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.
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.
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THEMES OF DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE.
Science fiction and K-Pop have a long and storied history. From the likes of Lee Jung Hyun’s “Wa” to the stylings of bands like BIGBANG in the early 2010s, science fiction has been used as both a stylistic and a symbolic element in many music videos. This stems from a number of cultural and social contexts that, while prevalent in other countries, are particularly prominent in South Korea. But, what’s fascinating about K-Pop is how varied the aesthetics of the sci-fi are, while still retaining many of the same themes.
For cultural context, it’s pretty easy to see the correlation between dystopian sci-fi and South Korea’s relationship with it’s northern neighbor. Dystopian themes in fiction often are reactionary towards events that are occurring in a certain time period. And South Korea’s been in a dire political situation for over 60 years. Even before that, Korea hasn’t known peace, having to deal with Japanese imperialism long before the conflict with the North. It’s no wonder that there’s always been a large amount of K-Pop videos that deal with dystopia – while I don’t read everything as explicit political commentary about the relationship between the North and South, I do think that it’s stemming from a very real place in the cultural psyche.
Now is when I state the obligatory: this is not a political essay. I have no intent of telling you what you should and shouldn’t believe. Capitalism versus socialism versus libertarianism, that’s not the issue I am putting at stake here. What I am trying to say is that there are certain aspects of the world that contribute to why K-Pop is the way it is, and what its music videos communicate in context. I know many film critics like to bring anything and everything back to politics, but as an artist that has never been my angle. I do think, however, science fiction has inherently political connotations, and therefore I desire to put it in context.
However, there are more layers to K-Pop’s use of sci fi. One is the cultural context of suicide and depression in the country – Korea has the 10th highest overall suicide rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Depression is not well treated, and age discrimination as well as socio-economic discrimination largely contribute to this. As a result, you get visual representations of this stress in media. In K-Pop, what we see is a lot of normal people placed into highly emotional and stressful situations, and often times succumbing to whatever situation they’re in. Science fiction, much like horror, takes that to a natural extreme, wherein the circumstance often leads to demise of some sort.
Lastly, there is a particular irony that arises from science fiction used in an idol setting. I have found in my six years of listening to K-Pop that the genre is incredibly self-aware, in spite of its treatment towards idols. The institution knows that it puts these people – often young kids, through horrible processes in order to create an easily accessible product. However, it does so by intimately incorporating us, the fans, into their lives – something which other sects of the music industry haven’t figured out yet. While this does give idols a connection with their fans, which I view as inherently positive, it does put the idols in a perilous position of feeling like their own actions aren’t really their own.
Art imitates life at the best of times. K-Pop, especially in the last ten years, has given us a lens into the lives of idols, both in a positive and negative way. Sci-fi in K-Pop largely orients us in the negative aspects of their lives, but at its best, it orients us in both, and shows us the discrepancy between the two. We get both the elation of glamour and the fear of failure, all in one. When most of the world separates the two, showing elegance as a byproduct of capitalist oppression, K-Pop uses it to communicate something else – the issue of fame.
While K-Pop’s use of sci-fi tends to blend these elements in certain ways, it’s not necessary for videos to use all three at any given time. Let’s look at an example: Brown Eyed Girls’ “Sixth Sense”. This is one of my favorite K-Pop videos, in part because of nostalgia. This was one of the first K-Pop videos I ever saw, when I was fifteen. Brown Eyed Girls was one of the first groups I ever “stanned”. While I do not consider myself a true stan of any group anymore, I have a special place in my heart for Brown Eyed Girls. If I ever met Ga-In in person, I would probably die on the spot from a heart attack, my life’s purpose complete.
Anywho, “Sixth Sense” combines the elements of politics and the idol industry without including the themes of depression and anxiety, at least not overtly. The video mainly revolves around a protest, where an authoritarian regime is gearing up to attack unarmed protesters. These unarmed protesters, in true K-Pop fashion, protest through dance. Peppered through the video are vignettes with each of the four members. Ga-In is sitting in a chair, wearing a military jacket and having her wrists bound. Narsha is in a pen of some sort, surrounded by cameras and lights, walking around on all fours. Jea Kim is lying in a pool, being rained on, also with tied wrists. And Miryo is chained in front of some microphones.
Immediately we get a sense of some sort of mythos that we don’t know the details of. Judging from the visual context, all four of them are prisoners of this regime, and judging from the fact that the military force is entirely male and Narsha is sexualized as a pet, there are themes of exploitation of women. However, the mass synchronicity of this military is very visually reminiscent of videos of North Korean soldiers. The clothing is also fairly contemporary; the only thing that seems particularly futuristic is Miryo’s red coat and thats only because it’s leather.
Let’s go back to the idol elements though. The sexual exploitation of women in entertainment as a whole appears to be what’s on blast here, judging from how all the women are imprisoned. Narsha’s character is interesting because she’s hyper-sexualized, but seems to be torn between enjoying the attention, from how she doesn’t ever reject the cameras and lights, and being autonomous, from joining the protest ultimately.
There’s also Miryo’s role as being the spokesperson and rapper. Rap is often where the anger and resentment in a song comes out, but also is one of the most easily accessible modes of musical storytelling. As the rap speeds up, so too does her discontent increase, until she rips out of her chains. I parallel this imagery to idol culture because she is literally forced to be a spokesperson in this scene. She’s forced to speak for this regime presumably – she isn’t speaking for the revolution, that’s for the dance part. She’s speaking for the people who oppress her. That’s not unlike an idol who is being put onstage by a record company that doesn’t care about them. I am not making any accusations towards any company in particular, I am dressing a systematic issue.
“Sixth Sense” is an excellent video for its use of politics and its commentary on idol culture. But let’s go in the opposite direction – something with very few political connotations, but one that covers anxiety, depression, and tragedy.
VIXX’s “Error”, when it came out, got me so hyped I started pacing around the room to calm down. But I couldn’t help it. My teenage heart was freaking out. The visuals were so powerful, the story was so communicative, and the music – my god, the music. VIXX never fails to deliver on the vocals.
The story is Frankenstein meets Romeo and Juliet. Hongbin, the visual of the band – and one of several members who are professional actors – is some sort of robot tech. He has a girlfriend (played by Heo Youngji from girl group Kara) who dies from some untreatable illness. In his grief, he…well, it’s unclear. I think he turned himself into a robot and removed his heart so that he could cope. The bit that’s not clear to me is if he was a robot in the first place, I have always assumed not.
Anyway, after surgically removing his grief, Hongbin decides to rebuild his girlfriend as a robot, since that’s clearly his area of expertise. He creates the body but there’s malfunction, so he fixes her dispassionately. His expressions fascinate me in these scenes because there’s clear internal struggle, but his reactions are incredibly subdued. When he looks at Youngji, he doesn’t look at her with desire or sadness, simply determination and wonder. It isn’t until he gives Youngji her memories back he actually emotes, and even then it’s subdued.
Eventually, some suited authorities find Hongbin and Youngji and see that Youngji was an illegally created robot, so they plan to take her away, presumably to either reprogram or decommission her. Hongbin pushes the suits away and runs to the building chamber, where he and Youngji share a look of resignation. He kisses her on the forehead, and they walk towards the operating table, to which my teenaged brain practically screamed “OH MY GOD THEY’RE GOING TO DIE.”
And they do. The machine above them dismantles them as Hongbin cries silently. Youngji closes her eyes right as the machine goes to deliver the final blow, but Hongbin just sits and watches. All that’s left is a heart, which sputters and dies. I don’t really know whose heart it is, but I don’t think it matters.
