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A Farewell to (Taemin’s) Arms

Lee Tae-min is by no means the first K-pop star to be forced to put his career on hold to fulfill a mandatory obligation to join the South Korean military, but still, this enlistment feels different

Getty Images/SM Entertainment/Ringer illustration

People outside South Korea like to compare K-pop idols to Western artists pretty much all the time—but especially when explaining the South Korean enlistment process to nonfans. For example, “Can you imagine if Justin Bieber or Harry Styles had to stop during the height of their careers to go join the army for two years! Weird, right?” For international fans with limited knowledge of Korean culture, the idea that almost all South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 must enlist in the South Korean military for a 20-month service—including K-pop stars—is admittedly a little tough to comprehend. There’s only so much you can do to help Western music fans understand the strangeness of watching an active artist be forced to temporarily walk away from a thriving career. But simply imagining someone like Nick Jonas leaving the music industry to serve in the army isn’t quite sufficient, especially when it comes to understanding the impact of K-pop’s latest idol to enlist: Lee Tae-min, soloist and star of groups SHINee and SuperM, better known by the mononym Taemin.

When Taemin enters the service on May 31, he won’t be the first huge K-pop star to halt his career for the South Korean military. Taemin’s SHINee bandmates have all already enlisted and returned; as the youngest, he’s the last to go. But it still feels different, shocking that this moment came for him after all this time—not only because he’s such a staple of the K-pop industry, but also because for the last 13 years, Taemin has made it pretty clear that the laws of man do not apply to him.

Remember that terrible Netflix movie with Will Smith, set in the modern world but with fantasy creatures living among humans? Where orcs were police officers and elves were walking around in suits talking on cell phones? Not natural, right? That’s what Taemin’s enlistment feels like. “It’s actually good that Taemin isn’t real because it would be pretty fucked up if he was,” one fan tweeted. “Surely the [Republic of Korea] army knows better than to make their battle mage shave his head,” tweeted another. They get it.

Taemin isn’t your average pop star. Instead of releasing simple, radio-friendly bops or perfecting easy-to-follow TikTok dances, the dark prince of K-pop has spent years cultivating a particular, instantly recognizable brand that combines the occult, high fantasy, and intricate, often overtly sexual choreography. Taemin’s recent album concepts include everything from creepy antler crowns to the actual sword from The Lord of the Rings. Concertgoers see him shirtless, blindfolded, or tied up as often as not—sometimes all at once. His greatest music video hits include, to paraphrase, Hot Topic Employee With Machine Gun, Ancient Warrior Frolicking in a Volcano, Fire Bender With Moves, Psychosexual Snake Whisperer, Chainsaw-Wielding Ruler of Hell, and, most recently, his new single, “Advice,” which I’ve fondly dubbed Beethoven’s 69th:

What a flex, to drop a Haunted Girl Summer anthem just before changing into fatigues. Maybe it’s good that Taemin is giving fans (and his hair follicles) a couple years to recover from his last comeback. Maybe everyone could use a minute to cool down. But how is this all-powerful creature of the night supposed to turn around and do something as mundane as shave his head and go serve in the military band? Sounds fake, but OK.

We’re all going through it a little bit, and it’s hard to say whether Taemin’s nonstop pace as his enlistment date approaches has helped or hurt fans’ emotional state. When a recent Mnet live stage saw him casually bend a no-shirtless-performances rule (thanks to some tasteful nipple paint), it raised the question once more: Which rules does Taemin actually have to follow? Well, apparently just the big one.

Obviously, fans—including myself, despite what this blog thus far would have you believe—are fully aware that 27-year-old Lee Tae-min is, as the kids say, just some guy. He breaks things a lot. He has a cute cat. He eats a lot of cereal. But over time, Taemin’s star persona has taken on such a mystical, borderline-supernatural singularity in the K-pop industry that it remains difficult to process that his career will be put on hold for enlistment, just like almost any other Korean man’s. But on a different level, it’s difficult for international fans to bid a temporary adieu to an artist who, despite language barriers, oceans between us, and our current global pandemic, has never felt closer. COVID shut down live-music events and global K-pop tours but also spawned online concerts, spurred a constant stream of K-pop comebacks, and brought many fans more widely accessible content from their idols than ever before. Instead of going to a SHINee or SuperM show in person, I found myself waking up at ungodly hours again and again over the past year to watch virtual K-pop concerts, coffee in one hand and group chat with friends all over the world in the other. Instead of meeting friends for karaoke or to go album shopping, we sent each other little unboxing videos or created alternate Twitter accounts just to geek out with the people who care just as embarrassingly much as us. It wasn’t the same, but it was enough to get us through.

And the fans will get through this, too, gathering this time not for a concert but to wave our hats over the wide, limitless dock of the internet as another very special K-pop husband of ours ships off to war. (Or, well, “war,” because, again, Taemin’s joining the military band—the trenches, this is not. He’ll be just fine.) It’s a comforting routine, really. We’re not shouting well wishes over a railing or mailing love letters to the front lines; instead we’re tossing memes rather than flowers, sending tweets into the ether, and texting each other distraught key-smashes. Taemin can’t see us, as he finally sheds his weird, wonderful persona and exits into the real world, but we can see each other. Maybe that’s what really counts in the end?