Exploring Korean Drama: Shut Up Flower Boy Band

shut up boys being goofy

Shut Up Flower Boy Band is hands-down the sweetest kdrama of 2012.  Its title might not make it seem so, but it is.  It’s a story about high school, about rock and roll, but most of all, about friendship.  I’d call it a bromance, but I’m not sure how I feel about that term.  At the very least, it’s accurate: this is the story of how a group of misfit high school students form their own found family.  At first, they think it’s the music keeping them together, but in the end they learn they don’t need anything other than their affection for each other to keep their family together.

Eye Candy on a roof.

Eye Candy on a roof.

Of course, now I’ve managed to make Shut Up sound schmaltzy, but it’s really not.  It even avoids the touch of melodrama to which most kdramas fall prey; perhaps because the romance, although present, is really on the sidelines.  The drama is really about the boys growing up.  Let’s go over who’s-who:

  • Kwon Ji Hyuk — The leader of the group.  He’s the lead vocals, primary songwriter, and second guitarist.  He lives on his own in a rooftop apartment; his mother’s remarried, and seems to think he’s an embarrassment.
  • Lee Hyun Soo — Lead guitar and childhood friend of Ji Hyuk.  He clashes with Ji Hyuk a lot because he wants to be the leader, or the most seen, of the group.  Hyun Soo wants to be famous, but we find out it’s so he’ll never have to worry about supporting his family, particularly his sick baby sister.
  • Jang Do Il — Drums.  He sleeps in a pool hall owned by his family.  It’s to avoid being around his father, who’s a local mobster, as much as possible.  He’s the quiet one of the group.
  • Seo Kyung Jong — Keyboard.  His family lives in Busan, but they sent him to Seoul to receive a better education.  He’s not really sure what he wants from life, but he knows he doesn’t want to leave his friends in Seoul.
  • Kim Ha Jin — Bass.  He’s best friends with Kyung Jong; the two are inseparable, even when Ha Jin is attempting to chase girls.  Ha Jin really wants to be an actor.
hyun soo lounging

Too cool for school (or so they think).

The boys are your typical high school rebels: they dress in ripped jeans, mess with their hair, and don’t care about being late to or skipping class.  They struggle with their grades, and all they really want to do in their free time is mess around with their band, Eye Candy.  Their “cool factor” puts them at the top of the social ladder at high school.  That all changes when, due to redistricting, they’re sent to a fancy high school in a much nicer part of town.  The boys were always close, but the ostracism they face at their new school pushes them even closer together.

When Eye Candy competes in, and makes a splash at, a local battle of the bands (though not for the reasons you’d think), they get a deal from a recording agency.  It’s tentative; the company will release their current single, and then make contracts for further music depending on the success of the single.  The boys think they have everything they want.

The charm of Shut Up (also known as Shut Up and Let’s Go, after the boys’ catchphrase) is in its individual moments: Ha Jin followed by his troop of older sisters to sign his contract as his guardians, Ji Hyuk and Hyun Soo having an “I love you, man” moment, but needing to make the rock and roll devil horns afterward in order to reassert themselves, Ji Hyuk tearing up a contract that only has his and Hyun Soo’s names on it, the band’s method of cheering up an unhappy member by all jumping on him in a dog pile.

Shut Up is about growing up and finding out who your true friends are in the process. In high school, a lot of people hang out because it’s convenient.  We’ll write sweet messages in each other’s yearbooks, but we’ll never see each other again (and no, Facebook doesn’t count).  Ji Hyuk runs the band because he’s interested in music.  The others joined because it was cool, or in Hyun Soo’s case, because he wanted to keep spending time with his friend.

Shut Up - HugWhen the band begins to disintegrate under the pressures of the professional recording industry, Ji Hyuk in particular feels like he’s lost everything.  At first, he thinks it’s the love of the music.  He realizes later it’s the love of his friends.  They all have families to go home to at night, even Do Il (though he avoids them as much as possible), but Ji Hyuk doesn’t.  He’s worried they’ll move on without him.

