Monday, July 22, 2024

Discovering Love and Affirmation in OnlyOneOf

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In this personal essay, J Onyeka explores how k-pop group OnlyOneOf continues to draw in new listeners.

During a voice call a couple years ago, one of my friends asked if I wanted to watch the music video for a K-Pop group, OnlyOneOf, whose comeback concept was, in her words, “homosexuality”. I didn’t care much for Korean boy groups but I immediately said yes because I didn’t believe we would actually see anything gay. 

I’ve been online long enough to know that the merest glance between two members in a group could be pointed out as something gay. (Example: there’s a moment between Red Velvet members in the “Psycho” (2019) MV where they hold hands and run up a set of stairs. Not much is happening there but fans latch onto anything they can.)

The MV for “libidO” (2021), the lead song off the mini-album Instinct Part. 1, starts with the choreography. JunJi ties a rope around YooJung’s wrists; when his hands are released YooJung plays with his own rope before it cuts to soft camera work focusing on the members Love, Nine, and Mill in their own separate shots, before transitioning to a shot of Rie and JunJi together, followed by a pair of shots where KB brushes YooJung’s hair out of his eyes.

the MV for the OnlyOneOf song “libido”

From this moment the scenes go: Rie and JunJi laughing as they hold hands in a moving vehicle, YooJung resting his head on KB’s shoulder, Rie sitting on the hood of the vehicle with his leg and arm around a standing JunJi as the pair suck on lollipops, YooJung and KB in the vehicle looking away from each other. The video flickers between quick shots – close ups on member’s faces and body parts, plus images of members close to each other. 

The chorus began and as the members moved up and down on their knees with their thighs spread, I knew whatever happened next in the video would prove my friend’s claim correct.

still from OnlyOneOf's "libidO" MV. Nine looks down as Love rubs his hand over Nine's bare shoulder.
Still from OnlyOneOf’s “libidO” MV. Nine looks down as Love rubs his hand over Nine’s bare shoulder.

OnlyOneOf divided their members into three sub-units: Yoojung and KB, JunJi and Rie, and Love, Nine, and Mill. The non-choreography shots resulted in a video where relationships are focused on with lingering looks and soft touches.

It’s tender art between men backed by a song about sexual desire. The intentions were clear.

Amused and satisfied, I put “libidO” away in my mind as something that I was surprised existed but felt no deep attachment to. 

It came up again in June 2022 when my friend and I watched K-Pop videos that fans claimed had LGBT+ themes. Songs that showed up multiple times included “Hello Future“ (2021) by NCT Dream (which I believed was argued for because it had a rainbow aesthetic), “Heart Attack” (2017) by Chuu of LOONA (which was cute and showed the intensity of a crush between Chuu and another LOONA member), ”I’m Your Girl ?” (2018) by KHAN (which was a love story), and “MOVE” (2017) by TAEMIN (to be fair – this argument can be made for every single one of his songs).

“LibidO” popped up once more and we enjoyed ourselves watching the video. I wondered if they’d stuck with the gay concept for their most recent comeback or if “libidO” was a one time event.

“LibidO” was not a one time event.

still from OnlyOneOf's "skinz" MV. Nine and Mill stand in front of a body of water. Mill holds Nine from behind and looks off in space. Nine glances back at the camera.
Still from OnlyOneOf’s “skinz” MV. Nine and Mill stand in front of a body of water. Mill holds Nine from behind and looks off in space. Nine glances back at the camera.

Skinz” (2022) kept the romance alive with the sub-units from “libidO”, with the only change being Nine and Mill as a duo instead of a trio since Love left. The video invites the viewer into the group’s circle while also highlighting the tension and affection between the units. The choreography shown is even more sexual with body rolls and hip grinds, which is impressive considering “libidO” has a moment of Nine reaching between Love’s legs to press his open hand firmly on Love’s crotch. When “libidO” was performed on MNet, a lot of people were upset by how physical the choreography was, so to see a comeback that basically said “anyways, we’re going to do this more” was impressive.

OnlyOneOf isn’t the only group to have members play relationships with each other for a MV. “Deja Vu” (2019) by Dreamcatcher has two pairings playing a tragic romance; “The Eye” (2016) by Infinite has different relationship dynamics – violence, tenderness, regret. What makes “libidO” and “skinz” stand out is how casual the intimacy is in the storytelling, with the viewer getting to see the members at practice and playing on the beach. 

