The Art of Korean Music Videos
How larger-than-life cinematic gems are wooing fans around the globe, language no bar
When people learn I am a fan of Korean pop, it is inevitable for them to ask, ‘But how do you know what they’re saying?’ There is an immediate confusion in their minds about how I’m able to connect with artists that perform in a language that’s not English. When I tell them I don’t always need the lyrics to know what the artist is saying, I’m met with incredulous looks or laughter, or both. The next question is almost always about whether it’s their ‘exotic’ looks that attract me! If you’re a non-Korean K-pop fan, chances are you have experienced this at some point too.
To make it easier to understand, I think it’s important to look back at something a little far-removed from this narrative: silent films. Born directly of photography, silent cinema lasted for decades with no audio or language and yet messages were communicated and audiences were entertained. Whether it was clues hidden within frames to convey a mystery or slapstick for simple comedy, each film created emotion, reaction and discussion without relying on dialogue. I find the silent cinema analogy a good way to understand the Korean music industry where music and visuals sometimes matter more than words.
Every fan has that one artist who enticed them into the glittering world of K-pop. For me, it was veteran group Big Bang with their 2012 track “Fantastic Baby.” The outrageously dystopian music video stood out from anything else I had ever witnessed and the opening scene with the group’s leader G-Dragon sitting on a throne made a particularly powerful impact. Clad in a pinstripe suit with a 12 foot-long shock of side-shaved red hair and kohl-drenched eyes, he looked confident, androgynous and powerful—not to mention the complete opposite to society’s idea of what a man ‘should’ be. The entire band matched neon hair with cyberpunk aesthetics, creating shock and awe in equal measure.
Big Bang’s sister group 2NE1 had a similar effect on me with “I Am The Best,” a chrome-laden anthem of glamour and female empowerment. Wearing chainmail, figure-hugging latex and urban street couture, the four members smashed things around them with vigor, drove expensive cars and executed powerful choreography in high heels—they balanced sex appeal and power to portray femininity as a force to reckon with rather than something to titillate audiences with.
Fashion has always been the fulcrum around which Korean music videos have sought to build tiny universes. Back in the day, K-pop originators Seo Taiji & Boys incorporated American street-style and hip-hop with Nineties-style baggy pants, jerseys and caps. This gave Korean fans a taste of Western culture and on the other hand, made Korean artists more relatable to Western audiences. As more idols debuted, they began wearing carefully coordinated costumes that reflected the fashion trends of the time. Soon, music videos started experimenting with full-blown concepts and themes. Boy group VIXX’s sensual, collared look for “Chained Up” (2015) is especially memorable, as is Wonder Girls’ Sixties Motown revival with “Nobody” (2007) and five-member boy group TVXQ’s provocative, barely-there wardrobe in “Mirotic” (2008).
It was natural now for fashion brands to start collaborating with these new-age stars; most Korean artists today favor urban couture with coordinated outfits right off the runway, often cruising ahead of the West with looks that are a season ahead. Four-member girl group BLACKPINK and boy groups Monsta X and NCT have been praised for their sleek urban styling in music videos and live performances.
Referencing art and pop cultureAs time passed and K-pop began world domination, the look and styling on the artist in a music video became just the tip of the iceberg. Video directors and artists looked to incorporate visual metaphors in their films.
“In terms of symbolism, the first video that blew my mind was [Big Bang member] T.O.P’s ‘Doom Dada,’” says Mumbai-based filmmaker and ardent K-pop fan Ruchi Sawardekar. “The number of visual references it has to post-modern art and the history of cinema—it was a treat for the eyes for a film nerd like me.” The video, released in 2013, showcases T.O.P’s insightful understanding of art history and pop culture. The title itself refers to the movement of Dadaism, which rejects logic and uses irrationality and absurdity to point out society’s flaws. The video carries references to several critically acclaimed cult films including The Blair Witch Project, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and many more.
There are scenes with T.O.P dressed as art icons Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol (with Warhol’s infamous Studio 54 making an implied cameo) and two of Dali’s paintings (‘Baby Map of the World’ and ‘The Three Sphinxes of Bikini’) are given hyper-realistic shout-outs. There’s also a sequence with T.O.P inside a Zoetrope, the perpetuator of motion picture, with images of skeletons running around him. In an interview with Fuse in 2014, T.O.P said, “I wanted to make a unique video that looks like a cult film with some fun elements, a video with a message.” The entire video is a commentary on art as a channel for rebellion.
