In Conversation With SHINee

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Before SHINee headlined July’s KPOP LUX concert in Madrid, a video featuring the other billed acts – most only a few years into their careers – was run on the big screens, a compilation of the young idols discussing SHINee, who celebrated their 15th anniversary in May. The Boyz’ Younghoon called them “as indispensable as oxygen”, xiker’s Hunter cited them as the reason he became an idol, and Ni-Ki of Enhypen, when pressed to describe them in just one word, could not. And that’s understandable.

In these 15 years, SHINee’s Minho, Key, Taemin, Onew (absent for this interview due to health reasons), and Jonghyun (who passed away in 2017) have created definitive milestones for K-pop and its culture. The song once banned in South Korean schools because its earworm chorus so distracted students? SHINee’s ‘Ring Ding Dong’. Those now de rigueur, and hugely popular, idol dance practice videos on YouTube? K-pop’s first official dance practice release was SHINee’s ‘Replay’ in 2008. Their career – not only its longevity but their still upward trajectory – is seen as a blueprint for idol groups, who often fizzle out at the end of their seven-year contracts.

SHINee’s inner flame is yet to dim, and it illuminates their indefatigable grit, the passion for their craft (each member has also forged a solo career that’s distinctively their own), the eye-watering effortlessness of their performances, and the way they base-camp their powerful tones and harmonies in pop R&B to overlay a flux of influences that keeps their sound fresh.

There is such a thing as ‘quintessential SHINee’, of course – tracks like ‘Lucifer’, ‘Ring Ding Dong’, ‘Juliette’, ‘Replay’, ‘Married to the Music’, ‘Sherlock’, or ‘View’, for example – but at the heart of such a canonical identity, says the band, is an element of elusiveness which keeps them from being boxed into a singular, ultimate definition, allowing for a fluidity of evolution.

“Identity feels like a shadow that runs away when you try to grasp it,” they say, in agreement. “Whenever new desires arise and we crave something new, sometimes we feel that our identity becomes blurry, and we find ourselves searching for it again. The identity we’re currently seeking is to become artists who can strongly resonate with a wider audience and someone who can truly establish that.”

It’s this hunger for the new and more, and the desire to continue playing around with their sound, that made them push back on their team and switch the lead single from ‘Juice’ (eventually promoted as a secondary song) to ‘Hard’ on their recent album of the same name. “We wanted a catchier track,” says Minho, as Key adds, “‘Juice’ felt familiar but we ended up choosing ‘Hard’ because we decided that song would bring us a new experience.” And the inclusion of 90s hip-hop influences, says Taemin, was “to be honest, [because] hip-hop felt a bit distant from SHINee and we wanted to surprise the audience with something unexpected. And I felt that this would spark something inside me as well.”

The 10-track ‘Hard’ garnered SHINee their biggest first day and first week sales of their career while the single took five wins across South Korea’s competitive weekly TV music chart shows, heralding a new chapter for the band who are slated to release a documentary in September, then undertake an arena tour of Japan. Taking a rare moment to pause, SHINee sat down to discuss their latest era with Clash. 

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In the early days of prepping for this record, what was the group’s mentality like? Was there something very specific you each wanted from this process?

MINHO: The beginning is always exciting and nerve-wracking. I think a lot of the times I had our fans’ support and thoughts of how they would respond on my mind. 

KEY: I’d like to say that it was also our goal to also make sure that we are still able to achieve results through our album to show SHINee’s resilience and strength.

TAEMIN: I think I wanted to show that SHINee is still as strong as ever. To be honest, during our promotions, I couldn’t really pinpoint our exact goal but now I feel like I can organise my thoughts and reflect on what my feelings were at that time: I still want to receive a lot of love when we’re on stage, continue to cherish what we’ve achieved, and maintain our strong bond with our fans.

So there’s still that feeling of pressure, even if it’s lesser these days, when you gear up to a release? 

MINHO: There is, and will always be, pressure. We strive for perfection, so that pressure and stress continues to add on but I think it’s a good thing because it often drives you and leads you to great results.

TAEMIN: The album release was delayed from the original schedule, and we wish we’d had more time to prepare because time was really limited. Despite that, we were able to wrap up this promotion well. I tend to be hard on myself, but this time, I think I felt like I wanted to appreciate the moment.

KEY: As the years go by, there is a saying that it becomes harder to achieve results the longer you stay active. Sometimes, that saying becomes a burden and pulls you back. However, with this album, I think we really showed everyone that SHINee is still going strong and I loved that we were able to do so.

Now that you’ve spent time performing ‘Hard’ live, where would you place it in terms of category within SHINee’s oeuvre? 

KEY: This was a challenging track in many ways so I’d say that it falls under the category of ‘challenge’ because we also had to convince our composer to choose ‘Hard’ as our title track.

MINHO: ‘Hard’ can be seen as a new hip hop genre [for us] as it’s a hybrid of different sounds and genres, including 90s hip-hop. The track also embraces different topics such as love, a passion to accomplish goals, and challenges.

I want to briefly touch on SHINee’s styling because the latest concept is super colourful, which isn’t new turf for you, but it’s probably your ‘swaggiest’ – for want of a better word – look thus far. Take me through the visual decisions behind this record…

KEY: We wanted to avoid the typical hip-hop concept of everyone wearing very baggy clothing and show a different, fresh side to it.

TAEMIN: We made a lot of effort to include trending pieces, like Louis Vuitton, Chrome Hearts, and Marine Serre, and we feel like this has enabled SHINee to show more playful styles in contrast, creating a synergistic effect. I even grew out my hair to add onto that teenage, kitsch look of the overall outfits to help illustrate what we wanted to emphasise. And because ‘Juice’ was inspired by the movie Dune, we conceptualised a lot of the fashion elements based on the inspirations we received into the song.

