There are only a few things in life that are as assured as the sun. Day after day, it peeks out over the horizon, begins to stream through cracks and windows and signals a new day. The sun, taeyang in Korean, yields itself to an easy metaphor for new beginnings. This is a metaphor which Dong Young-bae—better known as K-pop superstar TAEYANG or SOL in Japan—is no stranger to.
Over the past few years, TAEYANG has lived a relatively hushed life. After his solo world tour in 2017, he tied the knot with his partner Min Hyo-rin, whom he now shares a son with. Shortly after the wedding, the K-pop star enlisted into compulsory military service, delayed as a result of his stellar career as a member of one of the biggest groups in K-pop—BIGBANG.
As a part of the prominent quintet, TAEYANG became a part of K-pop’s seismic rise to the global stage, with BIGBANG producing some of the greatest hits ever known to the industry. Title tracks such as ‘Fantastic Baby’ and ‘Bang Bang Bang’ broke numerous records in their heyday. Together, they set the standard for what the industry could look like; the paragons of K-pop that new-era groups would seek to emulate years later.
BIGBANG, which debuted in 2006, falls under the era of second-generation K-pop—alongside the likes of Girls’ Generation and Shinee—and were whom younger, budding idols had aspired to become. From BTS and Blackpink to Stray Kids and Twice, many of the third- and fourth-generation idols have spoken of the fierce impact BIGBANG had on them in their trainee years. From their unparalleled stage presence to their experimental approach to musical production, they can be said to have laid the foundation for younger generations to break new ground in the K-pop scene.
However, with the release of his latest six-track album, Down to Earth, TAEYANG is ready to start anew. The build-up to his musical homecoming had been a staggering one; earlier in the year, the 34-year-old released ‘Vibe’ with the inimitable Jimin of BTS. Indeed, it had felt like a serendipitous encounter that saw the two industry titans come together and yet, there was no doubt that the high-octane dance anthem was a confident declaration of the venerable idol’s surefire return to the scene.
“It would be a lie if I said that there was no pressure to try these new things that I had never tried before.”
Down to Earth feels like a tender confession. While previous albums such as Solar or Rise can be said to have given breath to the emboldening love ballads that he has become almost synonymous with—such as ‘Wedding Dress’ or ‘Eyes, Nose, Lips’—his newest EP serves a considered platter of varied tunes that point to his musical influences from all over the world. A place where trap, soul and R&B meet, TAEYANG recounts the music he grew up listening to. “I am trying to express the music of the era I was most influenced by. Music in Korea from the ’80s to the ’90s is what I consider to be the golden era of Korean music,” he muses.
The singer admits that the EP launch had its ups and downs. When asked what led to its initial conception, he says that the album found its roots almost five years ago, when he was serving in the military and was devoid of inspiration. “I was mostly focused on my daily activities at the time and wasn’t able to listen to music nor gain any inspiration. Outside of my army duties, I was also going through some tough situations.”
But it was in these troubling times that he found meaning again. Coincidentally, TAEYANG felt inspired by an altered view of his namesake, the sun. “I started to feel solace and comfort through the beautiful sunsets. As this became something I looked forward to daily, I started to reflect and look at my life from a different perspective, and began running every day when the sun was setting,” he explains. “I felt that my situation in life was similar to the setting sun because the sunset doesn’t greet the morning, it greets the night. I saw myself in the sunset because I was facing a dark situation in my life too.”
If Rise is associated with the everlasting promise of sunrise, then perhaps Down to Earth serves as a humbling reminder that at times, the sun must first go down before it can rise again. Embracing his moniker with a renewed vision, TAEYANG acknowledges that the difficulties faced during those years had been a tipping point.“From here on, I could start on a new approach and return to my original self—just as a human being,” he says thoughtfully. “I could sincerely feel ‘down to earth’ and organically build this album step by step with this new mindset.”
It comes as no surprise, though, that we live in times when a great K-pop comeback cannot rely on a new album alone. Apart from the accompanying breadth of smooth choreographies and the scintillating stage performances, the K-pop scene has been propelled into a new realm—where TikTok dance challenges and candid behind-the-scenes captures are imperative for third-and fourth-generation groups to increase the promotion for their music.
“I was exposed to third and fourth generations of K-pop idols through other soldiers when I was in the army and so I learnt more about how their generation was culturally different from me,” TAEYANG says. He’s hardly resistant to this change, openly admitting to the fact that his military time was also an eye-opening experience that kept him in touch with the times. He adds:“I became curious about how they approach things. Through my daily interactions with them, I began to understand more about the different trends or platforms they were interested in.”
“What is actually worth more than a thousand words is being able to inspire through my behaviour, my music and the approach I take to my life and artistry.”
When it comes to these new means of promoting his music, TAEYANG shares that participating in dance challenges and the like was something he wanted to embrace, but not without initial hesitation—even though he was often praised for his stylistic dance moves. “I opened up to the idea of trying dance challenges or partaking in new platforms, but it would be a lie if I said that there was no pressure to try these new things that I had never tried before. When I actually tried it though, it was easier than I thought,” he says.
Despite a willingness to adapt to the times and collaborate with industry heavyweights, TAEYANG remains visibly focused on presenting an honest side of himself through his music. He effuses a quiet confidence when I ask him if he has any advice for the new generation of aspiring artists. “Instead of giving advice, what is actually worth more than a thousand words is being able to inspire through my behaviour, my music and the approach I take to my life and artistry,” he ruminates.
Finally, there’s no doubt that a large part of TAEYANG’s return to the K-pop scene is for his fans. In many of his answers to my questions, it is obvious that the motivations for his comeback are wonderfully simple. He sums it up: “Through this album, I want to plant a new seed with my fans so that we can grow a tree and start new memories together by meeting more often in various places.”
Editor-in-chief and Fashion direction Desmond Lim
Photography Jungwook Mok
Creative producer Vanessa Caitlin
Style direction Gee Eun
Visual director Seajun Kim
Hair Hyunwoo Lee
Make-up Heakyung Lim
Movement direction Henry Metcalf
Set stylist Dohyung Kwon
Production Danny Kang
Order your copy of the May/June ‘Guardian’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands on 17 May 2023.