With quarantine going on and not a lot for me to do but do commissions and watch K-Pop videos on repeat, I’ve had time to reconnect K-Pop as a whole. Three recent releases in particular connected with me more than others. One was Hwasa’s “Maria”, another was Sunmi’s “pporappippam”, and the last one was Dreamcatcher’s “R.o.S.E. Blue”. This isn’t a slight at other K-Pop releases that have come out recently, these were just the ones that clicked with something in me personally. Other songs will click with other people on the same level. But this is my blog, so I want to take some time to talk about these in full.
I’ve been a big fan of MAMAMOO’s since 2016, so you can bet I’ve been playing Hwasa’s “Maria” nonstop virtually since it came out. Judging from the fact that the video got 12 million views in less than three weeks, I’m not the only one. The song is an absolute bop, with powerful lyrics and a great melody. Hwasa’s voice and the Latin beat add a dimension of acoustic authenticity to the synthetic sounds within the song. I will jam out to it when I’m doing literally anything. It’s that good.
But as good as the song is, the video itself hearkens to something deep within me. The lyrics of the song are exemplified by visual cues and dynamic scenes. The colors strike a balance between green and red, warm and cold, vibrant and muted. It’s an elegant affair, yet it has elements of grit. There’s florescents and fire for lighting, flickering, even palpating. And, of course, the iconography – the dinner scene, the funeral, the crown, the asylum, the scissors. It’s truly a masterwork.
However, there’s one specific thing about the video I want to review for how brilliant it is, and it’s the shot composition. The framing of the shots themselves is part of why the video works so well. I will break it down into three categories: Dynamic Shots, Negative Space, and Set Design.
This is an easy one to discuss: there is not a single moment in the video with static framing. The camera is never set on a tripod, shots that would normally be still are done via handheld. The movement may be slow, but it is always – always – moving. This injects energy into every scene, because you always feel like you’re moving alongside Hwasa. Whether or not the camera is pointed at her, you experience everything with her.
In a music video, this is especially important, because the idol is in fact the star of the whole thing. We have to feel engaged with her personally, or else we lose interest once the song is over. But keeping the camera alongside an interesting subject keeps the viewer on their toes and eager to continue watching.
According to Lights Film School, negative space controls the color palette of a shot, simplifies the shot, adds depth, and isolates the audience’s attention. The negative space in “Maria” accomplishes exactly that. Looking at the iconic lighter shot, the background is shrouded in darkness, minus a soft light on Hwasa’s face. Then, hands carrying lighters enter the shot, giving color and illumination via the power of editing.
What makes the shot work is the negative space in the background. You could divide the shot in half – the top half is mostly negative space while the bottom is filled. Hwasa’s face is framed by negative space on either side. The hands all point upwards towards her face, driving the focus towards her. Her hair, eye makeup, and lips are red, while the rest of the shot is gold and black, making sure she’s the focus of your attention.
Negative space isn’t always an expanse, though. It’s emptiness, and that can be on a stage as well. And the sets are sparsely populated. Hwasa is often isolated in a frame, with nothing behind her. The asylum set is particularly empty most of the time, and the white, glossy tiles give a feeling of sterility. When offset by naturalistic imagery like rose petals and flames, it establishes a range of emotions that Hwasa is trying to get you to experience.
However, there is also a lack of negative space in many scenes. A lot of shots have monitors or other actors, filling the space. Other shots are extremely close to Hwasa, putting her in claustrophobic framing. This parallels the lyrics about dealing with adversity and loneliness, even in (and especially in) her position as an idol.
By far, the most important part of the shot composition is the set design. The set design is what drives the attention towards Hwasa – no matter the scenario, it can’t overwhelm her. In this music video, however, the set design accomplishes the tremendous feat of highlighting Hwasa while still being unique on its own.
While I could go on and on about the asylum and all its monitors, or the beautiful funeral scene with flowers and chairs surrounding Hwasa, or the dinner scene with inedible objects as food, let’s take a different approach. I want to talk geometry. I can hear you scream at me from beyond the screen, “But math isn’t art!” And I am here to tell you no: math and science make up the building blocks of art and life. From Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” explaining the proportions of the human body in geometric terms, to Fibonacci’s “Golden spiral” representing the logarithmic spirals we find in the natural world, to even the patterns you might find in feathers on a wing or leaves on a tree.
