How K-Pop Group SHINee Turned Idols Into Artists

CW: mention of death

Let me set the scene. It’s 2008 in Seoul and 5 teenage boys have just taken to the stage to perform their debut track Replay. Despite the lack of promotion from their company, K-pop group SHINee took South Korea by storm and, for months, you could not escape their upbeat single. What was coming next from SHINee was anticipated by all of the public. 

Fastforwarding 13 years, SHINee continue to release best-selling albums, whether that is as a group or through their solo endeavours. With the rapid popularity growth of BTS in the west, SHINee’s impact as a revolutionary group is now often overshadowed. Therefore, for those who are new to the world of Korean pop music and may have only heard of BTS or BLACKPINK, I would like to detail how SHINee helped to turn idols into respected artists. 

As a group, their discography ranges from R&B and deep house to funk rock and pop. It is no lie when someone says that SHINee has music for everyone. From the group’s all-rounder, Kim Kibum’s preppy pop solo album FACE or leader Lee Jinki’s ballad based album VOICE, the members are successful as individuals and somehow, their seemingly separate styles blend perfectly together to create a cohesive band. 

For many years, Korean companies would usually have external producers and composers create songs for their groups, who would just be used almost as figureheads to promote the songs and earn money. Idols in the past were used just to promote the brand that was manufactured solely by the company. However, for SHINee, the members are the brand. Main vocalist Kim Jonghyun’s extensive solo and group activities only further proves this. Jonghyun’s artistic handle on the group’s music composition and his own projects highlights the importance of SHINee’s existence in the movement from being idols to artists. From writing songs for other artists to experimenting with his albums, Jonghyun’s music is completely his own. This artistic freedom had rarely been seen within the world of K-pop but nowadays, it is a valued characteristic of new groups, with more fans wanting to see groups creating their own music rather than singing overly impersonal songs. 

Jonghyun’s talents can also be seen in youngest member Lee Taemin’s own work. Debuting at the age of 14, the Korean public has watched Taemin grow from being a shy idol into a diverse and dramatic artist. Taemin takes extreme care in the details of all of his albums, from complex choreography to concepts and lyrics. Taemin worked his way up to being one of the most respected artists in the industry, known not only to fans but to those who are just casual listeners of the music and is often quoted as being an inspiration to many young dancers and singers. It is often hard to get through an interview with other Korean groups without hearing SHINee or Taemin being mentioned at least once. 

With all this praise for Jonghyun and Taemin, it is important to highlight the fact that all members take part in composing and writing songs for the group. For SHINee’s latest release, Atlantis, rapper Choi Minho devised the song Area using lyrics from the group’s previous songs. And SHINee’s talents do not just stop at their musical abilities. Kibum often partakes in the designing of the group’s stage outfits to be certain that all aspects of their concepts flawlessly match to construct completely coherent visual performances. 

After the tragic loss of Kim Jonghyun in late 2017, the group’s future was extremely uncertain. However, thanks to the guidance from Jonghyun’s mother, the remaining 4 members carried on to produce their 10th anniversary album The Story of Light and used this as a way to pay homage to their late member by basing the album’s first single around one of his favourite books, Le Petit Prince. Jonghyun’s final album, which was released posthumously, is a constant reminder that Jonghyun will always be with his members and fans. 

Overall, SHINee’s professionalism and various talents helped to give Korean groups more respect in the world of music. From being the original trendsetters in music and fashion, SHINee’s impact on the Korean music industry is one that will forever mark fans and non-fans alike. Their capacity to maintain a strong fan base despite being extremely experimental artists is a testament to their likability. My hopes for SHINee’s future is that they continue to create music that they love and follow avenues that may not have explored before. In spite of the stigma that surrounds K-pop as a whole, SHINee has been able to break the standard of what it means to be an artist.

Image courtsey of Oğuz Şerbetci.

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