K-pop is trendy. It goes wherever the wind blows, and is responsible for creating its fair share of crazes. The upside of this is that K-pop is always evolving. The downside is that it can age quickly and poorly. Countless songs have enjoyed brief moments in the sun, and then tumbled down into irrelevance. Entire groups have followed the same trajectory.
Sechskies have beaten the odds. Debuting in 1997 under DSP Entertainment, their intense rivalry with H.O.T. is credited with creating K-pop fandom as we know it. Like several other first generation groups, they abruptly disbanded at the peak of their fame. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they came back, after a whopping 16 year hiatus.
In their new, now four-member incarnation, Sechskies have proven to be reliably popular and commercially successful. They have accomplished this by adhering to a somewhat contradictory two-pronged strategy. Firstly, they have adapted to new times, shifting their musical and aesthetic style to suit 21st century tastes. Secondly, they have not changed at all. Indeed, Sechskies have leaned into their veteran status, harnessing the power of nostalgia to achieve their striking career revitalization. No track demonstrates this better than “Couple”.
Released 22 years ago this month, “Couple” is Sechskies’ signature tune and biggest hit. It is a simple love song with enduring appeal. As Sechskies have lost members and evolved to match modern audiences’ preferences, “Couple” has gone through several variations. The most notable versions are the 1998 original and the 2016 remake.
One of the more amusing chapters in Sechskies’ history is their movie, Seventeen. To be clear, Seventeen is not a documentary. Rather, it is a full-fledged, fictional, coming of age extravaganza. It was unleashed on theaters in July of 1998.
Three months later, Sechskies put out Special Album, the soundtrack for Seventeen. “Couple” was one of two promoted tracks. It became an immediate success, propelling Sechskies to new heights, and garnering them a slew of end of year awards.
“Couple” 1998 is a song that screams first-generation. The production is spare and twinkly. The vocals are often, to put it kindly, a bit pitchy. There is a soft spoken word section that is so wrong, it is sort of right.
The MV is also very ’90s. It combines candid footage of the members with uncomfortably tight close-ups of them earnestly singing. Viewed today, it is lovably old-fashioned. Still, you might be left wondering why exactly “Couple” was such a smash hit. That is, until the soaring hook arrives.
The chorus of “Couple” encapsulates the song’s best qualities. It has the kind of melody that is destined to get stuck in your head, but you won’t be bitter about it. The hook’s bright mood is too contagious to allow for irritation. It also plays host to the most adorable section of the track’s absurdly bouncy choreography. Best of all, the chorus’ disarming sweetness is tempered with a touch of melancholy:
Oh love, why did you come now?
To me, who was so lonely?
Oh love, I love you
Now be with me all the time
Even in its 1998 form, “Couple” has undeniable charm. However, audiences would have to wait until 2016 for a remake that would showcase the song’s appeal in a way that is accessible to modern listeners.
In the meantime, Sechskies broke up and went their separate ways. From 2000 to 2016, the members separately pursued musical careers and business ventures, with varying degrees of success. From an entertainment industry perspective, the most significant occurrences were the brief success of Suwon and Jaeduck’s duo J-Walk, and leader Jiwon’s ascend to variety stardom. In many ways though, Sechskies’ story seemed like it was over.
Then a little show called Infinite Challenge swooped in and reunited the group. After the success of their televised revival, Sechskies signed with YG Entertainment, with one important caveat: member Jiyong would not be returning. He would go on to achieve a very different kind of recognition, as the father of the beloved Seungjae on Return of Superman.
In December 2016, Sechskies came back after 16 years away from the limelight. And in a genuinely brilliant move, they did it with an album of reworked hits, the aptly title 2016 Re-Album. An updated version of “Couple” was the title track.
The differences between “Couple” 1998 and “Couple” 2016 illustrate the huge evolution K-pop underwent in that time gap. “Couple” 2016 removes the original’s kitschy production flourishes. Parts are restructured for five members instead of six, and to meet current industry standards, Sechskies noticeably improved their collective vocal quality. Even with all the adjustments, the song doesn’t feel pieced together. It is a harmonious musical redo.
If the MV for “Couple” 1998 is rustic, “Couple” 2016’s is almost overly polished. Sechskies spend blissful time with their beloveds in winter settings so picturesque, they look photoshopped. The MV effectively situates the group in the contemporary K-pop landscape. However, its unsophisticated cheesiness fails to do justice to the sweet vulnerability of “Couple”.
Despite the notable changes, much remains the same in “Couple” 2016. For instance, while the choreography is modernized, its iconic chorus section is largely unaltered. More importantly, the entire dance maintains the almost childlike charm of the original. This same pattern applies to much of “Couple” 2016. Technical details are different, but in spirit, “Couple” 2016 is virtually identical to “Couple” 1998. The result is a remake that simultaneously satisfies modern tastes and capitalizes on the power of nostalgia.
This tactic served Sechskies well. “Couple” 2016 and the entire 2016 Re-Album performed well on domestic charts, successfully relaunching the group’s career. Sechskies continue to demonstrate their adaptability and deft harnessing of public sentimentality. This one-two punch has proven itself to be both consistently effective and shockingly resilient.
In 2018, member Sunghoon caused a series of scandals involving fraud and lookism. This led to his withdrawal from Sechskies. Sunghoon’s departure posed a number of challenges for the group. For one, his controversies generated negative publicity. Additionally, Sunghoon’s crystal clear vocals were crucial to Sechskies’ sound. He had delivered most of their choruses, including the iconic hook of “Couple”. What would Sechskies’ future look like as four?
As it turns out, as bright as ever. Sechskies’ reputation was practically untouched by Sunghoon’s troubles. Their status as respected veterans allowed them to smoothly weather a gossip frenzy that might have felled many other groups. During a string of near-apocalyptic YG scandals in 2019, Sechskies again demonstrated the influence of nostalgia on even that most judgmental of populations, netizens. They safely sailed through the rockiest of waters, this despite the fact that member Jaejin is related to Yang Hyun-suk himself by marriage.
Musically, Sechskies have showed impressive adaptability in their four-member incarnation. Each individual has stepped up vocally to cover the holes left by Sunghoon’s absence, particularly Suwon and the formerly rap-focused Jiwon. In a 2020 performance on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook, Sechskies croon their way through “Couple” and other throwback hits with relaxed professionalism. Thanks to their unlabored performance, you would never know that the songs they are presenting are twice-restructured remakes.
In their post-2016 Re-Album releases, Sechskies have continued to balance nostalgia with modernity, to excellent effect. A particularly nice example is their most recent comeback, the delightful “All For You”. Their public personas also straddle the line between hip and endearingly old school. In 2020, Sechskies starred in a YouTube variety series from the creators of the wildly popular New Journey to the West (Jiwon is a regular cast member of New Journey to the West). Even as they featured in a digital show, the members gave off clear grandpa vibes, yielding a wonderfully comedic experience.
More than twenty years into their truly unique career, Sechskies have found their groove. By melding nostalgia with adaptability, they have set themselves up for success for years to come. “Couple” is a prime example of this, and will probably continue to be the group’s most recognizable and beloved tune.
However, Sechskies have a lot more to offer than just one great songs with two great versions. Not least, they provide a potential blueprint for longevity in K-pop. Alongside other veteran groups like Shinhwa, Brown Eyed Girls, and Super Junior, Sechskies serve as a beacon of hope for young acts. By continuing to survive and thrive, Sechskies show their juniors that a decades-long career may not be probable, but it is absolutely possible.
(Naver, Newsen, YouTube. Lyrics via Popgasa. Images via DSP Entertainment, YG Entertainment)