The sets in Hwasa’s video are emblematic of various geometric design principles. According to Debbie O’Connor of White River Design in Australia, squares, triangles, and circles give off very specific emotions. To paraphrase, squares represent stability, triangles represent aggression and metaphysical direction, and circles represent unity and harmony. Any of these qualities can be framed in a positive or negative light (stability/monotony, aggression/power, unity/homogeneity) but the point is they can accomplish powerful things as principles of design.
One thing I noticed about Hwasa’s video is that most of the sets, save one, are not shaped as a typical rectangle. Instead, they are shaped as either a very sharp triangle or a circle/oval. There are two prominently featured sets an asylum set and a triangular bathroom. The circle loops all attention towards Hwasa via the curves in the walls and her placement on screen. The triangle creates leading lines that directly point towards Hwasa, making her the center of attention always. Even the hallway subset is mismatched and angular – in spite of the rectangular doorways, the shape of the hallways resembles an abstract polygon as opposed to a simple rectangle.
Keep the mission of the video in mind – it’s meant to communicate how Hwasa deals with adversity and loneliness. In nearly every shot, Hwasa is either center stage or completely alone and isolated. Circles, while generally associated with positive qualities, can be put in a negative context. In Westworld, (Season 2, Episode 4) director Lisa Joy put a character in a circular room filled with spherical objects to show the central character’s monotonous life and spiral into insanity.
In “Maria”, the same effect is achieved. The circle room is an asylum setting – sterile and pure. By contrast, the set with the Mediterranean archways is palatial, with a chandelier. We are meant to view the set as regal, just as we are meant to view idols as royalty (note the crown of nails that appears in the video.) It also has a cathedral-like quality (again, note the crown of nails, which might as well be a crown of thorns.)
The triangular bathroom, meanwhile, is also palatial; however, because of the sharp angles, it’s not serene, it’s unnerving. Hwasa’s hair is matted from the bathtub – which is an unnatural shade of white – and her makeup is smudged. She’s wearing plastic gloves in a bathtub, or more specifically, an area you’d assume she’d be more vulnerable in. The tile is dirty, and the painted paneling mixed with the wallpaper is borderline chaotic. She’s surrounded by velvet rope, like a movie theater, almost like this private place is only here for her to be put on display.
The combination of these elements perfectly showcases the mission of the video. Hwasa lays her psyche bare for us. She wants us to feel the intense emotions that come with her fame: the chaos, the loneliness, the beauty, the pain.
That is, until the end.
There is only one shot in the entire music video that has a rectangular composition. Only one shot where the set pieces form a rectangular frame. Only one shot where the composition is meant to indicate stability, strength, and comfort.
It’s the shot where her bandmates from MAMAMOO come to comfort her.
While “Maria” deals with heavy concepts, it doesn’t end in sadness or misery, but in joy. It ends in a serene composition, where her friends are framed visually by a brightly lit environment. It communicates to us that in spite of the trials that Hwasa faces, she’s surrounded by people who love her. It doesn’t erase the burdens, but it provides reprieve.
When making a movie or analyzing a movie, you have to keep in mind how pieces play into a greater whole. If there is a theme central to a story, every shot should enhance that theme, whether to exemplify or subvert it. “Maria” accomplishes this in every possible way. The whole of Hwasa’s work is, needless to say, positively breathtaking. The rawness, the vulnerability, and the creativity – these are the pieces that make up the future of K-Pop.
K-Pop and horror is an unlikely combination, but it makes a lot of sense. K-Pop relies heavily on background details or subtle things to communicate ideas, and horror works best when it’s details that communicate a sense of tension. The issue that arises is: how do you make the bands seem cool when you are also trying to creep people out? How do you get close to the edge without crossing the line?
Most bands get around this by taking horror tropes and not actually making the video scary. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for comedy videos involving zombies or vampires! And this category actually gives us some interesting examples. T-ARA’s song “Lovey Dovey” is in this nebulous area where it’s mostly a comedy video but it plays with horror and zombie tropes to give a sense of unease, especially at the beginning. It’s also meant to be a callback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which has comedic elements as well (though I’d argue it’s mostly straight horror.)
Even so, despite the general sense of unease, “Lovey Dovey” is more funny than scary. The girls continue dancing as zombies attack, until they’re eventually overrun. Then afterwards, they still continue dancing, and they’re still pretty cute zombies with minimal decay. It’s not a very frightening video, it’s just good fun. And that’s all right too! I love “Lovey Dovey” with all my heart.
