We’re back again with another SB Exchange, featuring none other than K-pop veterans, Shinhwa!

The first I heard of Shinhwa was in the phrase “Shinhwa’s Eric“: at the time I got into K-pop, there was quite a lot of buzz around Eric Mun, leader of Shinhwa, who was reportedly set to make his K-drama comeback after being discharged from the army with the lead role in Poseidon; that fell through though, and he ended up instead in Spy Myung-wol, a drama memorable for all the wrong reasonsBut it was Seoulbeats itself that properly introduced me to Shinhwa with this article; in addition to being my first time reading about members other than Eric, it was the first time I’d heard of  the conscription system in  South Korea. It seemed that idols coming back after their two years’ military service was somewhat of a rarity, and that to comeback as a full group was even rarer. And yet, here Shinhwa was, making the announcement while one member was still in the army; March was a long way away, and I honestly forgot all about Shinhwa until they made their comeback with their 10th album The Return.

Shinhwa may have gained many new fans with this latest comeback, but I decided to talk to some of our staff members who have been familiar with Eric, Min-woo, Dong-wan, Hye-sung, Jun Jin and Andy for a while, namely Young-Ji, Jessie and Justin.

1. So we know how I found out about Shinhwa: how did you discover Shinhwa?

Young-Ji: I “discovered” Shinhwa when they debuted way back in the late 90s during my high school years.  I was already on the SM bandwagon because of H.O.T and when another group debuted under the label, I had to check them out–but they were never my go-to band, despite the how hot Eric was, for I was preoccupied with H.O.T and Fly to the Sky.

Jessie: I actually discovered Shinhwa through Eric as well, although from watching him in the K-drama Que Sera Sera which was my first drama, and so the group became my introduction to K-pop. I basically learned the ins and outs of the genre thanks to this group from the structure of the groups, to the importance of variety shows and even about the Korean military, considering Eric and Kim Dong-wan were already enlisted by the time I found the group. For a while they were my “go-to” group, however as more and more of the members went off to serve their country I moved on to other groups that I found by association. Watching Andy on WGM led me to Kim Hyun-joong and the rest of SS501, while their regular appearances on X-man made me fall in love with that show and subsequently DBSK.

Justin: I discovered Shinhwa by coincidence. Back when I would watch Korean shows, I would watch them by VHS (I know I’m dating myself).  I watched the award ceremony for other artists like Koyote and G.O.D , but Shinhwa just happened to be there performing “Wild Eyes.” I was impressed with all the chair dancing and the flip was pretty cool, but the “If you want a winner (weiner)” part cracked me up, and it still cracks me up to this day.
2. What are your thoughts on their musical growth over the years? How have they been able to adapt to an everchanging environment?

Young-Ji: I don’t think Shinhwa really developed musically since their debut — despite the solo attempts, their music sounded pretty much the same to me, which is pop.  Shin Hye-sung did dabble with ballad with his two other friends, Kangta and Lee Ji-hoon, but then again, I feel like his music didn’t stray away from the run of the mill ballads that we usually hear from popular groups these days.  And their latest title track, “Venus” wasn’t that different from what they were doing in the past.  Personally, given their age and tenure within K-pop, I expected more from their long anticipated comeback and wasn’t too impressed with their music.  What I do appreciate however is their variety show–they are definitely more laid back and comfortable with themselves, which only comes with age and confidence.

 Jessie: While Young-Ji is correct that their music is pop and has always been pop, I do have to disagree with meaning that they didn’t develop musically through their career. They may not have branched out and stretched the limits of pop, but they were always able to adapt to changes in pop music itself over the years. Their singles generally represent the sound of K-pop at the time they were released to the point were you can basically start with “Resolver” and listen to their singles all the way up to “Venus” and have a history lesson along the way. So while they may not have been K-pop revolutionaries, I think the fact that they were consistently able to conform and remain relevant for so long in such a disposable industry indicates some level of maturation through music. If their music all still sounded like “Eusha! Eusha!” no one would be listening.

Justin: Obviously as you get older in the entertainment industry you get more knowledge (for the most part), so Shinhwa has grown musically and mentally, but their music is relatively simple in a good way.They don’t have all the glitz and glam, but their style of music is consistently good.  The reason that they have been able to adapt to an everchanging environment is that they have their own identity, and they also find various ways to stay relevant. Each of the members have their own distinct personalities: Min-woo is the playboy, Hye-sung is the shy one, Eric is 4D, etc.. They don’t try to fake who they are, and instead they are true to themselves musically and personally.
3. When Shinhwa left SM Entertainment, how big of a deal was it? What were the effects of that event on the rest of the industry?

Young-Ji: If memory serves me right, Shinhwa left SM after H.O.T disbanded, and at that point, I pretty much lost all interest in boybands, for college life was definitely more interesting than following boy bands and I was just a casual observer at that point, so I can’t recall if it was a big deal or not.  Personally for me, it wasn’t a big deal at all and if someone were to tell me that Shinhwa would make it until now at that time, I probably would’ve laughed at their faces because the idea that “Shinhwa may be the longest running boyband” never crossed my mind.

Justin: Honestly I don’t remember it being such a big deal since apparently Shinhwa left on good terms. No one was really hurting at that point. SM debuted their cash cow, DBSK, so SM was occupied with them, and Shinhwa moved to Good Entertainment and continued activities. Along with not being a big deal I think there wasn’t really or any effects of that event. Of course there will be some overdramatic fans that say it was such a huge deal on the industry, but the K-pop music industry quickly moved on to other things.
4. What was it about Shinhwa that allowed the boyband to stay intact for so long?

