K-Pop and Horror – A Complete Deconstruction

K-Pop and horror is an unlikely combination, but it makes a lot of sense. K-Pop relies heavily on background details or subtle things to communicate ideas, and horror works best when it’s details that communicate a sense of tension. The issue that arises is: how do you make the bands seem cool when you are also trying to creep people out? How do you get close to the edge without crossing the line?

Most bands get around this by taking horror tropes and not actually making the video scary. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for comedy videos involving zombies or vampires! And this category actually gives us some interesting examples. T-ARA’s song “Lovey Dovey” is in this nebulous area where it’s mostly a comedy video but it plays with horror and zombie tropes to give a sense of unease, especially at the beginning. It’s also meant to be a callback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which has comedic elements as well (though I’d argue it’s mostly straight horror.)

Even so, despite the general sense of unease, “Lovey Dovey” is more funny than scary. The girls continue dancing as zombies attack, until they’re eventually overrun. Then afterwards, they still continue dancing, and they’re still pretty cute zombies with minimal decay. It’s not a very frightening video, it’s just good fun. And that’s all right too! I love “Lovey Dovey” with all my heart.

But I’m a sucker for horror, so let’s look at something legitimately creepy.

(Also, I’ve written about Dreamcatcher so much that I’m not going to cover them here. I’m sorry in advance, I have a lot of articles on them already so I wanted to cover horror in other artists’ repertoires. If you are interested in Dreamcatcher, please click here!)

The Cross Gene Conundrum

Cross Gene is a band that kind of went under everyone’s radar. And it makes sense why: they kind of never broke out of music show hell, minus that one time their dance for “Amazing Bad Lady” was banned for being too sexual. (In fact, they’re the only boy group to ever have a dance banned.) After two out of the six members left the band (one of whom was Takuya, one of the band’s leaders) I find it extremely unlikely that another comeback will happen.

That said, Cross Gene did some crazy things when they were active. They’re probably best known for doing a whole zombie movie, ZEDD, to promote one song in the last three minuets. And the zombie movie is kind of…bad, honestly. Most of the background actors are terrible and the plot makes little to no sense. (Sorry to all the high school friends I forced to watch it when I was a hardcore stan.) But the band members are the best part of it – they all do a fantastic job. The mood shifts from generally lighthearted to downright heartbreaking halfway through, and their acting sells it, making it a fun watch. The zombie design is also pretty creepy, and there are some legitimate scares. So it’s honestly worth watching all 40 minutes, just don’t expect Train to Busan.

But we’re not actually going to talk about ZEDD. We’re going to talk about Cross Gene’s video “Black or White”.

“Black or White” is actually one of my favorite K-Pop videos because it completely shook me when I first saw it. The six members of Cross Gene are trapped in various nightmare situations – a car crash, a coffin, a warehouse chase, a creepy bedroom, an abandoned hospital, and a bathroom where all water turns to blood. The members of the band are plagued by these nightmares in various ways, but things take a turn for the worst when they’re killed by mirror versions of themselves.

“Black or White” is straight up creepy. Everything is grungy and dirty, but the members themselves – particularly their mirror counterparts – are mostly pristine until they’re bloodied. The video itself is sharpened to high heaven, so all the details are uncannily crisp. The death scenes are incredibly visual and creative as well as not being overly gory (save the one with the glass shard.) The sound design is also equally creepy, as most noises are not heard under the music, just the ones that maximize the emotional impact.

And the acting.

Oh my god, the acting.

I don’t know what Shin was smoking the day of filming, but when his mirror self drowns him in a blood filled sink, you believe it. You believe both him struggling to breathe and his mirror trying to kill him. Yongseok too is also a hidden gem, getting choked out by his mirror self and his eyes rolling back as he dies. All of the members are great actors (as evidenced by how they single-handedly prevent ZEDD from being unforgivably awful) so you just can’t look away. It’s honestly fantastic.

Um…Shin? You okay there?

So far we have two examples on opposite ends of the horror spectrum. We have the fun, lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” and we have the dark, intense “Black or White”. But what other videos are scattered across the spectrum? Let’s look at three different interpretations of what horror can be:

Crazy Horror

If you haven’t seen SHINee’s “Married to the Music,” now is the time to stop and just have the experience. While the video is incredibly effective no matter how many times you’ve watched it, there’s something to be said about just watching on your own. So before you keep reading, stop and enjoy the surreal experience this video is.

Okay. Let’s get started.

“Married to the Music” is a bizarre music video. I don’t know if it’s scary with a capital S, but it’s definitely creepy, unsettling, unnerving…it’s something. But it’s still fun. It has a plot thread – a girl literally stealing body parts of the SHINee members to create a perfect boyfriend. But what actually makes it scary is the…weird stuff that goes on. In no particular order:

  • Minho’s head getting set on fire
  • Magic drinks that make the party appear/disappear at will
  • A disoriented Onew getting his nose stolen
  • Taemin’s eyes getting bashed out of his head
  • Key’s head sliding off a knife then getting punted into the air while he continues singing
  • A kiss ripping off Jonghyun’s lips
  • Color changing cookies making Jonghyun puke confetti
  • People dancing in the puke confetti

What actually makes this video weird aren’t overt horror aspects, though. Instead, it’s the actual filmmaking style that’s most bizarre. The video continuously changes styles, from tracking Onew as he fumbles around drunkenly to one-point perspective on Minho (and Key’s discarded head.) Bright colors juxtapose what should be fairly horrific visuals, which, while adding humor, also serve to make you feel a lot more disturbed. There’s also the fact that you never know what time of day it is or how time is passing, which just generally disorients the viewer. You don’t even know what time period it’s in based on the incredibly inconsistent costumes.

The collection of bright colors, disturbing imagery, and lack of consistency in visual style make a consistently bizarre music video. Will it give you nightmares? Probably not, but it gives you an experience, a thrill of watching something unlike anything else. It is incredibly visceral, but that actually contributes to the charm. Nothing like watching people rush to catch puke confetti when you’re having a bad day.

Got your nose.

Glamorous Horror

It’s no question that sometimes monsters are characterized as sexy or glamorous – that’s the whole premise of Twilight. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, some people find the mystery and ambiguity intriguing. And it’s easy to see the appeal – so of course K-Pop capitalizes on this as well.

One of the best examples of this is Sunmi’s “Full Moon”. Sunmi stars in the video (along with the rapper Lena) as a cerebral vampire girl in a nightgown, who bites the neck of a man (unsurprisingly.) We learn that he is paraplegic, and through a flashback, we also see that he knew Sunmi, or at least admired her from a distance. In the final moments of the video, the man transfers and awakens as a vampire, potentially curing him of his inability to walk.

The mythos of vampires in “Full Moon” is revealed mostly indirectly, but it works. Everything takes place during nighttime, so we can infer that this isn’t a sparkly situation. Sunmi and Lena have super speed, and Lena and the backup dancers can teleport. There’s also a lot of traditional vampire iconography, like coffins, standing on rooftops, and painful transformations. Most importantly though, Sunmi seems indifferent to the pain the man is going through, even smiling as he transforms, probably because she knows what he’s turning into.

Sunmi should get her own vampire drama, honestly…

The dance also has an important function in “Full Moon.” The cutaways to Sunmi’s dance sequences do more than show off her abilities, they establish how elegant and seductive she is when she’s not around humans. Assuming the other backup dancers are vampires or otherworldly beings, this is what Vampire Sunmi is like when completely in her element. This is the seductive world that the man will eventually find himself in when he awakens as a vampire and joins Sunmi.

Another addition to this category is 4minute’s “Volume Up,” which is light on the story but heavy on the aesthetic. It’s not really clear what the concept is – though you assume vampire because of HyunA’s red eyes – but everything is so beautiful to look at that you honestly don’t care. And it doesn’t seem random, it seems meticulous – there is a concept here, but they keep it mysterious. So while indirect about the kind of supernatural they’re working with, it still works effectively.

Subtle Horror

We can’t get through an article on horror without talking about VIXX. VIXX are unabashedly the untouched kings of K-Pop horror, largely because they span the whole range from outright scary to melancholy. But one of the things they are fantastic at is subtle, subdued horror, the kind that sits with you for a long time.

