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Courtesy of SM Entertainment

SHINee’s Key on sci-fi, military service, and Bowie

With his 80s synth-pop influenced Bad Love out now, the K-pop idol is pushing to new creative heights

Making SHINee’s Key (Kim Ki-bum) laugh heartily, where he puts his whole chest into it, feels like an achievement. Not because he’s lacking in humour or manners – attentive to the finer details of his schedule, he greets me by name before I’ve introduced myself – but because Key, who gives you, whether you’re a bandmate, fan or journalist, a genuine reaction or nothing at all, panders to no one. 

It’s not often you get to discuss the finer points of constantly being on camera with one of K-pop’s greats. But Key finds himself catching his expression on camera and thinking he looks the opposite of how he’s actually feeling. “Sometimes my face just turns out miserably.” He contorts his features into that of Melpomene’s tragic mask, amusing himself. “When I watch that again, it’s embarrassing.” Is the social affliction of what’s known as ‘resting bitch face’ something that Key and I, randomly, share? He doubles over laughing. “That’s just me being me!”

Sipping an iced americano while carefully tucking strands of bleached hair behind his ears, Key is only ever unfailingly straightforward, a careful listener who replies in English but reverts to his native tongue when he needs to elaborate. A member of the innovative and iconic idol group SHINee, who debuted in 2008, he’s also become one of K-pop’s unwitting elder statesmen at a mere 30 years-old, to which he murmurs,“Oh, that’s good to hear”, with a delivery so dry it could double as kindling. There’s nothing Key hasn’t seen first-hand or navigated through – from the rise and fall of K-pop groups big and small to the Hallyu Wave (the general term given to the overseas popularity of South Korean entertainment) rising in the west, and the ever-increasing speed and turnover of the industry he grew up in – but that he’s still in demand somehow frequently surprises him.

“I’m thankful that people love me this much today,” says Key. “With SHINee activities, I’ve had a lot of success, but now I’m able to focus more on my personal career and what I want to achieve in various aspects of music and TV appearances. I think the public still finds me to be new and interesting and different to other acts so I think there’s a long road ahead of me” – he pauses, laughs – “but also a lot more I can showcase”.

Key’s new six-track mini-album Bad Love comes three years after his excellent solo debut album Face, and it’s his biggest statement yet. If the latter was sophisticated and ever so delicately restrained, then Bad Love is unapologetic and unshackled, smearing its eyeliner with the back of a fist on a red neon-lit dancefloor. Like his debut, it’s awash with synth-pop, but now he’s swapping clean and cool textures for the sweaty, darker sounds of the 80s. “I’ve always been fascinated by the whole old-school sound. I don’t necessarily follow trends but the world happens to also be going back in time and revisiting those 70s, 80s, and 90s trends.”

On “Yellow Tape”, the sirens and Miami Vice-style intro segues into a breathy, pounding chorus – like a sensual noir tale in a cyber anime city – while on “Saturday Night”, the airy, bubblegum synths and Key’s falsetto can’t disguise the loneliness of weekends after a breakup, of being lost in a sea of lovers and clubbers. He belts through the title track, a tale of ecstatic love turned toxic, while in the video he’s alternately dancing beneath mirror balls and careening through space in a Starship Enterprise-esque vessel. 

The album’s teasers featured Key standing among exaggerated alien landscapes, accompanied by two masked humanoids and a blobby, gooey creature. You could read these extraterrestrial images as commentary on love, loss and social alienation. But when you hear Judy Jetson (from The Jetsons, a space-age 60s animated kid’s show) slyly referenced on “Helium”, it becomes clear that Key just likes a damn good sci-fi concept. “There’s no very big meaning behind the creatures, I just wanted to incorporate that kind of (idea),” he says. “I’ve always wanted to try what I call ‘retro space’. So it’s 70s and 80s science fiction movies, like Star Trek, and you can see I was wearing, like, a David Bowie suit, which I’d wanted to combine together.”

Like Bowie, Key is chameleonic, embodying dozens of visual concepts over the years, from ring-bearing boy next door to whip-wielding dom perched upon a throne. He’s also intensely private, and prefers to write his lyrics from a distanced perspective. “They’re my feelings but the stories aren’t all my own personal stories,” he explains. “I always imagine that I’m being different people and I have to make different storylines, like writing a movie. Sometimes I use the same words in songs because that’s the word I hear most (internally) when I hear the track. Writing isn’t that hard. I find it’s not difficult because it’s important that I dive into the sound and think of what I feel and get in touch with that.”