Justin: Bromance. I think this group started the whole bromance thing, and it was because of bromance (and possibly money) that has allowed this group to stay intact for so long. I mean, in most (if not all) shows, you see blatant examples of bromance. They hug, caress, kiss, etc… Along with being friendly with each other, they are honest to and about each other. They party, they smoke, and they drink, but they aren’t making any excuses about it. They just like to have fun hanging out with each other, and aren’t afraid to show it. With idol groups today, it’s a little harder to have the freedoms that Shinhwa has, so it’s harder to relax.

Young-Ji: I think Shinhwa’s longevity is the direct result of a selfless leader and great group dynamics.  I think debuting as the second H.O.T under SM allowed the group members to bond on a level that you don’t normally see in groups.  Not only are they brutally honest yet caring with each other, but they also partied like no other boy band, which also probably allowed them to develop those bonds.  In addition to the group dynamics, Eric definitely played the biggest role in making sure that this group stayed intact — he was the one who proposed that they create the company together and he was the one who made it happen.  The way I see it, Eric certainly doesn’t need Shinhwa but the rest of Shinhwa certainly needs Eric yet at no point did Eric take advantage of this critical reality.  Instead, he used everything in his power to make sure that the group stays together until now.

Jessie: I have to agree with pretty much everything Young-Ji had to say about this. Eric is the key factor in this group remaining whole after all of these years. He definitely had the opportunity to move on leave the rest of the members in the dust, but he put the group before himself and his own gains. I think the fact that all members now have their own management companies that allow for their solo activities helps as well because they all have someone looking out for their best interests and promoting them individually, so that they aren’t like a group under one company where the company decides who is important and worth pushing to the public; each member is free to pursue their own interests in music, acting and producing or nothing at all if they choose. An arrangement like this would definitely alleviate any  tension or animosity that could arise from a company playing favorites, and they only have to be as active as they want to be. It makes it so that being a member of Shinhwa is less of a constraint, but more of a title they can carry with honor. 

5. The members have each been pursuing their own solo activities for a while now; do you think that continung to expend effort into group activities is a good idea?

Justin:   I don’t see why it would be a bad idea, it’s not like they will be doing group activities non-stop. They have the freedom to produce music together as Shinhwa when they feel like it, and it’s not that much of a hindrance to their solo careers. In fact it would probably help their solo careers if anything because it will reestablish their names in the industry.

Jessie: I think only good things can come from group activities. Considering half of them are fresh from the military, it is an easy way to put them back into the spotlight which gives any of their solo activities and extra push. I think it is also important, because they did make a promise to their fans to stay together and make this comeback. Since they held up their end of the bargain, long time fans will support them and they will pick up new fans along the way that will support their solo activities, too.

Young-Ji: None of the solo activities were that successful and although the members may think that whatever success they experienced was attributed to their talent, I strongly believe that the solo acts were benefiting from the Shinhwa halo effect and that halo effect was slowly diminishing because the members were not able to stand on their own — other than Eric.  And this is precisely the reason why I think coming back as Shinhwa will benefit not only the group but their solo careers more.  Despite their lackluster music, they are back in the limelight and media and fans are willing to give them the attention they are looking for.  I guess the short answer is yes, coming back as Shinhwa was the best idea ever.

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As any first-born child would know, they are the experimental guinea pigs for parents, who start off clueless and learn the art of child rearing as they go. When subsequent children are born, they are spared the ignomy of being the test subject for various nappy brands or baby foods and receive the good stuff right away, and will overall benefit from the experience their parents have gained from raising their elder sibling. This would have been what Shinhwa gained when they debuted in 1998: SM’s newfound experience with making hits out of boybands following their success with H.O.T. But the shadow of H.O.T seemed to loom over them as accusations of copycatting reportedly almost lead to Shinhwa’s disbandment. Luckily, they didn’t yield, and following the success of the second album T.O.P, they managed to cement their place in SM’s line-up, and over time in the wider K-pop realm as well. One benefit of their debut though was that less attention was paid to them, which would have made the partying mentioned above even easier to happen–another benefit of being a younger sibling.

There seem to be a number of factors contributing to Shinhwa’s continued success as a group. The most important one is definitely the members’ relationships with each other, as this forms the base on which everything else rests. This personal connection has also strengthened their business decisions, from creating their own individual agencies and Shinhwa Company, as well as artistic decisions like a move to a more mature look and sound. That, for me, is something to be appreciated–accepting that they cannot go back and forth with the maturity of their concepts, and taking advantage of their age to explore darker themes and more mature concepts, like in “Run” and “Venus” respectively; and because they’re men, not boys, these concepts are able to be executed convincingly.

As for their music, I have to admit that I love it–watching their MVs was like watching and listing to every single ’90s boyband song that I had never had the chance to experience due to  my parents’ ban on English music, which I think is part of the appeal–it still sounds fresh to me,  yet also familiar thanks to that ’90s vibe one gets. It’s not necessarily visionary or mind-blowing (though I think the vampire concept may be becoming a trend), but it gets the job done. Shinhwa may not be versatile musically, but it knows what it does best and sticks to it. And “Venus” is my jam right now–I especially love their live stages, where they are still able to hold their own amongst the sea of young faces. They’ve definitely managed to put themselves back on the map, and I for one am greatly anticipating their next move. And in the meantime, I intend on getting to know their non-promotional material, too.

What are your thoughts on Shinhwa? Do you think they’re better off as a group, or should they concentrate on their solo careers? And do you have any song recommendations for me? Leave your comments below!

(MBC, Shinhwa Company, SM Entertainment)