The example most of you are probably thinking of is “Voodoo Doll”. (I actually have an article on that video already, where I discuss the symbolism of an abusive relationship.) But we all know that “Voodoo Doll” is a tour de force of K-Pop horror. In fact, it’s arguably the first viable horror MV in the Korean Pop industry. In the spirit of keeping things new and fresh, we’re going to talk about two other videos – “Blossom Tears” and “Eternity”.

“Blossom Tears,” a duet with VIXX’s lead vocal Leo and another singer named Lyn, is a bit more obviously creepy. The music video follows a couple comprised of Leo and Lyn that we very quickly learn is abusive. Leo’s character – a fashion designer/tailor – is prone to violent fits of rage; while Lyn’s character – his girlfriend – tries to get through to him. Through small story hints – a bottle of pills here, a mysterious box there – we get a sense that Leo’s problems have been persistent throughout his life.

Leo is honestly a fantastic actor because I am very afraid of him here.

The climax of the video revolves around Leo finding Lyn dead in a bathtub. His pill bottle lies empty on the floor, surrounded by rose petals, and his box sits open next to the bathtub – it implies that Lyn discovered Leo’s dark secrets and decided to kill herself. However, what makes this video deeply unsettling is that it’s not that clear. Immediately before this, there was a scene where Lyn embraced Leo, and Leo looks at the dress he was making from across the room. His eyes are blank and predatory – it’s downright creepy.

The creepiness is compounded when we find out Leo has a shelf of preserved organs and turns Lyn into his mannequin so she can wear his dress.

“Blossom Tears” gets under your skin because it spends the entire duration of the video making you feel uneasy, and it isn’t until the end you learn what Leo is doing to all of his past girlfriends. And then, when the reveal comes, you’re like “UM. HOW ABOUT NO. THANKS.” It doesn’t need to be full of jump-scares or monsters. What makes it good is the fact that it’s not trying to be scary, but unnerving. The ending, where Lyn is wearing Leo’s dress in death, is particularly uncanny, and that makes it more disturbing.

“Eternity” is very similar in how it achieves a horror experience. This time featuring all six of the VIXX members, the video seems like it’s relatively happy at first. The members are shown with their girlfriends (all played by the same girl) in various situations (painting, dancing, playing piano, drinking coffee, or just teasing.) Because of the forlorn and intense expressions of the members while they sing, you do have a sense that the video it will end badly for everyone involved but you don’t know how. The aesthetic of the video itself also contributes to the feeling of unease, with the generally muted colors and perpetual blue making seemingly happy images feel more melancholy.

Then the girl turns to dust.

We see the members looking around for their girlfriend, leaving us thinking potentially that she’s just gone, maybe a ghost. But then Ravi is dancing with the air, in blissful ignorance, while the girl is watching him from across the room. We see N interacting with the air as well, though it’s only a glimpse in reverse. And lastly, Ken’s picture of the girl disappears in the final notes of the song, showing that the girl was never real to begin with.

This definitely counts as horror because it’s unabashedly eerie. It breaks your expectations of where the story is going towards the end and casts the rest of the video in a different light. The plot itself captures the nuance of the song, specifically tonally as it has both elements of cheerfulness and gloominess. It sticks with you long after you watch it, more than I would say “Blossom Tears” does. Both are excellent, but “Eternity” is the one that makes you contemplate your own existence when you’re done.


Horror is not a genre that is built exclusively on motifs and monsters – rather, it’s built on feelings of mystery and despair. While you wouldn’t say “Married to the Music” is necessarily straight-up horror, enough elements are pulled from the genre to make an unsettling viewing. Just because “Eternity” and “Full Moon” don’t necessarily adhere to typical genre conventions of horror doesn’t mean they aren’t considered a part of the genre either. The thrill of being scared, regardless of format – that’s part of the fun. Horror is an ambience of unease, not a jumpscare.

K-Pop is Art – let’s take it seriously.

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

Screenshot from Orange Caramel’s “My Copycat”

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.

Screenshot from G-Dragon’s “Crayon”

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?

Examples of CD videos include: AOA’s “Miniskirt”, NU’EST’s “Action”, Blackpink’s “Boombayah”, miss A’s “Hush”

Narrative-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy”

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.

Screenshot from C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”

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.

Last but not least, Dreamcatcher has at least one connected universe in its music videos. Which I promised I’d cover a year ago. I am sorry. It will happen soon, I promise!

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.

Examples of ND videos include: EXID’s “I Love You”, MAMAMOO’s “gogobebe”, SHINee’s “Married to the Music”, Super Junior’s “Black Suit”

Performance-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Solar’s “Spit It Out”

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.

Examples of PD videos include: Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor”, GFRIEND’s “Glass Bead”, Pentagon’s “Shine”, 2NE1’s “Fire”

Statement-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from GOT7’s “Just Right”

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.

Some people just don’t care.

Examples of SD videos include: BTS’s “Dope”, ITZY’s “ICY”, Stray Kids’ “MIROH”, MAMAMOO’s “Hip”

Screenshot from SHINee’s “View”

In film school, a teacher told us to watch a video for the first time to enjoy it but the second time to understand it and analyze it. There’s nothing wrong with watching a K-Pop video purely for the enjoyment of it. But enjoying something consumer-friendly doesn’t make it bad. Marvel movies are mainstream but those can be amazing. TV shows that are high in melodrama are beloved by many. We watch America’s Got Talent and revel in seeing talented singers and dancers, so why is it bad when someone listens to a band where all members are more than competent at both?

K-Pop is an art form. It’s a medium. It provides unique challenges but unique opportunities. But it’s not just consumer-friendly, it’s consumer-challenging. The best videos are the ones where they sit with you. Maybe it’s because they’re flashy like “Catallena” or you want to learn the dance to “Shine” by Pentagon or maybe you just think G-Dragon looks really good in hats. But the more they sit with you, the more they challenge you to think about them. However “weird” they may be, don’t write them off because they were funny that one time you watched at a friend’s house.

Music videos are art.

K-Pop is art.

And art is beautiful.

Screenshot from VIXX’s “Dynamite”

K-Pop and Sci-Fi – A Complete Deconstruction

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.

Leo’s “Romanticism” – Principles of Filmmaking

Before we start, I just want to apologize for the lack of uploads these past months. School took a lot out of me and since I’m on vacation, I have a number of personal projects that I’ve been working on, one of which will be announced soon. Also, because of the event in April, K-Pop for Filmmakers, I had the most historical case of burnout, and it took a long time to get my creative juices flowing again. So here we are, two months later, finally with an article. In order to prevent this kind of burnout from happening again, I’m going to stop with the regimented schedule, but also add more personal updates. I will also write smaller articles so that they can come more often.

I talk about VIXX way too much in this blog but here we are again, with another solo – instead of Ravi, though, we have Leo. Leo, or Jung Taekwoon, is the second eldest member of VIXX, as well as one of the band’s primary vocalists. He’s a fan favorite for a number of reasons – early in his career he was quiet and reserved. Members would play games like “make Leo laugh” to try to get him to break under pressure, usually by blowing balloons in his face or doing aegyo and whatnot.

As VIXX evolved so did Leo. He became much more outgoing and lively on screen, and his quietness turned into something more artistic. Silent cuteness turned into an ethereal beauty. This is a transformation that all of the VIXX members went through. I remember seeing VIXX live when I was a teenager, and my dad commented that in their dance routines, they moved like paintings. Every move was a work of art.

Leo in particular tends to embody this artistic sensibility. While the other members of VIXX definitely do (I spoke a lot about this in my article on Ravi’s “NIRVANA + Alcohol”) they also tend to delve into comedy a lot and while Leo does do that, he has a different angle for it. Rather than making jokes he usually comes at comedy from a more serious angle. This is likely because he’s an actor as well as a singer (most members of VIXX are) but he prefers to adopt characters rather than make gags. As a result, most of what you get with him is subtle and flowing as opposed to handed to you outright.

