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Upon first glance, Taemin is the epitome of a K-pop star: poised and polished after nine years in an industry built just as much on its appearances as its musicality. And he definitely is very much that. But speaking with the musician, it became apparent that his bright smile and boyish charm belie an introspective personality as he questioned the career path he has pursued since he was a teenager.
“I wanted to go beyond what K-pop typically is perceived as, and through 'MOVE' I was able to show a concept that’s more edgy, more powerful,” Taemin told Billboard, referring to his newest song. “Not only that, but regardless of the gender, I believe that all of the audience will be able to enjoy and listen to this as something different from most of what’s coming out in K-pop.”
Sensual in its subtlety, the latest single from the SHINee member is a retro-vibing R&B attempt at pushing the limits of what K-pop is in 2017. Leading his newly released album MOVE to No. 3 on the World Album charts, the track was released with three choreography-focused music videos as the 24-year-old Korean artist aimed to break gender stereotypes and the perceived limits of K-pop’s artistry.
“MOVE” wasn’t initially supposed to be the album’s original single, but Taemin opted out of B-side “Love” as the promotional track, since he felt that it wouldn’t enable him to show his identity the way he hoped. With '80s flourishes that recall the artistic flare of the likes of Michael Jackson and George Michael, the groovy rhythm of "MOVE" paired with the hypnotic movements of the dance were the singer’s latest endeavor to create the sort of music he hopes the Korean pop industry will move in.
As a member of one of Korea’s most popular boy bands and signed to K-pop behemoth SM Entertainment, Taemin may seem like an unlikely proponent for questioning the industry’s preconceptions. But it is that forward-thinking, experimental attitude that has kept SHINee, and SM acts in general, on top of the game for so long.
“Since my debut [with SHINee in 2008], I always have thought that I want to be someone who challenges new things and that motivation has carried into my solo works too," he said. "I always want to be the person that’s able to try something new. I want to experiment more and challenge myself more on different musical styles and elements, and bring things that others don’t into the industry. I want to make a good impact on the K-pop music world.”
Working with Japanese choreographer Koharu Sugawara and a team of female dancers, the choreography for Taemin’s “MOVE” is filled with smooth moves and lacks the aggressive flare featured by many contemporary performances. It’s intentional on Taemin’s behalf, with the star using his lithe frame as a jumping off point to counter the gender norms typified by many K-pop dances. “My aim was to find a middle ground, mixing both masculine and feminine movements into the choreography together.”
“My body shape is like that of a dancer’s,” he said. “It’s not too masculine or overly muscular and I wanted to take advantage of that. I thought I could show the soft lines like the dance movements of a ballet dancer by adding subtlety to my choreography. I wanted to break the idea of what male performers are supposed to show, what performances girl groups are supposed to show. I really wanted to break those labels, showing that dance is a form of art.”
Putting out three different music videos at once -- one each focusing on the ensemble, the artist individually and a duo-performance -- was something Taemin wanted to attempt in order to show the different elements of “MOVE.” “I was being a bit greedy,” he admitted with a shy laugh. “I focused on bringing nuances into the music rather than having big movements. It was more of a strategical decisions too, to make the choreography seem possible and impossible all at the same time."
Along with his attempt at breaking dance stereotypes, masked scenes in “MOVE" were included to match Taemin's vision for a K-pop industry where artists aren't as tied to their appearances as they currently are. This was inspired in part by his love of Sia, who he called his favorite musician, and her approach to (mostly) faceless musicality. He said, “I really wanted my fans to understand that outer appearances really don’t matter. A lot of K-pop fans tend to react to what is shown on the outside due to appearances, and influenced by Sia, I wanted my fans to see that what I bring on the inside is more important than the outside.”
While he’s motivated by his own personal desires to show different ideas of what it means to be a K-pop artist, Taemin admits that his drive to expand his musical styles and performances is driven in part by the foresight that no bubble of popularity is eternal. Though Korean music's presence is growing internationally, the momentum can't last forever, according to the artist.
“K-pop has already entered the spotlight and it’s reached the top of its popularity so there’ll be a tipping point when it comes down one day, in the future,” he reflected. “So I feel that many artists, including myself, need to focus on bringing different styles of music and new things to the market rather than just focusing on what we’ve always done. Our aim should be to develop K-pop in a way that makes it more stable and less inclined to fluctuate musically.”
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