When I learned of the news that SHINee’s Jonghyun has passed away, I had to sit down in disbelief, look frantically for confirmation, and then cried as I turned to the comfort of my Jonghyun playlist. To say that SHINee was a favorite is an understatement – TVXQ may have been my introduction, but SHINee was what sucked me in, all the way back in 2008. And Jonghyun has always been my favorite – my first bias, and later on, my most favorite soloist of them all. Why? Because of his lyrics. In fact, it was “Obsession” that started my…well, obsession over lyrics. And now, we’re here, celebrating the beautiful prose that are Jonghyun’s lyrics.
To be clear, this will not be an article that looks at his lyrics for hints of depression or sadness or anything of that sort. Anyone that has followed Jonghyun knows that he has been open with his depression. Instead, this is a celebration of Jonghyun as an artist in just one aspect – his lyrics, and the beautiful and sometimes brutal honesty that they carry.
Jonghyun’s debut as a lyricist came early on in his career, with 2009’s “Juliette.” Like the Shakespeare play that inspired it, the song was romantic and was awash with poison metaphors, with teases of an obsession at the core of the love story. This theme did not stop with “Juliette” or “Obsession” or “Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)” – covered in our first Jongyhun-centric Music & Lyrics. Obsession is just one of the prevalent themes in his lyrics.
Another theme that is prevalent is those of heartbreak and letting go of memories of loved ones, while still being in love with those memories. This is a theme present in “Alarm Clock,” which compares the now broken relationship to a nightmare and wanting the alarm clock to ring as to wake him up. Another is “Mono Drama,” a play on words – it is a drama with one person: him.
I’m always in my room alone,
imagining that we are in love
I confess then we break up,
the reason it’s a sad mono drama
The mono drama of being in love alone,
the encounter, the love, the goodbye
The reason I am in despair,
it’s a sad mono drama,
a love mono drama
Another example is “I’m Sorry” from Story Op. 1. The range of Jonghyun’s wordplay is also seen between these two examples. “Mono Drama” is more simple, while “I’m Sorry” has more emphasis on the emotions and gives us, the listeners, a deeper point of view.
What kind of memories are you left with?
Was I really that indifferent towards you?
I want to ask you, I want to know
Am I really the only one left with good memories?
“I’m Sorry” also shows another facet of Jonghyun – while a good portion of his lyrics are about heartbreak or some variation of, he also looks back on his relationships fondly. It can even be said that he may actually romanticize relationships. What stands out is that he does not focus on the big spectacle that is relationships, on the big spectacle of declaring your love as most love songs tend to be. Instead, he prefers to focus on the small gestures, the everyday gestures. This can be seen in “End of the Day” from Story Op. 1 and “Love Is So Nice” from Story Op. 2:
Baby, when I’m with you, I don’t care if we do nothing
So comfortable, I fall over with laughter over nothing
I don’t even know how my days are passing
The moment I open my eyes, to when I close them, I’m filled with you
That’s not to say that Jonghyun doesn’t do those grandiose, hyperbolic love songs. When he does, he prefers to compare the love interest to heavenly bodies that are superior to him – a beautiful image to behold that is out of his reach. In “Hallelujah,” he compares his love interest to an angel:
When I see you, without knowing, I say hallelujah
I see an angel, tears well up, without knowing,
I say hallelujah
…and in “Orbit” from She Is, he compares the female to a celestial body that attracts his attention, making him look at her no matter the many others that surround her:
There are too many stars revolving around you
But they’re all fake, man-made artificial satellites
I swear by the moon, it’s only you for me
It’s only you
If you ask me not to follow you
I can’t help it, you’re like a magnet
My heart is already not listening to me, it’s looking at you
Jonghyun once described himself as a winter person – winter being the season that has come to symbolize the absence of life, loss, struggle, and the lack of sunlight and warmth. However, there are also examples from literature of winter being used to describe tranquility and peace in silence. These are all elements in an overarching theme that is another part of Jonghyun: his depression. To deny that it was something he carried would do him an injustice, as he was open about his struggle despite the stigma surrounding it. He was honest in his writing of it, and kept it simple. However, it is in this simplicity that makes the impact heavier, making it relatable to anyone. An example is “Let Me Out” from Story Op. 2:
Someone please hold me, I’m exhausted from this world
Someone please wipe me, I’m drenched with tears
Someone please notice my struggles first
Please acknowledge the poor me
Please help me
It is honest in him being tired and needing someone to notice that he is struggling and needs help. That being said, even among those songs that I would classify as his ‘winter’ songs (“Elevator” and “Honesty being prime examples), he still remained comforting in his words. This is through the simple actions that can help, such as the Jonghyun-penned Lee Hi track, “Breathe”:
It’s alright if you run out of breath
No one will blame you
It’s okay to make mistakes sometimes
Because anyone can do so
Remembering Jonghyun as an artist who wrote hauntingly beautiful and honest lyrics is just one way to remember him. He was a lover and a romantic who had a way with words. He doesn’t bother with words that aren’t used in everyday conversations. Instead, he used simple words that convey heavy emotional weight. In doing so, a wide range of listeners can relate to the themes he honed in on, even if they do not necessarily experience the same. In the hours, days, and weeks since his passing, his songs and words have been a constant comfort. They will continue to be a comfort, but will also remind us that Jonghyun was as multi-faceted as they came: a self-proclaimed winter person who was in love with love and a romantic who respected all.[ColorCoded Lyrics , Kpopviral, Images via SM Entertainment)