K-pop group SEVENTEEN reflect on their 5 most important singles
As they celebrate five years since debuting, the group dissect their key musical moments over FaceTime.
On 26 May, the 13-member K-pop group SEVENTEEN will celebrate their fifth anniversary since debuting. For their Los Angeles-born vocalist Joshua, it’s hard to fathom. “It’s gone by really quickly, we’ve been so busy with releases and preparing for concerts!” he smiles, the band’s six EPs, three albums and five tours likely racing through his mind in a hazy montage.
SEVENTEEN were not an overnight sensation. As for many artists, theirs has been a journey of highs and lows, of wins and losses. Now, in 2020, rappers S.Coups, Vernon, Mingyu and Wonwoo, and vocalists Woozi, DK, Seungkwan, Dino, Jun, THE8, Hoshi, Joshua, and Jeonghan are a respected force within K-pop -- both domestically and internationally, they’re a group acclaimed for their flawless performances as well as their songwriting and production. Alongside regular contributions from the members to the lyrics and music, vocalist Woozi and their record label Pledis’ in-house producer Bumzu have written and produced all of the group’s material. Joshua describes their relationship as having progressed from Bumzu being Woozi’s mentor, to that of two artists “on an equal footing”.
Continually pushing themselves creatively -- traversing from pop and funk to ballads, from hip-hop to house -- SEVENTEEN are unwilling to settle for one sound, no matter how successful it is. “We don’t see it as taking risks”, says Mingyu, “but as embracing change”. To celebrate that five year evolution, the group FaceTime i-D to talk us through the five pivotal singles of their already remarkable career.
ADORE U (May 2015)
According to Hoshi, it wasn’t a certainty that the funk-laced bubblegum pop of “Adore U” would be their official first single. “Shining Diamond” -- released as a pre-debut song and similarly ebullient -- was another strong contender, particularly, Seungkwan points out, because “the lyrics really portrayed our identity and passion”. Woozi emphasises that, despite this, “”Adore U” was SEVENTEEN, it expressed us best at that time.”
Amongst the 2014-2015 trend for darker imagery and rabble-rousing EDM, “Adore U” was a pastel-hued stick of candyfloss, with a music video that Vernon describes as equally out of step; its tongue-in-cheek scenes playing to the strength of their personalities. Lowkey, at least for K-pop, it nevertheless presented a fantasy -- the ideal boy next door -- but also portrayed the SEVENTEEN who fans already knew thanks to two chaotic pre-debut reality shows. “Pledis lead us in a natural way to [be able to] express ourselves, but also be ‘SEVENTEEN the K-pop group’ they wanted us to be,” Vernon says, explaining the balance they’ve struck between the industry’s controlled image and being the masters of their own music.
The song's boy-meets-girl premise might be simple but the composition of “Adore U” is astute and perfectly weighted, from a super sticky chorus to the unexpected accordions and DK and Seungkwan’s power vocals. Today SEVENTEEN are amusingly at odds on what their confidence was like leading up to the release -- S.Coups remembers his unshakeable faith in the song and their performance, while Jeonghan, though he had believed that going against the grain “might have more impact”, says wryly that “confident wouldn’t be the appropriate term!”
Although having performed it literally hundreds of times over the years, the group still has a soft spot for “Adore U” (Wonwoo fondly calls it “still upbeat and fun”), and it’s the song’s unrelenting freshness that has cemented its legacy as one of K-pop’s finest debuts.
(아주 NICE) VERY NICE (July 2016)
Mingyu calls SEVENTEEN’s first three singles (“Adore U”, “Mansae” and “Pretty U”) a trilogy. ““Very Nice” fits into that narrative too,” he says, “but you can also say they’re all individual tracks”. And while DK recalls the group as being more interested in demonstrating musical growth than storytelling, the thread upon which all the lyrics hang -- from the irrationality and sweet confessions of first love, to the wild happiness that follows on “Very Nice” -- neatly evolves with their sonic progression.
Their exhilarating brassy sound is pushed to its final frontier on “Very Nice”, as if all of its predecessors had purposefully led to this point. “Of course there was a sense of calculation behind its making -- I was trying to create a very energetic sound,” says Woozi, who’d wanted it as the lead single for their debut album Love & Letter (it’s the lead from the repackaged version). “But songs usually happen in a coincidental manner, almost like destiny, and I have to say this was fate.”
The emotional rush of “Very Nice” is matched with a clean, robust choreography that nods to classic Hollywood musicals. “I only have fun memories of creating the choreography with our choreography team,” says Dino, “we were constantly laughing”. Like most K-pop dances, this one was deceptively challenging. “We brainstormed an item we could add to make things more interesting,” recalls Hoshi. “We came up with the idea to utilise suspenders. It’s simple for the audience to follow but detailed and difficult enough for choreographers to cover.”
To Vernon, it’s the song “that projects the members’ characteristics and chemistry the most,” and so definitive is it of their oeuvre that during 2019’s Ode To You concerts, it became a 21-minute encore. Moreover, “Very Nice” is the pinnacle of the melodic lightness and earworm brilliance that epitomises their 2015-2016 era. Although it never hit first place on South Korea’s weekly chart shows, it has become their second most-watched music video ever (over 74 million views), is regularly covered by male and female groups and, indicative of its beloved status, is a habitual resident on the country’s multiple charts.
(숨이 차) GETTING CLOSER (December 2018)
“We don’t want to focus on one genre, we want to do a variety of music,” says Joshua. And while “Don’t Wanna Cry” (2017) and “Thanks” (2018) shifted the group towards emotive EDM, “Getting Closer” presented their most aggressive electronic sound yet, a powerful move that Wonwoo says they’d collectively wanted to try.
