This was originally published in Fuck What You Love Vol. 2, an awesome zine about music crushes, issued in April 2017. I wrote this; please do not copy any portions of this without permission from me.
Cho Kyuhyun is an asshole. There’s a video interlude in Super Junior’s first Super Show concert, which cuts between all the members of the group in various stages of getting bathed, dressed, and going out. Of course there’s a bathtub with rose petals, and a shower, because there’s thirteen guys and they have to maximize the number of half-naked ones. Kyuhyun, who never likes to show much skin, gets the bit where he’s already dressed and putting on cologne. All he has to do is spritz it on his wrists and maybe admire himself in the mirror for a moment. He definitely 100% does not have to look at the camera. Nobody else in the entire montage looks at the camera. Kyuhyun, being an asshole, looks right into the camera and smirks.
Kyuhyun also doesn’t go for fanbait much. You won’t see him pretending to kiss the other guys in the group, or holding hands with them, or even doing much aegyo. That’s other dudes’ job. Kyuhyun’s job is to be the best singer. And then he out of nowhere drops it low on Leeteuk while wearing a sea captain costume. Motherfucker. Leeteuk looked amused and embarrassed. I probably would have burst into flames.
Or how about the time he performed “Isn’t She Lovely”, complete with a rather sterile but competent harmonica solo, wearing John Lennon’s 1966 haircut (because asshole), and at the end of the solo, in the moment before he began singing again, there was this little self-satisfied look that passed across his face: “Yeah. I nailed that. And all of these thousands of screaming girls know it.” I could take that moment and cut it up into thousands of tiny little pieces and paste them back together into infinity.
In his 2015 video for “A Million Pieces”, Kyuhyun stalks Go Ara around Zurich, “accidentally” and congenially bumping into her at a variety of tourist destinations. It’s one of those cinematic music videos where the video is at least twice as long as the actual song because of plot devices. About halfway through the video, a church bell tolls, and Kyuhyun coaxes Ara to dance with him. After a few moments, she steps away, and gestures brightly at something in the distance for them to go inspect. With barely a thought, he grabs her arm and pulls her in for a close hug, which lasts 11 seconds. In those 11 seconds, there are two versions of me: there is a me who overlays all those smirky Kyuhyuns onto this Kyuhyun, and then overlays me onto Ara, and then implodes into a tiny pinprick of internal screaming. The second version of me looks at Kyuhyun in his turtleneck, with his oddly rounded, soft face, and looks at Ara’s blank expression, and is creeped out by the entire scenario.
It is frustrating, having a crush on a past iteration of a celebrity. You don’t get new photos to sigh over; all the new ones are of the wrong guy. Kyuhyun, who is presently 29 years old, has spent most of the last three years promoting his solo EPs (almost all ballads) and acting as a TV co-host alongside three middle-aged men, and his own personality and sense of humor has gotten cornier and older. He has a music video in which he’s sitting in a barber’s chair and a female string quintet pops up out of nowhere around him and he just stares blissfully off into space. For crying out loud, he did an entire solo concert series where he played a winking, mugging narrator for a couple acting out a diner romance. It was grotesque. He also has most likely done something to his eyes and/or cheeks, which combines with overall weight gain to give his face a rounder, more androgynous look. He posts these doll-like, heavily filtered selfies on his social media with big, round, dark eyes and tight little smiles. He’s overworked, he’s tired, he may be drinking too much (he is known to have a thing for wine), and in many respects he doesn’t seem to be the same Kyuhyun he used to be. He hardly ever smirks anymore.
And feeling rather turned off by Current Kyuhyun’s public persona made me feel bad that I still carried the torch for Past Kyuhyun’s. Past Kyuhyun was a goddamn fox, but who the hell am I to judge? How shallow is it for me to go “well he was hot then, but he’s not hot NOW.” I’m not exactly the same as I was ten years ago; virtually no one is. I’m a fat 33-year-old American mom with gray hairs and lines on my face. Judging him for still looking essentially like a kpop idol, while I count it as a good day when I have enough time to do something with my eyes, is absurd.
In an attempt to rehabilitate his image, I recently started watching New Journey to the West 3. It has Kang Ho-dong and Lee Soo-geun in it, so I figured even if Kyuhyun demonstrated nothing other than his continuing transformation into a china doll, I’d at least have something entertaining to watch. Instead, to my consternation, I found something else: in an unfamiliar situation, with people who are enthusiastic and friendly, Kyuhyun will react exactly the same way I will. Perform when they say “perform” (and sometimes even if they didn’t say “perform”, because performing is your fallback), laugh when it is time to laugh, largely keep quiet, and eventually grow so comfortable that you forget to pretend to be chill. He had a series of protracted brain farts during a quick recall sort of game (my specialty), and at the end he walked away shouting in frustration, and my heart attempted to escape through my ribcage in commiseration. “That’s me, he’s me,” chanted my brain. “Smirky-Kyuhyun is gone, and me-Kyuhyun was underneath.”
I spent large portions of my childhood and adolescence being a performing bear. Not a kpop idol level of performing bear, but nonetheless, I can’t even count the instances of me wowing adults with my piano skills or my quick brain. And the more it happened, the more I resented the adults for being wowed; how did they know if I was actually any good? None of them played piano. They’d claim it was a gift from God and that I shouldn’t waste it, that I had more talent in my pinky than they had in their entire body. I was terrified and intimidated. The kids I knew didn’t care, or used me as a jukebox, or like Siri. You do that for long enough, you forget that you can be defined by anything else. And if there comes a day where you’re no longer anyone’s jukebox, your identity crumbles altogether. It took me ten years to rebuild myself, stronger and safer and healthier. Kyuhyun was asked what kind of girl he wanted to marry, and all he could come up with was “a girl who looks good in a ponytail, who doesn’t have a strong personality.” People who don’t value their own opinions aren’t really able to fake it on the fly.
I watch Kyuhyun breaking into song in his hotel room, to harass a friend who hadn’t bought his latest EP, and I’m nine, sitting at my grandparents’ house playing a song I don’t know from an old 1970s piano book, hoping someone will come pay attention to me. I played piano all the time when we visited family. I didn’t play my songs; I believed, with reason or not, that nobody actually cared about the songs I liked. I played their songs; I did it for them. I watch the New Journey staff blasting “Sorry, Sorry” and “Cheer Up”, faces aglow, trying to entice Kyuhyun to come out and dance, and I’m thirteen, at the piano in the choir room in middle school, playing the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” so that the other girls can sing along. He walks out and begins the dance routine with a wry, dutiful smile on his face, and I’m sixteen, fleeing the stage after a performance I know was bad, so that I won’t be shamed by anyone’s applause. Or I’m twenty-two, applying for jobs as a school pianist in a desperate claw for jukebox status, feeling very much like Steve Buscemi, “how do you do, fellow kids?” Or I’m twenty-six, performing for family for the last time I ever will, wearing the experience like a rancid coat.
As my Kyuhyun crush makes its way into its third phase, that of “oh shit, my baby is becoming my actual baby”, I find myself mostly just wanting to hold him, to smush his head into my chest. Oh, honey. I get it. I get it, I get it. Just, hush. Stop. Breathe. Fuck them. Fuck anyone who views you as a jukebox, or as a performing bear. They don’t count. None of them count. Hold me. Let me smell your hair. Let me feel your shoulder blades shifting under my hands. Let me know this Kyuhyun, and smirky Kyuhyun, and corny Kyuhyun, and all the other Kyuhyuns there have been or will be. We are all deserving of love for so much more than we knew.