Gaya here: new SB staff member and new K-pop fan to boot.

I discovered it like a lot of  other new fans: through the internet. There I was, on a cold June day in 2011 (I live in Australia) on some random forum and someone posts a link with nothing more than a “hey, watch this!” Figuring I had nothing better to do, I clicked on this link and watched for the first time the performance version of SNSD’s Run Devil Run. I absolutely loved it: the dancing, the black and white sets, the brass section that kicked in at the chorus…though at one point I did ask my laptop in confusion/frustration just how many more people were going to be singing in this song.

That music video was soon followed by some more. I may have watched Hoot more times than I care to admit (I found ‘Choi Si Won‘ gorgeous, though I preferred the store clerk in Gee), but my interest was more on the casual side, and I was pretty certain that after a while I would just close that Youtube window and go back to the rest of my life, with nothing more than a tale to tell my friends about some pretty Asian girls who sang pretty songs.

And then I saw Lucifer.

I don’t know how to explain why I love this song so much; all I can say is that the first time I watched the music video, it felt like I was standing in front of a gale-force wind. One massive, one-note blast of music (and the discovery that the hot rapper dude and the cute store clerk were the one and the same) and I was hooked. Every new thing I discovered about K-Pop can be traced back to SHINee: music shows, variety shows (I’ve seen SHINee Hello Baby, of course), J-pop (this was more a rediscovery), K-Dramas — heck, even Seoulbeats — in six degrees or less.

Some of you may not be as enamored with SHINee as I am, but I’m sure everyone feels the same way. Everyone has experienced some kind of pull, something that attracted them to K-pop, be it a band, a song, a specific person in the industry. Anything. At first, it’s just that one thing, but then you start to branch out, and discover new and different things, and learn to see things that you thought you knew in a different light.

And I guess that’s how this segment got started: Seoulbeats Exchange is basically my effort to learn more about K-pop and to become a more informed fan. I pick a band I’m curious about and interrogate the senior SB writers (my fandom sunbaes, if you will) about them in order to augment my knowledge and thus create a more clued-up view of them in the context of the K-pop scene, which we share with you, and hopefully help inform some other newer fans to K-pop like myself.

And thus the first group of this week is SHINee.

SHINee seems to me a band blessed with talent: they have a high vocalist-to-member ratio, they specialize in complex choreography, and have amassed a large global fanbase. But what do my more senior K-pop fans make of them? I put forth my questions to Ree, Megan and Patricia:

Do you think SHINee will ever be able to shed the noona-bait image?

Ree: In some sense, I think SHINee already has. I think I’ve said this before, but the material SM has given SHINee (A.Mi.GoRing Ding Dong, Lucifer ect.) aren’t very… noona-bait to me. I think it’s the fans, and it’s some of their drives to continuously see the SHINee members (specifically Taemin) as young boys that’s really holding them back. There’s also the fact SHINee became about image and gimmick much too quickly. The noona-bait image SHINee has isn’t being fed by their company any more, but it’s something fans/public continuously push on them. So really it’s up to the fans and the public, I think you need to give them a few years… Or kick Taemin out of the group (I kid, I kid).

Megan:That depends entirely on whether or not Taemin loses his baby fat sometimes within a few years. For the most part, they’ve shed it, but every so often the stylists just default to the pastels when they can’t come up with anything better. It looks terrible, but I guess that’s what comes of creative exhaustion. That’s hardly an exclusively SHINee phenomenon, though. The Suju members are way past the teen years, yet sometimes they’ll also default to the fetal look.

Patricia: Well, Taemin’s legal now, so I don’t know how much their noona-bait image is still worth. In my opinion, SHINee’s noona-bait image was long gone by the time “Ring Ding Dong” was released, and they haven’t looked back since; even the Japanese remake of “Noona Neomu Yeppeo” was done in a more mature style compared to the original. Now, one has to wonder how SHINee will feel about performing “Noona Neomu Yeppeo” at their concerts when they’re 30.

