The death of Kim Jong-hyun of South Korean boyband SHINee marks, if not definitely the end, then a crushing blow to one of the country’s most enduring pop outfits. With their earnest, keeningly romantic songs, paired with immaculate choreography, SHINee marked the apotheosis of their country’s boyband craft.
While in the west there have only been a handful of successful boybands in recent years, in Korea and Japan – where SHINee also had a huge following, leading to a string of Japanese-language albums – the appetite for ultra-emotional ballads and energetic dance tracks, performed by impossibly beautiful and well-drilled young men, is apparently insatiable.
K-pop fandom is obsessive, and fans openly rank their favourite members; bands are sometimes created as the result of reality TV competitions, an example being new eight-piece IN2IT, freshly minted from a 27-strong boyband called Boys24 being whittled down. SHINee are part of a generation who have had this fandom weaponised by social media – the most tweeted-about celebrities on Twitter worldwide in 2017 were not Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber, but Korean boyband BTS.
To western eyes, some of SHINee’s aesthetics may seem corny. Anglophone boybands from the Simon Cowell stable, such as One Direction and now Rak-Su and Pretty Much, are less given to synchronised dance moves and more to impetuous boisterousness. Not so SHINee, whose smooth, nimble-shouldered take on hip-hop dance is reminiscent of 1990s US giants such as Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. Their songs, meanwhile, cleave to pretty safe boyband production staples: predominantly light, fluffy disco-funk tracks, with occasional forays into gnarly pop-rock and gauzy alt-R&B.
But even if their choreography and songcraft has precedent, their fashion sense is absolutely contemporary. Often shaped by designer Ha Sang Beg, sharp-edged dance tracks are met with even sharper tailoring, while more relaxed songs prompt gloriously clashing streetwear.
The band formed in 2008, manufactured by Korean music industry behemoth SM Entertainment, the company behind successes such as girl band Girls Generation, solo singers Kangta and BoA, and, of course, numerous other boybands: TVXQ!, Super Junior, HOT and more.
Even accounting for a recent break, as member Taemin released a solo record, SHINee are a rare case of a band reaching a decade in the business; K- and J-pop can have a ruthless, disposable feel. The managers of Japanese girl band AKB48 – whose members number up to 130 and are voted in and out by the public – were criticised in 2013 after one member, Minami Minegishi, filmed herself shaving her head in penitence for spending a night with her boyfriend, contravening a no-dating rule for the group’s members.
Artists in both territories are often signed up to draconian contracts in their early teens, keeping them tied to specific management companies, such as SM Entertainment. They train in a competitive environment alongside other potential stars, with only the best “idols” making it into the manufactured bands. As well as the aforementioned dating rules, band members’ diets are closely monitored. In 2012, girl group Nine Muses revealed their “paper cup diet”, where their meals had to fit inside a tiny paper cup.
After TVXQ! took their management company to court for keeping them in a 13-year contract, a 2008 ruling brought in more standardised contracts and a seven-year limit to their length. But there are arguments that the rules don’t go far enough and can be circumvented – one agency spokesperson told the Korea Times that only 40% of management agencies use the standardised contracts, leaving musicians open to exploitation.
Even under standard contracts, if a band member wants to leave early, they have to pay the company a fee based on projected profits for the remainder of the contract. Two Chinese members of SM-managed K-pop boy band EXO left the group in 2014, citing wage disputes and brutal work schedules; EXO’s band members have been made to perform during illness and dance while recovering from injury. The threat of conscription to the army is another stress – even one of the country’s biggest stars, G-Dragon, has been called up and will begin in 2018, knocking a two-year hole in his music career.
The lockstep perfection of SHINee’s dance routines is undeniably thrilling – but there is something troubling about them too, knowing that only the absolute best will be tolerated. Kim Jong-hyun’s death is currently being treated as a suicide, after he sent his sister a note via text message. The reasons for his death are not yet clear, but given his history in a Hunger Games-like musical culture where only the strongest survive, one line from it is chilling: “Tell me I did well.”
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