Grief plays a huge role in the video, particularly the stage of Bargaining, whereby the person grieving decides “maybe if I do XYZ I’ll be happy and the pain will go away.” I have found, at least in my personal journey with mental illness, that Bargaining has played a huge role, because I and people I know have avoided getting help because they think it’s a sign of weakness. While making a robot of your dead girlfriend and giving it her memories isn’t exactly orthodox, I do think that the sentiment holds. There is no magic to make depression or grief go away, only ways to cope with it.
Obviously, Hongbin’s character does not cope with this loss, and ends up dying with Youngji. But there is a note of happiness in his resignation, because he got to spend a few more minutes with Youngji and come to terms with her death. He had to realize that she was not really alive, and that they both had to stop this charade. But the tragedy is: in accepting Youngji’s death, he dies too. It’s easy to experience a loss and think that the world will end because of this loss. He doesn’t even give himself a chance to start over. That’s heartbreaking.
This story couldn’t really work in fantasy. Yes you could have an Orpheus and Eurydice style resurrection, where one mistake sends the loved one back into the abyss. You could also have something like the Resurrection Stone in Harry Potter, where even though you bring back the dead, they don’t really belong in our world anymore. However, both of these have external consequences, wherein the universe is somehow thrown out of balance for your actions.
The reason “Error” is powerful is because you have a completely internalized struggle externalized through science fiction. Yes, the authorities do get involved. However, the authorities are not the ones who see the emotional core of his actions, nor do they necessarily hold him accountable. They just want the body back. In this way, the authorities are not the governing body of justice, it’s only Hongbin who experiences the consequences of his own actions. He’s the one who gives up his humanity. He’s the one who creates the metal body. And he’s the one who ultimately suffers. The only person thrown out of balance is himself.
Science fiction and horror allow for the externalization of the internal, something most genres don’t get to depict in the same way. Science fiction works best when it’s the creations of humans that turn against them, whether systematic like in “Sixth Sense” or literal like in “Error”. This is humans creating a situation because of some sort of need, that they then must experience the consequences of. Horror too works best when it’s based on internal struggles. Look no further than the works of Junji Ito for that – while the manga artist creates fantastical situations, the more terrifying elements are what occur when humans get involved in such circumstances. It’s the humans that tend to be more terrifying.
I’d like to look at one more example for thematic understanding of sci-fi in K-Pop: BIGBANG’s “Monster”. As I’ve said before, I generally avoid talking about BIGBANG on my blog because of Burning Sun. However, there’s no way I can’t talk about this video in this context.
BIGBANG’s “Monster”, like “Sixth Sense”, doesn’t have an explicit story – it’s mostly just the five members of BIGBANG trying to escape a science facility. They are, evidently, the world’s most glamorous experiments. They are adorned with bizarre costumes that look almost humorous in how extra they are, however when shadows creep into the frame, we see their eyes and faces morph. Sometimes their eyes glow. Sometimes they have cuts across them. Sometimes they have black tattoos. At one point, Daesung’s eyes are glowing gold, but his reflection has the black markings appearing all over. They transform in a number of overt and subtle ways.
What makes the video so poignant, however, is the ending. When G-Dragon finally escapes, there’s nothing outside. Just ash. A city is on the horizon, but with the ash falling like snow, how can we even be sure there are people there? Visually this, to me, is indicative of a sensitivity in South Korea to aerial warfare and its consequences – the idea that everything you know and love can be wiped out in a second.
In terms of where the themes of depression come up, “Monster” is lyrically a song about someone who undergoes a transformation that makes them seemingly unrecognizable to their loved ones. When applied to this setting it means that they have undergone so many experiments that their loved ones don’t see them in the same way. This is hits me hard because mental illness causes such a transformation, one that can be seen but not easily quantified. During that time where it’s not articulated by the person who is struggling, when they can’t put their finger on what’s wrong – that’s when the most damage is done.
Simply replace experiments with training, and you get an extremely dark self portrait. And yes, I say self – G-Dragon was one of the writers of the song. It also explains the elaborate outfits and “hidden self” imagery – we view idols in a public forum and put pressure on them to reach a personality ideal they can never reach.
I go into more detail in my article on Twice’s “Likey”, but my personal belief is that we need to stop treating idols as objects and more as people. “Monster” is a video that visualizes the struggle these idols go through in a very interesting way, by depicting the singers as prisoners. It’s a great storytelling technique, but it could easily fall under the radar under the VFX and fun costumes.
That’s the risk K-Pop idols run when they make a science fiction themed video. It’s easy to get caught up in how glamorous something is and how beautiful it is, and miss the emotion behind it. And the emotion is very, very real. It is possible to watch these videos and enjoy them on that surface level. I certainly do enjoy that. But when you put a video in context, it makes me appreciate it that much more. And that’s what I’m here to do, help you appreciate K-Pop for what it is: a beautiful yet terrifying niche genre of filmmaking.
A new episode of Neverland is up! Without further ado, let’s dive into it!
This is the first time the opening sequence is showing in an episode – if you’d like to read my deep dive on the choices I made during the OP, please click here. We also get the title of this new episode: “City of Glass.”
This is a literary reference, though not to The Mortal Instruments book. Rather, it is a reference to City of Glass by Paul Auster, a mystery with heavy psychological undertones. Without getting into spoiler territory, the novel’s main themes are the perception of reality, child abuse, and language. I highly recommend reading the graphic novel version, which has been of huge influence to me as a visual artist and to how I have approached this remaster.
The connection with Neverland and City of Glass may seem superficial at first, but I wanted to communicate a similar disassociation from reality. The thing about music videos – particularly those in K-Pop – is the backstory is often told through bits and pieces, largely symbolic ones. The graphic novel version of City of Glass also uses highly symbolic elements to immerse you in a world inherently disassociated from reality. And, as you’ll see in this episode, a disassociation is beginning.
The first scene is from “Stigma”, the “Wings” teaser for V. V gets arrested (again) for vandalism, and is getting interviewed by cops. I didn’t do a whole lot of editing here because I genuinely really like the sequence as it stands; however, I did incorporate elements from later in the teaser, because I plan on using the rest of the teaser at a later point. The scene depicts V’s (presumed) father abusing him and his sister, using V getting beaten by an unseen figure to communicate this.
The video then cuts into “I Need U” (the original version). V is sitting around, takes a walk, takes out his anger on a water bottle, then goes back to his house. Upon seeing his (presumed) father beat the sister, V goes and kills him. I made sure that the music ramped up intensity, and the diegetic sound design fades away as the stabbing continues. It cuts back to “Stigma” right at the end of the sequence, and V asks the cop if he can make one last call. Full disclosure, whether or not the sequence with the cop is in reality or not is entirely up to you. While I have my own intent with the scene, I structured the scene such that it can be interpreted either way.
We then cut away to Namjoon in the “Reflection” teaser. Namjoon tattoos a bird on himself (gotta admire those fine motor skills) then burns the drawing he was basing it off of and drinks the ashes.
He then passes out and the colors get more intense. I played with the sound design a bit here because I wanted to communicate a feeling of suffocation and, as said earlier, disassociation. Interspersed are clips from “Blood Sweat and Tears” that depict V jumping off a balcony.
When Namjoon finally comes to, he hears a phone ring and tries to get into a phone booth. Try as he may, he can’t get in. If the call is coming from V, this means he can’t reach one of the people he cares about so deeply.