Honestly speaking, SHINee’s noona pandering during their debut was a little bit offputting, but it was marketing genius and it played a huge part in building this current trend where more and more kids are debuting in their early teens. And that in itself could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing…but one thing’s for sure: there are plenty of new rookie groups out there boasting average ages between 14 and 16 that would probably be more worthy of the noona-bait title. From my observations, many of the ‘noona’ fans have moved onto BoyfriendB1A4, and other rainbow-spitting boy groups, while SHINee’s current fanbase are around the same age as the members themselves – late teens, early twenties. In that sense, it’s almost as if SHINee is growing up with their fans, and I think that concept is a lot easier to stomach than the noona-bait idea.

Jonghyun was recently voted the number 1 idol among the Korean gay population (le gasp: a poll Jaejoong DIDN’T WIN). What would you say is his appeal to this audience?

Ree: Jonghyun’s appeal… well he has a lot of appeal. I’m in the minority that loves him and his over singing ways, he’s also a good talker (too much of a talker depending on how you look at it). But I really can’t see how he’s more appealing to the LGBT audience more so than anyone else. (On another note though, Korea acknowledging their gay population? Say what?)

Megan:I think Jonghyun is like the sexiest dude alive, so hell yeah I think he has appeal. He’s one of a grand total of three dudes in K-pop that I find legitimately attractive. His voice is gorgeous, his face is gorgeous…I could go on and on. As far as appeal to the gay community goes….well, as far as persona goes, he comes off as a liberal sort of fellow, not to mention comfortable and fluid in his sexuality. I could see how people might pick up on that and appreciate it, and perhaps find it refreshing, especially in a culture that generally restrictive on the concept of sex, sexuality, and sex appeal.

 Patricia: I think you’d have to ask a gay man if you’re looking for a response to that question that reaches beyond speculation. But Jonghyun does have a lot of fanboys, gay and straight alike, and I think there’s something appealing about him that exceeds the scope of hormonal fangirlism. He’s not the best-looking guy in the bunch, but he has a lot of charisma both on and off the stage and he comes across as being very genuine and sincere. He’s got a real obvious passion for music and a life apart from idoldom, which I find to be very admirable. Generally speaking, I think Jonghyun is a really likable person amongst people of all genders and sexualities, and the fact that he was voted the most popular idol among the Korean gay population seems to just demonstrate the breadth of his appeal.

Do you know how we can get Key’s voice back to the way it was at debut? 

Ree: This, I really have no idea. He sounds fine in the studio, but that’s a given, like everyone sounds fine in studio (except Yoochun these days it seems). He sounds especially beautiful on The First, and I was watching one of their live performances in Japan and he sounded decent enough. Then he comes back to Korea to do Hello and it’s… urgh. One of my friends told me that Key is just being a lazy singer, if that’s the case… I guess he should just stop being lazy? That being said, I actually hope it ISN’T lazy singing, because that’s horrendously unprofessional and at the moment I like Key quite a lot (second favourite after Onew), and I don’t really want to not like him.

Megan: Give him more time in the spotlight, so he’s forced to practice more. Ever since Taemin and Minho picked up their slack, SM has been letting Key sort of languish. He’ll shake his booty to girl group dances, but his parts in SHINee’s songs have definitely been pared down quite a bit from what they used to be. No wonder he’s getting rusty! There’s no opportunity for him to do anything.

Patricia:  I wish. I don’t think Key was an amazing singer even when he debuted, but he certainly didn’t suck as badly as he does now. His live performances remind me of Rihanna…and that’s a cause for concern. Key comes across to me as being a very unfocused singer, and he seems to be more interested in creating a performance than demonstrating his skill. He’s done a really great job of the former in the past two years or so (no one does Ke$ha quite like this kid), and I think he’s realized that performance really is his niche, but in doing so, he’s lost focus on training his vocal abilities and other basic skills. I think it’d be really great if he spent some time practicing some songs that fit his voice rather than his personality. Key’s passion seems to lie more in entertainment than in music, but he needs to know that skill is just as important as execution.

SHINee’s performance at the Kpop Masters in Las Vegas was criticised by some for being too robotronic robotic; but considering SHINee hasn’t released any original Korean material for more than a year, some staleness would not be unexpected. Any suggestions on how they could spice up their performances to make them more interesting for themselves as well as the audience?