Translated, ““숨이 차” means ‘out of breath’, and “Getting Closer” really is a song that keeps us out of breath while singing and performing,” jokes Jun. "It’s dark, impactful and represents SEVENTEEN’s performance on point," adds DK. "It was a great song to show a more mature side of us.” The performance itself is mesmerising -- the choreography invoking the sinuous pull of desire and temptation in the lyrics. “It’s a brutal song and the dance had to match that,” laughs Vernon. “I really have to stretch before it, it’s bone-breaking.”
THE8 explains that finding the inspiration for this single was simple. “Everyone has their own darker side,” he says. “I felt those emotions in a natural way, which was then embodied in the song.” It wasn’t, however, as straightforward in the studio. With a minimalist but hard-hitting instrumental, Woozi looks back on it as a difficult song. “The production process wasn’t as easy as I thought. We made a lot of changes to the topline, arrangement and lyrics along the way.” What helped, Woozi adds, was thinking about it in performance terms. "Envisioning the stage positively affected the process”.
“Getting Closer” might have only been the warm-up single to the You Made My Dawn EP, but it marked the beginning of a major shift. They were three years into a prolific career and decided on a gear change. “Our focus has always been on being authentic performers,” Vernon says. “You can’t always do the same thing if you want to develop.” This maxim, he says, was one that he, Hoshi, Seungkwan and Woozi ascribed to from the very start and is now embedded in the group’s consciousness. “With “Getting Closer” we broadened our spectrum,” he says. “We took another step forward.”
HIT (August 2019)
“When I first listened to it, I felt a surge of excitement and immediately imagined us performing it on stage,” laughs Seungkwan. “I remember Hoshi was particularly excited about it.” With its terrace chants and g-force inducing drops, “HIT” comes at the listener like a pyroclastic cloud. “It’s so fun, I just want to dance to it,” enthuses Jun. “I guess I was one of the members who was most into it because the performance and overall song fits my style.”
If you were only familiar with their earlier work, you would never imagine that SEVENTEEN might go on to create one of the rare, heart-pounding club bangers within K-pop. But it is exactly this experimentation, Dino tells us, that makes the group tick. “HIT” found life after the group discussed the idea of wanting “to make something powerful and loud”, says S.Coups. “The main goal was to showcase a dynamic performance through this song, so I put a lot of effort into the track,” Woozi remembers. Hoshi grins, adding: “Woozi consistently worked on the details of the sound, so we were all impressed!”
Like “Getting Closer”, “HIT” is, in a way, reverse-engineered to underscore its stage concept. But even without its dramatic music video and striking choreography, the sensual verses and war cry hook make “HIT” a satisfyingly multifaceted hype track. But behind the beats lies an important cause at the heart of SEVENTEEN: “From this day forth, we’re free”, the lyrics herald. In the music video, Jeonghan’s tangled ropes are cut, and in the choreography, Dino is caught before breaking loose. “Because our music and performances fit what we want, that itself can be defined as freedom for us,” Joshua explains.
SEVENTEEN’s albums have always been eclectic journeys that manage the mammoth task of reflecting the sensibilities of 13 members. Yet despite their success (last year’s “An Ode” has reached triple-platinum), Vernon wishes “that a lot more people knew about us, our ability to produce our own work” and, he agrees, the breadth contained within it. By unleashing the divisive “HIT”, the group gleefully threw gasoline on their creative spark, generating a fire that few could fail to notice.
FEAR (September 2019)
“We wanted to talk about this song because it expresses SEVENTEEN’s past and present emotions,” says S.Coups. “Our thoughts have matured and we’ve broadened our perspectives. Since we started writing lyrics incorporating our thoughts and emotions, the outcome has become really complex!”
“Nothing lasts forever”, sings Joshua on “Fear”. Aware that pop groups generally have a shelf life, he explains over FaceTime that he tries to live in the present. "But there are times when I’m alone where I wonder what it’ll be like next year and start to worry.” For Vernon, who tells the listener to “cut out the fantasy of me and run away” on the song, a longtime concern lies in “being SEVENTEEN’s Vernon” and his worry of disappointing those who may have built an elevated ideal of Hansol Vernon Choi.
Thus “Fear” was born from SEVENTEEN’s new emotional candidness and a bout of creative turmoil. “We all knew and agreed we needed change but we just couldn’t put our heads around it,” Vernon says, sighing. “We kept working in the studio, trying this and that out. We stressed out so much!”
"We had doubts because we were showing a totally different side of ourselves, concept-wise," admits Woozi. "The direction we should pursue, our position and future -- they were just a few of the pressures we were dealing with. We were always going forward, breaking down walls, but we never really stopped to look up at an unbreakable wall in fear. I feel this inner struggle was something that people didn’t really associate with us, but it’s a definite part of our identity.”
The group used the opening line, “you must erase all memories of me, I’m poison,” as a major component in the choreography, which resembled a Grimm fairytale as they ‘drank’ poison and tore at their chests. “We tried to express poison in various ways,” says Dino, “and we added a storyline to the choreography, that’s why it gave off that kind of vibe.” It resulted, says Hoshi, in a dance “quite different from our usual style”. But there were some awkward moments in creating it. “It was, um, interesting. We’d be practising in front of the mirror and I’d look over and there’d be other members trying out sexy expressions and running their fingers through their hair,” laughs Vernon, recreating the moves.
If making “Fear” brought a renewed sense of creativity then performing it live was an exercise in extending their confidence. “We were able to perform with more edge, and I could move past my worry of whether this concept suited us,” DK says, smiling. For the pragmatic Mingyu, “Fear” was a wobbly stone now cemented on their path as evolving artists. “It was one of our biggest changes,” he says. “And I can say with a bit of confidence that it was quite successful.”