On Idols, Jay Gatsby, and Other Forms of Faith

March 27, 2018 | 7 min read

On January 29, the Olympic torch relay for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics passed through Chuncheon in Gungwon Province. The last time I had really paid attention to the Olympics was when my family took me to Beijing nearly a decade ago. This year my eye alighted on the event not for the promise of feats of athleticism or sportsmanship, but on the last torchbearer of the day, the promotional ambassador from South Korea, the actor Jang Keun-suk.

In 2009 I was 16 years old, and early in the winter and into the better part of spring, I was hooked on the South Korean drama You’re Beautiful. A 16-episode television series that gained international cult status, spawned remakes in Japan and Taiwan, and briefly popularized the sale of a hybrid “pig-rabbit” stuffed animal that appears in the series, the storyline follows a young nun-in-training (played by Park Shin-hye) who is forced to disguise her identity and pretend to be male in a popular boy-band-slash-idol-group, A.N.JELL, cohabiting with the three other members of the band (played by Jang Keun-suk, Jung Yong-hwa, and Lee Hong-gi) all as beautiful as—well—angels. As she tries to hide her gender and transforms into an idol, hijinks and antics, dark family histories, jealousy, and, of course, love ensue.

For those who didn’t grow up with East Asian, and particularly Korean, dramas, the genre’s appeal—and the highly-specific world of idols and idol bands in the Korean media industry—can be difficult to understand. The romantic dramas are, compared to Western series, completely unsexy, or rather, unsexed. The humor is campy, even slapstick. Standard tropes include gender-bending, family debts, hospitalizations, “noble idiot”-esque sacrifices, and disappearances abroad. That Christmas I showed an episode of You’re Beautiful to a friend of my cousin, a young woman with short-cropped blonde hair. She took one look at Lee Hong-gi, pretty-faced and sporting a shaggy bleached blonde hairdo similar to her own, and snorted, “That’s a guy? No wonder people think I’m a dude.”

Still, I was in love. I remember debating the merits of the moody male lead and his nice-guy romantic rival with my best friend, sprawled out on the thick green duvet on her bed, in her comfortable room with its tall, white-framed windows. She was the one who gave me my own stuffed pig-rabbit to hang on my cellphone. Last year, not long after moving to New York and in a fit of escapism, I rewatched You’re Beautiful, this time sprawled on a rainbow-colored throw on the bed in my Brooklyn sublease, autumn leaves brittle on the sidewalk.

It had been eight years. There was still an undeniable charm. I found myself swept up again by the sheer escapism and audacity of the whole story, incredible as it was, or precisely because it was so incredible. One thing about the K-drama universe is its utter commitment to its implausibility. And yes—I’ll admit it—with his deep smooth voice, slim-fit blazers, gelled-up hair, and tight-collared shirts, Jang Keun-suk, the male lead, was gorgeous.

Not long after rewatching You’re Beautiful, I reread The Great Gatsby. In high school, the book was taught to me as a novel commenting on the American Dream. This time, reading it while still afloat on the clouds of my K-drama high, I caught much more about Nick’s tendencies towards idolization and symbol-making, his willingness to suspend his disbelief.

The first time Nick Carraway hears Gatsby tell the story of his life, he doesn’t believe it. “With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter,” he says. And who can blame him? Oxford and inheritances, tiger-hunting and rubies, war and heartbreak: It’s all too overblown, too storybook to be taken seriously. Then Gatsby shows Nick a medal from Montenegro. And Nick, all of a sudden, believes: “Then it was all true.”

The layers of apotheosization in the novel are multifold: Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy, Jordan’s interest in Nick, Myrtle’s desire for Tom, Nick’s own veneration of Gatsby. Each relationship is a forceful reading of the opposite party, a transmutation of human into desire. As much as our rational instincts tell us the incredible fantasy we’re being fed can’t be true, the smaller, perhaps more powerful part of us, would like to buy in. Because wouldn’t it be nice if the dream were true?

Towards that end, the mental leaps we take can be incredible. Perhaps the root of building an idol is one’s willingness to adapt any small gesture into a symbol fitting the story. Here is Nick, for instance, on Gatsby’s smile:

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

This is the kind of outsized reading that fans pin upon the faraway icons of their sublimated desires, reifying details of biography, gesture, and dress, projecting objects and moments into assumptions of meaning and tenderness. One wonders what Nick was trying to escape from. Idolatry is a form of love, and love, after all, is not a usefully descriptive term: It is the catch-all hiding all sorts of projections and desires, hollow shapes and aberrant hopes, like the bland and smiling Noh mask that anonymizes completely expression, body, intent.

