Photo Courtesy of SM Entertainment
K-pop Legends SUPER JUNIOR Talk ‘The Renaissance’ And Reflect On Their Career
If ever there was a truth about K-pop, it is that its landscape is as unpredictable as it gets. Every year the industry churns out new acts and swallows up old ones. Longevity in an industry such as this, earmarked by new debuts and newer sensations every season, is an idealistic dream.
Yet, as SUPER JUNIOR come off the 15th anniversary of their debut, Twins, the group, known as SUPER JUNIOR 05 at the time of its release, has achieved an enviable status in K-pop. Since the album launched in 2005, they’ve racked up 10 studio albums, two compilation albums, two EPs, and numerous live and video releases. Oh, and that’s not counting the members’ standalone releases, courtesy of the five subunits that the group siphoned off at different points in their career; or their solo work, given that each of the present nine members are consistently counted amongst some of South Korea’s most seasoned entertainers, hosts and presenters. In a genre defined by its generations, SUPER JUNIOR’s enduring dominance in the industry withstands several in K-pop history.
The group’s success has not come without change, however. SUPER JUNIOR began with a rotational system in which the members would graduate every year, leading to a constant lineup and name change. The first "generation" of SUPER JUNIOR launched as SUPER JUNIOR 05 with 12 members. Eventually, their agency SM Entertainment abandoned the rotational system, fixing the lineup at 13 with the latest addition being vocalist—and the OG evil maknae (the youngest member in a group)— Kyuhyun. The "05" was dropped and the SUPER JUNIOR as we know it was born. With their new name, they embarked on a trajectory that made them a fixture on the awards circuit.
In 2009, came the era of Sorry, Sorry. The album’s title track became the best-selling single of their career and a rite of initiation for newbies, propelling them to the stratosphere. Within a month of its release, the album had become the best-selling South Korean release of 2009.
Although three members would depart in the years after the successful album, the group’s follow-ups Bonamana (2010), Mr. Simple (2011), and Sexy, Free & Single (2012) cemented their status as leading icons of the Hallyu Wave (the Korean wave). On their 10th full-length album, The Renaissance, released in March, there is the confidence and fluidity of a veteran act that has traversed the expanse of genres in their 15-year career.
From the nostalgia-laden disco-pop of "House Party"—reminiscent of not just the genre but also a time where physical contact was taken for granted—to the synth tunes on "Paradox," to the warm, familiar cocoon of "The Melody (‘우리에게’)" which came out in the run-up to the release of the album, SUPER JUNIOR flit from one genre to another with an ease that only comes with experience, as if reinventing themselves in the image of their past selves. There’s also a resurrection of the “classics,” as Leeteuk put it at the album’s release press conference, through "Raining Spell For Love," pulled from their 2014 album, Mamacita.
As they kicked off a new era with The Renaissance, SUPER JUNIOR spoke to GRAMMY.com over email about their music, career and future plans.
You kicked off The Renaissance with an animated teaser. The word refers to rebirth—starting afresh. What aspect of yourself as an act were you looking to overhaul with your 10th album?
We wanted to show a new side to our music, especially to all our E.L.F., [our fandom] who have been waiting for this album. The only way we’re able to give back is through our music and this is something we think about every time we release an album. So, for this album as well, we had a lot of fun and that’s what we wanted to show.
Despite the teasers hinting at a new beginning, I was surprised to see you kick off this era with a remake of "Raining Spell for Love," from your album MAMACITA. Were you surprised when E.L.F voted for this song?
We were surprised because "Raining Spell for Love" is also one of our favorites. We had a great time working on it [for this album] because we knew our fans would love a remake of the track. We hope our fans will continue sharing such thoughts with us because we’d love to make more remakes and content like this.
This was the first time in a while when all the members were back together in the studio, and it aligned with your 15th anniversary as well. Has your process of recording/making tracks changed?
We’re all veterans now! Everyone’s prepared and there’s definitely been an upgrade when it comes to the amount of time [creating] and recording as well. It’s much faster than before! Because we’ve also developed a deeper understanding of our tracks, it allows us to create even better music.
You also remain very active in releasing music as a group, more than any act I have seen. What’s the secret to this?
There are many reasons, but the most obvious is that we’re only able to continue doing what we do because of our E.L.F. Though we have the company’s and each other’s support, it wouldn’t be possible for them either if it wasn’t for E.L.F.!
It’s really striking that you’ve never shied away from discussing misunderstandings between members, which is very rare and refreshing. Why did you decide to take this frank and straightforward approach to your profession?
We’re all aware that misunderstandings can lead to greater conflict, if it’s left unresolved. If it’s something you can think through and resolve alone, you don’t necessarily have to open up about it, but if not, then we do believe it’s important to share and sort out.
In a 2015 interview, Leeteuk said the reason you have lasted this long is also because you understand how you’re different from each other. How did you develop this understanding? How has it affected your dynamic over the years?
Thinking back, it’s easy to think of what’s "different" as being "wrong." However, with time, we realized it might not have been a big deal. Because we’re all different people with different backgrounds, everyone’s thoughts might be right but [they’re] just "different." I think once you realize that, it’s much easier to understand one another.
How do you think the perception of idol groups has changed from when you debuted?
When we debuted, idol [status] was simply something we perceived as part of our dream. However, with time, we’ve realized it’s much more. Through idols, people not only come to understand the country’s culture, but also become part of the culture and conversation, and are influenced by it as well. As an idol, it’s not only the music and fashion that’s important but humility and responsibility is also key. In that sense, as a brand, idols have great influential power.
If we look at the expansion of K-pop all over the world, there are so many things that are normal now that were new when you started out. The internet, for example, is everywhere, and tech has brought us closer to our idols than ever before. Everything changed so fast, how did you guys keep up with this fast-paced evolution?
As part of the "intact" era, it’s become very common to meet fans from all over the world without being restricted to a set location, which is all thanks to the development of the internet. Communication is important, and likewise, we’ve been communicating with our fans through social media which helps us to keep up since we can provide content without being limited to a specific location, and also understand our fans better.
If SUPER JUNIOR becomes the longest-running K-pop group in history, what do the members most want to be remembered for?
We hope you remember SUPER JUNIOR in connection with a specific memory. For example, "I used to dance to ‘Sorry Sorry’ with my friends in high school," "I was a huge star at my college trip because of 'Rokkugo'," or “I used to sing along to 'Cooking? Cooking!' when in elementary!" We want to be remembered as an artist who shared those precious memories with you.