All this in mind, Leo’s song “Romanticism” is in turn about someone he views as a work of art (to quote, “a pervading and perfect masterpiece”.) The song is all about sensuality. It’s very provocative while still classy. It’s very smooth, mostly electronic sounds, kind of like listening to music through dream. It’s not very “hooky” but it’s still a nice song to listen to on a warm day or on a date night. It’s not meant to be powerful, it’s meant to be sweet and romantic.

The video is almost purely visual, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. A lack of story is not a detriment to a music video. What pieces we have of a story are a woman running away, lights flashing, both Leo and the woman falling through the air with Leo reaching, and some scenes of them whispering and caressing each other.

The video ends with them sitting across a dining room table, staring blankly at each other, transitioning to Leo sitting at the end of the table alone. If we take what we see at face value (which we kind of have to considering the lack of story overall) is just a sensual relationship, but if the last scene is any indicator, there is probably not a lot of conversation between the two parties. This is a fallback of an overly physical relationship.

“Romanticism”, as an MV, is incredibly simple, which creates some brilliant uses of space to drive a mood forward. There are only five sets throughout the MV – a hallway, a bedroom, a dining room, a beach, and a studio. However, these locations turn out to be incredibly versatile. Bedrooms lend themselves well to close-ups and more creative angles, whereas hallways and long dining rooms generally require more consistent perspectives, usually focusing only on one or two points. Outdoor scenes give a sense of openness that’s hard to get – in fact nearly impossible – to get from a room of any kind, except maybe a cathedral. Studios are the most versatile sets, with lighting from all sorts of angles and the ability to change the lighting setup when necessary.

The color scheme of the video is mostly warm colors – golds, pinks, blues, and browns. Of course there’s white and black to offset both. However, the beach scene is very cool-toned, which we’ll come back to later. In fact, despite the warm colors, there are also plenty of times where the same colors are cool toned as opposed to warm toned. Cool tones give a sense of calm while warm tones give the feeling of passion. I feel like this is a pretty accurate description of Leo himself – a quietly crackling fire of musical and artistic spirit.

Let’s focus on what this fire is wearing. Stylists for K-Pop are always able to isolate the idol visually so that you are immediately able to identify them. Often, this is done by hair color, but the entire outfit needs to be able to highlight personality traits about the singer, and then the outfits of the dancers need to highlight the singer while underscoring those same traits. Leo’s style is generally large, thin shirts and tight pants. Big jackets are always a thing, and rarely are those jackets zipped up. It’s a very polished look but it’s also very free looking. He wears black and white, with occasional blue and gold accents.

While dancers wear these colors too in this video, often they will wear white while Leo wears black, or a different style of clothes so that it’s obvious who’s the centerpiece. The girlfriend character wears pink, light and dark, and is the only person in the video who does this, so she is immediately recognizable. She also wears dresses, skirts, etc. which gives her a unique silhouette. As stated before, hair is also a big factor. Leo’s hair is blonde, unlike anyone else, and he has some nice angular side bangs going on. Likewise, his girlfriend in the video is the only girl with short hair.

Ultimately though – this is all well and good, but the video stands out in one powerful way. Lighting. The video is lit in very clever ways, since most of it was filmed indoors, on sound stages. For example, the studio I mentioned earlier was lit in different ways – with a diffuse light behind that changes color, face and fill lighting in the front, and LED lighting on top of the awning. This allows for a number of different lighting options and since it’s easy to change the colors of those lights with gels (or even via computer) you can construct a wide variety of moods.

In other shots, there is a significant use of “practical” lighting. Practical lighting is when a lighting fixture in the scene is visible to the audience. When you see a lamp in a movie, that’s practical lighting. In this case, there are candles, ceiling lamps, and table lamps. At certain points throughout the video the lamps in the hallway flicker.

But what makes this lighting interesting is that it lends itself to surrealism. The combination of the practical lights, something we are all very familiar with, and diffused background lights make the space feel like it’s glowing. The combination of the two is somewhat otherworldly.

The most interesting use of lighting though is in the beach scenes. They’re filmed after the “golden hour”, which is when the sun is about to set and the light is intense. These shots, instead, are much softer. Clouds streak across the horizon but there is still plenty of sky to see. It’s a nice soft blue, with gold from the little bit of sun we can see. But what makes it fascinating is they still brought face lights for Leo. The face lights are pink, putting him in a stark contrast to the background. While everything else is cold and somewhat gentle, he is a bright highlight, like a posh firework.

What makes “Romanticism” special is its simple understanding of the principles of filmmaking. It doesn’t require fancy hair or masks or high heels to make an experience worthwhile. I think the lesson Leo gives us is not to let extravagance get in the way of the soul of the art – and this music video is a clear example of that.

VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” – Heart Imitates Strife

Trigger warning: Violence, Gore, and Mention of Abuse.

Clean version of music video here

Looking back onto my childhood, I remember other kids thinking it was odd that I liked horror. I mean, I was a girl who liked pastel dresses, pretty hair, dolls, and fairies. But then, around the time I stopped believing in fairies – a bit late, admittedly – I was enraptured by stories of vampires, demons, and the underworld. At the time, I much preferred reading it than I did writing it, but that wasn’t to say I didn’t experiment with the genre as best as a middle schooler could. When I was in high school, taking one of my first film classes, we did a unit on horror. My fascination with the genre expanded, as I was introduced to how creators designed fear.

So, you can imagine my delight when I found VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” for the first time.

I’d seen a cosplayer – FadingForest on Deviantart – do a design based on the visual of VIXX, Hongbin, and his character in “Voodoo Doll”. I decided to go exploring on my own. So there I was, watching one of the craziest K-Pop videos ever, and absolutely in love with it. It mixed the gothic and the modern, body horror and psychological horror, hot guys and black eyeliner.

It was never the gore factor about horror that I enjoyed. In fact generally speaking, I dislike gore. Body horror has never been something I could really stomach. But when it came to horror, I enjoyed observing the extremes of the human condition. It was never about the literal story, it was all about the underlying intentions. A vampire story is about the loss of humanity when you reject the one thing that all humans have in common – death.  A possession story centers around a person who shares a body with an entity completely opposite them. A story of the underworld, the afterlife, addresses what we don’t know about our own souls, and how much that makes us scared.

And voodoo stories encapsulate our fear of losing free will.

VIXX is one of my favorite bands for a reason. Their heart and soul goes into everything they do. They all have an insane talent for the stage that allows them to take on any persona for any song. When they dance, they don’t dance just to move, they dance to make you feel something. Everything right down to their facial expressions is done to make you feel something. They are among the select few that do that for every comeback. Some bands will put a lot of care into one comeback and not in another, others will kind of rock one persona throughout their career and never change it up, even others will try to intentionally avoid having a persona so that they seem authentic.

But I wouldn’t say VIXX has a persona, at least not in the way we would associate a K-Pop band with a concept. They are artists first and foremost, and that’s what they make their careers out of. Not being pretty, not being funny, not being sexy. They do it by shocking you. VIXX also stands out in part because it’s well known that they are actors, well known that they are dancing talents, and well known for being down to earth and not pretentious. Building off what I said in my article on Ravi, VIXX’s rapper, while they were inspired by older, more famous idols, VIXX has a unique voice in their understanding of K-Pop and their enigmatic take on it.

In 2012, the year before “Voodoo Doll” came out, (which is also the year that VIXX debuted) we were awarded with many K-Pop videos, but many of them were lacking in substance. Those that weren’t lacking, for example BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby”, were written off by American audiences as crazy videos with men and women with weird hair. While there was a niche market for K-Pop videos that had a creative edge to them, no one really cared at the time. And that’s not to say that creative K-Pop videos weren’t being made – they were. But American audiences were neither attuned to them nor intending to seek them out. It was ultimately tragic, as we see the ripple effects now in how most American media portrays K-Pop.

VIXX ultimately started like most other K-Pop bands – on a pink soundstage with terrible hair. As endearing as “Super Hero”, their debut song, was, it was nothing compared to what they would ultimately become. They went through a number of phases, mostly hovering around the cutesy concepts, before eventually finding a voice in “On and On” in early 2013. On and On featured a story about vampires in space, which…okay yeah the premise sucked. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

Afterwards, VIXX came out with Jekyll and Hyde, two albums that intentionally mirrored each other. One was light and happy, one was dark and…well, had eyeliner spilled all over it. Both were excellent. Hyde’s music video featured some fascinatingly eerie imagery, though it was really crazy and not subtle enough for my liking. It’s a good watch though.