The final sequence is back to Jin in the black and white room. Weird things start to happen, like the distortion of the world around him. He goes to open the window, and instead there is a mirror – and his reflection is in color. When he turns away from the reflection, he turns to color as well, and walks to the door. Once again, I want the absence of color to communicate something.
Jin eventually walks down the hall and sees the same painting that Namjoon was tattooing. We see a number of flash forwards to events that will occur later in the series. He walks towards them, presumably to find something or someone, then we see on the floor of the black and white room – which is now in color – he has six photos, each representing another member of the group.
V is trapped in memories of something he did. Namjoon is removing himself from reality to the point where he can’t reach those he loves. And Jin can’t seem to fit into the black and white room. All three of them are trying to disassociate from their own actions, at some grave consequence. This is something I intend to play with further, but I think this is a good way to wrap up this analysis. The next episode will be up February 1st, 2020, and we will get more with all the members as opposed to vignettes.
But for now, I think we can leave this here. I welcome any constructive criticism, and I hope that you all enjoy the new episodes in the coming weeks!
To bring in the new year (and new decade!) I have brought to you the first episode of the Neverland Project. With it, I am giving a breakdown of the seven minute episode, so that without giving too many spoilers for my intent for the rest of the fan project, I can show you my own creative choices and what they might mean for future episodes.
BTS’s story as portrayed in these music videos centers around several themes – mental illness, abuse, youth, and death. While the first two are prevalent in the rest of Neverland, it’s the last two – youth and death – that are central to this episode. The title Neverland – which I pulled from a tag embedded in some of their promotional posts for “Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 2” – is evocative of both. Neverland, as it originates from Peter Pan, is an island in the sky where children don’t grow up if they choose not to. Keep this in mind.
We start with lines from the end of The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. This short story is once again about a paradise hiding something extremely dark, without spoiling anything. It’s something that is repeatedly referenced by BTS in Spring Day, and fits thematically with the rest of the work. But the lines are also about moving on from something tragic – in a way, accepting your grief.
I didn’t edit much of the first bit with the clips from Prologue. I honestly love this scene for how it establishes character relationships with little to no dialogue, as well as introducing the motif of the photograph. The gas station setting will also be relevant in later episodes.
The montage is taken directly from the original movie I made back in 2014, comprised of clips from “I Need U” and “Prologue”. It shows every character and the motifs of trains, water, and drugs. There is a film grain filter over it to establish this as a flashback. I also introduce color as a technique – note that Jin stays in grayscale, even when the rest of the world begins to turn to color when he finally looks at the photograph.
Next is V and Namjoon running from cops. I had to mix the audio myself, since this came directly from the “Run” video. I used “Dope” as the soundtrack, because V’s lines immediately flow into Jin’s, but then the scene cuts off. Plus, that’s a song about working hard and not caring what people think – very indicative of where this story begins, and not where it ends.
I always felt that “Begin” as a teaser was very ambiguous, and I wished to use many of the images from it. But in the original Neverland, I simply dropped the trailer in with minimal editing. But I hold myself to a higher standard than that now! I am a twenty-one year old film student, I want to show off!
So, I edited the clip – rearranging the clips so that it was an actual dream. The colors are also more vibrant and intense than in the original. I don’t know if this is what was intended by the band or the producers, but alas, I am acting as an editor to tell a story I think works. This is not a knock on the original. I simply wanted to give my own take.
The last sequence was most difficult. Everything starts grayscale, with the apple in red. When Jin focuses his camera, the flower alone enters color, and then as the candle blows out, the color returns, mostly. It’s still muted in areas.
There’s also a dream sequence, using clips from Spring Day, where everything seems to be happy but again, nothing really is.
Note that when Jin enters the room, in the last seconds of the video, he steps out of the color and into a grayscale room.
This may not be as long of a breakdown as the ones for later episodes, but I hope it shows you how proud I am of this project. The next episode will be up on January 15th, 2020 – with that, there will be more details about my process. But for now, I hope you like this episode, and that it’s able to interest you.
Before the first episode of Neverland goes up, I want to talk about another band that I’m very passionate about. They’re a band I saw live almost by accident at KCON NY 2018, and I’ve been effectively in love with since. They’ve got an edgy style, they’re not afraid to push boundaries, they’re talented dancers and singers, and – importantly for me – they write their own music.
I am of course talking about the JYP boy group Stray Kids. I honestly didn’t know them barely at all before I saw them (I was there to see Super Junior) but I quickly grew fond of them. They have a great spirit and are all about positivity – things I generally need in life. K-Pop is hard to love when you know the idol industry can be so taxing. To see a band so full of life – largely because of their own work – makes me really excited to be a fan in general.
Fans that keep up with Stray Kids probably expected my first Stray Kids article to be about “Levanter” since that’s been doing really well at the music shows and is their most recent release. And I do plan on talking about that – however, my heart is set on “Miroh” as of late. And can you blame me? It’s a great pop beat with a good hook, gets your heart racing, has great choreography and never has a dull moment. It’s a great song to jam out to. The lyrics also hit hard – “It’s not hard in this rough jungle” is very indicative of where new K-Pop is heading.
I actually want to talk about the VFX of the video – because that’s what caught my film student eye when I first watched this video. It was surprisingly not too fake looking or ostentatious, but is prevalent throughout the video. There’s also a variety of filters and camera effects that give the feeling of a cohesive time and place, a world that you want to experience more of.
Color is the basis of all film effects, and there is much to be said in way of color for “Miroh”. The entire film is very cool toned, with occasional warm lights to balance it out. Most of the video is blue and red, even the clothes falling along those lines. The backup dancers wear black and the boys begin to adopt black as a clothing color later in the video, along with neon green. However, since so much of the video is in the cooler palette, I’d say the dominant color palette of the video is the cool tones, with light and dark blue being the two dominant colors and red being an accent.
The color pushes the story to us. The story is admittedly a bit vague, but it’s the standard dystopian story with a Stray Kids twist – oppressive force appears, seems to be in control, dancing boys come in and save everybody. This has a number of symbolic meanings, largely pertaining to the idol industry but also to the way kids are treated in any environment where people enjoy ignoring them. Since the message of the song is pushing through adversity, the oppressive force of men in lavish suits is representative of such adversity. This is a theme that’s come up in K-Pop videos as early as Brown Eyed Girls’ “Sixth Sense” in 2011.
Blues invoke generally calm, peaceful, and melancholy emotions in us – so red as an accent stands out as a color indicative of passion. The combination of the two perfectly underscores the themes of the video. Most dystopian K-Pop videos either go the route of green undertones to look more cinematic or white overtones to look more sparse. Stray Kids does neither – they have their own spin on the visuals, which automatically sets their video apart from the norm.
The first instance of VFX we get is around 15 seconds in, and it’s a transition. We go from some security footage to I.N standing in front of the security televisions, but this is done through glitch effects that are centered around I.N himself, so it feels like they are moving with him.
The next (major) effect we get is Felix’s glitches. It starts with him speaking the lyrics to the song while the backup dancers run towards the oppressors. As the beat ramps up, it cuts between different clips of him talking, but saying all the same words, giving the feeling of being choppy. Then, the background turns into pieces of code and stock footage of the city they’re in, all animated to the tempo.
