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 reactors would poke fun at K-Pop videos. 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. There was no attempt to engage with what drives K-Pop videos.
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, and the lack of information actually became one of the reasons I started this blog.
4Minute’s “Whatcha Doin’ Today”
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 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. Honestly, 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.
What’s 4 minute doing today?
After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is a satire of assumed masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good. Rather, it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (also backup dancers.)
The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday. They also act as the dominant characters, picking on men and being attended to by women. The backup dancers, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and 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.
What qualifies as “Weird”?
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?
Lighthearted kPop videos
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 production design is what is a conduit to symbolism. Details about the world 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). Consumer-friendly music videos 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 wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY. GIYONGCHY is a pun on his given 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 usually in the form of sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see them 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 than other genres?
Narrative-Driven K-Pop Videos
Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features centrally. The story acts 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. Therefore, you get a sense of a story, even with 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.
C-Clown’s “Far Away…Young Love”
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. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, so please watch it. I beg of you. (Also, it has the same baseline as the Gerudo overworld theme from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Seriously.)
The point is, everything in the video is played up for comedy. However 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 enable 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. 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.
Is K-Pop really that confusing?
The story delivery is what confuses people in America…for some reason. Some people may say this is because a K-Pop draws on Korean cultural norms that are “unknown” to western audiences. However, I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that being the case. Maybe some references are unique to K-Pop, but overarching storytelling techniques should stand on their own.
It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique. Again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. But I also don’t think that’s sufficient. I have watched many movies where nothing happened, and my colleagues would zero in on a detail that was more vague and “meta” than anything in K-Pop. I don’t think meta narratives are the problem.
There are also issues that plague music videos in general. People mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see an implied story as incomplete rather than implied. It’s worth noting, though, that many western artists make videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail, but get millions if not billions of views.
Food for thought.
Performance-Driven K-Pop Videos
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”. Since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance, so picking it up feels second nature. That said, I wouldn’t say dance is universal to every K-Pop group. 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.
Performance or “Weirdness”?
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, all of which deserve recognition.
Statement-Driven K-Pop Videos
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 an underlying theme that transcends the video. Often, this 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. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.
EXID’s “Ah Yeah”
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. You think the girls were censored for lewd content, as implied. However, 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. The only guy in the video is plagued by 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”
Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel play cuts of fish. Specifically, they are fish that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi and are neglected. Eventually, 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”. 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. When you sit for a while and 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 flies by.
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. Pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building. Various moments where people try to record them on their phones. Members sprinting past cars.
So what gives?
Well it’s simple.
The members don’t want to be found.
The Horrifying Realization of “View”
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. They’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility. It shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them. It shows exactly how liberating that would be. Since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more heartbreaking.
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 things 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 people write off these kinds of K-Pop videos so frequently is because symbols can fly way over your head if you’re not looking actively for them. And that’s not a bad thing. If you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences laugh or “aww” at the videos, 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.
Some people just don’t care.
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.
Music videos are art.
K-Pop is art.
And art is beautiful.