“Personality wise, I’m still myself, but my imagination and the way in which I approach each concept and schedule is now very broad, and I’m more open-minded” – Key

It’s not that Key is entirely averse to opening up; on Bad Love, he’s the sole lyricist on “Saturday Night” and also “Eighteen (End of My World)”, a song based on his teenage years, when he made his debut as an idol. “It’s what I wanna say to 18-year-old Key,” he says of the track, a reflection on troubled, self-doubting times that also channels kindness and encouragement to his younger self. “You know what’s funny, I’m not that different from him. (But now), when my members are late for something, I don’t get angry. I’ve got more patience, so little things that irked me in the past are no longer that bothersome. Rather than focusing on the past and what I went through, I focus more on the present and what I can do now. I’m just saying, the spectrum of my experiences got” – he throws his arms wide open – “this big. Personality wise, I’m still myself, but my imagination and the way in which I approach each concept and schedule is now very broad, and I’m more open-minded, which allows me to be more creative in my work.”

Creative ownership is fundamental in Key’s journey, though it’s been a steep learning curve getting to this point. Whereas on Face he made choices within an overarching framework supplied by SM Entertainment’s teams, on Bad Love, he says, “I was very actively involved. I learned a lot at each step of the way about what I can do to really create something that’s truly 100 per cent my own.” He’s visibly passionate when talking about the work he put into it, his excitement partially fuelled by a long spell away – from March 2019 until October 2020 – completing his mandatory service in the South Korean military. 

Key’s return to civilian life came in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. When SHINee promoted their first album in three years in February 2021, it was without audiences in the TV studios or in-person fan-meets, but SM Entertainment had been quick to embrace digital solutions, making their return to concerts, at least, a dazzling, live digital broadcast. It wasn’t ideal, but it failed to dampen Key’s enthusiasm in coming home to his day job. “A lot of things had changed while I was in the military,” he says, “but I was excited to start. I’d been imagining my own album and SHINee’s album for almost two years while I was there, you know what I mean? I kept on imagining concepts, the songs that I wanted to sing. What choreo should I dance? That kind of thing. I spent two years imagining all of that. I just couldn’t wait any more.”

Key made up for lost time by catching up with fans on Instagram Live whenever he was free, inviting some quite randomly to join him on the broadcast. He’s always gentle with Shawols (SHINee’s fans) but, equally, firm when he needs to be. He’ll playfully roast them, which they love, but takes as good as he gives. It’s not a style of fan-artist relationship that suits every idol, but he can’t be any other way. “You know, people ask that kind of question to me sometimes – how am I so honest? – but I just don’t know how to hide myself,” says Key with a laugh. “I can give them a lot of fantasies with my album, but not from me. My personality is just my personality. Sometimes I envy people who can hide that kind of stuff.”

Does he ever get the fear after doing an interview or a TV appearance, wishing he hadn’t said or done something? He cackles. “Usually I don’t swear in English, but sometimes the f-word comes out naturally. It just pops out. I watch American and English movies a lot so I think that’s why,” says Key. Really, however, Key’s humour, self-awareness and the personal boundaries he values and protects are more reassuring than anything. Fame, a space he’s occupied for 13 years, has become more absurd, its participants more ambitious, and its viewers more voracious. Those years he’s clocked up protect him somewhat from the bloody Colosseum that is 21st-century celebrity, and the global music industry at large, because he has nothing left to prove to anyone but himself. 

He still has desires, of course, the ultimate goal being to create an album on his own, from beginning to end. “It’d be completely Key in all its details, a reflection of who I am and where I am as an artist,” he says. “That’s my next step. It’s not really about the results on the charts, but more the meaning of the album and being able to deliver that message.” While plotting his course towards that, he will, despite Bad Love’s stories of crashed relationships and broken hearts, absolutely continue to believe in the power of love and taking wild chances on it.

“I would choose bad love over no love,” Key explains. “Because you don’t dive into love thinking it’s going to turn out badly. You dive into it hoping for the best and, if it turns out badly, it’s bad love. In reality, we all experience bad love or shiny love, but loving something, that’s really beautiful.”

Key’s Bad Love is out now.