Looking back at K-pop group SHINee’s extraordinary 10-year career

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When SHINee debuted in 2008, K-pop looked very different to how it does today. Although a phenomenon within Asia, it was distinctively niche in the west. The industry, however, was moving forward, particularly in terms of the production quality of its music and videos, and on May 25, SHINee’s Onew, Minho, Jonghyun, Key, and youngest member Taemin (who was only 14 at the time) joined K-pop’s burgeoning ranks. Their debut was the sweet mid-tempo R&B song “Replay”, and their home was SM Entertainment, the long-standing entertainment giant who were, at the time, experiencing major success with another boy group, Super Junior.

What set SHINee apart from other K-pop groups was “the harmonic trinity of fresh new sounds, their vigorous nature, and the creative visuals”, says SM’s creative director Min Hee-Jin, who has worked with the group since the beginning. Contemporary R&B has always been SHINee’s base sound, but as early as 2009 they were reaching towards sophisticated funk, lush ballads, and electronica, and would balance this exploration with the powerful, layered vocals that had became their signature. Min singles out their second album Romeo as a turning point for the group, visually as well as musically: in the video for bubbly electro-pop song “Juliette”, the members sported bright clothes and clashing accessories that accentuated their youthfulness. “The visualisation of that album reflected their identity the best,” she recalls. “I aimed to put the group’s signature colour (pearl aqua) on the map, as well as each member’s individual style.”

In December last year, mere months away from their 10-year anniversary, news broke that 27-year-old Jonghyun had died by suicide. Although SHINee hadn’t released anything during that year, the members had been busy, with acclaimed solo albums by Taemin and Jonghyun, and acting gigs for Minho and Key. The gut-wrenching shock and outpouring of grief following Jonghyun’s death brought the industry to a standstill. Devastated ‘Shawols’ (a term for individuals within the group’s fandom, SHINee World) flocked to social media to try and make sense of their loss, even today leaving daily messages on Jonghyun’s Instagram posts. In the numb months that followed, Jonghyun’s already completed Poet | Artist album was released, and SHINee performed a previously scheduled Japanese concert as a farewell to their bandmate. Having been encouraged by Jonghyun’s mother to continue making music together, the four members began to pick up the pieces, eventually celebrating their 10th anniversary with a new album and a fanmeet, where Minho humbly asked for fans’ support as they moved forward with their lives.

To celebrate SHINee’s 10th anniversary, we’ve looked at six of the most significant singles they released since their debut, and spoke to some of the people who helped make them what they were.

“RING DING DONG”, OCTOBER 16, 2009

SHINee won several new act categories at Asian music awards in their first year, but it was the 2009, The Year Of Us EP that accelerated their trajectory. Out was the R&B of their debut single, and in was “Ring Ding Dong”s rhymically dense ‘afro-electro’ (as SM Entertainment call it). The group’s jeans and bowl cuts were replaced with aggressive red, black, and grey styling, and feathered hair. “The idea that got me started was creating a melody with a bongo sound,” says composer and lyricist Yoo Young-Jin, who wrote and arranged several of SHINee’s hits. “SHINee might have felt puzzled when they first heard it. They probably never imagined they’d receive a song in this style.”
A heavily produced earworm about the shock of falling in love, “Ring Ding Dong” is unarguably a product of its musically outré time, the period (roughly 2008-2011) commonly known within the genre as ‘K-pop’s Golden Age’. The melody’s power to ingrain, however, hasn’t dimmed (it’s since been refreshed as a killer rock version, with its bongo rhythms front and centre, and as an ambitious rock/electro mashup), and the hook and dance is still so adored that Minho, Onew, and Jonghyun played it into an appearance on Korea’s Saturday Night Live in 2015.
“I can’t forget when I first saw their dance practice video. Watching them perform with fire in their eyes completely captivated me,” says Yoo Young-Jin. “No matter how long the recording took, Jonghyun always sung with the same energy for the main vocals, (the) dubbing, (and) even the chorus. It was the same for Onew – he said he didn’t mind re-recording, no matter how many times he had to do so. Taemin, the youngest, but with the most ambition; Key with the special and unique charms; and Minho, who always fulfilled his role perfectly within the overall performances – it was a joy to work on their music.”

“SHERLOCK”, MARCH 21, 2012

By 2012, Danish songwriter/producer Thomas Troelsen was a veteran collaborator with SM Entertainment, attracted, he says, by their “taking risks on really insane records. When I write for these guys, I try to think of it as a science-fiction project.” Following a year of shows and Japanese promotions, “Sherlock” was SHINee’s first Korean single since 2010’s winsome “Hello”; it was also K-pop’s first ever ‘hybrid remix’, seamlessly joining two album cuts (the new jack swing of “Clue” and the striding, percussive “Note”) that Troelsen also penned. The idea came from a senior A&R at SM, and the result is coy one moment and showy the next, with the harmonies on the chorus exploding as the group execute a sliding march forward, a little like an upright Russian folk dance. US choreographer Tony Testa says he tried to “create the illusion” that each of the members were “alone, retracing memories, their blurred bodies trailing behind as if trying to piece together their lives”. “It was my first experience in K-pop, but I could see they could dance well, so I brought choreography I felt would help them grow,” he adds. “They worked so hard. I think they were at a phase in their careers when they knew they had something special and really wanted to prove themselves.”
The song’s complexity, and SHINee’s performance (particularly the confrontational energy live) signalled a coming of age for the band. Their metamorphosis, which had included controversially sexy teasers that shocked Shawols accustomed to seeing their idols as boyish or, at most, slightly outlandish, was timely – a new generation of idols, including labelmates EXO, were arriving to steal old crowns. “Sherlock”, however, allowed SHINee to step into a sphere that was entirely their own.

“EVERYBODY”, OCTOBER 14, 2013

“We show something new with every release,” Onew told The Korea Times in 2012. “Initially, we can feel a bit awkward (in the new shoes), but then we fill them.” Around this time, K-pop songs were frequently incorporating dubstep but, rather than emulate others, “Everybody” juxtaposed SHINee’s melodic sensibilities with the grinding wub-wub of ‘complextro’ (complex electro). “The first time I heard the song, it reminded me of being a kid,” says Tony Testa. “The odd mechanical sounds were like (the) wind-up teeth and action figures I used to play with.” His childhood memories formed the backbone of the song’s choreography and influenced the video’s concept, in which Minho ‘winds up’ the members, dressed as toy soldiers. The “go-go gadget helicopter” move is a stand out for Testa, particularly live – he says he was “continually amending the dance because the track went through so many changes.”

It’s also a tribute to the producers’ considerate touch, and SHINee’s vocal strength, that despite the pressing weight of complextro’s hallmarks, it holds a carefree lightness to match its breezy lyrics. “‘Everybody’ would have never worked in Europe – never ever,” says Thomas Troelsen, unwittingly pinpointing why so many westerners, hungry for new approaches to pop, often fall for K-pop. It sounds like nothing else from that era (nor would SHINee make another song like it), but as a benchmark for K-pop’s audaciousness and SHINee’s chameleonic allure, “Everybody” is unforgettable.

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