Escaping Neverland: HOLLAND Interviewed

"I have to be as honest as I can be..."

It’s been just over five years since HOLLAND (Go Tae-Seob) released ‘Neverland’, a bittersweet ode to being young and gay in a society that treats him like a pariah. The former art student (rejected, he says, by idol agencies for his refusal to be closeted, he worked two jobs to fund his debut) kissed his on-screen boyfriend in the music video, propelling him into a global spotlight as the first openly gay K-pop star. Overnight, HOLLAND became an unwitting spokesperson for South Korea’s LGBTQIA+ community, which has been long demonised by the country’s many fundamental Christians, while a bill to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people is blocked in their National Assembly. It was an intimidatingly heavy mantle that HOLLAND shouldered with care while trying to navigate his own career.

Unsurprisingly, he was often cautious, aware no single voice could speak for an entire community, and that debuting was just the first in a series of hurdles in the music industry. He persevered on his path, releasing another four atmospheric pop-EDM singles in 2018 and 2019, and touring Europe. When the pandemic brought the entertainment industry to a grinding halt, HOLLAND, as an indie artist, was hit hard. He stepped back from music, and has since immersed himself in the welcome embrace of the fashion world.

In early March 2023, HOLLAND posted a long, personal message to his fans on his birthday. “It’s really difficult to stand alone in the K-pop industry,” he wrote. “I’ve been let go by companies several times due to COVID-19 and events out of my control. I had to repay debts that I couldn’t handle, which led to severe depression, panic disorder, and insomnia. I still believe in my potential. I feel so happy on stage, and someday, I want to attend a big awards show in Korea. I also have enough self-respect to live my life as a gay man without being ignored in Korea. I still have dreams, so please watch me climb higher and higher.”

True to his word, HOLLAND’s reinstating himself with ‘Number Boy’, his first single since December 2019’s ‘Loved You Better’. Written and produced by CIFIKA (who recently remixed Red Velvet’s SEULGI) and TE RIM (a writer on the So!YoON! and RM [BTS] collaboration, ‘Smoke Sprite’), it’s delicate, shimmering electronic pop that’s both melancholic and uplifting. The song’s subject matter – the measuring of human worth against popularity and achievements – is an acuminous reflection of HOLLAND’s deeply confessional tweet.  

He has no regrets about his candour. “The reason why I’m more communicative with my Harlings when I’m in hardship is because they are showing me support and love, so I have to be as honest as I can be,” HOLLAND says. He’s in the backseat of a car travelling through Seoul at 10pm, his bleached hair almost white under the flickering streetlights. “There’s been a lot of times where I was trying to work on music but, because of COVID, it became affected. I was doing everything on my own and though there were a lot of people helping me out, it’s just been a very independent journey. Because I had fans waiting for me and I had to make them wait even more, I felt like I had to be very honest with them.” 

Tell me more about ‘Number Boy’ and why it was the song you wanted to come back with?

H: Because the world and society is becoming more focused on numbers, I wanted to address what they mean to us. People judge us on them – the Instagram followers, the YouTube subscribers… everything as a metric. It was a momentum to challenge myself, to become a bigger number to people that only ever see me in [terms of] numbers.

The idea of being loved for who you are and not what you achieved, has someone wanted to be with you for social media fame and not the real you?

I think my ex-boyfriend saw me more as a number than who I am as Holland, as a person. This was inspired by that relationship.

The video revisits an ongoing theme in your work – of people constantly staring and passing judgement – but there’s also real joy in it, an amalgamation of spreading tolerance and love, and being fabulous and proud.

It took me a while to get my thoughts aligned but I’m basically described as a fallen angel, who people see as weird and different and they hate on me and attack me for that. But, at the end of the day, I try to embrace those parts of me, endure it and become a person who can embrace other people for their differences. And that’s the goal of this video, to love people as they really are.

Can you elaborate on what you’ve been working on in the three years since your last single?

Due to the impact of COVID-19, I ended my label deal and got back on my own feet as an independent. I’m trying to pay the debt [accrued with the deal] of the investment that was going into my content and overall career, so the years have been like that. But I’ve been doing a lot of fashion events, acting, live performances, and collaborating with many brands including Ann Demeulemeester, Maison Margiela, Calvin Klein, Gentle Monster. I was in NYC for fashion week for Coach Spring 2023, and a lot of the new independent brands. It’s been a very natural journey as the fashion industry is always trying something new, and they’re more receptive and inviting towards the LGBTQIA+ community.

After a long hiatus, what are you expecting or hoping for from your return to the music industry?

I want to focus on this journey as an artist as music is a source of my creation, the bottomline of my creativity. I’m someone for whom music brought me back up at the difficult times, so I want to keep pursuing music, it’s where I come from. I hope to be acknowledged as a musician after breaking my hiatus but I’m an artist who doesn’t only do music, I’m an artist who is also in fashion, I’m into social activism. I’ve created many different outlets in different industries and I’m just coming back onto my feet in music, it’s an exciting time for me.

How do you think you’ve changed in the time between ‘Neverland’ and ‘Number Boy’?

When I look back at ‘Neverland’, I think I was successful as an icon because of the kissing scene that had such a dramatic, shocking impact here in South Korea. Like then, I’m still doing things on my own, but I believe I’ve grown so much compared to back then – as a musician, an A&R and a visual director. I feel a rather drastic growth! From my initial meeting with CIFIKA, we discussed what it’s like being Holland, I had to tell her all my deepest stories to make ‘Number Boy’, so it has my true feelings, honest thoughts and lyrics on it. It was very meaningful for me. 

What are your plans off the back of ‘Number Boy’?

I’m preparing new music! I’m not going to say when, but it will be a single and I’m working very hard on that right now. When I visited Sydney for their Mardi Gras, it was very inspirational for me, so I want to be able to participate in the upcoming NYC parade and be able to perform there, so I’m in talks for that.

There’s been a rise in queer dating shows in South Korea, and late last year you said some things around LGBTQIA+ acceptance were changing. But Korea’s pop music industry hasn’t progressed – there’s still no mainstream idol who’s out, even if groups like OnlyOneOf exist, whose songs use a queer narrative. What are your thoughts here?

This is a sensitive topic, to be honest. That queer dating shows exist is still part of the LGBTQIA+’s development and perception of the community in South Korea but, at the same time, I am reluctant about it because people seem to be consuming this content as part of a social or pop culture trend. To casually consume it as a person who doesn’t acknowledge the depth of it leads me to ask: Do people really care about the LGBTQIA community or it is just there for consumption? So when it comes to music and movies, although there are contents that touch base on the community, the pace is slow. My hope is that someday people will understand and really showcase something more hopeful, which draws all the beautiful angles [of the queer experience].

Comparative to your early career, you appear to be having a lot of fun with your use of social media. In terms of being a public figure, do you feel more free and comfortable in 2023?

It’s become very natural to be who I am today. Let’s say that before there were two identities – who I am as a person and the artist HOLLAND – but as time has gone on, those two persons became one – as HOLLAND – and I’ve become more comfortable as who I am and where I am today.

Despite the struggles you’ve faced, that you continue to defy everything that’s thrown at you while growing into your most authentic self, it’s just beautiful to see. How do you feel when you look back at all you’ve done?

During COVID, although we faced many hardships, I’m grateful to have had opportunities. Over the past three years I got to meet good people from brands who were thinking outside of the box and wanting to do new types of projects. I look back and say, “Wow, I’m so very grateful for that”. 

Words: Taylor Glasby // _xTGx

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