Lee Taemin has spent nearly half his life in the limelight. It has been six and a half years since the Korean idol released his first solo album, and twice that time since he made his debut as the bowl-cut-sporting, fourteen-year-old Main Dancer of K-pop group SHINee. Now, he is drawing the curtain on this chapter of his career.
Mid-April, Taemin took to streaming service VLIVE to announce his enlistment in South Korea’s compulsory military service would be happening at the end of May. “It’s hard for me to talk about this,” he said in the tearful live stream with his kitten, Kkoong. For Taemin, it’s more than just an eighteen-month hiatus from the cycle of recording, promoting, and performing: “It’s like looking back on the first act of my life.”
Time has flown by, he remarked during the stream, and it is not hard to see how. Just since this past September, Taemin has released five projects: two solo albums, two SHINee albums, and one album with SM Entertainment supergroup SuperM. “It’s like I’ve been running so hard without taking any breaks. So it’s time for me to take some time off, I guess,” he said. But before he goes, Taemin has given fans one final encore in the form of a culminating digital concert, Beyond LIVE – TAEMIN : N.G.D.A (Never Gonna Dance Again).
Though the name Taemin has become synonymous with airtight choreography and theatrical styling, he does not need either to command attention. He set the bittersweet tone of the evening (or morning, depending on what part of the world you were watching from) by opening with two captivating ballads, “Think of You” and “I Think It’s Love,” off his latest solo album series Never Gonna Dance Again (2020), a two album set comprised of two distinct ‘acts.’ The mellow tracks entreat support and love amidst uncertainty: “When I am so worn out and tired / When I am so sad and hurt / Be the place where I can lean on.” Perhaps fittingly, he did not dance. Alone on stage, in a sheer, pale pink outfit, he got his point across with just his sparkling vocals.
Creating connection through a screen is no easy feat. Over a year into the pandemic, artists are still trying to figure out how to break the barrier and overcome audience latency. The set sought intimacy through its minimalism. A barren, black box-like room, it placed audience members in the round, broadcast onto screens, waving their light sticks and screaming their tinny cheers. Taemin read messages from banners that the fans held up, some in Korean, and some in his growing vocabulary of English. “I see a lot of comments.” ‘Natural-born idol, what can’t you do?’ and ‘Lee Taemin is God not human,’ they read. “It’s embarrassing, but those are there,” he said with a laugh.
‘Duality’ is a concept much discussed in K-pop fandom, and no one more fully embodies it than Taemin, who sinks from his seemingly skittish disposition while addressing the audience into a steely, almost villainous, persona when performing. (“I might make you bored,” he joked, “but the performances are good, right?”) On his more dance-driven songs, like title tracks “Move” and “Criminal,” Taemin transforms, gliding across the stage swathed in velvet and lace, with grace and tightly wound control over every inch of his body.
Throughout his solo career, Taemin has expressed his inclination toward androgyny and gender-bending both in the way he carries his body and the way he dresses it. His styling for this concert was no exception: piratic, jeweled eyepatches, lone opera gloves (a staple of his wardrobe!), tasseled jackets, and silvery extensions all graced the stage. During his performance of “Door,” he was tied up and blindfolded, and for his contemporary “Just Me and You” choreography VCR, or pre-recorded video, he was painted in a gothic, Black Swan eyeshadow look.
Another VCR pieced together a dance medley, touring the dances, outfits, and hair (yes, including the bowl cut) from Taemin’s iconic eras. “It’s my history from debut,” he explained during the concert’s end mention. “I choked up when I watched it. I got to look back and think about the memories with my fans. The fans now have all grown up, and some have gotten married. I’m always here, without changing.”
Over the years, fans have had the chance to witness him coming into his own aesthetic, musically and visually, from SHINee’s maknae (youngest member) to a solo artist with creative control. Taemin views himself as both constant and not, evolving into a truer self, and always in front of an audience.
According to Taemin, the title of the Never Gonna Dance Again albums is intended to be ironic—rebellious, even. Taemin is a blueprint, an idol’s idol, who’s been shaping the industry for over a decade. He’ll dance again, of course, just never in the way we expect him to, constantly restarting and reinventing. Beyond LIVE and his subsequent enlistment is not a finale; it is a chance to take a pause, turn the page, and begin again.