“Voodoo Doll”, though, is what put VIXX on the map. Shockingly vivid imagery, violence, and magic that pushed beyond aesthetics or a simple story – all this was missing from K-Pop until 2013. While gore has not been revisited by VIXX, the shock value and the idea of high concept certainly has. VIXX’s video quality is incredibly consistent, and they’re constantly pushing their own limits.

“Voodoo Doll” itself is hard to unpack. It seems at first glance that the video is about a girl torturing boys with magic, and that they’re trying to escape. On repeated watches however, it’s a little more indirect. For one thing the song is about a sort of magical servant who is even willing to kill for their master. In a broader sense, it’s about a somewhat toxic relationship where the person is willing to take the pain of someone else onto them, regardless of the damage this does to their own personal well being.

Visually, this is exemplified by the way each member is imprisoned within a cell surrounding a hexagonal room. At first I thought that they were trying to escape while the girl was mocking them and torturing them with her powers. But then the more I watched, the more I realized – the members don’t have identities when she’s not around. If you look closely at the cells, Leo wanders aimlessly in his cell, with his back hunched or fully arched. Ken dangles from the ceiling. N lies limp like a doll. Hyuk stares outside of the cell, watching the girl. Ravi does…something, it’s hard to tell because all we see is his hand. They don’t animate until she gives them purpose.

She’s toying with their love for her.

It’s all about a toxic relationship between these boys and a “master”. Now toxic relationships are something that many artists talk about, but it’s usually from a place of posthumous anger or depression in the moment. Sometimes a singer will go even so far as to make it seem like everything’s okay, and have a cheerful edge to the song in spite of dark material. VIXX doesn’t do any of that. VIXX mixes passion and rage and uses voodoo dolls as a means of explaining power dynamics in such a relationship.

Let’s break down a few of the features of an abusive relationship, and how VIXX addresses them:

Intimidation: I think this one is obvious. There is a lot of physical violence in this music video. Hongbin has pieces of glass stuck to his arms and is inside a box, Hyuk, Leo, Ken, and N all have piercings all over their body that bind them to the ceiling, and Ravi is physically restrained with ropes. Throughout the music video the girl repeatedly stabs voodoo dolls that control all of them, and we see her cutting up and stitching members while they bleed. There’s a lot of physical intimidation.

Isolation: again, this one clearly shows itself. Each of the members is in a cell of sorts, and each of the members has been restrained. They aren’t able to go far enough forward to see the other members or reach them – in Hongbin’s case he can hardly move at all. Even when the members escape, they don’t see each other. There is never a moment where they are all physically together, beyond the dance sequences.

Coercion: Coercion is a little harder to pin down since there is no dialogue. But we can see the girl clearly go up to the members and seemingly tempt them. Not sexually, just by her presence alone. That’s enough to drive them crazy. Furthermore in the actual song, Ken sings:

“웃는 너의 얼굴 한번이면 족해/내가 대신 다 해 네가 바라는 것들” (“utneun neoui eolgul hanbeonimyeon jokhae/naega daesin da hae nega baraneun geotdeul”)

“If you smile just once I’m satisfied/I’ll do everything instead, everything you wish for”

https://colorcodedlyrics.com/2013/11/vixx-voodoo-doll

The whole point of the song is that this girl is degrading the members and using them for entertainment. They want to help her, give her everything even if it makes their own lives hell.

Minimization: again, difficult to really get to the bottom of when the only words are in the song. But we can see how the different members are dehumanized by the girl. She objectifies them physically with promiscuous outfits and then she also treats them like toys. When she stabs her doll she laughs at them even as they’re in clear, visible pain. They’re less than puppets to her, they’re surrogates for whatever emotion she wants them to feel.

Visually this turmoil between partners is made clear through a number of visual cues. The colors are all vibrant and angry – reds, blacks, oranges, greens. It is brighter than the color scheme of most horror movies but I think it suits this video. It’s also overly sharpened – many K-Pop videos in 2012-2014 were sharpened to extreme lengths. I don’t normally like this, but I think in VIXX’s case it actually is advantageous to the gruesome nature of the video. It makes the gore feel grittier, like it’s less supernatural and more serial killer story. The costumes give each character a personality while still seeming relatively uniform.

N’s character is almost like a twisted version of his actual personality. He’s known for being a very sweet, soft person, and I would say loose turtleneck sweaters and couches are indications of someone very sweet. But the torn clothes, being tied to the ceiling, painted mannequins and the covered abandoned couch, all show a person with a kind heart that’s been twisted by this process.

Leo’s room looks almost like an underground chamber, like a subway covered in crinkled metal. His clothing is basically rags, as if he’s been cut on everything, but unlike the other members the only physical wounds he has are the piercings that tie him to the ceiling. But he’s a member that does some of the most expression with his body.

Ken is trapped in a box that is almost like an elevator. He’s covered in burns and tied to the ceiling. His outfit is probably most like a K-Pop idol, thin shirt and pants, but like everything else it’s all ripped. I’d say the outfit he wears is the sleekest, cleanest one, in spite of the whole video.

Ravi is in a kitchen of sorts, with food that appears rotted on the table. The window in front of him is covered with equations, chemistry diagrams, and all sorts of weird things. His own body is covered in tattoos, including one of his skin ripped open and his heart underneath. His eyes are Xs, which has become an icon of this story. The way he grits his teeth at the girl and stares her down, it’s all fairly on brand for Ravi – as I’ve said before, he’s so enigmatic in his embracing of the arts and sciences, as well as the typical hip-hop persona. This very much fits into that dichotomy.

Hyuk is in a room with a tree, with a shattered window in front of him. He’s wearing leather and thick eyeliner like a typical bad boy. He’s covered with stab wounds. The most interesting thing though is that there is bark coming off of his arms. If I had to guess as to why this is the case I imagine he’s undergone so much abuse that he’s become a part of this world that the girl has created – to escape would be to lose himself.

That leaves Hongbin – ultimately the focal point of the video. The normally cute visual is twitching, scratching, contorting inside a box. His arms and chest are covered with glass. He still has piercings in his shoulders, but they’re not attached to anything. His clothes are in actual tatters. He has the iconic Xs in his eyes. He acts like a terrifying, insane creation, less human than a corpse. It’s scary but it’s admirable how amazing he’s able to act.

Hongbin is the only character we see in the end after all is said and done. The girl comes back to her room to find all the boys have escaped, and are trying to find their way back to, presumably, our world. The girl angrily starts stabbing the doll, still bound to all of them. They all get hurt and eventually float, as they are forced into various positions. Eventually we see Hongbin fall, and get pulled back into the room.

The girl puts the glass back in his arms, restores him, and stitches him. He blinks, unfeeling, not even looking at her. She got her doll back.

A lot of people have assumed that this means the other members escaped. I don’t think this is true. If you watch closely, Ken falls too – it cuts off right before he does. This means to me that he didn’t escape either. And it seems unfair to think that just the two of them were taken back. I think that the girl is focusing individual attention on each of them, as part of her intentional control of them. She likes to play with these boys and make them completely codependent. And, judging from Hongbin’s reaction, this costs him everything that he is.

The song ends on a relatively somber note:

누가 됐든 잘 봐 그녈 울리지 마 (nuga dwaetdeun jal bwa geunyeol ulliji ma)

더 이상 잃을 무엇도 없는 나 (deo isang irheul mueotdo eomneun na)

그 누구도 모르는 내 가슴속의 슬픔은 (geu nugudo moreuneun nae gaseumsogui seulpeumeun)

째깍 째깍 다 사라지리라 (jjaekkak jjaekkak da sarajirira)

Whoever this becomes watch carefully, don’t make her cry

I don’t have anything else to give up

That person doesn’t know me, the pain in my heart

Tick tock tick tock everything will disappear

https://colorcodedlyrics.com/2013/11/vixx-voodoo-doll

VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” will ultimately go down in history as one of the greatest K-Pop Mvs of all time. It’s overdone as far as budget is concerned. It’s just incredibly tight in terms of all the things that count – plot, editing, and the music. The singers themselves are what make this music video so amazing. It set a course for a number of K-Pop bands to come, allowing bands like Dreamcatcher to go full on horror for almost every comeback and bands like Cross Gene to do incredibly graphic music videos like “Black or White”.