Ree:  I’m going to go ahead and say I don’t see anything… wrong with their performances. Then again, I follow KARA, so just being able to hold a tune live is 1000+ for me. But I think what they could do is loosen up a bit, have some fun, some audience interaction would be good too. For me, the best performer amongst them is Jonghyun, and I think that’s because he lets go and he’s so into his singing it’s like… dude whoa. Other than that, the easiest way to spice up a performance is to play around with the stage production and/or remix the song. SHINee can be as into a performance as much as they want, but seeing the same song performed over and over again is going to get a tad tedious no matter what. So really, the simple and first thing to do is play around with the stage production and the song. Like that Lucifer live with TRAX playing with them was one of my favourites of all time. Bring that back! And put Jonghyun back in that cage. Heck, put all of them in cages! Give Taemin a whip again and– okay, you get what I mean.

Megan: They need to let SHINee cut loose as performers a bit if they want them to be interesting. They all look caged in, like they could put on a hell of a show but are too restricted by choreographers orders or fear of screwing up or whatever. Perhaps they could take a cue from Jonghyun, like Ree said. The man is just letting it all out there when he sings. He might be ripping his vocal chords, sure, but he’s putting every ounce of his being into it. In other words: cut back on the polish. Do some improv bits, change up the routine, don’t be afraid to interact with the crowd.

Patricia: SHINee has been robotic since the very beginning. Their greatest appeal was the fact that everything they did was perfect and mechanical. SHINee did a dance cover of Usher’s “Run It” back when they first debuted and the performance in itself was completely void of emotion, but it blew people away simply because of how precise it was. Frankly speaking, debut-era SHINee was completely robotic, completely ‘spice-less,’ but completely un-stale because of how sharp they were.

Since then, however, SHINee’s lost their edge and their performance precision has gone way down, and the fact that the majority of the members aren’t engaging performers makes the entire group come across as being rather stale and boring. After their popularity started rising, SHINee began investing more time in the variety circuit rather than their performance — and in this K-pop day and age, one has to stay in the variety circuit in order to continue one’s idol career. But the cost of this came at their performance quality. I think SHINee hit rock bottom around early 2011, and it wasn’t until they went to Japan that their performance skill started to regenerate itself. Why? Because all they did in Japan was practice. There were no variety shows to prepare for, no acting gigs, none of that “idol” stuff SHINee had to deal with while they were in Korea. SHINee hasn’t done a ton of performances on Japanese TV, but the ones they have done show overwhelming improvement from their late 2010/early 2011 performances in Korea.

I don’t think SHINee can or should “add” anything to their performances apart from sheer skill and practice — as a group, SHINee just doesn’t have that kind of natural charisma and any attempts to replicate it would come across as being fake and gimmicky. What SHINee can do, however, is pull off performances that are ridiculously in-sync — and if they can regain that kind of performance skill, then I can guarantee you their performances will be that much more exciting to watch.

Say something nice about Choi Minho!

Ree: He’s really competitive I guess? And good looking. He’s also bros with DonghaeKyuhyun, and Changmin, so maybe awesome/talent by association?

Megan: He’s incredibly earnest. Whatever he does, whether it be singing or dancing or MCing, even if he isn’t the best at it, he’s definitely trying to be the best, instead of getting all complacent. You can see it in his eyes, he’s trying so hard, sometimes.

Patricia: This question is really hard to answer…and Minho is my favorite member. What do you say about a tall, gangly kid who seems to have no passions apart from winning? Oh, right — he’s good with kids.

Sum SHINee up in one sentence:

Ree: SHINee is very talented, but as a group they’ve been pretty much stagnant since debut despite individual improvement.

Megan: Talented but completely mis-marketed.

Patricia: They were perfect before the K-pop Machine ruined them.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SM artists are commonly labelled as being too perfect and automated, and SHINee is no exception. As for their charm on stage, I like to think of SHINee as being like a Christopher Nolan film: technically flawless, but missing a little something in the emotion department. I’m thinking that this is something that will come to them with more experience, both on and off-stage.

Overall, it seems that SHINee is a talented group with real potential, and that their shtick should be more along the lines of being a highly skilled unit that relies on its talents for its success rather than wearing pastel denim — and it’s only when they (and SM) realize this that SHINee can grow to the level where they can actually realize their aforementioned potential.

What do you guys think about SHINee?