someone like him deemed so inappropriate that his music is kept from the masses?
Let’s go back to 2016. As mentioned earlier, Underwater was shut out for being emotionally dark. To be absolutely fair, it was. It was also experimental seeing that Joon Il clearly wanted a break from the breathy, angst-ridden ballads for which he’s famous. While he introduced new sounds that would be hard for a fan to adjust to immediately (this fan thought it was still brilliant), the issue lied in the lyrics.
In “Useless”, a song in where Joon Il has a conversation with himself (or maybe the demons within himself) where he considers his worth or lack thereof, he starts off the song making it clear that he attempted suicide, an attempt that was unsuccessful. The chorus is filled with questions about his worth including:
If I become useless, will you need me anymore?
Is this song about suicide? Absolutely. Can it be construed as pessimistic? Sure, but it would be a mistake to simply label it as that. It’s easy to say this is only about contemplating death with no resolution, but HE IS the resolution.
Joon Il is still here. There are steps to depression, this is one of those steps and that’s what he’s expressing.
Depression is a staircase, not a slide.
The other song that was considered problematic was “Plastic”. A song featuring rapper BewhY who is always a welcome addition to any project, especially on a song that had Joon Il truly leaning toward R&B for the first time, well, ever. I say this fully aware that his voice has always had a certain soul that flirted with R&B, but it was a welcome change while still keeping the Joon Il sound we already know. This is indeed the angst-ridden ballad we expect from him spelling out the longing felt after a lover leaves, but this one is the darker version of that. Most ballads install within itself some type of hope, but this one is simply about that dark place we go to when we realize what we’ve lost when a relationship on which we rely comes to an end.
That place becomes even darker when a person is already dealing with depression.
Save me please
I’m not plastic
I don’t want to live anymore
Yes, these are words of someone that can be considered suicidal, but the song is more about him being sick of living the hollow life he’s currently living. He’s scared to go outside, and he’s scared to find a life that doesn’t include the person he’s lost. This song is about feeling discarded and scared. I don’t even consider that just a symptom of depression. I consider those entirely human emotions that we all experience no matter our mental state.
Deciding not to live the life you’re currently living, doesn’t always mean you want to permanently remove yourself from life completely. It could mean you’re ready for a change. It means you’re ready for better.
The track “Ian” was my personal favorite because it sounds the most like Joon Il, but it still held that same sentiment he wanted to convey with the other songs. We’re all allowed those moments, and I would imagine this album was cathartic for him. It’s not always an artist’s job to install some sunshine into your life. Sometimes an artist does the entirely human thing which is assuring someone out there in the vast universe that they are not alone and not even he is immune from these thoughts.
In his new album, Joon Il immediately sounds stronger, vocally and lyrically. I won’t assume this is a reflection of his current mental state (because I don’t know), but I can’t help but to HOPE that he feels as strong as he sounds. The argument could be made that no improvement is to be found seeing that the title song, “Say Yes”, has turned out to be the most problematic for broadcasters who claim it sounds hopeless. Fascinating seeing that he spends more time repeating the words, “Yes, I know know know know know know” than any other lyric, but understandable. Right away his lyrics make an expression:
No matter how hard you throw a punch
You can’t avoid misfortune that’s coming at you
Easy to see why this sentiment may make someone uncomfortable, but that would only be because it’s true. Some fates are hard to avoid no matter how hard you fight. Instead of dwelling on this fact, it’s better to accept it while also understanding that it doesn’t mean everything is hopeless. The world isn’t fair and nothing says that it’s supposed to be fair. It’s tragically dark, but it’s also life. Life will give you failures but you learn more from failures than you do your successes.
The other barred songs were not too far from the sentiment that’s been described so far. The tracks “Hell o” and “Whitney” are a lot more direct but come off as a type of purging of all the things he’s felt about the people around him. All the anger and disappointment he felt from the other person, but mainly in himself. It’s all the things that someone would write in their diary, a portable sanctuary from judging eyes, assuming that no one would ever see the words that are written.
The difference is that he’s publicized these feelings and there’s a reason why most people keep these feeling locked away. If there’s one thing I adore about this album is that while it’s certainly dark, it’s more rebellious than anything. However, the rebellion is not just an attempt to shock and awe.
Let me be clear that this post is not an attempt to criticize another country’s culture or compare it to my country’s culture as if our ideals and beliefs are somehow better. I understand why the broadcasters are hesitant to broadcast this music. We are living in a time where those that are truly struggling with depression can be easily triggered thanks to the overwhelming amount of content that is shoved in our faces every 15 seconds. We are also living in the aftermath of a truly beautiful person and public figure who made a decision that we are still trying to process. While we as individuals have the option to consider how art affects us on a personal level, these broadcasters have to consider how an entire country could be affected by what they air.
That being said, these broadcasters are making the same decision that most people make that ultimately proves detrimental to not only those living with mental illness, but the society in which they live.
Mental illness is still treated like a secret but, more than that, negative emotions as a whole are treated like dirty secrets. No one wants to talk about them publicly because no no one wants to dwell on their own negative emotions. The problem is that this attempt to stifle this conversation forces others to hide their feelings so that it festers, and this leads to tragic decisions that no one sees coming because, well, we’re subconsciously telling others that their emotions are a burden to us.
IF YOU IF YOU
If it’s not too late
Can’t we get back together?
IF YOU IF YOU
If you’re struggling like I am
Can’t we make things a little easier?
I should’ve treated you better when I had you
If an artist is allowed to be truthful about their internal struggles they’re expected to package those emotions in an attractive way. Every other song we hear is about love and how desperately the object of affection is needed. How the admirer can’t live without that person but the words are usually set to a fresh beat, being said by someone who’s way too attractive for us to believe they struggle getting the attention of another person.
Jung Joon Il is not your typical handsome crooner, his MVs are beautifully abstract to the point they leave you puzzled and his vocal tone matches the lyrics he’s singing which means the more depressing the lyrics, the lower/slower his voice tends to be. Joon Il doesn’t give us an emergency hatch to escape out of while listening to his darkest songs. He expects us to sit in the misery he felt when he created the song and there’s no escape route. You either can sit there with him or you can’t but maybe those that can find comfort in knowing they are not alone.
Other artists have dealt with this as well. South Korea is a conservative country, a fact that should be respected, and the long history of restricted song play is expected. Winner’s song “Island” was deemed unfit by KBS because of “inappropriate lyrics that suggested sexual relations related to homosexuality.”
Like shaking a cocktail
I want to mix it up with you on the sofa
While that is clearly not what those lyrics mean. However, if they did, it shouldn’t be grounds for a ban. That’s another conversation about censorship for another day.
Banning lyrics or visuals that feature profanity or explicit sexual or violent acts is understandable. Banning MVs because of indirect advertising of brands, fine, whatever. There is certainly logic behind this process even if the results are ridiculous. Some art is made for no other reason than to inspire shock and awe. However, banning lyrics or visuals that simply express human emotion will always be lost on me.
When we tell each other to express ourselves, it shouldn’t be conditional.
There’s no wrong or right way to express how we feel, we should feel free to simply express. In any society’s attempt to protect the innocence of the young or easily influenced, we have to ask ourselves if these attempts are conveying a sense of protection or passing on the message that they should suffer quietly for the sake others.