While I do believe that this video is about an abusive relationship, there is some ambiguity. But I believe that is intentional here. I don’t think a good K-Pop video is meant to tell you how to feel, or what you should think of it. I think it’s supposed to guide you in a direction and allow you to figure it out for yourself. There are a number of interpretations that can come from “Voodoo Doll”, some literal and some not. But one thing’s for sure, VIXX has something. And it’s not something that is easily recreated.

Ravi’s “NIRVANA + ALCOHOL REMIX” – Beauty in Motion

Warning: this song contains a fair amount of swearing. Swears are censored in the article, but I can’t say the same for the music.

This may be a K-Pop blog, which in other words means we’re talking about Korean, but today, let’s start with a different language. In Sanskrit, nirvana means “becoming extinguished.” In Buddhism, this means to “blow out” your desires and hatred in order to achieve a complete absence of suffering. It has been westernized to just mean heavenly, blissful, without care. Achieving Nirvana means that you’ve become enlightened. You’re blessed. You’re free.

Now let’s do another vocabulary lesson. Alcohol. A controlled substance, recreationally used in some cases, medically used in others. It is known for lowering inhibitions, relaxing the mind, inducing depression, and in many cases, causing fatal accidents. Ancient cultures worshipped it, and many people still do. It’s one of the oldest drugs on earth, and it’s definitely one of the most addictive. And yet, despite its destructiveness, no one can seem to pull away from it.

Kim Wonsik, known more colloquially by his stage name “Ravi”, released his mixtape NIRVANA in early 2018. Ravi has been doing mixtures for several years now in conjunction with his promotions alongside boyband VIXX. VIXX is known for two things primarily – their horror music video “Voodoo Doll”, which I’ve mentioned multiple times in my articles on Dreamcatcher, and for being invited to a private concert for the International Olympic Committee by the President of South Korea to perform their traditional Korean-style dance “Shangri-La”. Even so, each of the members has a career in their own right. Until recently, all six of them still lived together in a dorm by choice – I say until recently just because the leader decided to move into his own place right before military service – and yet, they continue doing music together as a whole. To me, that’s the mark of artists who enjoy working together.

But Ravi is an interesting case. He’s been writing for the band for years, mainly his own raps so he can keep his own tempo and intonation. You’ll see this a lot with artists, particularly in K-Pop. One of his favorite artists is G-Dragon, so we can consider him a spiritual successor thereof. But his style is unique, as his voice. Intelligent and fundamentally educational concepts are interspersed with “f***in” and other swear words. A bad*ss rap riff will be cut short by him jumping at the sight of a fly. He’ll wear rugged clothing in one shot and a full three piece suit in another. He’ll be surrounded by half-naked women in one music video and then in the next mixtape say that men who disrespect women should “eat their d***s like candy”. That is an actual lyric of his. One thing’s for sure, in an industry where there are tons of rappers, all of different walks of life and different perspectives, Ravi is enigmatic.

The music video for “NIRVANA”, however, isn’t solely for the one song. Towards the end, the entire video makes a sharp turn to something tonally different. It ends with his song “Alcohol”. The transition is so seamless, I didn’t realize they were two different songs. Nevertheless, the content of those songs is very different. “NIRVANA” is about someone who is content with himself. Alcohol is about someone who drinks to distract from his problems. It’s strange, but it’s revealing about the kind of person Ravi is. He’s someone who doesn’t see contentedness and depression as mutually exclusive subjects for an artist. It’s oddly refreshing.

The video, filmed by Brainshock Pictures, is oddly surrealist – doesn’t surprise me from the perspective of a fan of Ravi, but it’s still unlike other K-Pop videos. It does something most K-Pop videos don’t try to do. It doesn’t try to distract you. Instead it makes you calm. It makes you relaxed. You can sit back and actually enjoy his voice – and the video mimics his voice. Not the other way around. You’re not just experiencing a performance artist – you’re experiencing a musical artist.

Ravi’s voice is perfect for this kind of filmmaking because he’s very percussive in his speech and he has a good range. His songwriting is almost like painting a picture. Even I, someone who doesn’t understand Korean fluently, can feel his intention just from the way he raps. He paints pictures with his voice. Combine that with superb sound mixing on the part of Ravi, PUFF, and Park Jimin, the guest singer on the album and you have something masterful. Whether or not you like rap, you can tell it’s handled with care – therefore the video must be handled the same way.

NIRVANA

“NIRVANA” as a song is an experience in of itself. It starts out with static that faintly sounds like the outdoors, then moves into chimes with a very soft melody behind them, and a woman speaking in what I believe is French. What’s interesting is what the video does in these opening notes: the first shot, during the static, is of Ravi standing in what appears to be a desert of some kind, flipped upside down. The next shots are of Ravi sitting on top of a rock, Ravi blindfolded standing with the phases of the moon, two Ravis mirrored across the sky, and Ravi standing with the blindfold, Ravi standing in the desert again, and a sunset.

What’s incredible is how these shots are colored and edited to match the music. The music has hardly begun, and yet we have something that works with it perfectly visually. The entire music video goes along these lines, making something with very little story and instead, aesthetics. It’s made to make you feel good, and that’s what it does.

Let’s talk about the editing for a hot minute. When editing music videos, you have to keep one eye on the sound waves and another on the viewport. You also have to be mindful of how the visuals themselves capture the sound – you don’t need to edit a clip if you have visual components already that indicate rhythm. The screen is going to be your friend and your enemy.

The movement that already exists on screen is mostly Ravi’s movements. He’s by himself for most of these shots, and when he’s with someone, he’s with himself. So how do you make more movement, more beats, out of his movements? Well you follow his hands. With almost every sweep, every gesture, some effect makes the video pulse, or glitch. If there isn’t, there will likely be a cut in the video, or a beat drop in the song to capture that movement.

The filmmakers aren’t content to just let him be by himself and let that be a continuous uninterrupted shot. There might be a prism glitch, or it might be colored such that it’s clearly edited. The thing is, it feels like he’s running through a parallel dimension more than it feels like there are effects layered on top. There are moments where it feels unreal – but it’s also not really meant to feel real. It’s meant more to capture the mood.

Some of the effects are a sort of scrubbing, as if you’re messing with a record player. Others are retiming, giving the same effect. Pictures will be played on reverse and then played again forward. Sometimes you see Ravi and you’ll see other versions of him superimposed over him. Sometimes the screen moves almost like a liquid, as if the visuals themselves are rolling off Ravi’s tongue. Even if you see the same effect twice, it never feels like the same effect.

The colors are very bold and deeply saturated, and yet it’s constantly changing. Ravi runs through pink fields, dances in purple ones, hovers under turquoise skies and runs alongside an orange ocean. It feels like they went to Home Depot and plucked the prettiest, boldest colors off a wall, regardless of what they were. And yet the colors are picked for specific reasons – blue is associated with peace, purple invokes romanticism, pink invokes playfulness, sunset orange catches the eye, and the spots of red create a sense of boldness. Combine that with he prevailing black in the clothing and shadows and you have this ambiguous calm. It’s a miniature Nirvana.

Symbolically I’m not 100% sure what the video is meant to convey other than an emotion, but I have a guess. I think part of it is meant to inherently be about wonderment. We see numerous times a moon that’s almost pulled to Earth. It’s like a lite Majora’s Mask.

However there also appears to be a theme of solitude, as well as mirroring. Mirroring in particular seems to be a theme as we see Ravi interact with himself. If we combine all the motifs (wonderment, solitude, and mirroring) we can assume that it’s meant to be about someone accepting themselves and seeing themselves in the same cosmic way we see the moon.