“It’s a literature student’s paradise, honestly,” says Meghna, a Kolkata-based postgraduate student of English literature, referring to “I Need U,” “Prologue” and “Run,” which were part of The Most Beautiful Moment In Life series by current leading K-pop act BTS. Meghna is one of the most popular fan theorists on Twitter (where she is known as @Kookminvasion) and gained recognition thanks to her frame-by-frame Twitter thread analysis of K-pop videos. She shares that it was The Most Beautiful Moment In Life which sparked her unique hobby in the first place. With those videos, BTS began the three-year saga of their fictional universe.
Each member portrayed various struggles faced by youth in society, such as drug addiction, abuse, suicide and murder and how friendship can be an escape from those realities. By far, it is one of the most compelling visual narratives to exist in K-pop, breaking multiple stereotypes, cultural norms and language barriers to achieve remarkable universal appeal. “Those three videos alone have spawned so many headcanons and theories throughout the fandom, it’s unbelievable that they did that in… what, 25 minutes of video?”
With their 2016 LP WINGS, BTS took the mythology further and began exploring the limits of life and death, parallel universes, literature, mythology and religious symbolism in their work. Several videos since have referenced works in literature, art and pop culture that are recognizable to people across the planet. “I think every single BTS video is mind-blowing in itself, because sometimes one scene has five different elements I need to analyze, and some of them I can’t even talk about in a simple Twitter thread because there is so much context behind it,” Meghna explains.
Books like Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince are some of the key works that have inspired the path of BTS’ storyline while several more lie hidden within frames. The video for the group’s recent track “Singularity” is particularly outstanding—it incorporates allusions to the painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (and therefore William Shakespeare’s Hamlet,) Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and the myth of Narcissus to name a few.
Many fans take it upon themselves to read all these works of literature to understand the narrative better and keep up with the band’s attention to detail. In an interview with Rolling Stone India in 2017, BTS’ leader RM spoke at length about their intricate stories: “Star Wars came out tens of years ago, but a dad and his son still go to the theater to see [it]. It’s not just like a five-year or a 10-year thing, you know what I mean? So our company knew that and they always told us about how important it is to make a world like Star Wars or Marvel [did].”
Meticulous metaphors and visual puns
Apart from amplifying a track’s lyrics, visual symbolism sometimes also serves as a substitute for it. “G-Dragon’s ‘Coup D’etat’ is a great example,” Sawardekar points out. “It’s a self-expressive song that’s made even more powerful by the video. He’s able to speak about his experience as an artist with regard to creative freedom, dealing with constant scrutiny and struggling with his own artistic identity even to somebody who doesn’t understand the lyrics.” In “Coup D’etat” the ‘King of K-pop’ dives deep into his own psyche to spark an internal revolution. He must kill a part of himself to give rise to something stronger and create a new narrative. The film is replete with metaphors for self-destruction (seen by the wrecking ball hanging over his head as it destroys the structure he stands in from within), capitalism, toxic relationships and the pitfalls of show business. He is also self-deprecating when he uses Easter eggs from past tracks and music videos to scoff at his own frivolity. Symbolism, visual puns and clever Easter eggs have since become staples in G-Dragon’s work.
Everyone agrees on one thing though: VIXX are the leaders in the game. The six-member boy group built a reputation as K-pop’s ‘concept-dols,’ utilizing diverse storylines, allusions to literature and mythology right from their 2013 vampire-themed video for “On and On.” “I don’t think they’re giving up [the title] any time soon,” Meghna says. “They probably hold a record at this point for most number of diverse storylines.” She points to “‘Fantasy” in particular, the dark and sensuous single from the group’s 2016 EP Hades. “I had to sit down and screenshot the video several times just to understand it better,” she recalls. The EP was part of trilogy conceptualized around and named after three Greek gods: Zelos, Hades and Kratos. The videos of each lead single from the EPs featured refined symbolism that wove the members into mythology. “That was one of the other severe shock moments, I think—when I realized that one of [the members] was Hades and the other was Persephone.”
Symbolism isn’t restricted to the world of K-pop; it’s an art most Korean artists put their faith in. Rapper Zico’s 2017 music video for “Anti” canoes through his consciousness, exploring the repercussions of fame and self-criticism. R&B singer Dean takes inspiration from American pop culture and history to tell his own stories. His 2016 video for “Bonnie and Clyde” depicts the tragic story of the infamous villains of the same name, but is re-imagined to take place sometime in the Eighties. His most recent video “Instagram” is a single-shot film that uses clips of significant moments and figures in history projected around him to critique the modern despair of social media.
Korean artists often choose not to explain what their videos mean, allowing audiences the freedom to create their own interpretation of their work—this leeway inevitably creates a unique bond between the artist and the audience who are free to take what they need from the story to make themselves happy.
