Shinee (I will leave off writing SHINee) are a band that features "pretty safe boyband production staples: predominantly light, fluffy disco-funk tracks, with occasional forays into gnarly pop-rock and gauzy alt-R&B" according to Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian. The same man who recently praised Liam Gallagher, the singer whose audience typically features inebriated and aggressive middle aged beer-bellied men and who has been churning out the same sound-alike guitar chug for over two decades, as an unfiltered star who rescues us from pop boredom (yes, really). In the same article there was the (relatively pointless) comparison to J-pop band AKB48 - Japan and Korea are, let us not forget, totally different countries (and the infamous and disturbing AKB48 incident he mentions has no precedent in Korea). And then there is the comment that two EXO members had left Shinee's SM Entertainment and filed a lawsuit against the label (and it is actually three: Luhan/ Kris and Tao). In actual fact, the SM lawsuit is far more complex than that - all three members, who are Chinese, were accused by SM of illegally promoting in China. After the lawsuit, Luhan became China's second highest earning celebrity - precisely because of his EXO fame (he flogs everything from KFC to mobile phones) - whilst Kris is the tenth biggest money-maker in the country (his image is all over Shanghai right now). Whilst no one is denying the rigid and (more than likely) abusive and domineering nature of training to be a K-idol, the EXO lawsuit also had to do with some business-savvy young men wishing to exploit a far bigger earning potential in their native Mainland China as models, actors and Mando-pop singers rather than undergoing the crippling trials and tribulations for further EXO world tours and dance routines.
And who can blame them?
The death of Jonghyun from Shinee may have resulted in a scramble to cover K-pop (and judging from that Guardian article it is by a writer using Google) but come December 23rd, just five days after the artist's passing, the same newspaper saw no reason to mention the suicide in its pop culture breakdown of 2017. It seems Korea is only of interest to anyone when the North is firing off a rocket launch (clue to those reading only the British media: if there is a war in East Asia it will be over Taiwan, but that is less sexy and takes far too long to explain so it gets less coverage).
SM Entertainment, of course, are the same behemoth who created Shinee. Not to mention Girls' Generation, BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior, F/X, NCT and Red Velvet. Their major store in Seoul, the Coex Artium, located in Gangnam, is a spiralling three story building worth of K-pop geek-gasms: 3D shows, merchandise galore, a museum and restuarant and more. For a K-pop buff it feels like a trip to Disneyland and it has the unenviable ability to make your entire head scramble into mush the second you walk in the door (loud music, life size portraits scrambling for attention in numerous murials, brightly coloured goods and too many fans with pink and purple hair). It is soft-power done brilliantly. And the portrayal of SM as a 'family' of artists is as carefully cultivated as that of Ronald McDonald or Vince McMahon's WWE.
Is there something seriously shady underneath? So it would seem...
The brutal training regimes in K-pop, the 'last man standing' recruitment process, the IV drips (and the IV drips backstage) and the pressure to stay slim - often with a ridiculously unhealthy diet - are well-documented. What makes thing worse is that when K-pop stars are allowed to be 'human' and do gain a little weight - as Yuri from Girls' Generation did in 2014 (and looked all the better for it) - they are dragged through the coals by 'fans' (even if it is online discussions about what 'prompted' the change of shape - as if it is anyone's business).
None of this is taken seriously in the West, per the coverage of Jonghyun's death, because to most readers South Korea is probably some faraway country that they will never visit, populated by people speaking a language that in our post-Brexit wasteland few of us want to listen to or engage with. I get that. Living in China for three years and reading some of the hapless nonsense, published in major newspapers no less, about the country and culture was mind-boggling enough. But the coverage of Jonghyun's death has all-too-frequently smacked of a distant imperialism: witness NME - having to distract themselves from plugging the new Kasabian masterpiece no doubt - to pen a witless and incorrect piece about the band. Did you know that Shinee took a four year hiatus beginning in 2013? No? Me neither because it didn't happen. Did you know that Shinee reformed in 2017 with only one original member of the band? No? Me neither because it didn't happen.
Now I understand that Onew, Key, Jonghyun, Taemin and Minho might not be as well known as, say, Radiohead on this side of the pond but how would the UK media react if someone in South Korea wrote that Jonny Greenwood was the last man standing in the Oxford group who had just gotten back together after a hiatus stretching ten years? In the nation's biggest musical periodical no less. I am fairly sure there would be catcalls about the journalist being an utter idiot - and yet Shinee mean far, far, far more across the Asian continent than Radiohead or Coldplay ever could. It is the Brexit disease - it is not our music, so we need not even bother researching it properly. Yet even allowing for a simple fact check or trying to give their music some credence outside of 'pretty safe boyband fluff' is apparently out of the question. NME has shied away from covering K-pop for years now despite the fact it now seems relatively difficult to ignore its popularity and (I would argue) the fact that it is a fairly major 'alternative' scene in the UK.