As a 16-year-old, I did precisely the same thing to Jang Keun-suk, projecting desire and hope and all sorts of elemental qualities onto a televised phrase, a photo-shoot smile.  Back then I lived in a narrow and highly-structured world where I sensed, in a way I could not have articulated then, that there was much more of life waiting on the wings, some of it beautiful, some of it unstable, some of it far less predictable or orderly than I could see. And I was netted in the promises made incarnate by crazy stories like You’re Beautiful, as Nick was by Gatsby’s self-created myth: promises of love and of pain, and of the wild ways a life could suddenly change.

There’s a scene in You’re Beautiful in which Jang Keun-suk tells Park Shin-hye, “I am loved by thousands of people. That is my job.”

Part of the fun of the drama is how it shines a light on the behind-the-scenes work of an idol, dealing with fans, keeping up appearances, providing the raw material one consumes in their story-making. The actors in the series perform roles as meta-types of the idols they are, in some form, in real life. (The four principal stars are, today, all big names in acting or music). It was this that made me realize the reciprocal nature of the idol and the idolater. To be idealized, the idol must first be believed.

Out of all the people that Gatsby hosted in his mansion, it was only Nick that was willing to read so much into his smile, which in reality must have been merely a smile on a handsome face,  a social tic acquired in his eagerness to please. It was also only Nick, out of all of Gatsby’s guests, that felt such loyalty, even love, to him at the end of everything, arranging his funeral, writing his story, trying to seek some recompense.

Even at the end of the novel, though Gatsby’s self-made myth is imploded, Nick has found something else to deify. He’s a believer still, reworking the material to something different, even grander. He thinks about the endless parties, the green light, the transformation from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. In relating Gatsby’s story he creates a new myth for his old idol, populating it with sensitive extrapolations he conjures from the bones of Gatsby’s experience and, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s clamorous, perfumed language, the vocabulary of a dreamer, enshrining his legend.

This year, succumbing again to the girlish fanaticism I’d once possessed for a K-drama hero, for a moody pair of guy-linered eyes, skinny jeans, and a husky voice singing love ballads, there was a part of me aware, like Nick, of the falseness and ridiculousness of it all. But incredulity conversely reinforces this desire to believe: It makes the symbol all the stronger when the disbelief is assuaged. Part of the power of icons is how much we want, despite all the evidence and common sense given to the contrary, the myths we imbue them with to be real. If only, if only the possibilities were true. By the way, I don’t have a religion.

But perhaps it is the nature of faith to turn out to be misplaced. Everyone lets down everyone else: Daisy lets down Gatsby, Nick lets down Jordan, Gatsby isn’t who he told Nick he was. The dream falls apart when we can no longer believe.

This time, revisiting the drama and the novel, You’re Beautiful held up rather less well than The Great Gatsby. Unlike when I was in high school, this time I found parts of the drama cheesy to the point of being embarrassing to watch. Some of the sequences I found so romantic back in the day now were just silly. But when I was 16 it was easier to love.

Somewhere along the eight years between 16 and 24, fantasy had proven, was proving, to be frailer than I’d thought. This time, revisiting both stories, I was more aware of the mechanisms and pitfalls of idolatry. Many of the people and institutions that were once unimpeachable in my mind had, in the years since, gradually or suddenly fallen from their perches. Each time it happened I was a little less surprised. I guess the word is disillusionment.

While cleaning out my closet, I found the pig-rabbit my best friend had given me in high school. With the jolt of time settling, I realized the actors in the drama were, at the time, younger than I am now. After finishing the drama I looked up again the handsome lead who had captivated me so. This was around the time he announced he would be the ambassador for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Seeing him now, I was unreasonably surprised to see how much he’d changed. He’d cut his hair and ditched the black jeans for summer-colored suits; his skin was no longer so smooth. And I could no longer so easily suspend my disbelief, or so easily alchemize meaning from his gestures.

How I wished it weren’t so. Still, his voice remained the same, and though he now sings sunny pop songs instead of slow ballads, it was easy to pretend, for a little while, that I could go back to believing.

has lived in California, Chicago, New York, Japan, and other places.

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