For most K-pop acts, their first song is important, but altogether not generally a career-making hit. Debut tracks are typically remembered by fans with fondness for introducing their favorite artist — but are, in general, rarely as impactful, both sonically and commercially, as the releases Korean pop stars put out further down the road.
Formally known as “Noona, Is So Pretty (Replay),” the five-member boy band released the song on May 22, 2008 as the lead track of their debut EP Replay. A smooth, contemporary R&B pre-break-up track, it introduced SHINee — Onew (Lee Jinki), Kim Jonghyun, Choi Minho, Key (Kim Kibum), and Lee Taemin — as youthful, despondent lovers addressing an older woman; in Korean “noona” is the term used by men towards elder females with whom they have a close relationship, ranging from sisters to friends to romantic partners. The song was immensely popular in South Korea, and led to the group winning multiple newcomer titles during the year-end award show season.
Over the years, SHINee has become known for their distinctly experimental brand of K-pop, which regularly features the group introducing new styles of pop and dance music into the Korean mainstream music scene. But it all started with “Replay,” which stood out from among the electro-pop and rock-infused dance tracks that were popularized at the time by other boy bands.
“At the time, when we were starting out as the group SHINee, the title of ‘contemporary boy band’ was added and we concentrated on being a trend leader,” Minho recalls over a video call from Seoul, thinking back to the boy band’s early days. “I think that the song itself was really suitable for our age at the time. It expressed what we wanted to portray as our concept.”
With rhythmic percussion, shuffling synths, and high-pitched digital beats driving the melody, “Replay” soars with the quintet’s evocative crooning. Heartfelt and sentimental, it introduced SHINee as a group of skilled vocalists — which, according to the members, was almost laughable at the time since, prior to working on Replay, only Onew and Jonghyun had been training under label SM Entertainment to be singers; the other three were preparing to be rappers. When they heard a demo of “Replay” for the first time, they were shocked that they’d be singing it.
“It was a hard song so we were constantly learning aspects of it, and about the music genres,” recalls Onew. “But it worked out.” To say the least: SHINee’s members have all developed their singing over the years, and the act is now recognized as one of K-pop’s most stable live performance teams. All of the members have also turned to songwriting throughout their career — Key wrote the lyrics of “You & I” from their recent The Story of Light EP. 1 inspired by The Shape of Water — and have pursued solo projects ranging from their own albums to appearing in musicals and television shows.
The unexpected R&B slant of the vocally-demanding “Replay” resulted in the song’s recording session taking a full day, rather than a matter of a few hours. “We didn’t have a lot of experience with different music styles and genres,” says Taemin. “Recording and performing ‘Replay’ was a learning process throughout, as we focused on the details.”
Lyrically, the song was a similar surprise, one that led to some discomfort from the then-teenagers due to its forthright attitude. “When we were trainees, honestly, we didn’t like it,” says Key. “It’s not that we hated them, it’s just that the lyrics felt very different from what we were used to seeing in Korean lyrics,” adds Minho. “It was a bit straightforward.”
The direct nature of “Replay” was “embarrassing,” at first to Key, who says that he remembered being nervous about how they were supposed to get up on stage and perform lines like, “Maybe she’s burdened by my young age” and “To her, love is just a fleeting feeling/ but no matter what, it’s my life’s everything.”
For the group’s youngest member Taemin, who began in SHINee as a 14-year-old but is turning 25 next month and has released his own solo music, the tone of the single helped set a tone for SHINee. “The lyrics were very direct, but now that I think about it, the song was very good,” he says. “I think because of that, the rest of our early songs had very direct lyrics too, especially the song ‘Amigo.’” To the surprise of his bandmates, who laughed with disbelief at his revelation, Taemin expresses disappointment that “Replay” hadn’t been an even bigger hit than it was at the time of its release, despite it being one of K-pop’s most representative songs of 2008.
While SHINee has grown older and seen many changes over the years, including the loss of Jonghyun at the end of 2017, the song has essentially stayed the same, aside from some variant re-releases and performance remixes. The members have no desire to update the lyrical message of “Replay” to reflect that they’re all mid-to-late 20-somethings, and that they’re more likely to be in relationships with younger, not older, partners. They fervently disavowed the potential to ever change that, explaining that the act’s fans, known as Shawol for “SHINee World,” have grown older alongside the group. “It doesn’t work that way,” insists Minho.
To Key, asking SHINee to no longer sing to their “Noona,” could potentially happen, someday in a blue moon. “Girls’ Generation, they have to change their name first,” he says with a laugh, referring to another popular act created by SM. “No more ‘Girls’.” (That group’s youngest member, Seohyun, is turning 27 this month.)
SHINee’s in the middle of promoting their The Story of Light commemorative 10th anniversary trilogy, but will always look fondly back on “Replay” for what it represents. “In the [song’s] intro, when you hear the heartbeat sound, it made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is the beginning,’” says Taemin. “The beginning of SHINee. The beginning of my life, too.”