In some ways, Seventeen have come a long way since their youthful debut days. And in other, more important ways, they're exactly the same.
Four years ago, the Korean boy group entered the scene with "Adore U," a refreshingly funky pop song that showcased the 13-member outfit's adolescent energy and vibrant sound. And just a few weeks ago, on a balmy Sunday night in July, Seventeen performed their debut track to a packed Madison Square Garden audience with the same kind of reverence and vigor they brought to their debut stage. They're older, yes. More polished, of course. But the joyful energy is the same.
Perhaps it's a product of their name, the way they can be both playful and sensual. And while newer tracks like "Getting Closer" and "Good To Me" show their maturity, both lyrically and sonically, it's near impossible to distinguish Seventeen from their signature ebullience.
Seventeen members from left to right: The8, Wonwoo, DK, Hoshi, Jeonghan, Vernon, Mingyu, Dino, Jun, S.Coups, Joshua, and Woozi (not pictured: Seungkwan)
It's the same sparkle they bring to a small greenroom just hours before their closing KCON New York stage at MSG. Dressed in patterns of black and white — blazers, prints, and mesh shirts, ties optional — Seventeen are a mass of excitement and warm hellos. And they're loud, even without their most spritely member, Seungkwan, who couldn't make the trip stateside due to an ankle injury. But when asked about the evolution of their music, the members become quiet, taking time to collect their thoughts. And when they do answer they speak with the kind of confidence and pointedness that come from years of experience.
"I think it’s a really touching thing," rapper Mingyu says with a smile. "Even when we listen back to the music we made four years ago, we think, Ah, so that’s how we used to be."
"I’m sure when the fans think of the past, too — these were the experiences we shared with Seventeen, this is how we were back then — these kinds of feelings and memories are embedded in our music. Thinking of that makes me feel really appreciative and it’s something to be thankful for. Moving forward, I want to continue making memories like that for our fans."
But for Seventeen the connection they make with their fans, called Carats, through their music is made even more personal by the fact that much of it is primarily produced by them, with vocalist Woozi having crafted much of the group's sound since their debut. "The satisfaction you get is different," Woozi says of their self-produced discography that spans two full-length albums and seven EPs. "These are the stories we want to tell, and we’re making it ourselves, rather than just putting on something made for us. It feels more profound."
As Seventeen's chief producer (along with his friend and main collaborator Bumzu) and vocal unit leader, Woozi knows how to bring out each member's strength in the studio — from Jeonghan's sweet, airy vocals on their melancholic EDM hit "Don't Wanna Cry" to rapper Wonwoo's smoldering verse on the bombastic "Clap." More so, he knows how to push them to give even more. Take, for example, the brazen B side “Bring It," which proved that Hoshi, the group's main dancer and choreographer, can do everything exceedingly well and with impenetrable confidence, even rap. ("I'm always surprised by Hoshi," rapper Vernon later says, "because he just goes crazy on stage. And everybody is all energized by him. He plays a really important role.")
The performance unit (Jun, The8, Dino, and Hoshi) perform "Moonwalker" at KCON New York on July 7, 2019
For Woozi, who speaks with a quiet intention, it's not about ego or the novelty of being a self-producing idol group within the K-pop landscape, at least not anymore.
"Honestly, when we were younger, when we first started out, we thought it was something special and something different," he says. "Now, it’s part of us, it’s the standard. It’s really integral to who we are, and it’s something we just do now."
"That feeling of something self-made is kind of like our weapon we can show the public, like Iron Man," Mingyu adds.
And similar to the Avengers, when it comes to Seventeen, there's a real strength in numbers. Though they perform as one team, the 13 members are also divided into three specialized units: leader S.Coups, Wonwoo, Mingyu, and Vernon make up the hip-hop unit; Woozi, Jeonghan, Joshua, DK, and powerhouse Seungkwan are the vocal unit; and Hoshi, Jun, The8, and youngest member Dino fill the versatile performance unit. The group's ability to mix and match has produced some of their most compelling work. "Flower," a 2017 cut featuring two members from each unit, is alluring and moody with a haunting melody, hypnotic synths, and dynamic choreography from Dino. It stands apart from their more bubbly, explosive singles ("Oh My!", "Very Nice"), and it's a testament to the kind of magnetic work they can produce when truly left to their own devices.
According to S.Coups, Seventeen aren't trying to tell a singular story through their music; after all, a single concept can't define the multitudes of 13 unique individuals. Instead, they're concentrating on their growth as artists and as young men. "Our goal is more focused on becoming the kind of people who are constantly looking back at the things we’ve done in the past and trying to discover new sides to ourselves we haven’t been able to show previously and conveying those to our fans," he says.
Of course, those growing pains can also lead to pressure. Producing their own music means that the group's success predominantly lies on their shoulders — and there's always the possibility that a step in a new direction might not resonate as deeply with fans who fell in love with their boyish charms.
"In the beginning, we really thought about that a lot and worried about it," Woozi says. "But now, as we’ve made each album, we’ve come to realize the music we want to make and what we want to say to our fans have started to converge. The stories we want to tell are the same stories we want to tell our fans."
Plus, the trust Seventeen place in Carats allows them to pursue any concept with confidence, from the dark intensity of "Getting Closer" (a late 2018 digital single that marked the long-awaited arrival of "Dark Seventeen") to the soft, understated simplicity of this year's title track "Home."
"Because they come from the heart, we’ve found there are a lot of people who still like it," S.Coups says, "not necessarily just because it’s the kind of music they want [to hear], but because we made it."
As Seventeen's music evolves, so do the members themselves. Dino debuted when he was 16, a kid who looked to his members for guidance. Now, at 20, the members admit that they often look toward their maknae (youngest member) for motivation. "As time goes on, his ambition toward music and the effort he puts in grows," S.Coups says, addressing a shy Dino. "As we continue living together, compared to when we were trainees together, seeing him continue to work harder and put effort into becoming even cooler [on stage] — it’s always new and refreshing to see."
And then there's Jun, one of the group's two Chinese members and their resident mood-maker whose weird sense of humor never fails to put a smile on his members' faces. "He’s really always joking around," Woozi says. "The jokes he plays are so fascinating and new that it makes me wonder how he’s able to keep up his energy and excitement. You wonder how he’s not tired."
"He never gets tired," Los Angeles-born vocalist Joshua adds. To this, Jun smiles wildly, a knowing gleam in his dark eyes.
But it's hard to imagine that any of the members of Seventeen get tired after watching them light up Madison Square Garden with a brief but boundlessly energetic set that spanned their 4-year journey: "Getting Closer," "Clap," "Good To Me," "Adore U," and the consummate crowd-pleaser, "Very Nice." As per usual, they are seamlessly in sync, all sharp movements and charismatic expressions. And they have a way of making even the largest, most famed arena feel intimate, like they're looking right at you instead of a crowd of thousands. It's a skill they've been honing since 2015, when 13 teenage boys with toothy smiles earnestly asked the object of their affection, "How can you dazzle so much?"
Looking at the men on stage today, however, it's likely that their fans are now wondering the same.