When he debuted as the maknae of Shinee over a decade ago, Taemin quickly became known for his youth and effeminate looks as much as his impressive dance skills. However, over the last six years, he has pursued a solo career that has not only proven his vocal capabilities, but his maturity. Indeed, his career is a long list of hits that lean more and more towards the dark, the sexual, the seductive, and the intersection of all three. In all honesty, Taemin is one of the most adult artists working in the K-pop mainstream, in the XXX sense of the word.
However, he has always remained a performer at the core, the strength of his career built on his ability to convey emotion over technical singing. And one of the emotions he absolutely kills on is vulnerability. While his singles have tended towards cool and confident, Taemin’s back catalogue is littered with some of the most heartbreaking tracks of the 2010s.
A track from his first album Press It, “Soldier” is a plea for a second chance. Taemin messed up and is outright begging for the chance to be a better partner. The choice to describe himself as a soldier gives a powerful visual — soldiers, at their core, obey orders. He is offering to give up everything of himself, his needs, and his wants in order to serve the woman he loves, to give her everything. The instrumentation is a piano ballad, filled out with percussion and some light synths, but mostly resting on a few sparse piano bars and Taemin’s gut-wrenching performance of tear-choked agony.
In contrast, there is “Back To You” from Move. This is another attempt of Taemin to reignite an old relationship, but rather than slavish devotion, here he offers communication and understanding. He wants to know how he failed and what improvements he can make to win this girl back. Yet, the harshly plucked acoustic guitar conveys a sense of wistful hopelessness. Taemin wants to get back with her, wants the world she showed him, wants out of the endless misery and apathy he is trapped in without her, but the resignation in his voice makes it clear he knows that will not happen. He knows it’s over, he just needs to hear the words.
Then there’s “Shadow”, from his second EP, Want. Instead of baring his soul in an attempt to repair a broken relationship, “Shadow” is introspective. This elegant orchestral piece is his self-flagellation. His past relationship is haunting him, as shown by the female backing vocals. She keeps reappearing despite his best efforts to move on and he is desperate to pinpoint what about him is keeping this girl in his thoughts despite Taemin’s best efforts in his conscious mind to banish her. He is cutting open his desires for his own perusal; an endeavor at self-discovery.
His internal openness is carried through on Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 1. “Strangers” details the moment when you run into an ex again. While the younger Taemin would long to reunite with his lost love, the more mature Taemin accepts that things are over, and that he and his ex, are for all practical purposes, strangers.
Like a mistake, our gazes met
But we know that we won’t hold onto each other
As if you didn’t know me, you pass by
Cause you and I are strangers with memories
Taemin’s delicate falsetto plays against the mournful instrumentation. The richly layered synths allow his vocals to reverberate through the song before picking up in the chorus to let a sliver of resentment show through. Overall though, Taemin is open about the present state of the relationship, bitter but primarily at peace.
It is on Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 2 that we see Taemin open himself to a partner for the first time. Before, he was willing to lay himself bare, but after a relationship imploded. On “Be Your Enemy”, we see him open up to a partner before things fall apart.
I’ll be your enemy enemy
The words, words that bother your night
When you come back to me, warmly, warmly
I will comfort you, it’s okay, everything’s okay
He offers himself up to his partner, personified by Wendy of Red Velvet. Whatever role she needs from him, he is willing to play it, in order to ensure her emotional needs are met. Another acoustic guitar piece, it serves as a mirror to “Back To You”. While before, he offered to do anything, be anything, in order to salvage an already-ended relationship, here, Taemin is being proactive, understanding the emotional labor that is needed for a relationship to thrive.
On Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 2, we see Taemin’s growth as a person come full circle. The penultimate track, “I Think It’s Love”, shows him just as open and devoted as he started out. However, the life experience between his obsessive beginning and his current relationship has tempered those impulses. Rather than desperate and pleading, this is Taemin satisfied and happy. He is no longer using vulnerability as a method of fixing an already-failed relationship, but sees his ability to be open as proof of this relationship’s stability and health. The pounding beats and intense synths carry that sense of satisfaction, as rather than letting Taemin’s heartbreak overwhelm, leaving space for the pain, it feels complete, as if he has filled the holes in his heart, and thus, his music.
Taemin has had a long and varied career, containing multitudes of songs and perspectives. His vulnerability is one of his most interesting, showing his emotional growth as he matured, shifting from a method of coping with a failed relationship to way to ensure his current one succeeds.
(Images via SM Entertainment, YouTube)