For nearly three years, K-pop has been deprived of its princes. In 2018, SHINee had reigned for a decade, overcoming the seven-year curse – where bands often split at the end of their contracts – but were forced to go on hiatus due South Korea’s mandatory military service. As the year ended, Onew enlisted, and Key and Minho followed shortly months after.
With their service completed by various points in 2020, the news Shawols had been hoping for arrived hours into 2021 – the royal drought would soon be over. During SM Entertainment’s SMTown Live Culture Humanity virtual concert on New Year’s Day, a teaser reminded us of SHINee’s highlights so far, from the romantic R&B of debut single ‘Replay’ to the poetic and tender ‘Our Page’ and everything in between. “SHINee’s back,” a familiar whisper announced at the end, setting into motion the return of one of K-pop’s most vital boybands.
It’s rare for an idol group to not only still be active almost 13 years after their debut, but still be as relevant as SHINee. Even if acts renew their contracts, they’re not guaranteed to maintain their statuses, with fanbases dwindling as newer groups capture the public’s attention. Onew, Key, Minho and maknae (or “youngest member”) Taemin, though, remain one of the industry’s most exciting prospects, thanks to the legacy they’ve built as risk-takers and explorers.
These characteristics you can hear throughout the five-piece’s (singer Jonghyun tragically died in 2017) inventive back catalogue, which rarely goes where you expect it to. When they debuted back in 2008, the second-generation idols were billed as a contemporary R&B group and, while they’ve dominated that genre throughout their career, they’ve proven themselves to be so much more; an unpredictable, category-defying band who hop from sound to sound, making each one their own.
Take 2015’s ‘View’, the title track from their fourth album ‘Odd’. It was not only the group’s first foray into deep house, but one of the first K-pop songs to ever stray into that territory. “I’m half-worried, half-excited,” Minho had told The Celebrity ahead of its release, apprehensive of how the new sound would be received by fans. ‘Romance’, from the same album, shifts through several key changes and stylistic phases. ‘Sherlock’ (2012) meshes together two songs – the snapping ‘Clue’ and the glitzy fanfare of ‘Note’ – into one (an idea that SM returned to on the Taemin-featuring supergroup SuperM’s debut album last year), while the electropop of 2009’s ‘Ring Ding Dong’ might feel more of its time now than some of the rest of their songs, but it highlights their adventurous, experimental spirit perfectly.
You can see that attitude not just in SHINee’s various sounds, but in their concepts as well. On their 2009 EP ‘Romeo’, they bravely put their own spin on one of the greatest love stories ever told – William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Contrastingly to some of their more colourful and bright themes, 2013’s ‘The Misconceptions Of Us’ took on more sombre topics, exploring the disparity between the band’s dreams and reality. Creativity has never been something SHINee has been short of.
That’s something that has beens proved by how involved they’ve been in the making of their craft over the years. Sure, it’s increasingly common for idols to work on their own music these days but, back when the Hallyu wave was just in its infancy, it was a lot more rare – especially for acts under SM. Over the years, Onew, Minho and Key have all been credited on some of their tracks (Taemin has worked on some of his solo material), while sublime songwriter Jonghyun contributed to 17 of SHINee’s songs, starting with 2009’s ‘Juliette’, before his untimely death. In May 2017, he told CNN being involved in what they were putting out was key to their constant evolution and continued relevance: “I think it’s because we are able to create art that is centred around what we enjoy and like.”
Staying at the forefront of any industry for so long is never easy – especially in a world as forward-thinking and fast-paced as K-pop – but it’s SHINee’s refusal to stagnate that has helped them hold on to their spot. They are exactly the kind of band we need in 2021 – in K-pop and beyond – a reminder that pop doesn’t have to be predictable and straightforward to make its mark. Taking risks might be nerve-wracking – as Minho found with ‘View’ – but SHINee’s story proves they can also be incredibly rewarding. With more energy like theirs around, we’d never have to run the gauntlet of bland pop again, instead thriving in a world of idiosyncratic innovation.
At the time of writing, only one full song (‘Marry You’) and one snippet (the title track) of SHINee’s seventh album ‘Don’t Call Me’ have been previewed in live and variety show appearances. At this point in their career though, it’s almost guaranteed that, when the album arrives later today (February 22), we’ll find the iconic idol group doing what they do best – never staying still for too long, always in search of something exciting, refreshing and new. SHINee’s back, and not a minute too soon.