Of course there is the title card that says “Miroh” and the giant lion balloon. The balloon in particular shows up throughout the video as a repeated symbol of power. The thing is, in this video, it doesn’t show up in too many shots, and in those shots, it tends to be one of the only effects there. Digital VFX work best when you rely mostly on practical effects, (trigger warning: gore) and then use digital for certain elements that won’t carry otherwise. Everything that the boys interact with firsthand is a real set piece, so digital VFX like the balloon make the video even more powerful.
In terms of practical effects, there aren’t too many to speak of here, since the video generally relies on the band members and their dancing. But there are a few we can talk about, notably around 2:50 in the video. The setting goes from day to night, and while the backdrop is definitely digitized (very well, I might add) the lights on the band members change, so that it actually looks like a transition to night. This is a very simple and powerful effect that really works to establish a change in time. Building on this, there are also flood lights in the back that toggle in and out during dances, which also separate these scenes from the day sequences where we actually see the oppressors.
There are some other effects throughout the video. Bang Chan’s face and hands are stabilized as he physically moves in a circle, so it feels more like the world around him is spinning. There are also transitions that glitch across or bubble outwards, giving a sense of motion. The thing is if the video didn’t have these transitions, the video would still be great. A good effect means that the video could work without it, and these transitions generally elevate the video, they do not distract from it.
I want to come back to the backgrounds being digital for a brief second. We see the boys on rooftops a lot. These backdrops generally don’t change, beyond moving with the camera angle (the day night shift is an exception.) However, the backdrops are far enough away that we don’t have them in sharp focus, which I think is beneficial to the video. If they were in sharp focus we’d actually be able to see that they weren’t real (just look at any Transformers movie that tries to go into hyperrealism with its effects.) Plus, the dramatic camera shots give a feeling of believably to these images.
The last effect I want to talk about is the noise filter over everything. The entire MV has a noise filter over it, which makes it feel like the movie was shot on film and not digital. This is extremely important to the video as a whole. It flattens all of the effects, and gives us the feeling that everything is part of one environment. The issue with shooting on digital is you have perfect images, and adding effects to the background, while easier, can look fake. Having a noise filter over it makes it grittier and more real.
“Miroh” is a beautiful video. Stray Kids doesn’t cease to disappoint on even the smallest things. The scope of this video is very small but it feels so much bigger – and that’s what you want from a music video, the feeling that something is bigger without forcing it. “Miroh” does this perfectly, in great part because Stray Kids themselves have the skills to carry a video without the extra stuff. The effects just bring out everything good about them. Good filmmaking is best at its most minimal, but when you have special effects and they work, nothing can beat that.
Here is the opening sequence and breakdown for The Neverland Project, my fan project based on BTS’s music videos from “I Need U” through “Spring Day”. As someone who is seeking to educate through my blog, I think I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t give a rundown of techniques used on a project of my own. I will avoid spoilers as much I can for the actual project, but I may leave some hints scattered in – so keep an eye out!
Before I start, I want to say I’m not trying to “solve” the mysteries of these videos, or speculate as to what the originals are about. As far as I’m concerned, BTS made the videos with their ideas, and have even made comics in their universe and such. That is all unrelated to what I’m doing. I am telling my own narrative through this method. I’m using the members and their acting, and the various images, putting my own spin on them. Thus, I’m not really taking anything as “canon” or “not canon”, but creating a work that you, as viewers, can analyze and derive meaning from on your own.
I wanted to create an anime-style opening for Neverland, for a number of reasons. One was probably ego, since I wanted to flaunt my editing skills. But can you blame me? The other was a desire to use a lot of clips that I didn’t think fit in the actual narrative storyline. I particularly wanted to use BTS’s Wings Tour teaser, because I loved the experimental shots and general symbolism. I also have wanted to – even long after I stopped listening to BTS regularly – make a video using “Boy Meets Evil”, because I think it’s a song that climbs so beautifully. It ramps up tension extremely well. So, I figured, why not make an opening sequence? I’m doing an episodic structure anyway.
The theme went through a number of iterations, because I couldn’t settle on the order of images and the colors. I also had way too much going on in way of commissions, schoolwork, and another project I’ve been working on that’s completely unrelated to K-Pop. So I figured that a teaser video could expand upon my concept while I work on finishing the rest of it. The work itself is half done, with the first episode needing a bit of fine tuning before its release.
So now that we have a bit of context for the production of this piece, let’s get into it!
The opening shot is from BTS’s “Spring Day” – it is a train entering a tunnel. Tonally speaking, I think this is the perfect shot for Neverland. I feel like the themes I play off of from BTS’s work include anxiety taking away the figurative light from the lives of young people. So, since both come up frequently in the work, and both are in this image, this is the perfect opener.
Then, I have V climbing up the tower. (Prologue) This will be a scene in a later episode. Notice that this is all in black and white – color is a motif I use frequently in all of my work. It communicates emotion and personality well. But the absence thereof also says something.
We see V look at the camera. (Wings) Things become color for a split second, before we move into Namjoon walking through the train. (Spring Day) When he opens the train back door, it’s the Omelas motel.
Interspersed with this is Jin staring up the stairwell. (Spring Day) He’s in full color, the rest is in black and white. As he pulls his hands up to frame the screen, the world becomes color, and when he puts them down, he himself becomes black and white. Once again, this is my way of playing with color to indicate certain plot points or themes.
This next sequence revolves entirely around V. It cuts between two shots – the first is V growing wings. (Wings) The second is him standing on top of the tower from earlier. (Prologue) Below the wing shots, I’ve added color images from “Stigma”, which show a confrontation with cops. This will come into play early in the story, so log these images. Also log the absinthe imagery (Blood Sweat and Tears) and Namjoon standing in the train. (Spring Day)
The incidental sequences with J-Hope, Jungkook, and Jimin are all crucially important to the story. I won’t say how, but note that J-Hope is in full psychedelic color, while Jimin and Jungkook are in gray with elements of color around them.
Another grayscale scene – just Jin watching his friends through the camera. (Prologue) It cuts to a full-color shot of fireworks. (Reflection) Things become very montage-heavy after this. I heavily edited and layered many of these images, but note that the elements of color start to get bolder and more experimental – and we amp up to full color as the music progresses. I did this to increase tension, since viewers will acclimate to one way the motif is being used, and this acts as a change of pace.
Note the rest of the images used throughout the opening. J-Hope is pulling at the walls in a padded room. (Mama) V falls on the ground, beaten by an unseen force. (Stigma) All of the boys have a pillow fight. (Run) Distorted retro images of Jin and other experimental elements flicker across the screen. (Epilogue) Jimin submerges his head in water. (I Need U) Jungkook runs towards the motel. (Spring Day) Suga is surrounded by fire. (Epilogue) Jin’s face cracks open as if he’s made of glass. (Wings)
All of these images will become important scenes later on. I don’t mean that each one will be game changing, pivotal etc. But, these images will have much more clarity in the future.
In the final moments of the opening, I have BTS walking through a field. (Spring Day) Yes this image has appeared already, and I probably will use this image at some point in the Neverland episodes. But I also added V smiling at the camera, with his wings wide, and Jin’s face cracking again. (Wings)
I should note that V is not a malevolent figure in this story, but as you will come to see, his actions do affect the story significantly. So, who is the protagonist? Is it him? Jin? Or one of the other members?
This concludes the breakdown of my edits for the Neverland opening. I welcome any constructive criticism – anything can help me to improve my work. I started this project because it posed a challenge – creating a story from a bunch of connected films that take on wildly different filmmaking styles is no small task. It’s even more difficult to communicate a feeling through these constantly shifting pieces. So this has been an adventure for me. There will be more episodes coming soon, starting January 1st and generally releasing every few weeks.