But I’m a sucker for horror, so let’s look at something legitimately creepy.
(Also, I’ve written about Dreamcatcher so much that I’m not going to cover them here. I’m sorry in advance, I have a lot of articles on them already so I wanted to cover horror in other artists’ repertoires. If you are interested in Dreamcatcher, please click here!)
The Cross Gene Conundrum
Cross Gene is a band that kind of went under everyone’s radar. And it makes sense why: they kind of never broke out of music show hell, minus that one time their dance for “Amazing Bad Lady” was banned for being too sexual. (In fact, they’re the only boy group to ever have a dance banned.) After two out of the six members left the band (one of whom was Takuya, one of the band’s leaders) I find it extremely unlikely that another comeback will happen.
That said, Cross Gene did some crazy things when they were active. They’re probably best known for doing a whole zombie movie, ZEDD, to promote one song in the last three minuets. And the zombie movie is kind of…bad, honestly. Most of the background actors are terrible and the plot makes little to no sense. (Sorry to all the high school friends I forced to watch it when I was a hardcore stan.) But the band members are the best part of it – they all do a fantastic job. The mood shifts from generally lighthearted to downright heartbreaking halfway through, and their acting sells it, making it a fun watch. The zombie design is also pretty creepy, and there are some legitimate scares. So it’s honestly worth watching all 40 minutes, just don’t expect Train to Busan.
But we’re not actually going to talk about ZEDD. We’re going to talk about Cross Gene’s video “Black or White”.
“Black or White” is actually one of my favorite K-Pop videos because it completely shook me when I first saw it. The six members of Cross Gene are trapped in various nightmare situations – a car crash, a coffin, a warehouse chase, a creepy bedroom, an abandoned hospital, and a bathroom where all water turns to blood. The members of the band are plagued by these nightmares in various ways, but things take a turn for the worst when they’re killed by mirror versions of themselves.
“Black or White” is straight up creepy. Everything is grungy and dirty, but the members themselves – particularly their mirror counterparts – are mostly pristine until they’re bloodied. The video itself is sharpened to high heaven, so all the details are uncannily crisp. The death scenes are incredibly visual and creative as well as not being overly gory (save the one with the glass shard.) The sound design is also equally creepy, as most noises are not heard under the music, just the ones that maximize the emotional impact.
And the acting.
Oh my god, the acting.
I don’t know what Shin was smoking the day of filming, but when his mirror self drowns him in a blood filled sink, you believe it. You believe both him struggling to breathe and his mirror trying to kill him. Yongseok too is also a hidden gem, getting choked out by his mirror self and his eyes rolling back as he dies. All of the members are great actors (as evidenced by how they single-handedly prevent ZEDD from being unforgivably awful) so you just can’t look away. It’s honestly fantastic.
So far we have two examples on opposite ends of the horror spectrum. We have the fun, lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” and we have the dark, intense “Black or White”. But what other videos are scattered across the spectrum? Let’s look at three different interpretations of what horror can be:
If you haven’t seen SHINee’s “Married to the Music,” now is the time to stop and just have the experience. While the video is incredibly effective no matter how many times you’ve watched it, there’s something to be said about just watching on your own. So before you keep reading, stop and enjoy the surreal experience this video is.
Okay. Let’s get started.
“Married to the Music” is a bizarre music video. I don’t know if it’s scary with a capital S, but it’s definitely creepy, unsettling, unnerving…it’s something. But it’s still fun. It has a plot thread – a girl literally stealing body parts of the SHINee members to create a perfect boyfriend. But what actually makes it scary is the…weird stuff that goes on. In no particular order:
Minho’s head getting set on fire
Magic drinks that make the party appear/disappear at will
A disoriented Onew getting his nose stolen
Taemin’s eyes getting bashed out of his head
Key’s head sliding off a knife then getting punted into the air while he continues singing
A kiss ripping off Jonghyun’s lips
Color changing cookies making Jonghyun puke confetti
People dancing in the puke confetti
What actually makes this video weird aren’t overt horror aspects, though. Instead, it’s the actual filmmaking style that’s most bizarre. The video continuously changes styles, from tracking Onew as he fumbles around drunkenly to one-point perspective on Minho (and Key’s discarded head.) Bright colors juxtapose what should be fairly horrific visuals, which, while adding humor, also serve to make you feel a lot more disturbed. There’s also the fact that you never know what time of day it is or how time is passing, which just generally disorients the viewer. You don’t even know what time period it’s in based on the incredibly inconsistent costumes.
