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 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 are normal people placed into highly emotional and stressful situations. Often times, they succumb 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. Judging from the fact that the military force is entirely male, the overarching theme is 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. Narsha’s character is particularly interesting because she’s hyper-sexualized, yet visibly torn between enjoying the attention that results from that and joining the protest.
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 compare this imagery to idol culture because of the shackles. She’s forced to speak for this regime, not the revolution – that’s for the dance part. She’s speaking for the people who oppress her. You can draw a parallel between her and an idol 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 systemic 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 an intense transformation, without the person realizing. During the time when the struggling person 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 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.