This is a long time coming. I’ve been promising this article for a while, as a part of my Cinnamon Bubblegum series. But, with recent developments in the K-Pop industry, I think it’s pertinent that I talk about this video now.
Of course, I’m referring to the deaths of Sulli from f(x) and Goo Hara from KARA. A lot of people are saying that this is casting a light on the pressure K-Pop idols undergo. However, I think that the pressure of idols is common knowledge. The concern for me is how often K-Pop fans are willing to ignore these pressures, in order to be consumers. I think personally, that it is possible to be a healthy consumer of K-Pop. So, that is what I am going to do. I am going to use Twice’s “Likey” to explain to you how to be a healthy consumer of K-Pop.
While “Likey” a solid pop song and extremely catchy, the heart of it is in the lyrics. The song is about social media and how it becomes difficult to draw a line at the high you get from likes online, and how you take care of yourself and your mental health.
For instance, take these lyrics:
BB크림 파파파 립스틱을 맘맘마 카메라에 담아볼까 예쁘게
Put on BB cream, pat pat pat Put on lipstick, mam mam ma Shall I make a pretty pose for the camera?
For those of you who don’t know, BB Cream is a type of makeup. It’s a combination of moisturizer and foundation. It’s extremely prevalent in Korea and other Asian countries, but is also common in American makeup.
Basically, the song talks at length about how getting dolled up to look pretty is difficult, but we do it anyway for the sake of our internet audiences. It’s very similar to the point made in the video for Sunmi’s “Noir”, though “Likey” is far more subtle about getting the point to come across.
The thing about “Likey” and Twice’s other music videos is that they don’t necessarily show the point of the video overtly. A lot of the messaging, while powerful, is toned down and made subtle. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, I want to see more overt conversation happening, but at the same time, the subtlety is key to its success. You won’t notice the message the first time around, but you’ll notice it the second time. It means that the more you watch it, the more you’ll be able to get out of it.
This is absolutely a valid approach to filmmaking of any kind. For example, take Train to Busan, the 2016 Korean zombie movie. It’s a movie about zombies, sure, but there is a prevailing amount of class imagery. The main character himself is a successful businessman, accused by characters of being a “leech” – even his own daughter says this about him. Every person who he or his daughter take the time to help, however, ends up helping them in the long term. An old woman, a homeless man, a middle class man and his pregnant wife, some high school students – all are disenfranchised in some capacity by Korean societal classism and attitudes on age and gender. In the end, it’s the people on the train who submit to these ideals on their culture that become the horror of the film, not the zombies.
Comparing a Twice video to a zombie movie is probably a strange comparison, but Korean films and music videos make use of subtlety beautifully. “Likey” is no different. In the video, you see Twice performing everyday tasks, but recording them on handheld cameras. The visuals are even “filtered” at times, which takes the girls from moderately made up and undersaturated to an oversaturated world where they’re in different outfits and playing around. Hearts appear throughout, much like an Instagram post. The album is even named “Twicetagram”.
This is a good way of communicating the ideas of the video because if you like the song and peppy visuals on the surface, you will be more interested in what’s happening underneath. Once again, this is like Train to Busan. If you like zombie movies or thrillers, you will probably enjoy this movie, and if you watch it again – because it’s Train to Busan and you love it – you will see all of the subtle hints at the real message. It’s brilliantly done for this reason. Twice’s videos all tap into this same propensity for subtlety, and because of that, they’re brilliant.
STEPS TO BEING A HEALTHY CONSUMER OF KPOP
For this next part, I’m going to be pulling elements from this video, and presenting different steps for being a good K-Pop stan.
1) LIKE, BUT REALLY, COMMENT
I already mentioned the proliferation of cameras in the video, as well as filters and social media imagery. But one moment stands out to me. The moment where Momo is sitting in a chair while everyone does her hair and smiles around her. She looks visibly uneasy. She doesn’t want to sit in this seat, but she does. This is also the part with the “BB Cream pat pat pat” lyric. She’s posing for a camera but doesn’t want to be there.
There’s a lot of hate towards K-Pop idols on the internet. Some of it is from anti-fans who hate K-Pop in general, sometimes it’s fans trying to start fan wars. Sulli from f(x) was an advocate against this behavior and ultimately, the hate against her likely contributed to her death.
We don’t really think about how the idols feel about this, and it makes sense why. Trainees often have their internet access restricted, so they don’t see the things people say about them online until a great number of people already swing one way or another. Then, they tend to refine their online appearance, the same way normal people do. They tend not to get involved in fan wars because they don’t want to antagonize people. It’s a lose-lose situation, unfortunately. If they respond, they get hate from the people hating on them. If they don’t, then they run the risk of seeming detached, and people turn against them.
So, what can we do? Well, the support on social media helps. But likes only get you so far. It’s a very superficial way of telling someone you appreciate them. Especially on Instagram, where many idols congregate – there is no dislike button or anything, so your only choices are liking or commenting to tell a singer how you feel about them. As a result, there’s a number of people in the comments that do nothing but hate on these people. The things that will catch each idol’s eye more are the comments, since that’s where people are saying how they feel, and if there is too much hate in those comments, they will start to believe the hatred.
Instead of liking a post, comment on it. Words are a far less superficial form of validation and while there is a parasocial nature to any interaction with a celebrity, the fact of the matter is it’s a good way to show that you care. It might take a little longer, and a little more effort, but when they see how much love they’re getting in place of the hate, it does something positive. It shows them that they do matter to us, collectively.
2) SPEND RESPONSIBLY
There’s a lot of consumerism in this video. Jeongyeon ogles clothes she sees in a store window, store sign imagery is rampant – even the outfits push an air of consumerism. They often look too polished for the environments these girls are in. It feels off-putting, overtly glamorous, likely on purpose.
K-Pop is ultimately an industry, which makes money off of digital sales, concert tickets, and merchandise. I’m not knocking it for that – I’m in the film industry, which makes its money off of production, movie tickets, and merchandise. I do not claim superiority over the idol industry in any way. But what film production has taught me is that I should be careful about which creators and filmmakers I should support.
I strongly dislike Stanley Kubrick’s films in great part because he as a filmmaker was a terrible person. It took me forever to watch The Shining, and when I did, it left a sour taste in my mouth anyway because I knew he was abusive to the lead female actor. The one Kubrick movie I do like, Full Metal Jacket, still leaves a sour taste because he would shoot a single shot thirty times. In his mind, the first twenty-nine times, it wasn’t perfect, but he wouldn’t give any criticism to his actors to improve it.
In my book, a director who manipulates everything to the point of being his definition of perfection to the point of mistreating his actors is not a director, but a dictator. That said, despite my misgivings, I have to acknowledge the contributions he made to filmmaking. I won’t sit on my high horse about it and negate such contributions. But I’d rather watch something like Baby Driver than sit through A Clockwork Orange.
Apply the same principle to K-Pop. Some record companies are known for mistreating their singers; some are less severe. Some idols are cruel or arrogant; some are not. I don’t believe in cancel culture, but what I do believe is thinking about why you’re spending money on something. Merch is fun and all, but I don’t know if I necessarily would’ve bought any of SeungRi’s music if I knew Burning Sun would happen.