The collection of bright colors, disturbing imagery, and lack of consistency in visual style make a consistently bizarre music video. Will it give you nightmares? Probably not, but it gives you an experience, a thrill of watching something unlike anything else. It is incredibly visceral, but that actually contributes to the charm. Nothing like watching people rush to catch puke confetti when you’re having a bad day.
It’s no question that sometimes monsters are characterized as sexy or glamorous – that’s the whole premise of Twilight. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, some people find the mystery and ambiguity intriguing. And it’s easy to see the appeal – so of course K-Pop capitalizes on this as well.
One of the best examples of this is Sunmi’s “Full Moon”. Sunmi stars in the video (along with the rapper Lena) as a cerebral vampire girl in a nightgown, who bites the neck of a man (unsurprisingly.) We learn that he is paraplegic, and through a flashback, we also see that he knew Sunmi, or at least admired her from a distance. In the final moments of the video, the man transfers and awakens as a vampire, potentially curing him of his inability to walk.
The mythos of vampires in “Full Moon” is revealed mostly indirectly, but it works. Everything takes place during nighttime, so we can infer that this isn’t a sparkly situation. Sunmi and Lena have super speed, and Lena and the backup dancers can teleport. There’s also a lot of traditional vampire iconography, like coffins, standing on rooftops, and painful transformations. Most importantly though, Sunmi seems indifferent to the pain the man is going through, even smiling as he transforms, probably because she knows what he’s turning into.
The dance also has an important function in “Full Moon.” The cutaways to Sunmi’s dance sequences do more than show off her abilities, they establish how elegant and seductive she is when she’s not around humans. Assuming the other backup dancers are vampires or otherworldly beings, this is what Vampire Sunmi is like when completely in her element. This is the seductive world that the man will eventually find himself in when he awakens as a vampire and joins Sunmi.
Another addition to this category is 4minute’s “Volume Up,” which is light on the story but heavy on the aesthetic. It’s not really clear what the concept is – though you assume vampire because of HyunA’s red eyes – but everything is so beautiful to look at that you honestly don’t care. And it doesn’t seem random, it seems meticulous – there is a concept here, but they keep it mysterious. So while indirect about the kind of supernatural they’re working with, it still works effectively.
We can’t get through an article on horror without talking about VIXX. VIXX are unabashedly the untouched kings of K-Pop horror, largely because they span the whole range from outright scary to melancholy. But one of the things they are fantastic at is subtle, subdued horror, the kind that sits with you for a long time.
The example most of you are probably thinking of is “Voodoo Doll”. (I actually have an article on that video already, where I discuss the symbolism of an abusive relationship.) But we all know that “Voodoo Doll” is a tour de force of K-Pop horror. In fact, it’s arguably the first viable horror MV in the Korean Pop industry. In the spirit of keeping things new and fresh, we’re going to talk about two other videos – “Blossom Tears” and “Eternity”.
“Blossom Tears,” a duet with VIXX’s lead vocal Leo and another singer named Lyn, is a bit more obviously creepy. The music video follows a couple comprised of Leo and Lyn that we very quickly learn is abusive. Leo’s character – a fashion designer/tailor – is prone to violent fits of rage; while Lyn’s character – his girlfriend – tries to get through to him. Through small story hints – a bottle of pills here, a mysterious box there – we get a sense that Leo’s problems have been persistent throughout his life.
The climax of the video revolves around Leo finding Lyn dead in a bathtub. His pill bottle lies empty on the floor, surrounded by rose petals, and his box sits open next to the bathtub – it implies that Lyn discovered Leo’s dark secrets and decided to kill herself. However, what makes this video deeply unsettling is that it’s not that clear. Immediately before this, there was a scene where Lyn embraced Leo, and Leo looks at the dress he was making from across the room. His eyes are blank and predatory – it’s downright creepy.
The creepiness is compounded when we find out Leo has a shelf of preserved organs and turns Lyn into his mannequin so she can wear his dress.