ALCOHOL

Let’s juxtapose this with “ALCOHOL” – the song “ALCOHOL” is about someone actively trying to avoid their problems. The video features a lot of typical hip-hop imagery (dancing and cars mostly) but it has a different feeling to it. The dancing seems less like happy dancing and more like people trying to bury their problems.

Ravi barely smiles in this video but his expression isn’t calm, it’s aggressive. It’s like he’s pushing you back with his face. He wants you to not feel bad for him.

Red is a prevailing theme in this one – red, the color of boldness and passion. But there is an inherent darkness to it. It’s the color of blood, and it’s the color of a siren. It is a color that can be both cold and harsh as well as warm and inviting. This entire part of the music video is a lit fire, of neon lights and underground dance clubs – a welcoming and yet toxic environment. Dance clubs thrive on physical human connection and yet omit verbal connection. And verbal connection is the entirety of Ravi’s medium.

We see Ravi in the video under lights, drinking and rapping, moving between people, looking around as if trying to look for people he could know. There’s an inherent nihilism to it. It’s like he’s not searching for a person, but for a purpose.

We sometimes see people look at the camera and make eye contact with it, as if they’re looking at him, or perhaps through him.

I’m going to go out on limb that Ravi isn’t literally an alcoholic but instead is trying to draw on the cultural understanding of alcohol in Korea. Drinking is not only a pastime in Korea – it’s a staple of how people interact. It’s prevalent in dramas regardless of the kind. Being drunk is not okay and yet you’re expected to keep drinking. Combine that with the high suicide rate in Korea and you have a recipe for a number of problems. Further mixing in the pressures of idol culture, and Ravi seems not to be talking about alcohol itself – he’s talking about pain.

Why did he choose to put “NIRVANA” and “ALCOHOL” together? I mean you could argue that it’s done for solely the music, but there’s something special about pairing up a song about loving yourself with a song about your sorrows. It sounds like someone who loves himself but is still trying to search for something in his life that he can’t really tell is missing. It could also be someone who only learns to move past their heartache by loving themselves. That would mean that from a story perspective, “Alcohol” is before “NIRVANA” but that said – I don’t think that there is meant to be a story here. If anything, the complete music video is a character study. We see someone navigating a world and learning to love himself while still finding himself trapped in this endless cycle of harm.

And yet, in spite of all this, the video is peaceful. It wants you to get pulled into a catharsis that the visuals create, and feel what it’s trying to get you to feel. You want to reach out, you want to know, and you want to understand. But you also want to be relaxed. You don’t want to want anything. In a way, there’s no video more perfect for a song called “NIRVANA”. It lulls you into a state of bliss and yet is aware of all of the agony it tries to communicate.

Ravi is an incredible artist. There is no question about it. He puts his thoughts there for you. More than that – he puts his heart in front of you. He wants you to feel something. And you feel it from he vibration of his voice to the stares off camera. “NIRVANA + ALCOHOL” is composed of both visual and auditory craftsmanship. And in a time where we’re oversaturated by boy groups under technicolor lights, it’s nice to see an artist who has a mind beyond the stage.

Dreamcatcher’s “What” – Style Versus Substance Part 2

Check out Part 1: Dreamcatcher’s “You and I” – Style Versus Substance Part 1

In my article on Dreamcatcher’s “You and I”, I talked about the importance of balancing plot and visually pleasing images in a music video. I used “You and I” as an example of a music video that does a good job of balancing those things. In this article, I’m going to continue that discussion, but this time try to show it from a different perspective – where the balance between the two principles is thrown off, and the video feels disjointed. This is of course my critical opinion, but it is not the only opinion, and I welcome constructive arguments against my analysis.

Dreamcatcher’s “What” is one of their best songs yet, but its video feels not nearly as story driven – or at least, not well. There are elements of a story here, and the video is beautiful to look at, but there isn’t enough coherent substance to make it particularly gripping. However, it is a very captivating video visually, I just want to explore how the story takes a backseat to other elements of the video.

“What” is overall a great pop-rock song. It has amazing vocals, and the verses and chorus are clearly defined by electric guitar riffs and solid drums beats that get your heart pumping in the meter. It has good mixes of English and Korean words but doesn’t fall into the trap of using a ton of English words in the chorus and making it some weird half-translated mess. The bridge has some nice rapping by Dami but also JiU’s powerful vocals, keeping the styles balanced. Overall the song is a home run.

The video sports a more pop color scheme than past videos – deep fuchsia and indigo with hints of bright orange and other colors. Costumes take on a variety of styles, mostly modern hip fashion styles. Suits come back, this time in red, for JiU, and we see Gahyeon wearing more adult clothing than past videos where she was confined to the schoolgirl aesthetic, probably because she’s the maknae. There’s also a lot more sparkle – everywhere. Not exclusively on set, not exclusively in the costumes – there are sparkles all over the place. It’s a very flashy video and if you like that style then you’re going to love this video.

The camerawork is fantastic, and I do love the set. It feels far more modern than Dreamcatcher’s other videos, but it works for the song and fits the aesthetic that is put forth. I want to be clear – I don’t hate this music video at all. I actually love it. I just think that technically speaking, it could have been done better, and in the spirit of giving this music video a fair assessment, I think I should be hard on it.

As said before, story is implied in this video, but not in a way that is particularly cohesive, so I’ll do my best to try to unpack what I can. There are only a few actual storylines, the primary one being JiU’s and Yoohyeon’s. I usually try to unpack the details first, since I’m a more detail oriented person, but since the video is fairly lacking in story, I want to try to get to the bottom of theirs first, then get into the details.

JiU wakes up, fully clothed and in heels, in the street, and judging from her expression, it seems to be an unfamiliar one to her. She looks around in fear and confusion. Simultaneously, we see Yoohyeon in her bedroom, trying to sleep. There’s a snowglobe next to her with crystals inside, and that becomes a recurring image. At one point, Yoohyeon falls back onto her bed, eyes closed, and we see the sky flying past her, as if she’s rocketing through it in her sleep.

Eventually, JiU looks up above her at the rooftop of a building labelled “CACHETTE” (French for “hideout”). Yoohyeon is standing on the rooftop, with the skyline behind her. Yoohyeon suddenly wakes up in a room with paint dripping down the windows, and playing cards floating around her – all of them labelled Joker. We also see JiU wake up in the same location as before.

We’re led to believe there’s something important about the building, or at least a specific reason that the girls all end up there. We see Gahyeon and Siyeon outside it as well, and JiU – as well as a figure we can’t fully make out that goes inside it.

SuA is inside the building, and it appears like there was some sort of party or event happening, because there are balloons and confetti everywhere, not to mention pink caution tape. Gahyeon walks through it and surveys the damage, eventually running into SuA, who appears to be doing the same thing. We also see Gahyeon running out, only to be reversed on the footage and pulled back in.

As far as a coherent story goes, that’s about it. But we can get some stuff from subtext – Handong is hidden away in a closet somewhere, illuminated by red light from outside. Dami is sporting a more masculine and mature appearance – manspreading while surrounded by many chairs. Not sure why there are so many chairs, but I accept. We also see SuA teleporting while she’s singing between doorways, behind pink caution tape.

The rest of the inserts are generally disjointed – hands spray painting things, various shots of Yoohyeon’s room, JiU and Siyeon surrounded by umbrellas, a small clown toy spinning, the book from “Good Night” sitting on a pile of sand with a flower growing out of it…you get the idea.

“What” is good…but not great. Call me spoiled, but I vastly preferred “Fly High” and “You and I” in both technical aspects and story aspects. It was much clearer about what we should be looking for, without expecting the viewer to figure it out. It is by no means a bad music video, in fact I would argue that this video rivals some music videos put forth by more established groups. It’s effectively saved by it’s song, it’s choreography, and the talent of the members.

“What” does, however, push forward more visual things as opposed to substantive things. This isn’t always a bad thing though. The colors and costumes, for one, are much more eye catching. I love the use of pink and the way lighting sets a mood. But it uses special effects in a way that feels inorganic – the nice thing about “Fly High” is that effects were used sparingly, and even in “You and I” where effects were used frequently, they were done more realistically, to build the world instead of just showing off. And yes, the effects are definitely striking in this video – but also not very polished. It’s very clear that Yoohyeon is in front of a green screen when she’s standing in front of the skyline, and when Yoohyeon is rocketing through time and space on her bed, it does not look real.

