When Super Junior's Donghae (Lee Dong Hae) and Eunhyuk (Lee Hyuk Jae) were introduced to the crowd at the Staples Center last month as “pioneers of K-pop” and “K-pop kings” it was hard to deny the claims as the audience cheered them on, pockets of sapphire blue light waving in time to the beat. For a group that wasn’t supposed to be permanent, the boy band has undeniably made its mark on South Korea’s music industry and the appearance of subunit Super Junior D&E at KCON 2017 LA was a surefire sign that the act still has what it takes to excite a crowd.
“Today’s performance is important because not everyone in Super Junior could come; it’s just the two of us performing,” Eunhyuk told Billboard ahead of the pair's performance. “Because of this, there’s a sense of responsibility and an idea that the two of us are representing Super Junior as a whole.”
Preceding the rise of K-pop internationally, Super Junior was one of the dominant male acts of the late 2000s after the success of “Sorry Sorry” in 2009 made them an undeniable leader in the industry. With their choreography-driven electro-pop and the group's immense size -- there were 13 or 15 members at its peak, depending on who you ask -- the boy band shaped the sound and look of many following acts.
Sonically, the band has typically, but not always, favored upbeat dance tracks tinged with R&B and melodic ballads that emphasize the group's harmonious vocals. Super Junior made a shift towards a more mature sound in recent years, with some of their latest singles, like 2014’s “This Is Love” and 2015’s “Devil,” moving them towards a groovier, sleeker pop sound and away from their more animated, occasionally verging on corny, past styling.
The rise of YouTube and social media in particular played a role in the group's increasing popularity across the globe, the duo acknowledges, as it has in all of K-pop. “Even when we first debuted [in 2005], K-Pop and the Hallyu wave wasn’t as extensive,” said Eunhyuk. “However, today through Youtube, the internet and social media, it’s much easier and faster for information to spread. It makes me happy to see that K-pop has actively spread to various places around the world.”
Aging gracefully in the youth-oriented K-pop scene, Super Junior's large number of members has helped the group remain relevant: Many of the men are known as actors or television personalities and their overall versatility has enabled the act to explore a variety of genres and languages through solo releases and smaller unit groups. D&E is one such team.
Balancing their goofball identities with their more mellow side as the bandmembers age has signified a shift in Super Junior’s music, but even more so with Super Junior D&E. The pair released their first track, “Oppa Has Risen (Oppa, Oppa),” in 2011 as a nu-disco funk hype track built to be performed at concerts. They quickly gained a reputation for campy retro-pop, but D&E also put sentimental R&B-tinged singles, following the same creative direction of Super Junior's sound in general.
“When people think of D&E, they usually think of all fun, upbeat and exciting music that we have,” said Donghae. “I would like to recommend the more mellow, sad songs that we released right before leaving for the military." As examples he pointed to "Growing Pains" and "Still You," both of which they performed later that night.
Though South Korea’s obligatory service has interrupted the career of many male Korean celebrities, Super Junior’s large size has helped the act thrive and rotate members in and out while the larger group remains active. D&E enlisted in South Korea’s mandatory military service in 2015 and were discharged within days of each other in July, weeks before their KCON performance. While they didn’t have any new music to share because they had been on duty during this time, the pair were exuberant in their first stateside appearance in so long and showed it dancing around the stage as the crowd sang along.
“What’s meaningful is that two years ago the last place we performed in the U.S. before we enlisted was actually the L.A. Staples Center [at KCON],” said Eunhyuk. “Having our first return performance here as well makes this experience really special. And because of our hiatus, each and every performance we have is really special and means a lot to us. We also are responsible for getting our fans pumped for our new eighth album, which we hope to do so through our performance tonight.”
In its 12th year, the boy band is down a few members and only seven of the group's main members will participate in the upcoming eighth album: Donghae, Eunhyuk, Leeteuk, Heechul, Yesung, Shindong, and Siwon. Two, Ryeowook and Kyuhyun, are in the military. Another two, Zhou Miand Henry, are not considered full members of the team and are typically relegated to work primarily on Chinese-language tracks with other members under the Super Junior-M title. The final pair, Kangin and Sungmin, are on hiatus; the former because of drunk driving incidents and the latter after fans requested he leave the group due to alleged mistreatment of them following his marriage. Two former bandmates, Han Geng and Kim Kibum, have been absent from the act for over five years.
While releasing an album over a decade into one's career isn’t unheard of for K-pop, it is rare: Super Junior is one of the few Korean acts to remain active from their start to the present without breaking up. They’re also one of the oldest, with several members closer in age to iconic Korean acts like H.O.T. (the first true K-pop boy band) than to boy band of the moment BTS. But they’re still in the game and recognize the importance of that.
“In a way, we do have a bit of pride about this,” said Eunhyuk. “As I said before, even when we debuted there was a lack of content and opportunities to popularize K-Pop. We feel as though we are able to link the [generations] through our performances, which we are proud of doing.”
But just because they’ve been around for a while hardly means that Super Junior’s going to rest on the laurels of their past successes -- the promise of new surprises is sure to excite their fans, known as ELF or EverLasting Friends. Along with revamping their music to better suit men who are now anything but Juniors in the industry, the band plans to focus on reconnecting with their global audience, two years since their last album.
“We’ve been performing for about 10 years now, but in the upcoming years we plan to showcase a variety of different contents including albums, music, videos, movies and dramas to upgrade and show how much we’ve grown,” said Donghae.
Added Eunhyuk: “While we’ve been active for over 10 years, we didn’t really have the opportunity to perform in the U.S. as much. In the future we will work harder and plan to perform for our K-Pop loving fans in the U.S. more often."