“Blossom Tears” gets under your skin because it spends the entire duration of the video making you feel uneasy, and it isn’t until the end you learn what Leo is doing to all of his past girlfriends. And then, when the reveal comes, you’re like “UM. HOW ABOUT NO. THANKS.” It doesn’t need to be full of jump-scares or monsters. What makes it good is the fact that it’s not trying to be scary, but unnerving. The ending, where Lyn is wearing Leo’s dress in death, is particularly uncanny, and that makes it more disturbing.
“Eternity” is very similar in how it achieves a horror experience. This time featuring all six of the VIXX members, the video seems like it’s relatively happy at first. The members are shown with their girlfriends (all played by the same girl) in various situations (painting, dancing, playing piano, drinking coffee, or just teasing.) Because of the forlorn and intense expressions of the members while they sing, you do have a sense that the video it will end badly for everyone involved but you don’t know how. The aesthetic of the video itself also contributes to the feeling of unease, with the generally muted colors and perpetual blue making seemingly happy images feel more melancholy.
Then the girl turns to dust.
We see the members looking around for their girlfriend, leaving us thinking potentially that she’s just gone, maybe a ghost. But then Ravi is dancing with the air, in blissful ignorance, while the girl is watching him from across the room. We see N interacting with the air as well, though it’s only a glimpse in reverse. And lastly, Ken’s picture of the girl disappears in the final notes of the song, showing that the girl was never real to begin with.
This definitely counts as horror because it’s unabashedly eerie. It breaks your expectations of where the story is going towards the end and casts the rest of the video in a different light. The plot itself captures the nuance of the song, specifically tonally as it has both elements of cheerfulness and gloominess. It sticks with you long after you watch it, more than I would say “Blossom Tears” does. Both are excellent, but “Eternity” is the one that makes you contemplate your own existence when you’re done.
Horror is not a genre that is built exclusively on motifs and monsters – rather, it’s built on feelings of mystery and despair. While you wouldn’t say “Married to the Music” is necessarily straight-up horror, enough elements are pulled from the genre to make an unsettling viewing. Just because “Eternity” and “Full Moon” don’t necessarily adhere to typical genre conventions of horror doesn’t mean they aren’t considered a part of the genre either. The thrill of being scared, regardless of format – that’s part of the fun. Horror is an ambience of unease, not a jumpscare.
When I was fourteen, K-Pop was starting to pop up in western reaction videos. Random YouTubers would either post on their own channels or congregate with bigger names like the Fine Bros., where they would react to videos such as “Fantastic Baby” and “I Got a Boy”. One of the things I noticed repeatedly through these reactions is how much the videos were played up as a joke. People would look at the brightly colored hair and hear the English choruses mixed in with the Korean and laugh because the phrase “Fantastic Baby” seemed like a stupid non-sequitur compared to everything else going on.
Obviously, being a fourteen year old, I thought the videos were hilarious as well. Nevertheless, when I finally took my deep dive into K-Pop during high school, I began to actually look at the videos more closely. I noticed the burning cars in “Fantastic Baby” and remembered that one of the members, Daesung, had been in a car accident where someone had died, and had taken a break from singing for almost a year out of guilt. He was chained to a wall, like a prisoner. That got me wondering what was going on in the video as a whole, and I started looking into it more closely. I found very few analyses that covered it in any detail – which is actually one of the reasons I started this blog.
Fast forward about seven years later. I’m complying with the stay-at-home order and working on some personal projects. I tend to listen to music while I work because it keeps my brain from wandering too far. In this case, I was listening to a lot of 4minute, and I stumbled across their song “Whatcha Doin’ Today” and started listening to it.
I got incredibly distracted because I didn’t know what on earth was going on.
Sohyun was cleaning a carpet, Gayoon was playing with the Disney Channel wand, Jihyun made men make out with magic candy and has their heads inflate like balloons, Jiyoon was sitting on a toilet with her pants around her ankles, and HyunA was…being HyunA I guess. (Ironically she may be the least weird in the whole video.) Everyone’s wearing shiny dresses and bows, up to childish antics or over-sexualized antics, and partying like it’s the end of the world. And there’s no clear story to any of these scenes, so it’s really unclear what’s going on at any point. For all we know this is a day in the life of 4minute, though I doubt any of us would be surprised.