The disjointedness of the story is probably what bothers me the most. Not because a music video with a disjointed story is bad, but it seems disjointed in the wrong way. Having a bunch of connected pieces out of order – that’s okay. I think that that can be done well and have a very positive effect. However, when doing that, you have to go off of somewhat familiar imagery, even if you incorporate something new.

I mention VIXX a lot in my articles, but that’s because they are a case study in good music videos. I want to take us back to their Conception trilogy, featuring the albums “Zelos”, “Hades”, and “Kratos”. The trilogy came out in 2016 and spanned several months, with the music videos “Dynamite,” “Fantasy,” and “The Closer”. Each of the videos was connected, telling a story rooted in Greek Mythology but not necessarily driven by it. Each video and song was wildly different from the last, but what made this trilogy work is the consistent imagery. N had the green eye tattoo on his hand, Ravi is associated with wine, and characters would often represent specific gods from mythology. I bring this up because the trilogy balances its plot with its visuals, constantly changing the visuals to match the music while keeping the story and its motifs solid.

“What” is clearly trying to establish a new direction for the band – maybe we’ll get less of the retro schoolgirl aesthetic and more modern concepts. However, even in doing so, it is important to maintain the story that has already been established, if you are trying to allude to or rely on it. And the video makes allusions to other Dreamcatcher music videos – the book from Good Night especially, along with the timing changes that were particularly frequent in “Fly High” and “You and I”. There’s also the notable absence of the infamous photograph of all the girls in white, motif that has been used frequently. I have a theory for how “What” could connect to the other videos, assuming it does, but that is still a big assumption on my part.

I think that “What” is a good music video, but it doesn’t feel like a good Dreamcatcher video. It doesn’t play with what it has, instead it tries to make something new but still rely on the old, and does so with not a lot of continuity. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, it just didn’t sit right with me personally. As we see later though, with “PIRI”, we get the best of “What” and also the best of the earlier videos as well…but that’s for next week.

Dreamcatcher’s “Fly High” – Unsettlingly Mesmerizing

There’s something oddly fascinating about the concept of schoolgirls. There is an implied innocence to them that isn’t allotted to schoolboys, but at the same time they are consistently sexualized or represented by older women. They exist in the societal limbo between children and adults, taking on one form or the other whenever it’s convenient.

Dreamcatcher’s music video “Fly High” takes advantage of the concept of school girls to tell a dramatic, fantastical story. The song is on their “Prequel” album, so it’s safe to assume that this is part of the story that was established by their previous music videos, “Chase Me” and “Good  Night”. The music video is distinctly less horror than the previous ones were, and yet, it is unsettling in a very atmospheric way. There is still fantasy at play and something bizarre and uncanny, that makes you emotionally invested.

The song has a lighter feel than their previous songs, but still fits the rock pop feel that they’ve consistently had going. It sports nice piano at the beginning with a sweet drum beat, with an intense electric guitar and the occasional violin in the background. The vocals are smoother than they were in “Good Night,” probably to fit a more pop feel. Overall the song has a better drive and beat, so let’s see how the video holds up in comparison.

The color scheme is a generally soft palette with bold colors, covering most of the rainbow. It’s like watching a period piece, only colored infinitely better. Every time there is a shot, there are clear focal points, while everything continues to be coherent and have a consistent feel. The colors that stick out most are dark red, dark blue, varying shades of gold and white. There isn’t as much darkness as in other videos – night scenes have much more creative uses of light, and the video as whole does not have as dark of an atmosphere. That said the video as a whole isn’t bright and happy – it goes into a strange direction.

Since the story is so difficult to unpack and scattered in a bunch of smaller pieces, I’m going to address each one separately. We’re going to start with individual members, then break into pairings of members, and end with the scenes that have all of the members.

SuA

She only gets one scene by herself, but appears in scenes with other members. The one scene we see of her, she’s walking backwards through the woods.

Handong

Criminally underused, but still has her brief moment. The only one where she’s alone is her sitting in a bathtub, staring off into space while water drips from her hands.

Siyeon

She spends most of her time walking backwards and forwards through the woods, carrying a bunny toy. Like the other girls, she operates almost as if she’s in a trance. At one point though, we see her carrying something else – a rolled canvas.

Dami

Dami reprises her role as someone interested in the occult. We see her pull a book off the shelf, then read something to herself while on the floor. She’s surrounded by books, candles, and picture frames. There’s also a floating book for some reason – still can’t figure out why. She’s by the door, claiming the space as her own, and what appears to be the same bookshelf she got the book from, judging from the wood. As the camera moves closer while she’s speaking, feathers also scattered on the floor blow around her. Whatever she’s doing is working.

Gahyeon

Gahyeon has one particularly interesting moment. We see her lying on a bed, surrounded by beautiful flowers of varying colors. There is also a single deer antler on the bed with her, by her feet. The deer antler is likely a callback to the deer heads in “Good Night”, but it does emphasize that Gahyeon’s character has something to do with nature. Her hair is even green on the ends. A hand hits the light switch and shuts it off. Feathers start flying about what we later realize is the room Dami is doing the ritual in. Gahyeon opens her eyes, and the door closes.

She thrashes about in the bed, while interspersed are clips of a woman in a white veil, carrying a candlestick, walk through the halls and towards Gahyeon. We don’t get a confirmation as to who this woman is but we can assume at this point it’s another member. Anyway, Gahyeon thrashes, seemingly immobilized. A hand with strange fantasy paint reaches out and covers her eyes.

Yoohyeon

Yooheyon is one of the two members with the most screen time. However her most important scenes involve JiU, so I want to cover those separately. The scenes that Yoohyeon gets by herself are vague, but nonetheless something that pulls in her audience. The first moment of note is Yoohyeon singing in the attic, and in the living room/parlor. The lyrics for this particular shot sequence translate into “Like I’m trapped in forgotten time / I’m trapped / In this night / A dangerous rainbow is engraved.” She makes a clock motion with her hands at the part about time, in the attic, and also a gentle choking motion at the part about being trapped, in the living room.

In a later shot, we see Yoohyeon walking towards a mirror that’s precariously placed in the yard, near the street. She walks towards it and stands in front of it ominously. Cut to her sitting in front of the mirror and touching it, and black drips out from the area near her hand and down the mirror. In the behind the scenes, Yoohyeon described it as “evil” that was supposed to be dripping out.

We also get a shot of her running through the yard, but then she stops and turns around to face the camera. When she does it cuts to a new shot of her, in the woods, wearing dark blue. She walks forward, her face empty and ominous. We see her walking away from the building, down the same path, closer to night than before.

It’s presumed, based on context clues, that Yoohyeon is the veiled figure that messes with Gahyeon. Those context clues are mainly just Yoohyeon’s predisposition to the evil things in the MV as well as the fact that we see Yoohyeon in the attic, same as the veiled figure. This is mostly conjecture but it could make sense.

JiU

Ah yes, JiU. She has the most screen time out of every member. The first shot is of her, surrounded by butterflies. The shot is very blue – the ocean behind is blue, the sky is blue, the dress is light blue, and the butterflies are blue. Later in the MV the butterflies catch on fire and disappear – this is important.

JiU walks with the other members outside in the daytime, in her schoolgirl outfit, before veering to catch something with a jar – when we get back inside, we see that it’s a spider. She spends a lot of time looking at it before one of her friends – who we don’t see at this stage – pulls her away.

We also see a girl playing piano in a room filled with black balls/balloons, on a piano covered with smaller balls like marbles. JiU walks by the room wearing a black dress, and peers in. Inside is another JiU, wearing the same dress as in the butterfly shot. JiU is shocked as the camera briefly zooms in. It moves quickly so you might miss it, but it’s there and definitely a provoking moment.

JiU is then seen running through the halls, looking over her shoulder. She seems afraid of something, but it’s not stated what it is that she’s running from. She opens the doors of the mansion and runs towards the gate. She seems urgent, but when she finally gets to the gate and closes it, she’s calm, as if there was no sense of urgency to begin with.

