In an industry where the life span of one’s career, along with fame and recognition, can be as ephemeral as seasonal fashion trends, BoA, one of Korea’s pioneering popstars, is seemingly eternal.
At just 32 years old, it is hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that South Korean singer- songwriter BoA’s 19-year career is older than many of the Generation Z youths, the ones who fill the concert stadiums of other newly minted K-Pop stars. Most 20- and 30-somethings would recall her omnipresence during the early aughts; from picking out her albums at HMV and bobbing to its dance-pop tracks on a silver Discman, to her stage name (a stylised abbreviation of her first name, of which both are enunciated in the same manner) often being uttered in the same breath as fellow turn-of-the-millennium rising stars Ayumi Hamasaki and Jay Chou when asked about one’s favourite musician.
Today, going by the metre that is the power and prevalence of K-Pop (and K-Beauty, and K-Drama) in global culture, the monumental depth of her imprint might be unintentionally dwarfed. Idol groups such as GIRLS’ GENERATION and SUPER JUNIOR that collectively dismantled geographical borders for K-Pop in the last decade — paving the way for current bands like BTS and Blackpink to reach even the furthest-flung corners of the world — tend to overshadow BoA’s feat as a solo Korean pop act. One that commanded Asia’s attention, without the reach of social media, nearly two decades ago.
Like the letting up of a downpour the moment you’re due out the door, or the train arriving just as you set foot onto the platform, her beginnings in the music industry can be considered a happy coincidence. BoA had followed her older brother to a talent competition organised by SM Entertainment in 1998 and in the process, ended up getting signed on herself. Two years later, at just 13 years old, she released her first full-length album ID; Peace B. Although it wasn’t until the singer set her sights on Japan, that the “BoA effect” would realise its full potential.
With a new audience in mind, she released her first Japanese album Listen To My Heart shortly after the first, which topped the Oricon Albums Chart, Japan’s domestic equivalent of the Billboard Charts. Nominations and wins at the Japan Record Awards followed, along with recognition at South Korea’s own Mnet Asian Music Awards. Treading both genres of K-Pop and J-Pop subsequently, her succeeding releases would mark major milestones of her career — albums like Valenti (2003) and Best of Soul (2005) moved over a million copies in Japan — and fortify her popularity.
Then came the time when BoA ventured out of her comfort zone, Asia, making a move across the Atlantic. “When I was younger, becoming a singer was somewhat of an obscure dream. Something unrefined, and not well thought out. Now, it is the way I can give satisfaction to a bigger audience, and create greater expectations,” she says. This was between 2008 to 2010, and while her American takeover was brief, it was during this time that she left an indelible mark on Korean music history; alongside Wonder Girls, she became the first Korean pop act to make it onto the Billboard Charts.
The recent years have seen her fill bigger shoes in the music industry, lending her expertise to aspiring acts as a judge on singing competitions. But at the same time, she’s still keeping score, and tirelessly augmenting an already prolific repertoire with a constant flow of fresh music. “Music can be healing for some people and it can give energy to others. It can also be a way to share and heal one’s pain. Through this, I also feel the emotions they feel when listening to my music, which is a large part of why I find music so charming,” BoA muses, on her dedication to the craft.
The eponymous single of BoA’s latest album, Woman, sees her proclaiming in that ever so slightly sultry voice of hers that she’s beautiful, stylish and modern — just the way she is. It’s an ode not unlike a Bruno Mars anthem, but the lyrics are self-penned and of course, in reference to herself. As the song starts off with the sound of high heels clicking against the floor, its strides purposeful, one can’t help but think it’s as if BoA has only just arrived. Even 19 years on.
You’ve been in the music industry for a long time now. What do you think is music’s greatest appeal?
Music can be healing for some people and it can give energy to others. It can also be a way to share and heal one’s pain. Through this, I also feel the emotions they feel when listening to my music, which is a large part of why I find music so charming.
And what does it mean to you?
Music, without doubt or hesitation, goes hand in hand with my life.
How has your perspective towards being a singer evolved?
When I was younger, becoming a singer was somewhat of an obscure dream. Something unrefined, and not well thought out. Now, it is the way I can give satisfaction to a bigger audience, and create greater expectations.
How do you hope your fans perceive your music?
I always tell my fans that they are friends who I share my time with. I hope that my music, and me as a person, can play the same role to them.
Fashion and style play a huge part in music, and to you as well. Why do you think it’s important?
You can tell the personality and character of a person by the way they are dressed. For example, my professional persona has to show the type of music I’m about in a single photo.
How does your personal style differ from that of your professional persona?
My style as BoA changes a lot depending on the songs. When it comes to just me, I tend to wear similar things consistently… And that’s workout pants (laughs).
What does having a healthy mind mean to you?
Living optimistically. I’ve been working for a long time now, and I often think [in the face of difficult situations], “This will pass.” I also try not to get angry, and to be understanding and more open-minded. When I realised that there is no one in the world that thinks and acts the same way as I do, everything became easier. Thinking negatively isn’t good for your mental and physical health.
What would you like to say to your past self?
I’d like to say, “Thank you very much.” Honestly, if you asked me to do everything I did in the past, I really don’t think I would be able to do so now. I had worked very hard, and I think I’ve lived that life to its fullest potential.
Interview: Lee Kyung Kim | Photographs: Yong Bin Choi | Creative Direction: Jack Wang & Jumius Wong | Styling: Suk Won Kim | Hair: Min Young / Kim Hwal Ran Musee Neuf | Makeup: Su Min Jo | Producer: Lee Kyung Kim
This article first appeared in ELLE Singapore’s October issue.