I wasn’t going to write the video off, though. It was weird, but K-Pop usually uses weirdness as a thematic device to communicate something. Even the most bizarre images are done with very specific intent. After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is probably a satire of various traits of masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good, but it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (more backup dancers.) The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday than the outfits the male and female backup dancers wear. They also act as the dominant characters in every scene they appear, picking on men and being attended to by women. The other characters, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and obeying the members (or being teased by them.) In short, the video is satire about the ways we objectify both sexes.
As for the various weird images, like school hallways with lockers and bathrooms and parties, these are actually very literal interpretations of the lyrics. Gayoon asks for an Americano and some guy comes out from under a table to present her with one. Sohyun talks about being at school and doing housecleaning, with those lines directly corresponding to her locations. The bathroom isn’t explicitly mentioned but Jiyoon’s corresponding rap verse correlates with the choreography: when she says that people watch boring shows on TV and laugh, all the backup dancers turn towards her. The images of people partying usually correspond with someone announcing a party or saying “have fun!” However, because of the language barrier between Korea and the west, a lot of that is lost when people aren’t motivated to turn on subtitles. What is directly connected to the song seems irrelevant because people can’t actually tell what is or isn’t connected.
This train of thought got me thinking more broadly about what we in America qualify as weird when it comes to K-Pop, and why we’re so ready to write K-Pop off as bizarre without trying to understand it. And why the answer seems to be obvious – culture barriers between the east and west – I’m more interested in understanding the specifics of what we classify as weird. My focus with this blog is filmmaking, so what are the filmmaking techniques specific to K-Pop that people in America actively avoid understanding?
The big feature of K-Pop is that it’s very rare that a K-Pop music video gives you all the information at face value. Even if you have the lyrics to go off of, usually the videos get meta with their symbolism. Often this is done through production design, where details about the world are what communicate things to the audience. Even narrative-based videos will often have some sort of a reversal at the end that changes how you view the whole MV.
For the sake of this analysis, we’re not going to talk about videos that are intentionally dark or serious. We’re going to keep it on the happier end of the spectrum, because lighthearted music videos tend to have the most “weirdness” potential. Furthermore, serious videos tend to be more overt about when they’re making a statement (regardless of what culture or genre the video is from) whereas things that are meant to be consumer-friendly have room to be discreet.
Within K-Pop there are four general categories for videos that sit on the lighthearted end of the spectrum. These are Coolness-Driven,Narrative-Driven, Performance-Driven, and Statement-Driven. These categories are not mutually exclusive, as something narrative-driven can also put a strong emphasis on making a point, coolness-driven videos can have a strong emphasis on the dance. With that in mind, let’s get into the various categories:
Coolness-Driven K-Pop Videos
The number one category that drives western scrutiny of how “weird” K-Pop can be is the Coolness-Driven (CD) category. CD videos basically center around how cool the artists in question are. G-Dragon’s videos circa 2012, “Crayon” especially, are usually in this category. It’s largely about spectacle, but generally there to drive the point that this singer is just so cool. Looking back at “Crayon”, G-Dragon is literally wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY, which is a pun on his name (Kwon Jiyong) his stage name (G-Dragon) and the fashion brand Givenchy. That is some SERIOUS pun game with the only purpose of making G-Dragon seem like the coolest person around – not only can he afford Givenchy, he’s so rich he can probably own his own fashion house. This of course assumes that you associate wealth with coolness; the two are not mutually inclusive in my opinion, but it works in “Crayon.”
What drives the CD category is a lot of aesthetic shots that are seemingly unrelated to anything happening in the story, assuming there even is a story. In girl group videos, this is largely centered around sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members themselves, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see the members as especially cool. The dance, which is always a primary feature of K-Pop as a genre, is more secondary in this category. It’s more about holding up the singers as a desirable ideal, wherein the dance functions primarily to achieve that.
Western audiences tend to conflate this attempt at establishing coolness as showy or tactless. In some cases they’re right, the flashy visuals can be dialed up to an extreme that doesn’t sit well. But that’s not K-Pop’s fault, that’s the artist’s fault. G-Dragon went too far with “MichiGo” (don’t look it up, trust me) being extremely flashy and provocative to the point of being creepy. But that’s not a reason to write off K-Pop as a whole. It’s an extreme example. There are plenty of instances where western media artists do the same thing. So why is K-Pop exposed to more scrutiny?
Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features primarily, acting as a vehicle for us to get to know the members of a band. The story can be extremely simple, like a bunch of nerdy girls learning how to be sexy to win a contest (T-ARA’s “So Crazy”) or falling in love with a girl but being so shy that you panic every time she approaches you. (Seventeen’s “Nice”) Sometimes the story is vague, but the setting is prominent, so you get a sense of a story while the plot is reduced to only a few moments of action. (TWICE’s “Like OOH-AHH”, EXID’s “L.I.E”) But even when the story is simple or implicit, the video is incomplete without it.
On the other hand, there are videos where the story is a major part of the experience. The best example I can think of is C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”. The video is at first glance very serious, but quickly becomes anything but, which is why I count it as a lighthearted example. There are two versions of the video, one with the other members of C-Clown and one with just Kangjun. The solo version, however, is the one we’re talking about, but the other one (the “Member Version”) is totally worth watching anyway. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, please watch it. I beg of you.
The point is everything in the video is played up for comedy, but because we spend so much time with Kangjun and get to know his character in this video, we get the sense that we know him.(Even though we don’t really. Please beware the dangers of parasocial relationships.) ND K-Pop videos are meant for us to have a very direct relationship with the singers in them. We see how the members react to the various changes in their environment, what relationships form, and most importantly, what actions they take, if any, to change their situation.
Sometimes this actually trickles into expanded universe territory, as narratives will form across videos and you learn about the members as if they were characters in a TV show. BTS is the example everyone thinks of, and they did establish the connected universe as a viable option for K-Pop bands. But I want to bring up VIXX’s “Conception” series, which had an implicit narrative explored through different aesthetics. LOONA, which has the LOONAVERSE, is also worth mentioning. I honestly don’t know much about the LOONAVERSE, but the wiki has a very good breakdown of all the different theories surrounding it.
The story delivery is what confuses people in America. This may be because a K-Pop video is drawing specifically on Korean cultural norms that are virtually unknown to western audiences, but I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that. It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique – again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. There are also issues that plague music videos in general: people mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see the implied story as incomplete rather than implied. However, it’s worth noting that many western artists of VERY high acclaim make story-based videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail to balance it, but get millions if not billions of views. Food for thought.
Performance-Driven (PD) K-Pop is when the dance is more at the forefront than the members themselves. This isn’t as big a thing now, but it was really big in the early 2010s. SM Entertainment nailed these videos with bands like f(x) and EXO, with “Electric Shock” and “Overdose” respectively. miss A and T-ARA, while not from SM Entertainment, also nailed dances with such titles as miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl” and T-ARA’s “Sexy Love”. It has made a bit of a resurgence with bands like Momoland and Stray Kids, where the dance is the most primary part of their videos in many cases.
This can actually be a very positive thing for a band, because PD videos focus almost entirely on the members’ talents. It also makes departures from this format that much more noteworthy, such as f(x)’s “Red Light” and “4 Walls”. This format can also be picked up by any band with ease, since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance. That said, I wouldn’t say this is picked up by all groups. BIGBANG’s videos generally lack choreography, focusing almost entirely on the vocal performances. (Arguably, these could indeed count as PD videos because the vocal performances feature so prominently.) That said, I’d argue that this is the most uniquely K-Pop category, as dance and other modes of onstage performance are so important to the genre as a whole.
The “weirdness” factor comes in when you consider that western videos don’t really emphasize performance in the same way. Whereas most K-Pop idols are strong all-around talents, western artists tend to focus on one category or another. Just because you’re a specialized singer does not mean you have to be a specialized dancer, and vice versa. It’s also my impression that westerners think idols who don’t perform on instruments are somehow not artists, just performers…as if not playing a guitar or the drums devalues the agonizing amount of time and training required to get the dance right. Art comes in many forms. K-Pop deserves to be recognized as such.
This last category is the hardest to pin down, but it’s the most effective. Sometimes, K-Pop videos try to make statements about other forms of media. A lot of these tend to be serious, but as stated earlier, we’re explicitly talking about lighthearted videos that align more closely with “Fantastic Baby” and “Whatcha Doin’ Today”.
The driving aspect of Statement-Driven (SD) K-Pop videos is that there is an underlying theme or message that transcends the video, and it is communicated through the various filmmaking choices. This is intentionally vague on my part, precisely because there are so many ways this can be implemented. The thing that separates this from other categories despite the overlap, is that the other categories can exist without an SD component. SD, meanwhile, has to rely heavily on the other categories in order to subvert them. You can’t get on a soap box and scream your thoughts at people unless you’re in Washington Square Park, and no one will listen to you there. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.