Soon they all realize that although they enjoyed playing in the band, they really used it as an excuse to hang out.  Ji Hyuk was the only one dedicated to music.  He can still pursue it, while continuing to spend time with his friends.  It might seem naïve, to think the end of the band is the end of their friendship, but they were teenage boys.  These are the things they start to realize as they grow up.

The world of Shut Up is something that can be common on television, but is no less valuable: fully realized.  We’re not given exhaustive details about it; in fact, many things are implied, or just briefly mentioned.  We don’t really know what happened between Ji Hyuk and his mother to cause him to move out (or possibly be abandoned).  We’re not entirely sure how Dong Il’s father treats him, or what his mother thinks about it all.

That’s realistic.  Drowning viewers in dialog explaining every aspect of the world would be tiresome.  Viewers can put it together for themselves.  Besides, most people don’t discuss every aspect of their lives.  These are wounded teenage boys: they’re not going to talk about it.

That isn’t to say Shut Up didn’t leave me with some questions or raised eyebrows.  I’m not really sure how Ji Hyuk is allowed to live alone.  The age of majority is 19 in Korea, and he’s not that old.  It’s not the first time I’ve seen a kdrama about a high school student living alone, and I don’t really understand it.  But hey, this is television, and Ji Hyuk’s situation isn’t trivialized.  His loneliness becomes a major factor in the series’ climax.

Part of their cross-promotion involves recording singles with pop artists, which isn't very rock and roll.

Part of their cross-promotion involves recording singles with pop artists, which isn’t very rock and roll.

The strangest part, however, came from watching the boys interact with the Korean pop music machine.  After they sign their contract, they’re forced to live together, go on variety shows, abide by a curfew, and cross-promote their “image” like crazy.  In America that might be more how a boy band would work, rather than a rock band, but in Shut Up’s Seoul, that’s what having a contract at a major pop label entails.  It actually made for some of the best conflict on the show: the boys were finally living out their dream, only to find that perhaps it never was their dream.

The struggle between fantasy and reality is a classic one, and it’s especially appropriate for a high school show.  The boys were naïve enough to think all their problems would be over if they could just “make it.”  Soon they realized that nothing is that simple, and perhaps they were pushing so hard for fame for the wrong, if noble, reasons.

No, what got me about the corporate music story line were the times the boys became embroiled in controversies, and were nearly dropped from their label because of them.  So what if they get into a fight at a public park, or Ji Hyuk is photographed going up the stairs to his apartment with his girlfriend?  How does that hurt their image?  It’s totally rock and roll.

The boys of Eye Candy are minors being marketed by a major label in the pop machine, and so a certain level of behavior might be expected from them.  It’s what their audience wants.  I just couldn’t help rolling my eyes a little, especially over Ji Hyuk being photographed standing with a girl near his apartment.  It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it was within the world of the show, and that’s all that matters.

How the boys cheer each other up: dog piles and pillow fights.

How the boys cheer each other up: dog piles and pillow fights.

I’m inclined to be forgiving toward Shut Up because I love it so much.  On top of everything else, the soundtrack is great.  “Shiny Boy,” this is not (though I get endless enjoyment from blaring that song any time my husband walks into the room).  Halfway through watching Shut Up I decided I needed the songs — a first for me with any kdrama — at least those by Eye Candy (much of the soundtrack is padded out by the typical kpop, including songs by some of the actors).  I found Eye Candy’s three songs on iTunes, and I still listen to them on a regular basis.

It’s a fantastic way to immerse myself again in the world of Shut Up Flower Boy Band without having to marathon 16 hours of television.  They’re well worth the watch, however, if you haven’t seen them before.  In short, it’s a show with great music, boys being adorable together, and a whole lot of heart.

Kdrama tropes to watch out for: Noble idiocy.  Ji Hyuk catches a touch of it toward the end of the series, and while his actions don’t make sense, he gets a pass because he’s being a dumb, if well-intentioned, teenager.

Those concerned should also be aware: there’s also a trigger warning for (spoilers, highlight to read): character death in the second episode.


Watch Shut Up Flower Boy Band on Hulu or Netflix Instant.

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