SHINee have talked at various points over the years about their identity – as a group and individuals – and you explore this on Hard’s B-side ‘Identity’ with lyrics like “I want to find the original me” and “a destination to find in chaos”. Have there been times where the members experienced losing their way?

TAEMIN: I’ve always tried to view myself objectively, and sometimes it felt like a trap in an endless cave. Fortunately, I’ve had really wonderful people around me, who were my greatest source of strength. I’m not sure if I can be someone who can say uplifting words to others but when I feel overwhelmed, I take walks which clear my mind and this has helped me.

MINHO: I think it’s more accurate to say that there were moments when I felt uncertain rather than saying that I had lost my way. During those times, I always go back to my original aspirations and feelings to turn toward the direction I want to pursue.

As humans we’re constantly evolving; how have the members’ identities shifted since the release of ‘Don’t Call Me’ (2021), and how is this change reflected on ‘Hard’?

KEY: After ‘Don’t Call Me’, I’ve personally gained more confidence, and had the opportunity to experience many new things. With that said, I feel honoured and grateful to have received even more love.

TAEMIN: I decided to give myself a break and not to be so hard on myself. I wanted to focus more on the feelings of happiness and the positive energy that people give me from recognizing my work instead of contemplating what I’m lacking and overanalyzing my shortcomings. And because I was able to take a different approach and attitude toward this album, I was able to enjoy this promotion and feel more comfortable.

MINHO: I feel that we took another step forward through ‘Don’t Call Me’ and also showcased a new side to SHINee with our eighth full-length album. I do want to express that we haven’t changed after ‘Don’t Call Me’ – I’d word it that we’re continuously growing and evolving.

After 15 years, what – if anything – still makes you nervous as an artist?

MINHO: Anything that’s new to me always keeps me on my toes!

KEY: I think it’s a sense of stagnation. That’s why I always seek something new.

TAEMIN: The constant anticipation and expectations motivate me and heighten my expectations but, on the other hand, they can also be stressful. But this process is a significant part of my life, and the challenges make the sense of accomplishment I feel even greater.

Your documentary, My SHINee World is due out in September: What are the lingering feelings or sentiments you’ve gotten from working on this?

KEY: I felt that ‘SHINee has come a long way’ while working on this movie. If you watch it, you’ll be able to see and feel our most genuine and honest feelings.

MINHO: Our involvement in this movie was pretty significant, and you’ll be able to watch some of our most sincere interviews. We haven’t seen the final cut yet, so we’re really looking forward to it.

Upcoming film aside, if there was one moment in your SHINee careers that you could revisit in-person – just because it was so amazing you’d like to experience it again – what would it be?

MINHO: It feels like my answer will always be the same. It’s the concerts. I always want to experience the joy and emotions that I feel during them over and over again.

KEY: I think I’ll be happy whenever I go back on stage to our fans.

TAEMIN: The moments I want to relive are not only from our [stage] careers but I really do want to relive those small moments when the five of us would have meals, talk, and fall asleep together.

I watched videos taken from the latest concert – SHINee World VI – and could hear how much fans enjoyed your older tracks and watching you enjoy performing them. Recently, On MBC World’s I Live Alone, however, Key was looking back on the difficulties of performing such songs as four members, and I wondered when that feeling began to ease and the members grew to love performing their classics again.

ALL: Being SHINee allows us to share our past, present, and future vision together. Although it’s not always easy, we hope that those who watch our performances never feel a gap or emptiness. The unwavering support and love from our fans have been instrumental in helping us recover and strengthen our bond with them. We’re truly grateful and fortunate, and always genuinely wish for our voices to reach the skies and the heavens when we sing.

The older we get, the faster time seems to move: Is there a new or different sense of urgency around your ambitions? And how does this compare to the early days of SHINee when, perhaps, you felt like there was also so much to accomplish?

MINHO: It always feels like time flies so quickly! My ambitions may not be as big compared to the early days of our career, but my desire to protect SHINee and continue walking together on our path remains the same.

KEY: I can relate to the feeling that time flies faster but just because time goes by quickly doesn’t mean those moments disappear. My goal is to leave behind records and memories together with each passing time.

TAEMIN: I’ve achieved many of the things I’d aimed for and also experienced moments of wanting to give up. Going through numerous experiences and internal turmoil, I can see myself ageing, but the memories and records of us when we were young are vividly alive and preserved. So, personally, rather than a sense of urgency and ambition, I always want to do my best in the present and in this era.

The words ‘icons’ and ‘legends’ get thrown around too easily these days but SHINee really are both. Does it seem real for you, especially as you’re still an active, progressive group? Do you ever consider the band’s legacy and what you’d like that, ultimately, to be?

KEY: I believe that we’re currently shaping SHINee ourselves. I feel that it wasn’t wrong for us to try to create and shape our own path and, actually, I’m curious about where this journey will lead us to in the end.

MINHO: Rather than focusing on a specific end goal, we’ll always strive to fill our days with happiness alongside our members, staff, and our beloved fans. But I’m always grateful for the compliments we receive, and although it may feel challenging to live up to those descriptors, we’ll make it happen. 

TAEMIN: One of my juniors once said to me, ‘I feel like idols’ careers are extending because you continue to be active. Thank you.’ Hearing those words made me feel proud because it seems like we’re pioneering something, and when I see friends who consider me as their role model, it also helps me release all the built-up stress inside of me. Because of that, I feel a sense of motivation, I want to work even harder to inspire people, and I hope SHINee will be remembered as a group that continues to shine and remains in people’s hearts for generations to come.

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Words: Taylor Glasby
Photography: SM Entertainment