According to Sawardekar, no one has mastered cinematography quite like Christian Yu. The Korean- Australian filmmaker is the founder of Dream Perfect Regime, a music label and production company that has worked on music videos for artists in Korea, including DPR Live, the sole singer signed to their label, YG Entertainment’s Mino and Bobby and many more.
“As a filmmaker, I have to give props to DPR whose attention to detail on the visual aesthetic of the music videos is so evident,” says Sawardekar. “Not to say that other artists don’t do this, but my first response to DPR Live’s “Jasmine” was that it was visually stunning.” The color grading in “Jasmine” as well as his other film “Martini Blue” stands out spectacularly, pairing unusual hues in high-contrast, therefore making for striking plays between dark and light. Highly pigmented frames and sweeping shots at exotic locales allow Yu to transport his audiences completely for those three or four minutes.
VIXX and the six-member group B.A.P too excel in visual escapism; the latter have earned acclaim for their 2017 video for “Wake Me Up,” which broaches the topic of mental illness, as well as their other action-movie style, plot-heavy music videos. Four-member girl group Mamamoo’s release “Starry Night” is another recent addition to the list of Korean videos with outstanding cinematography.
All the right moves
There is no denying that visuals with impeccable choreography can sometimes have the biggest pull. “I got into K-pop soon after watching SHINee’s “Lucifer” in 2013 and at the time it was really the music and dance that attracted me to the genre,” Sawardekar recalls. In fact, many long-time fans point to the five-member veteran boy group’s 2010 single as their first encounter with K-pop.
Sawardekar does admit “Lucifer” was a bit formulaic, but since then the evolution in creativity has been meteoric. “Seeing groups dancing in a standard box set to now [combining] complex narratives has been pretty impressive. Around 2013-2014, I started noticing that groups were trying to be innovative and different even with typical choreo-heavy songs. [Boy group] EXO’s “Growl” is my favorite example to give.” She explains how “Growl” highlights the choreography with a minimalistic set and a single-take format with the camera’s movement zooming in to focus on individual members’ movements. BTS’ “Save Me” and EXO’s sister group Red Velvet’s “Be Natural” echo similar visuals.
Bigger groups like Seventeen (13 members) and NCT (18 members) rely on the rather impressive visual of fast, complex and precise dance moves. Hailed as the ‘kings of synchronization,’ Seventeen formulate the majority of their choreography themselves and use their large number to their advantage. Their music video for the 2017 single “Don’t Wanna Cry,” for example, features aerial shots to show off the intricate formations the group utilizes.
Most artists also include ‘performance versions’ of music videos—SHINee member Taemin, who is known to be one of the best dancers in the industry, tends to favor this sort of format (as seen by “Drip Drop,” “Press Your Number” and “Move”) to play to his strengths.
There’s also the aspect of ‘point’ or ‘key’ dance which refer to a move fans love to learn or follow or a piece of choreography that makes for a engrossing visual. PSY’s massively viral 2012 video for “Gangnam Style” for example applied the former and it would seem that the entire world learned to mimic the producer’s moves.
The future in frames
K-pop has always been associated with memorable visuals but now the perception has shifted to ‘complex’ and ‘creative’ rather than ‘crazy’ or ‘outrageous’ courtesy the current global spotlight on BTS’ artistry. “A K-pop fan’s engagement with the music and the culture is mainly through music videos,” says Sawardekar. “Given this, it’s understandable that fans have expectations of artists and of music videos. Also especially because the industry is getting saturated with new artists, more music and videos, audiences are constantly looking for something different and interesting.”
The competition to put out better work is cutthroat and younger groups are successfully carrying the torch forward; Monsta X’s The Clan and The Code series of videos explore time travel, rebellion and societal reform while 12-member girl group LOONA dabble with multiple realities, possible same-sex relationships and Biblical doom.
Meghna explains that the nuanced storylines and symbolism in Korean music videos have also challenged dismissive attitude audiences might have towards Asian or non-English speaking artists. “It aids discussion with fans who love the band as much as you do and who want to know what exactly happened—or what could happen in the future,” she says. Online speculation keeps a fandom in sync as people band together to talk about each new theory. Friendships are instantly forged when fans engage in contests to decipher metaphors.
Last year RM pointed out how impressed he was with fans’ efficiency in decrypting BTS’ videos. “Actually, I’ve seen some [theories] and I don’t know who it was, but there was a video—like an interpretation of the whole thing—that was really close,” he told Rolling Stone India about a fan who had nearly cracked the code of BTS three-year storyline. “I think they’re getting too smart and too talented!”
This story was originally featured in the June 2018 issue of Rolling Stone India
All GIFs by Rolling Stone India