I absolutely am willing to spend money on Twice because I think their message is incredibly positive. Songs like “Feel Special” are incredibly important in an industry that has long since relied on songs that don’t have as much dimension, and are meant to make you feel good on the surface. I feel the same about Twice as I do about ITZY and Stray Kids. So, I’ve gladly bought their music.
If you truly admire your favorite bands, no matter what record company they are from, then you should absolutely spend money on them if you want. Support the idols you most believe in, but also hold them accountable. If something doesn’t sit right with you, focus your attention somewhere more positive. Because fueling a fire of negativity won’t do any good.
It intrigues me that “Likey” depicts these K-Pop idols doing normal activities – getting ice cream, dancing in a school gym, and riding a skateboard. These singers would likely get mobbed in public if they did any of these things. But that’s the point of the video. These girls are human beings. They eat ice cream, they go to school, they do all sorts of activities we do.
There’s a lot of discussion online about whether or not K-Pop fans support an industry that is exploitative of “woke” culture when it historically treats women and minorities badly. I personally think the debate lacks perspective on both sides. On the one hand, some K-Pop fans would like to assume everything is okay and that there are no issues. On the other hand, shamelessly bashing the industry is not going to get us anywhere. Many people exist in the middle of this debate, thinking that yes the industry needs to be fixed, but that doesn’t mean we should stop listening to it. However, many of those fans tend to be quiet during these debates on the internet.
I personally exist somewhere in the middle, but I think my opinion can best be expressed this way: “Idols are people too.” To take any establishment, be it a company or industry, and say that it’s all bad because of the policies or people in power – that removes any level of nuance from the debate. More harmfully, this takes empathy away from the people directly affected – in this case, the idols. When we rope the entire industry together and say that it’s all terrible and we should steer clear of it however we can, we forget that there are people caught in this system.
Imagine that every act you did was suddenly televised. What would it do to your psyche? We all think we want success, but when we get it, we always wish we could go back. But that doesn’t make you any less of a person. I think the issue with the current debate over K-Pop is we assume that the K-Pop idols are a part of the industry and that’s where their own agency and thoughts end. Much of the debate is “The industry is bad, therefore all idols are fake,” and “My favorite idols aren’t fake, therefore the industry isn’t bad.” The issue is not black and white.
What we need to do, collectively, as fans, is this: we need to remember these idols are human beings before anything else. The industry can be cruel but we can’t forget that there are humans caught in it. We can hate on bands or companies until we’re blue in the face, but in doing so, we forget to have perspective. We can’t allow ourselves to do that.
The industry is rapidly changing, always, every day. New bands keep appearing, new record companies, new songs. Every time I go to bookstores in Koreatown, I see a new album for a younger group that I haven’t even listened to once. But the principles I’ve addressed here will likely not change. The fact that social media affects the psyche, the fact that we should spend on the singers we truly believe in, and the fact that these are people with real feelings we should be empathetic towards – these are all important things we need to keep in mind in the future.
Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara were not the first. They will probably not be the last. But it’s on us to prevent what happened to them from happening again. Where you put your likes, your comments, your money, and your love – it matters, in the end. Your voice matters as much as their music.
It’s been a while since I last talked about Sunmi and since then, there have been a number of releases from her, which gives me a lot to talk about. So, when doing some research on her new releases, I decided to take a listen to “Noir”. And, let’s be honest I was blown away.
“Noir” is a strangely serene, eerie alternative-pop song. It’s very repetitive in its underlying tracks and chorus, but for some reason it still feels new every time I listen to it. The song transports you to another world, a bubble that colors your whole world around you. It’s not a bubble of safety but a bubble of perspective. The music video itself is all about perceptions and changing how you act to appeal to a mass audience.
Honestly, this is something I personally grapple with as an artist and as a child of the internet. Do I tell people about all of the hard things I go through? Do I put on a smiling face? Or do I do what some people do and capitalize my troubles? “Noir” is a beautiful video that explores this issue in a number of creative ways, all with bright colors and crisp visuals. While the video does go in some scary, downright frightening directions, it never ceases to be visually pleasing – which shows the exact issue that the music video is struggling with.
The aspect ratio of the video is 1.375:1 approximately – the video is generally letterboxed on the sides. This narrows our perspective and gives us a retro feeling. 1.375:1 is in fact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standard. It’s an interesting choice because the standard aspect ratio of YouTube and most music videos is 16:9. So even though the music video is intended to talk about the internet and modern day, it’s shot to give the feeling of traditional filmmaking – the kind you’d send to be developed off site and not know how it looks until you are in the cutting room.
The colors of the video are generally pastels, but there are some bold colors that stick out – red, fuchsia, blue, turquoise, orange. There is minimal use of black, but it stands out whenever it appears – usually on one of Sunmi’s outfits, or in the shadows. But what makes the film so dynamic is the texture. In fact the first shot we get is pure texture – Sunmi’s barely-chapped, gloss covered lips. Her hair and her clothing also provide texture, not to mention cloth backgrounds, furniture and of course, fire.
The symbolism hits particularly hard, specifically with regards to how actual filmmaking works. I will deliberately choose to not be patronizing and explain the purpose of the cell phones, selfie sticks, use of “like” and “dislike”, etc. because those are so prevalent in modern culture. But what makes Sunmi’s “Noir” work is the subtle symbolism. The reference to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the knife game, the reference to “Gashina” – none of this is explicitly spelled out for the viewer, but due to our collective internet culture, we feel the weight of those visuals. They mean something to us.
However, what impacts me the most is the way framing of the shots, both on a broad and small scale, impacts the symbolism as a whole. Framing a shot can make or break your whole movie. The effectiveness of the way “Noir” is framed can be shown in four specific scenes: the flowers scene, the wine/death scene, and the makeup-gone-awry scene. The first two heavily rely on the phone as a tool for framing, but the makeup one does not – and we’ll dive into why.
The flowers scene is comprised of two specific shots. The first has Sunmi singing next to some flowers, in what looks like a rose garden. It’s edited to look like an instagram post of Sunmi’s. But in the next shot, we get a wide of where she actually is – a bathroom, with some strategically placed flower pots on a shelf next to her. She’s perfectly centered in this wide shot, sitting on a toilet in some glamorous, designer outfit, with her hair filled with butterflied as she sneezes into some toilet paper. The shot is continuous, slowly dollying into her face. In two shots, we have a whole story.
The death scene is composed of three shots, though two are nearly identical. It’s effectively the inverse of the other one, in that we start wide, then see the phone perspective. It’s pointed downwards on what seems like a tripod, but because the floor is at an angle everything feels weirdly slanted. Sunmi dominates one third of the screen. A wine bottle pours straight downwards, while a wine glass sits on the far left perfectly normal. The shadows are intensely dramatic, making Sunmi look extremely ominious. The next shot is a close up of her on the ground, next to the spilled wine, which looks suspiciously like blood. She sits up unharmed as the camera pulls away and we see her full body – but the next shot, through her phone, is an image of her on an Instagram Live, looking fairly dead next to that wine. People in the comments are worrying about her. Framing is everything.
Without the phone being used as a viewpoint, the makeup scene is particularly haunting. We get the mirror shot in the bathroom, with the main viewpoint being Sunmi’s lips as she puts red lipstick on in a pastel green room. We punch closer – the lipstick is now being spread across Sunmi’s face. The next shot of her we get, her hair is teased up, her eyeshadow is smeared, her lipstick looks kinda like the joker’s smile. Finally, we get a wide of the bathroom we saw earlier, however at an angle. She’s smack in the center, barely illuminated while her shadows fall across the wall. The intense angles of the shadows in this scene show just how broken she’s become by the time we get here – and yet she’s still taking photos for the world to see.
