Amber Liu doesn’t want to be perfect anymore. It’s not that she believes she already is, but rather that her deepest instincts, forged amid an aborted childhood, betray a profound desire to be unerring. It’s an ascetic, monastic kind of itch, the sort of crippling force majeure that would make any surgeon or ballerina, in spite of other compromising qualities, excel at their jobs. Liu wants to be impressive. She wants to be precise.
Such desires inevitably fail to cloak themselves. “My choreographer yells at me a lot,” she tells me over the phone, laughing, one long early morning in November. “I’m always calculating myself in the mirror. I’ll just stop the routine if I don’t extend my arm at, like, an exact 45-degree angle. It’s stupid.” In other words: anything that isn’t perfect must be done again, repeated until emptied of all that might be construed as unpolished. The enemy, forever lingering behind each target, is mediocrity.
“It probably has to do with me starting out so young,” she says. “I never really got a chance to grow up, or to explore who I was.”
Call it armchair psychology, or call it a self-diagnosis, but in either case, the assessment tracks. Liu was barely 15 when she was enrolled into the years-long training system that would spit her out, fully formed, on the other side of f(x), the five-member South Korean girl group that would become one of the most internationally recognized K-pop acts of all time. At 15, she was a nerdy, inchoate teenager from California, nursing a quiet interest in biology and chemistry. Then she blinked, and she was someone very, very different.
“Those teenage years are when you’re really figuring yourself out, and I was already thrown into a world where I’d be in front of millions of people,” Liu explains. “And those people were going to be judging me.”
This intense judgment is, ostensibly, what the K-pop factory system anticipates. The hope is that, through long days and rigorous training, all flaws will be systematically eliminated, and the artist will adopt a congenital allergy to mistakes. (In 2009, Han Geng, who was at the time a member of the band Super Junior, accused S.M. Entertainment of, among other things, making him work for two years straight without so much as a day off — a schedule which he claimed caused him to develop gastritis and a kidney disease.)
Trainees can float around the management system for years, honing their skills and vying for perfection, before they reach a point where they’re even considered as candidates to be plucked from the herd and fashioned into stars. There’s literally no room for error, which is perhaps why those who evade it are eventually called “idols.” The central distinction between American pop stars and Korean pop stars: in the former, messiness is a sign of authenticity; in the latter, messiness is a lack thereof.
“It used to be that I wanted to be the next Michael Jackson, you know? I wanted to be in front of a billion fans. I wanted all of that,” she admits. “But now, after having that goal for so long and after being around other people who shared it, I realize how toxic it can be, how it can backfire. Because you’ll never have enough fans, you’ll never have enough appreciation. Because nothing is ever enough. And it kills you inside.”
In September of this year, Liu officially announced that she had not renewed her contract with S.M. Entertainment and became the first member of f(x) to begin a solo career. She’d already released a couple of stray singles after signing with Steel Wool Entertainment in 2018, but transitioning into a full-time solo artist marked a definite, promising rebirth. It’s almost as though she’s returning to the exact moment when she lost the chance to explore who she was, just to correct it.
“I’m ready to have fun now,” she says. Liu still remembers f(x) fondly, but she now realizes that none of the money or fame it granted satisfied her, never made her any happier. “I’m going to escape rooms now. I’m geeking out with my friends on anime. I’m playing video games. Work can become just work, and I’m trying to learn how to have fun with it.”
This isn’t hard to believe. It’s right there in the music, which seems buoyed by the spirit of someone who has not yet decided where or how to set up camp. If you listen to Liu’s latest three songs, for example — “Ready For The Ride,” a smouldering slow jam; “Numb,” a sparse piano ballad; and “Curiosity,” a mellow, radio-friendly dance tune — you’ll hear the ambient noise of someone fiddling intently with a pile of puzzle pieces, as though trying every possible combination to figure out which works best.
“I think that, after being in a certain type of system for so long, human nature is to do something different — hopefully,” Liu says. “I know now that I don’t have to kill myself over being perfect anymore. I don’t think I fit the criteria of a K-pop idol as of now, but it’s always going to be a part of me.”
That doesn’t mean she’s shedding all of her K-pop inclinations. In her music videos, Liu is still drawn to elaborate, precise choreography. Her upcoming EP, X, will have accompanying music videos for all six songs. Liu is also preparing to embark on a major 2020 U.S. tour, one that will take her to 24 cities and become the longest North American tour any K-pop artist has ever done.
I ask, already anticipating the answer, whether this moment feels more like home to her. “Yes,” she replies, eagerly, then describes what seems like a return to the locus of what governs her devotion to music: how it connects people in varying degrees of intimacy; how it illuminates inner truths, like a hyperactive firefly in a dark cavern; how it forces a position of honesty and vulnerability, all off of “a bunch of sounds.”
“Everyone that I’m working now with has really allowed me to be more vulnerable and open up, and has taught me that it’s okay to express my emotions,” Liu says. I mean to ask what the alternative is, but then she compares her manager to her dad, and before I can chalk it up to a Freudian slip — like when you accidentally call your third grade homeroom teacher “Mom” — she starts to say he isn’t unlike “a big brother, or maybe an uncle,” then describes her team as an extension of herself: a sort of intimate, surrogate familial unit.
It’s this sense of closeness and grounding, perhaps, that is helping Liu to come into her own — to relinquish her desire for control and to trust that her instincts will catch her. It will be a long process, as all births are. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore,” she says. “Even with making mistakes.” Later, I make note of how many times she has used the word “mistake” over the last 40 minutes of our conversation. I write it down: eight times. “Perfect” comes up six. Nature, it would seem, is the most difficult trap to elude.