Siyeon and SuA

Their pairing is seen walking together through the woods in all their shots together, usually backwards. Sometimes they’re holding hands and looking at each other, other times they’re just standing, separate, Shining style. At one point, they’re holding hands and walking backwards into mist, but emerge from the same mist wearing cloaks. SuA holds the ritual book from “Good Night.” The two of them look at each other and smile.

JiU and Yoohyeon

The meat of the story is in one single interaction between these two. When JiU puts her captured spider on the table, it’s Yoohyeon who pulls her away. Behind her back she is holding a magnifying glass. So when JiU is out of the way, Yoohyeon kills the spider, letting smoke come off of the glass. This is supposedly what the burning butterflies allude to later in the video.

SuA, Siyeon, and Gahyeon

There’s only one shot of the three of them all together, but it’s of them standing perfectly still, peering down on the camera from a higher staircase. The shot is ominous from the unnatural angle, and there are deeper skulls all along the walls. There’s also a thread coming from Gahyeon’s position on the balcony. It’s unclear what the thread is supposed to be holding but it is there.

(It’s also worth mentioning, for sake of being thorough, that there is a shot with Dami, Yoohyeon, and what appears to be SuA running down the stairs, but I’m not sure if it’s of any particular significance.)

All members

There are a number of scenes with all of the Dreamcatcher members. The first one of note is obviously the girls running in schoolgirl uniforms along the grassy path, then playing in retro-style dresses in the yard. JiU, SuA, and Siyeon all look at a birdcage before running to the other members.

The members play a Marco Polo style game where JiU has her eyes covered. The girls also play a game where JiU is against a wall and they have to run and chase her, but when she turns around to look, they all freeze. It’s a red-light-green-light situation. They end up going back inside, which is where we see JiU and the spider. The yard also has a modern art sculpture and picnic tables. There’s another scene that appears to be part of this sequence later in the music video, where Handong flies a black paper airplane. It looks like all the girls are running to catch it, but costumes indicate that this is a different day.

There’s an eerie sequence in the second verse, broken up into two parts. The first part takes place in a dining room inside the house and the second part takes place in the kitchen. The first part, we see six of the members seated, with SuA approaching the head of the table. On the right, Gahyeon, Handong, and Yoohyeon are sitting, and, directly opposite them, respectively, are Siyeon, Dami, and JiU. All six of them are sitting perfectly straight with books in front of them, and all six of them have their eyes closed. SuA carries a bell over before taking her stance. The girls all write in notebooks, before snapping their glances to the camera.

The second part of this sequence starts here, where we see the girls in the kitchen at a similar table, passing knives down the line to each other. SuA rings a bell, and they all start cutting their food – except it’s not actually food, it’s a white flower. It’s too far away to see specifically what it the flower is. If I ever find out the flower name, I’ll edit this article accordingly.

The last few shots are carefully crafted. We see SuA, surrounded by the other girls, drive a knife into the picture from “Chase Me”, cutting the edges to take it off the frame. We then see an overhead shot of the girls dancing and spinning on the yard, before standing perfectly standing still and looking up at the camera in dance formation.

This video was confusing at best, but still so beautiful to watch. Every image feels like a painting. Scrubbing through the video frame by frame made me appreciate it that much more. The shots are much better than the previous music videos by Dreamcatcher, with better focus when appropriate and no artificial sharpening. There are a handful of artificial effects, but nothing out of place. Everything feels balanced.

There is a lot of use of slow motion, long shots and short ones, a variety of different camera techniques. There are a lot of wide shots this time around, showcasing the entire setting, be it a room or outdoors. A lot of the camera techniques we associate with horror are used in this MV, particularly the one point perspective used in Kubrick-style films. There’s also awkward angles, often looking upward to the focal point of a shot. This causes a feeling of smallness, of wonderment, but also tension.

There is also a great use of natural space, and nature in general, to make the horror feel real. One of the biggest problems that “Chase Me” and “Good Night” had was weird use of effects. Good use of them, but often times they were clearly not real. The use of nature in this mv makes everything feel real, so when an effect appears it doesn’t feel out of place. Most of the aesthetic is created through props, set pieces, etc.

Shot from “Fly High” for comparison

There is also a use of retro costumes and set pieces – nothing that shouldn’t be there is there. Everything is of the time, whatever the time may be. But it also doesn’t feel excessively retro. You can still put yourself in the position of the character and relate to them on some level. I mean malevolent witch girls is not the most relatable thing in the world, but the playfulness and curiosity of the Dreamcatcher members is still relatable.

There are a lot of story elements that are out of order in this, but the main recurring theme seems to be nature. Not just physical nature, but natural versus unnatural behavior. That said the film isn’t about nature. But just because there is a recurring theme does not mean that the film has to be about that theme. A Marvel movie can be all about superheroes but have a recurring theme and still be separate from the themes.

Let’s focus on the themes of physical nature first. Gahyeon’s bed is surrounded by flowers, much of the music video takes place outside, JiU has a predisposition to like bugs, and even the visuals make use of the four elements in various ways – we have water dripping off Handong’s hands, we have fire coming off the candles, we have earth EVERYWHERE, and since wind is an invisible element, we have hair blowing and butterflies. One could argue that witchcraft is working in conjunction with nature, so even the use of ritual books could be a force of nature. But that point is open to interpretation and part of a bigger discussion on the nature of witchcraft and religion, and this is a K-Pop blog so we’ll keep the focus geared towards the video.

The theme of natural versus unnatural behavior is the part that has the most relevance to this video. We see the girls interacting playfully with each other, playing games, exploring the surroundings, doing typical things that girls do. On the opposite side we have these strange scenes where the girls are standing perfectly still, faces blank, doing things in complete unison. There is of course the veiled figure, probably Yoohyeon, behaving like a ghost, existing in the limbo between the natural and unnatural. Siyeon and SuA walk backwards, an act that is inherently uncomfortable or involves video editing or time manipulation. You could even say that the cutting of the white flower is something unnatural – the white flower being on the plate and presumably being eaten is definitely not supposed to be happening. And, of course, there’s the act of burning the spider – death is natural but murder isn’t.

If I’ve said “natural” enough times to make you hate trees forever, don’t worry – let’s just analyze the story for a minute. It seems that some figure, and is affecting JiU, Yoohyeon, Gahyeon, and the other members. I don’t necessarily believe that Dami is the one doing the summoning, but she has the ritual book – I’m more willing to believe that she has an interest in dark magic. What’s happening with Dami just feels like it’s more isolated, more to do with her own journey into the unknown than the other girls.

The other girls, however, definitely seem to be increasingly effected by the dark magic in their world. JiU seems to be trying to protect herself, and by extension, the other girls, from whatever the dark entity is. But, ultimately, she succumbs to the evil being – we can see from the calm expression on her face that the being wins to some extent.

Yoohyeon also is affected by this and is the possible cause of these problems in the video. She burns the spider, she is touched by the evil, she walks around almost like she’s possessed. It seems like something has taken hold of her, and it’s something that she can’t control. It’s also possible that she is some sort of dark being herself, but since transformation is a motif (butterflies are a typical indicator of this theme) and we see her transformation into the blue dress, I don’t think she’s necessarily supposed to represent that.

As for what all of the girls are doing, where they’re all at the tables or acting playful. Symmetry and stiff, unnatural behavior are typically associated with horror films. Their use is often to indicate ghosts, or otherworldliness. When there’s symmetry, there’s something wrong. But if the girls are doing ghostly things inside the house but also being playful, they must somehow exist within the spheres of evil and innocence.

Overall there’s a lot to unpack in the Dreamcatcher video “Fly High”. I think this video is a must-watch in modern K-Pop. It has all of the big things and the little things, great camerawork and a great location, enough story to keep you invested and enough vagueness to make you curious. My biggest complaint is the lack of balance between members in this video, but that’s something that’ll come with time – all K-Pop groups go through a period where one member seems to be pushed into the front, usually around the debut. So with that in mind, let’s see if we get any answers to the looming question in their next video “You and I”, and if later videos balance out all the girls.