Last year, K-pop group Pentagon became a household name in Korea by doing exactly what boy bands are not supposed to do — act uncool. “Shine” is an upbeat, quirky track where the members call themselves “losers” faced with unrequited love. In the music video, the guys are dressed in floppy hats and mismatched clothing doing the viral internet shoot dance. It has since amassed a colossal 162 million views, and the song dominated Korean airwaves.
Admittedly, the group has never been afraid of getting a little weird. Though their discography boasts songs that err more on the side of mainstream pop (“Shalala” and “Like This”), the band has consistently peppered their releases with funny, even borderline childlike themes, from their 2016 debut song “Gorilla,” to more recent title tracks like “Naughty Boy” and July’s “Humph!” While many male K-pop groups showcase their fierceness and stoicism onstage, saving their more loose moments for after-hours, Pentagon have managed to very successfully embody both at all times.
Pentagon’s breakout year was also marred by difficult challenges. Originally a 10-member group, Pentagon had to part with one of their more colorful members, rapper E’Dawn, due to a dating scandal last year. Chinese member Yan An is sitting out this comeback and the PRISM world tour due to health issues. Nevertheless, the remaining members — Jinho, Hui (leader), Hongseok, Shinwon, Yeo One, Yuto (one of the few foreign-born K-pop idol rappers), Kino, and Wooseok — continued to create self-produced music that many of their contemporaries are afraid to do.
Their unapologetic nature and diverse catalog has earned them fame not only at home, but also around the world, evidenced by the excitement over Pentagon’s first world tour.
Refinery29 sat down with eight of the members before their New York stop of their PRISM World Tour to talk about their process, their inspirations, K-pop's global rise, as well as not being afraid to laugh and be totally themselves.
Refinery29: “Humph” or “Naughty Boy” have these very distinct, quirky, childlike themes — personal space and troublemaking, respectively. How do you come up with ideas like that?
Yeoone: "We joke around a lot, and because we want to be totally ourselves in our music, that vibe and those silly moments tend to end up in our songs. Same with the choreography — Shinwon does a specific gesture when he's embarrassed, so we added that to ['Humph'’s] choreography. But even if the message sounds childlike, it usually can be universal, and applied to everyone."
Hui: "For ‘Humph’ specifically, I got inspiration from emotions I had growing up, but overall in life there's a point when you want to draw a line and set up boundaries. So I wish that listeners can listen and relate to that."
Why did you decide to start off the year with the more hard-hitting “Shalala”?
Hui: "Since our trainee days, strong concepts have been one of our best assets, and we wanted to bring that out at the top of the year — bring out a handsome an impressive stage to the crowd."
What made you decide to put traditional Korean themes in the music video?
Jinho: "The original Korean title of the song, '신토불이', is a metaphor. Since it does have that Korean tradition within that title, we wanted to bring that out through the music video."
Hongseok: "The actual meaning is that human and land is equal, is one. But it can also stand for '신나는 토요일 불타는 이 밤' which roughly translates to 'let’s light up this Saturday night.' Ten years ago there was a variety show in Korea with that name. We wanted to play with the double meaning.”
The song was part of your first comeback after a very successful but difficult year. How were you able to come together and move forward as a team?
Kino: "In the beginning of the year, we were full of eagerness. During our debut stage [in 2016] we literally broke our stage because of the choreography. So we kind of approached the comeback earlier this year with that same feeling of 'let's wreck the stage'. We try not to think about other outside worries or hardships — we just show up and do our thing."
What kinds of elements do you keep in mind when you're making a Pentagon song?
Hui: “Instead of focusing on a specific concept, I try to be more ambitious with my producing. I want to challenge myself in my production every time. When I make the melody and the parts, I keep the members in mind and write to their own colors.”
Who is the most difficult to write for?
Hui: “He’s not necessarily hard to write for, but I feel bad for Jinho. [Laughs] When the song goes to a high key, which it often does, I give that all to Jinho. During the recording process for this album, I actually told him that I was sorry — it did go up the register a lot. The recording process wasn't a problem, and he could do it, but I just felt bad. It's a quiet verse but a high verse. We're so happy to have him on our team, though. His voice is our treasure.”
There seems to be a growing trend of artists in mainstream Korean music who are self-producing. How do you think that will impact the industry moving forward?
Jinho: “I think a lot more innovation and unique music will come out, since in the past, producers would just give songs to different artists, and now they’re doing things themselves. During the process in which an artist makes a song, they begin to understand his or her style more definitely and deeply in detail. From note to note and lyric to lyric, there will be more variety of genres out into the market.”
"In the UK, The Beatles influenced the world with their music. Similarly, I hope that K-pop influences and becomes roots to other music around the world.”
Yuto, how did you gain the confidence to become a rapper in a foreign language?
Yuto: “I’ve always thought it would be cool if someone foreign were to rap in Korean. It's not something just anyone can do, so I really like the challenge and wanted to push myself. It took me about five years to learn Korean, and now I'm the first Japanese rapper in K-pop.” [The members clap]
What do you want people internationally to know about K-pop?
Kino: “Like how it is in the American market, in the Korean pop market a lot of different types of genres of music are coming into the mainstream. Our pop music is getting popular around the world, but I wish that in the future people globally recognize that we release a lot of other genres that push boundaries. I think it's going to have a bigger influence in the future.
“And another thing: In the UK, The Beatles influenced the world with their music. Similarly, I hope that K-pop influences and becomes roots to other music around the world.”
What do you think is a positive influence of K-pop's rise in the U.S.?
Yeoone: “I think right now in K-pop a lot of artists, like us, are making a lot of music that's about accomplishing dreams and overcoming challenges, so it’s helping fans. Some of our fans [called Universe] have reached out and said, ‘Through your music, I’ve been able to get through hard times.’”
On the flip side, who has positively influenced you throughout your lives?
Wooseok: “Beyoncé. I watched the Homecoming documentary recently. I’ve kept in mind certain quotes and lessons from it. I was really surprised to learn more about her morals and work ethic — the way she approaches life. Seeing the way she prepared a stage for Coachella for a year for a short performance really inspired me.”
Kino: “My dad. I grew up looking up to him, and he has an expanded worldview.”
Yuto: “I respected a lot of K-pop veterans, like Taemin and Super Junior. Still when I watch their stages now I think about growing up when I was a fan in Japan. It was right in the beginning when K-pop started its influence in Japan, and in came Girls’ Generation and BoA. I'd never seen anything like it — such cool performances.”
Jinho: “Charlie Puth. He makes perfect music. The most beautiful part of his songs are his vocals in the choruses. I actually went to his concert when Puth came to Seoul. I wish that Puth would have looked at me! [Laughs] I was singing along to all his songs.”
How would you describe the chapter of your career that you're entering now?
Hui: “This year is going to be a time of growth for Pentagon. It's our first world tour and we've already learned a lot, and we experienced a lot of new things. We've learned from our past albums. This is the time where we’re going to evolve and only become more sure of who we are.”