Sunmi’s “Noir” is a beautiful way of showing just how complicated our world has become with social media. It takes an anti-social media stance, however, I don’t think it’s completely against it. I think it would be more accurate to say this is against using social media to make a false version of yourself. As with any medium – film, literature, art – your phone can be used for good and evil. Film has been used for propaganda, literature has been used to control people, art has been used in politics. We now have the ability to cause world change with our fingertips with our phones, and yet we spend our time on social media creating false versions of ourselves. We have a powerful and dangerous tool at our disposal now. Sunmi is hyper-aware of that, and the power that comes with being an idol.
With the death of Choi Jinri, better known as Sulli of f(x), hitting headlines yesterday, we have to call into question how we treat other people online and how we depict ourselves. Sulli was actively against cyberbullying, having been the target of much of it. We have to call into question the role that K-Pop fans and anti-fans played in her life, and how we can learn from what we collectively did right and wrong. We also have to call into question the pressure idols feel to always have a good time on camera and never show their struggles – or if they do, to monetize their struggles. “Noir” is incredibly important in showing us the pain of an idol’s experience, as well as the experience of the individual. It’s not that we should collectively harness the power of social media to “do good”, but rather be aware of the power we have, and how it can positively and negatively affect our lives.
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Please check out part 1 [here.]
Fashion is one of the most effective tools in all of filmmaking – in fact, one of the most effective tools for communication in general. Fashion tells a person your personality, your background, and your artistry. Fashion can be used to create a character. It can be used to make a good impression. It can even be used in diplomatic relations, to communicate an idea. Fashion is one of the most useful things in the world, because it ultimately is a form of communication. In film, there are a lot of variables that change what the costume designer will choose. While that may seem like something that everyone would agree with, the decisions behind costumes are not intuitive ones. One swatch of material can alter the entire film.
What makes K-Pop so fascinating is how fashion is used to communicate a group aesthetic. Girls wear matching skirts and heels, while boys wear baggy pants and oversized shirts. Of course, there are a number of reasons K-Pop group fashion is the way it is. Everything has to give enough freedom of movement for the idol to dance. There needs to be cohesion so that no one looks out of place. And each member still needs to look individualized enough to be identifiable so that you can pick a clear favorite.
In addition to these principles of K-Pop fashion, there are also elements directly affected by the music video or song. The genre of the music video dictates whether you dress in an edgy or cutesy or creepy way. If the music video takes place in a different time period than the present, all the outfits have to be period as well. If there is a story arc, then the outfits must reflect the individual characters – what their interests are, what their past is, what their eventual fate might be. If anything feels askew to the audience then the spirit of the video is lost.
ITZY has only had two major music videos as of the writing this article, but their awareness for fashion is incredibly acute. While everything is eye-popping and beautiful, there is a level of harshness that makes it all the more wonderful to watch. I don’t mean harshness in that their fashion is bad – I mean that in the sense that it goes against the grain of what most K-Pop girl groups are doing, and therefore shatters expectations. It doesn’t capitalize on its weirdness, but it capitalizes on its difference. What makes it harsh is how it is used and what it communicates.
In this exploration, we’re going to cover “Dalla Dalla” and “Icy” at the same time, and we are not going to split it up by members. Instead, we’re going to cover four themes: cohesion, branding, makeup, and message. There will also references to other bands or works of art. None of this is meant to insinuate that ITZY is stealing their fashion from anybody – rather, it’s to provide a frame of reference so as to clearly illustrate the impact these girls have. The only way to make art is to learn from the artists that came before you.
Cohesion (or lack thereof)
As stated before, there is this tendency for K-Pop bands to have extremely coordinated outfits. Bands like AOA are good examples of this, where everyone wears the same outfit. I find this extremely frustrating in videos, unless it’s a video like gugudan’s “Chococo” where the plot kind of relies on everyone being dressed the way. It just feels a little lazy to me. K-Pop relies heavily on people being able to choose their favorite member, so when everyone is dressed the same my first question is “but why?”
A lot of boy bands manage to get away by the seat of their pants by having everyone dressed in the same style. BTS, SHINee, and EXO all do this – and they are not the only ones. So many sport coats or various forms of jacket, tight pants that are weirdly wide at the crotch (so as to maximize dance movement) and minimal difference between outfits. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it always tends to be the same kinds of outfits that get this treatment. It’s usually done to create a sense of unity between members so that they all look like they’re part of a group. The thing is, some bands take the same basic outfit and manage to do a fantastic job of differentiating members with subtle features as opposed to just “here have a scarf” (see my articles on EXID’s “L.I.E” and Dreamcatcher’s “PIRI”).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when bands just don’t care about cohesion at all and do whatever they want. Again, this is usually a guy group – BIGBANG and BTS specifically. I plan on doing an article on BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby” sometime soon (Burning Sun ruined them for me as I’m sure it did for many people, so I’ve been apprehensive about writing one) but one of the things that has always stood out to me is how different everyone looks. No one is wearing a matching outfit until the final moments of the video. Then of course we have BTS’s “Dope” which relies almost entirely on everyone wearing outfits for different professions. Girl bands also do this, but usually when they’re isolated, not in fully choreographed parts of videos. Boy bands have less restrictions in this respect.
ITZY leans into individuality more than cohesion which is incredibly refreshing. This largely has to do with the fact that the band relies on its message rather than typical K-Pop group creation. Their fashion largely reflects their “I don’t care” disposition and as a result, they aren’t relying on looking like each other.
Take for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Their are two elements that tie all the outfits in together – the color black and the occasional splash of glitter. At one point they all wear fur but it’s only for a brief moment. But their styles are wildly varied. Their accent colors are also widely varied. Their jewelry and hairstyles are varied. They also don’t have an overabundance of pencil skirts – I mean pants are more comfortable for dancing. And walking. And everything else.
In “Icy”, they almost completely do away with coordinating styles except for white accents on some of the outfits and some branding in one choreography section. The styles are even more varied than before, akin to something like a BIGBANG video. This does have to do in part with the plot, but not very much. The plot of “Icy” is girls not caring what other people think of them, so they get placed in a number of situations where they are clearly outsiders. So they are simply meant to look “different”. I actually think that this is fairly effective here, more so than it would be in “Dalla Dalla” where there is not much plot. What we get in “Icy” is a fully realized version of that idea.
Branding in fashion has been an interesting component. It’s been a major part of fashion since the 1960s that has phased in and out of style over time. It used mainly to flaunt a brand, and was adopted tenfold by the black community in the late 20th century to the point where brands such as Chanel began to copy black designers and their use of logos. Our current century of fashion doesn’t really advocate for “branding”. If anything I’d say the retro album t-shirt has replaced the designer logo among millennials and Gen Z. Furthermore, modern fashion emphasizes people combining different pieces however they decide so as to turn it into a form of expression. You may notice certain groups claim different fashion trends – but very specific ones, so as to let you combine whatever you like and express yourself, how you choose. (For anyone who is interested, I recommend watching the CNN docuseries “American Style” to learn more.)
Brands in K-Pop, however, have generally been sparse until recently. Logos and designs have been common, but in a genre that generally relies on the coordination of its idols, it can be distracting for everyone to have a logo. As a result, virtually nobody has a logo on their jacket – unless it’s a hip hop style boy band which, again, pulls influence from African-American fashion.
