A few weeks ago I signed up for an online essay class where we learned and wrote in different styles. Our first one was list, and one of the prompts was to write about someone we knew really well. I decided to write about Jonghyun, and to think about that dynamic celebrity creates: we feel like we know these people, but really we don’t.
I didn’t really know you, but it felt like we all did.
“Sherlock Clue + Note”
I was still learning everyone’s name, and for the longest time I thought you were Taemin. I remember noticing your cheekbones, they were very high and pronounced, and your eyes, specifically the eye contact you made with the camera. But of course, it was your voice. I didn’t know what “power vocal” was, but you were it. Every long note, every emotion, it all came through your voice. And you did it while dancing.
I learned about you, and your group, backwards. So of course I had to go back to the beginning, May 22, 2008. You look the same, but so much younger. Sound the same too, somehow. But your eyes, to fit the song, are so much softer. I can’t believe this was your debut, and it’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. The five of you have so much ahead of you.
I’ve learned your name now: Jonghyun, lead vocalist. I still get you confused with some of the other members, but I remember your face because you have the bigger eyes and highest voice. Your role in this music video was to wait for the girl outside, too nervous to approach, and instead you played with a little kid blowing bubbles. It’s cheesy, but still my favorite part of the music video.
This music video is both the peak of its time, and ahead. This was the first time I really noticed how dancing set Shinee apart from the rest. It’s heavily auto-tuned, they style is edging on punk but with the eyeliner of emo pop. Everyone has terrible hair and acting skills. But the choreography can’t be compared. This was the video I showed to my friends, this is K-pop, and I always made sure to point you out, that power note you hit in the bridge. I vowed to see you sing it live one day.
“Dream Girl,” “Why So Serious,” and “Everybody”
I’m a fully dedicated Shinee fangirl by now, obnoxiously so according to my friends. By 2013, the year you all released 3 different EPs, I followed you on Twitter, watched every YouTube video, and kept up with every update. I knew each member, what made each person special, and was ready to fly anywhere to see you live. I remember liking every photo you posted, laughing at all the behind the scenes antics you shared, and feeling giddy with every album announced. Then you got in a car accident during the summer, hurt your nose, and had to sit out the music video for “Why So Serious.” It’s still the music video I watch the least because you’re not there; then you came back, had a special stage and everything, and I cried watching you return to the stage. You looked so happy to be back, it made all us fans feel happy too.
This was a special Japanese release, unavailable in the United States. But it was released around my birthday, so I liked to tell myself it was special for me. I bought the physical album so I wouldn’t pirate your music, and played it constantly all October. Even though I made Key my phone wallpaper, your smile and outfit was my favorite part of that song. It’s always your smile.
Blonde Jonghyun is my favorite Jonghyun. This video was so much fun to watch, it was colorful and you all looked so happy. The song itself ushered in the era of trap house to K-pop, an era that it’s still stuck in. But by far the dance was my favorite part, iconic and simple, fun and bouncy. I found out you wrote the lyrics— as you would occasionally do— and it became my favorite Shinee song for that alone. Four years later and it still doesn’t feel like summer if I don’t start it off by watching this, the dance performance specifically..
I usually didn’t pay attention to the solo albums each member did, and I remember thinking your first one was too dark for my taste. But with “She Is,” I couldn’t resist. It’s summer, but not like “View.” “View” is Shinee, it’s the five of you, smiling and singing and dancing. But “She Is” is all Jonghyun. It’s light, and artsy, and catchy, and smiley. It’s happy. It makes a girl feel special. The music video reflects that, in an off-the-wall Warhol aesthetic, which I would hate if it was done by anyone else.
“Tell Me What to Do”
I hadn’t listened to K-pop in a year or two, and I missed one of Shinee’s comebacks. It’s silly, but I felt guilty, like I neglected a friend. But Shinee didn’t care, and you always sounded so thankful for your fans. And this song hit differently. It was the same style of “Replay,” but with all the maturity and growth the five of you experienced throughout your nine year career. Your voice especially, somehow had an even purer tone and more emotion. I always thought you were so good at putting the feeling of each song through, but they were usually happy songs, and so I assumed you were happy.
I woke up to the message from a friend that you had died, from a suicide, early in the morning in Korea. It didn’t make any sense. It had to be a mistake. There was no way you, Jonghyun, could be dead. Dead meant gone, and you were always here. And suicide meant… you weren’t okay. It didn’t make sense, you were so loved and had done so much and were going to do so much more. You couldn’t be gone. I remember crying in the shower, listening to all your music on repeat, trying to understand what was happening as the news came in slowly but assuredly. It was true. Your family made a statement, your company made a statement, and the other four Shinee members—your brothers— had all been seen rushing to the hospital. I felt silly to be mourning a celebrity, someone I never knew, but I wasn’t the only one who felt your emptiness. You trended, you were remembered, you were mourned. But what would that online acclaim have meant to you?
Your company released your last album, “Poet|Artist” the next month, along with your music video. Blonde Jonghyun is my favorite Jonghyun. It was bright, and shiny, and hopeful and fun. You smiled a lot, your eyes looked gentle, and you looked happy. I wonder if that’s how you wanted us to remember you.