Let’s look at EXID’s “Ah Yeah”. There is a narrative aspect and a performance aspect, in that there is a pretty clear concept and implicit story, along with dance breaks and recognizable dance moves. But rather than being connected by a setting or an explicit group dynamic, they’re connected by the central theme. The theme in this case is sexualization and censorship, as you think the girls are being censored for heavily implied lewd content but it turns out they’re doing fairly innocent things. Even so, through most of the video, the girls’ hips are censored when they’re dancing, and the only guy we ever see in the video is plagued by two EXID members – Hani, who’s playfully seductive, and LE, who’s angry and violent. The video is making a statement about the autonomy of women, particularly from a consumerist standpoint.
Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel represent themselves as cuts of fish for sushi, ones that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store to get sold, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi for easy consumption and basically go neglected until some human girls (also played by the members) eat them and have what effectively amounts to a religious experience. This video is completely over the top, with repeated cutaways to mermaids, a mean octopus lady, and CGI tears.
It’s worth noting that KBS thought the “Catallena” music video “disregarded human life” by having the girls wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to be bought. But…did it? Consider “Catallena” as a metaphor for the commodification of women – of people – in entertainment. Being taken out of their natural habitat, put on display for people to buy into, eventually cheapened and cut down into something easily consumable – it’s pretty clear what the intent is. I’d argue that it’s notably effective because the images sit with you for a long time, and when you consider what it might mean, it clicks internally.
Let’s look at an example of a male group, specifically SHINee. Their music video “View” takes at least two viewings to really understand because, like most K-Pop, it really hides it’s story in the details. Most of the video surrounds the members hanging out with a group of girls who seduce them in some cases and just generally play around with them in all cases. They sneak into people’s pools, rob a bodega (I guess?) and go clubbing. However, if you watch the video closely at the beginning, there’s one detail that’s not given as much screen time or emphasis as is due.
The girls kidnapped them.
With that in mind the video takes on a very weird message. It’s clear that the members are more or less okay with their kidnapping, which is really weird.(DON’T KIDNAP YOUR IDOLS. PLEASE.) They never make any attempt to escape, in fact they avoid being recognized. It’s fairly clear from the opening scene that they’re idols in this universe as well. There are a lot of weird details like pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building and various moments where people try to record them on their phones.
So what gives?
Well it’s simple.
The members don’t want to be found.
The girls function symbolically in this story, hence why we barely see their faces. They represent a reality the idols are no longer a part of, and the desire the members have to go back to that reality. So as they’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility, it basically shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them, and how liberating that would be. And since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more sad.
And yet, in this video, the song is lighthearted. The activities are fun. The members are happy. The cuts are so quick you can easily miss the sad moments if you just turn your head to ask your mom for a sandwich. But the video and song are lighthearted and serene, and more than anything, it’s memorable. Even if you don’t get the story, it will sit with you just because you remember it well.
The reason these kinds of K-Pop videos get written off so frequently is because a statement or symbol runs the risk of flying way over your head if you’re not looking actively for the subtleties. And that’s not a bad thing, because if you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences watch the videos and laugh or aww for one reason or another, because they don’t want to find subtleties. It doesn’t matter if “Ah Yeah” is about censorship, “Catallena” is about commodification, and “View” is about escapism.
In film school, a teacher told us to watch a video for the first time to enjoy it but the second time to understand it and analyze it. There’s nothing wrong with watching a K-Pop video purely for the enjoyment of it. But enjoying something consumer-friendly doesn’t make it bad. Marvel movies are mainstream but those can be amazing. TV shows that are high in melodrama are beloved by many. We watch America’s Got Talent and revel in seeing talented singers and dancers, so why is it bad when someone listens to a band where all members are more than competent at both?
K-Pop is an art form. It’s a medium. It provides unique challenges but unique opportunities. But it’s not just consumer-friendly, it’s consumer-challenging. The best videos are the ones where they sit with you. Maybe it’s because they’re flashy like “Catallena” or you want to learn the dance to “Shine” by Pentagon or maybe you just think G-Dragon looks really good in hats. But the more they sit with you, the more they challenge you to think about them. However “weird” they may be, don’t write them off because they were funny that one time you watched at a friend’s house.