It asks the question, “what if the idols you spend your money on were in love with each other?”, and the viewer has to figure out if it’s something that excites them, something they’re apathetic on, or something that repulses them. Even though OnlyOneOf had played with physicality in their choreography since the beginning, there were definitely people who thought that “libidO” and “skinz” were too far.

the MV for the OnlyOneOf song “skinz”

I revisited Onlyoneof a month later, getting ready to show someone these MVs, and saw that YooJung had released a solo. “Begin” (2022) follows YooJung, a part-timer, and KB, a company employee, after they meet in the restaurant where YooJung works.

“When you’re free from any prejudice” is a line in the song, followed by “that point is the beginning of everything / (Freedom will begin) / begin, begin, begin, begin again, again”. It’s a song about moving forward from a painful starting point, where YooJung promises to take the other person away in this early stage of love.

the MV for YooJung’s solo “begin”

The video is full of glances, YooJung hiding how he feels about KB from the moment their eyes first met. Yes, the story being told was gay once again, but what really struck me was the description.

“Among the countless lovers in the world, there are also lovers that couldn’t be blessed.
For whatever reasons.
Religious reasons, things like parents’ disapproval.
I dedicate this song to all those lovers that couldn’t be blessed.”

It took a lot of work for me to get to where I am right now. I had to fight through the fundamentalist Christian beliefs I was raised in and fight against what I was told I had to be and what I had to do as an Igbo woman. I’d argue that most societies at their core are homophobic because it’s a system of oppression that doesn’t suddenly disappear. 

Marriage equality passing in America makes the country look “better” but that doesn’t mean things are suddenly okay, that there aren’t laws and practices that actively endanger LGBT+ people. My family is from Nigeria and the laws there aren’t as strict as they are in some countries, but it’s still not ideal. Those cultural beliefs won’t disappear overnight, and I’ll always have to live with the familial consequences of coming out as a lesbian.

still from YooJung's "begin" MV. KB sits inside and looks down at what he's drinking. YooJung stares at him from outside the window as he washes it with a rag.
Still from YooJung’s “begin” MV. KB sits inside and looks down at what he’s drinking. YooJung stares at him from outside the window as he washes it with a rag.

YooJung dedicating a song about new beginnings with a video about love between two men hit me strongly. The lovers who can’t be blessed can refer to a lot of different types of relationships, and yet, there’s an obvious parallel in having a hidden type of love in the video with a type of relationship that is not culturally acceptable.

For the first time, I was able to look at OnlyOneOf as a group that wasn’t simply doing things for marketing. While they were surprised by the intensity of the controversy that surrounded “libidO”, by the time “skinz” came out they knew what to expect. In the end, it wasn’t something that was being done to generate buzz. It was a sign that they knew who was in their audience and that they wanted to continue to celebrate that.

The undergrOund idOl project takes the sub-units and gives them each a love song and story. “begin” was followed by KB’s solo “be free” (2022), Junji got “be mine” (2022) to pair with Rie’s “because” (2022), and finally Mill got “beat” (2022) to connect to Nine’s “beyOnd” (2023). Intimacy varies in each story – while the physicality between YooJung and KB is more reserved, their story ends with YooJung under the covers while KB redresses. 

There are fade to black kisses, close faces, and different levels of casual touch. It’s realistic and doesn’t shy away from the fact that yes, gay people do touch each other and it’s not a problem. Their stories touch on different aspects of relationships, from the sadness of a breakup to the desire in a moment of vulnerability. UndergrOund idOl also touches on the existence of homophobia, including Nine experiencing a hate crime. It’s rough to watch, but I know that there are viewers who survived similar events.

The first comeback post the completion of undergrOund idOl was “seOul drift” (2023), and the members said that the dynamics shown in the video were a continuation of the undergrOund idOl stories. KB picks YooJung up with the air of sexual desire, JunJi and Rie reluctantly interact and find joy in each other, and Nine and Mill awkwardly share a new space together. They make sense in a way that was different from the random vibes that “libidO” and “skinz” gave because they had established themselves as characters.

still from OnlyOneOf's "seOul drift" MV. JunJi and Rie sit back-to-back in a laundromat. JunJi is wearing headphones. the pair look down, heads slightly turned towards the camera.
Still from OnlyOneOf’s “seOul drift” MV. JunJi and Rie sit back-to-back in a laundromat. JunJi is wearing headphones. the pair look down, heads slightly turned towards the camera.

It wasn’t just Rie and JunJi sharing close space with each other, it was Rie and JunJi having the aftermath of their breakup needing to be acknowledged. It blurred the line between fact and fiction (which the members do themselves, with Rie often mentioning that he’s into KB/YooJung). 