There has been a lot of this dismissive-and-yet-needing-a-story-did-you-know-South-Korea-has-a-high-suicide-rate jargon going on in the press which has been eye-rolling to read. My own take, as someone who has spent a lot of time in South Korea and actually loves the country's pop culture and indeed the nation's general evolution from neo-Confuscianism to an Asian tiger and soft power warrior, is that there is a lot to say about Jonghyun's suicide and indeed Shinee's place in the K-pop pantheon. Far from being a fluffy boy band, the group frequently experimented with sounds you would not expect to hear in the sort of Western music that typically gains radio airplay - the jarring dub-step of 'Everybody', for instance, is certainly more interesting than anything one might expect from the too-stoned-to-care, beer-in-the-air, snooze-worthy soundscapes of Kasabian. The group's experimentation with house music, 2015's 'View' does far more to conjur up the smoky 'glory days' of mid-90s indie clubs than those new Stone Roses catastrophes or Noel and Liam's warbles (as does album track 'Feel Good') and last year's 1 of 1 hinted at a similar indie-esque direction that, of all ironies, took its lead from the sort of material that NME was once ahead-of-the-curve in promoting. This approach reached a new left-field turn with their November 2016 single 'Tell Me What to Do' - detailing a love triangle across a more subdued Shinee sound; it felt like a further step into a more downbeat alternative-sounding territory. That its ode to hopelessness and tears marks the band's last major Korean language single is heartbreaking. For most of us, naturally, the band's biggest masterpiece was 2011's 'Sherlock' - a glam rock mash-up of their songs 'Clue' and 'Note' - that merely stands as one of the finest tunes ever concoted. And it is still a go-to tune on my iPad during those times when that dark cloud hovers above me. My favourite part is Jonghyun's high notes - and it is gutting to know that never again can we hear those live... To recognise part of the pressure of being in an SM band is to recognise that the label makes a very clear attempt to reinvent each artist's sound with every record, complete with a punishing concurrent dance routine. It would be nearly impossible to imagine your average UK 'indie' band having to start from scratch every eight months or so - but this is what an SM band has to do. Hiring a journalist who doesn't know his or her K-pop from their J-pop might result in an article that follows a quick trawl of YouTube but it does not even begin to get into what makes the music, and a band like Shinee, such a high-pressure franchise... including the fan expectancy of consistent (visual and aural) comeback and reinvention.
Whilst less noted than Taemin, the solo career of Jonghyun was also generally well-received (headlined by the electro R'n'B of She Is). Inevitably, his duet with Taeyeon - 'Lonely' - which was released just eight months ago now has a sinister edge that cannot be shaken.
It will probably now stand as a suicide anthem, especially reading some of the online comments, although I hope it finds life above this tawdry label.
Perhaps most annoying has been the 'underneath the glitz' factor: but as I have highlighted in this blog post, there is plenty of K-pop that is downbeat, a lot of K-pop goes into dark areas and there are many K-pop songs that are willing to talk about identity, sexuality, politics and even depression. None of this might fit the script of the 'gorgeous dead K-pop star with dyed hair' but it does not mean it is not there. K-pop, as it stands, is less of a genre or movement as it is a name for Korean language music - some of it written by the stars themselves, some of it written by others, but it would be wrong to assume it is all the same or it is 'safe' (I often think my previous teen dark 'indie music' days, a loyal old Manics fan etc, has found its most logical home in K-pop). And Shinee were always a standout band because of how successful they were in varying their sound.
This might be news to the media - who, unfamiliar with the bands (and, again, I am not expecting them to be obsessives) seek for the old 'it sounds a little like...' fall-out. Caroline Sullivan, who I actually really like, fell into this with Big Bang - comparing them to Justin Bieber. But Big Bang sound nothing like Justin Bieber. And why do we need a Western comparison anyway? Why does any foreign 'boy band' have to sound like an established Western totem? By giving us that totem, in a brief review, one is almost indicating that the Korean group are simply taking from a fakey-foreign sound even when Big Bang sound, I don't know, just as much like flipping Wolf Alice or Suede as they do Justin Bieber.
None of this is to distract from the very real tragedy of Jonghyun. It is heartbreaking to see someone so young kill themselves and if it marks the conclusion of Shinee as a band (and I am unsure how they can comeback from this - what could a new single even sound like?) then I hope future generations will continue to discover what an amazing group they are. I saw them live twice, during the SM Town tour in Tokyo, Japan, 2016 and earlier this year in Hong Kong. Both shows were excellent and my heart aches at losing such a promiment figure. I often joke that K-pop saved my life - regardless, it certainly altered a lot about me: from making me obsessive about the country it came from, and its history, to making me recognise that, in my thirties, I did not have to be that boring old codger who sits at a bar and rambles on about how good music was in the nineties or noughties (I'd take Shinee over almost anything I had in my music collection during either decade). I am but one voice of many, naturally, but I wish some of these artists - seemingly engulfed in a bubble and part of that unstoppable K-pop machine - actually knew what they meant to many of us. Would it change much? Doubtful. But I fear that Jonghyun's death will not be K-pop's last tragedy.
In the meantime, my sole hope is that some of these great songs stand out and, in my own wording, and with the accompanying sounds, what made/ makes Shinee so special might become more clear than the UK media reportage has allowed....
Warning: the above song is perfect
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. (Thanks to The Guardian)