ITZY, however, leans into the branding completely. Precisely 38 seconds into their first video, “Dalla Dalla”, we get a glimpse at a brand name. Again at 1:06, and again at 1:10 (this time more than one, as all five members are there). They’re peppered throughout the rest of the video. It’s usually a belt buckle, or something on the shirt. “Icy” goes all out – when we first see all five girls together, four of them have logos on their shirts – largely because they’re wearing athletic wear, something that has an abundance of logos. In one of the other dance sequences, the band has matching outfits, all from the same brand, with matching logos. But, it’s all very different pieces from this brand (Iceberg, in case you’re wondering.)
“Icy” is branded content but not in the way most people would understand it. There is a lot of promotion of different fashion labels – Versace, Iceberg, Chanel, Sportmax, DSquared, and many others – the promotion is centered around the members themselves and the labels do not get explicitly mentioned. The pieces are used to build the personalities of the members, not distract from them. Furthermore, these are all luxury brands, and I find it unlikely that most fans would have the means to buy them. Not implausible, but not likely, since most younger fans are probably going to be dependent on their parents and parents are not typically willing to spend that much. I find it much more likely that they’re used to depict ITZY as a band that’s indulgent and takes care of themselves, which is at the core of their message. Obviously, it’s unlikely that the members chose these outfits themselves since JYP probably has an army of stylists. But ITZY appears to be a brand promoting self-indulgence, self-care, and a general “Screw the rules” attitude.
In essence, they’re the embodiment of the “Treat Yo Self” principle.
When I was ten years old, I went to a birthday party. A bunch of my female classmates were there already, and they were being treated to manicures and makeovers. All of the girls went straight to picking their favorite colors for eyeshadow – glittery greens and blues that looked extremely gaudy. I ended up surprising the makeup artist when my fourth grade self asked for brown. I had been reading fashion magazines, and I had light olive skin, I knew that warmer colors looked good on me and my brown eyes would look even bigger if I had brown eyeshadow on. I was super proud of my choice, and the makeup artist seemed to like it too. I remember getting a bunch of blank stares from all my classmates, but in the end it didn’t matter. I looked damn good, and went home feeling like I made a good fashion choice.
I don’t wear a lot of makeup now, but I always take great pride in it. I love experimenting with tons of different colors, brands, etc. One of the reasons I love cosplay is because makeup is such a beautiful and powerful component to it. I used to spend a lot of time filming videos for theater in my high school, and my favorite thing to film was always the makeup room, because you could see a person transform into someone else.
Makeup is always interesting in K-Pop because it’s used by everyone. Men use it. Women use it. It can be over the top and it can be bareface, which means that you don’t want people to think you’re wearing anything, but secretly you are. It’s extremely transformative, but it affects how you see the idol. From G-Dragon’s glitter covered face in Bang Bang Bang, to his lip art in Fantastic Baby, to his sunken eyes in Coup D’Etat…basically, everything G-Dragon has done to his face is worth an article.
The point is, makeup is a transformative tool that no one should ever take for granted. So it’s interesting to me how so many female groups are minimalist in their makeup choices. They actively avoid overwhelming you, the audience. ITZY is no different in this respect, but I think it’s done for a different reason. Most girl groups go for bareface makeup with small bits of color. This is largely done to emphasize innocence. But ITZY is actively against that textbook innocent message. So what does the minimalist makeup do?
It’s actually pretty simple.
It makes them look good.
ITZY’s entire core is about making you feel good about yourself. Live vicariously through them and learn their lesson of not giving a f*** about what other people think about them. So when they wear makeup, they’re not doing it to be eye catching. They’re doing it to look good. Take, for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Most of the eye shadow is smokey brown or black, but it’s not overt. It does just enough to highlight their eyes. Their lips are generally neutral tones, warmer glosses or nude lipstick, neither of which makes them look artificially pretty. There’s a little bit of shine/strobing but it’s actually very tastefully done.
It gives you a reason to pay attention to their face. Similarly, there is minimal hair dye in this – their hair is dark, either brown or black, which makes it look much more natural. The styles are varied, and there are colored accents, but it keeps them from feeling doctored.
The concept changes somewhat in “Icy”, but it still makes them look natural. The whole theme of “Icy” is inserting girls in situations that don’t match their personality types, so the makeup reflects that. As such, Ryujin has a cat eye going, because she is surrounded by prudes at her job interview. Lia has deep red lipstick because she’s wearing a formal outfit in a restaurant that is not. Yeji has glitter under her eyes, but her outfit is ostentatious and she’s in a grocery store, so it absolutely works. I’d also like to point out her aesthetic is incredibly similar to that of Jolyne from the Japanese manga Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – a character who exudes “I don’t give a crap what you think of me.”
Yuna has similar makeup to what she had in “Dalla Dalla”, but it’s actually much less overt – not smokey, a little more pink. Chaeryeong is wearing pretty much the same kind of makeup as in “Dalla Dalla” but like Yuna, not as overt. This largely has to do with the fact that she’s just casually on the street, looking cool and doing street performance – which is considered a natural, genuine form of art.
But the fact of the matter is the makeup never distracts from the members themselves. Because they make it work. They look great, it’s not done to make all the members look the same or be part of some major theme. It’s instead emphasizes their core message. I will say that the hair is a bit distracting, but what’s a summer K-Pop release without bleaching your hair.
ITZY’s makeup is all about making the members seem individual. They are a band, but they have lives, independent hobbies, and so on. JYP wants you to be aware of that. So, when it comes to the most beautiful expressive and beautiful of the human body, the face, they want you to see the members as beautiful on their own terms.
As evident by everything I’ve said so far, Itzy’s image revolves heavily on them seeming organic and unabridged. Nothing is done specifically to shock you as the viewer, nor is anything done to make them seem copy-pasted. Each member is unique. This is not just evident in their songs and videos, but in their fashion as well.
What this ultimately tells the fans who are watching is that it’s okay to be yourself. These idols are young adults in the modern age, where young people are struggling to find a balance between image and authenticity, being present online and being present in the real world. This is a loaded thought when it comes to K-Pop, an industry that is extremely manufactured – however, something about ITZY’s combination of fashion, music, and video work makes them feel more alive than many idol groups do.
ITZY wants its viewers – particularly its young female viewers – to feel heard. Having this seemingly random combination of logos, a relatively minimalist style of makeup, and a lack of cohesion between members makes them feel all the more like a unit. But it also makes us feel like we can relate to them. JYP Entertainment, as I’ve said before, has always been good about finding a hole in the market and filling it. When BTS went into a more pop direction, the hole they left behind for edgy social commentary got filled by Stray Kids. As Red Velvet has teetered the line between vibrant colors and vaguely disturbing imagery (“Peekaboo”), we got Twice, a band that uses its cheerfulness as a way to subvert expectations. And now we have ITZY, which fits both markets, but simultaneously represents the group that fits in neither.
So if you fit in ITZY’s demographic – even if you don’t – take some lessons from the way they dress. No I don’t mean dress in Versace all the time. But dress to make yourself feel good, and confident. If that means wearing overalls and sparkly makeup in the middle of a bustling city, go for it. If you don’t want to wear much makeup and dress in all black, do it. If you like dressing like a character from a manga, I am in full support. But the point is that you need to dress the way that makes you feel good, the way that makes you stand out. It’s not that wearing brands will make you stand out – your confidence will do that for you. So when you wake up tomorrow, make sure you feel good about yourself.