“SeOul drift” makes its own statements to align with the LGBT+ community, with Rie carrying a rainbow tote with him to the laundromat and the song including the lyric ”Ferrari on ma back / there’s no time to wait / like dissonance / we’re born this way, baby”. The connotations are unavoidable and anyone who watches the video has to acknowledge that. It can’t be waved away.

the MV for the OnlyOneOf song “seOul drift”

SeOul collection as a mini album is intended to “capture the stories of Seoul’s loneliness and solitude, and those who are hurt in this city.” The description for “seOul drift” goes into detail to explain why the album is being framed the way it is and why it’s important to do so. Once again they speak of lovers who cannot be blessed, and they emphasize the fact that those individuals have stories that should be embraced. It’s a bold stance to make, and even those who didn’t pay attention to undergrOund idOl are asked to pay attention to people within marginalizations. 

OnlyOneOf and Tours

OnlyOneOf has now done two tours that have stopped in North America. I saw two of their stops on the 2023 Grand America tour – Minneapolis, MN and Orlando, FL. The Minneapolis show was my first K-Pop concert, something I never thought I’d experience. As a birthday gift my friend bought us VIP tickets, which included a signed poster, hi touch (giving the members high fives), and a group photo. The members spoke some English and they greeted us and made small comments. I spoke very briefly with JunJi and Mill during the time I got my poster signed. 

a video documenting OnlyOneOf’s Minneapolis tour stop

The Grand America tour was the debut of the undergrOund idOl songs being performed live. Each stop had two of the six songs performed, each one from a different unit. The only two that I didn’t get to see were “blOssOm” and “be mine”. The songs were given choreography that let the pairs have a highlight moment. It was cool to see how the songs were interpreted for performance and how they connected with the members’ skills, with dance difficulty and style changing with each song. 

I didn’t know many of the older songs, so a lot of the show felt very new for me. There were breaks between every few songs to let the members catch their breaths and engage with the audience using a translator.

The Minneapolis stop ended up being more memorable than expected because the group helped a lesbian couple get engaged. KB actually ruined the surprise by directly asking who needed the microphone for a proposal, but it was a very sweet moment that was included in the official tour video. They were all very happy about the event and sent their genuine best wishes to the couple.

The last section of the concert was very relaxed, with the members in tour shirts singing songs that didn’t have choreography. During this section, fans would pass things to the stage for the members to hold onto and dance with. There were a lot of pride flags. And by that, I mean for each stop on the tour they would end up with four or five flags on stage with them representing the variety of flags that exist. They held the flags up, wore the flags as capes, and ran across the stage with the flags flying. It fit with the high energy that had built up through the show and was cool to see.

a photo taken during the New York stop of the Things I Can't Say LOve tour. the OnlyOneOf members stand on stage from left to right: Nine, YooJung, JunJi, Mill, Rie, KB. Nine holds up the Philly pride flag while YooJung holds the lesbian pride flag. JunJi is wrapped in a lesbian pride flag; Mill is wrapped in a bisexual pride flag.
A photo taken during the New York stop of the Things I Can’t Say LOve tour. the OnlyOneOf members stand on stage from left to right: Nine, YooJung, JunJi, Mill, Rie, KB. Nine holds up the Philly pride flag while YooJung holds the lesbian pride flag. JunJi is wrapped in a lesbian pride flag; Mill is wrapped in a bisexual pride flag.

For the 2024 Things I Can’t Say LOve international tour, I once again got VIP for the New York City, NY stop. This time around I’d written fan letters for all six members, telling them about how they’ve comforted me through the last couple years, how happy I am to be a lyOn, and how important their performances are to me. All of them were surprised to get fan letters, looking up at me with startled surprise when I handed them over. Nine gave me a look of such gratitude, and knowing that I made them happy is something I hold tightly.

Every time I meet a musician, it’s a moment for me to stop and reflect on the nature of celebrity. Because, at the end of the day, OnlyOneOf is just six guys. Six normal people who are charismatic and talented, who love what they do, and who want to create a world where everyone is welcome. I’m sure choosing to align themselves with the LGBT+ community has had career repercussions, but they’ve done it anyway. Being able to affirm the difficulties that some of their fans have had and celebrate their existence is a meaningful gesture that very few artists would ever use their platform to do. 

They might not ever become mainstream in the industry, but they have a dedicated fan base who are ready to follow them wherever they go. Being a lyOn has been fun and I’ve grown closer to some of my friends due to our love for the group. As they enter their fifth year since debut, I’m excited to see where their stories will take us.

Images Courtesy of 8D Entertainment and Studio Pav

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