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 KoreanÂ pop, it is inevitable for them to ask,Â ”˜But how do you know what they’re saying?’Â There is an immediate confusion inÂ their minds about how I’m able to connectÂ with artists that perform in a language that’sÂ not English. When I tell them I don’t always needÂ the lyrics to know what the artist is saying, I’m metÂ with incredulous looks or laughter, or both. The nextÂ question is almost always about whether it’s theirÂ ”˜exotic’ looks that attract me! If you’re a non-KoreanÂ K-pop fan, chances are you have experienced thisÂ at some point too.
To make it easier to understand, I think it’s importantÂ to look back at something a little far-removedÂ from this narrative: silent films. Born directlyÂ of photography, silent cinema lasted for decadesÂ with no audio or language and yet messages wereÂ communicated and audiences were entertained.Â Whether it was clues hidden within frames to conveyÂ a mystery or slapstick for simple comedy, eachÂ film created emotion, reaction and discussion withoutÂ relying on dialogue. I find the silent cinema analogyÂ a good way to understand the Korean music industryÂ where music and visuals sometimes matterÂ more than words.
Every fan has that one artist whoÂ enticed them into the glitteringÂ world of K-pop. For me, it was veteranÂ group Big Bang with theirÂ 2012 track “Fantastic Baby.” TheÂ outrageously dystopian music video stoodÂ out from anything else I had ever witnessedÂ and the opening scene with the group’sÂ leader G-Dragon sitting on a throne made aÂ particularly powerful impact. Clad in a pinstripeÂ suit with a 12 foot-long shock of side-shavedÂ red hair and kohl-drenched eyes, heÂ looked confident, androgynous and powerful””not to mention the complete oppositeÂ to society’s idea of what a man ‘should’ be. The entire band matched neonÂ hair with cyberpunk aesthetics, creatingÂ shock and awe in equal measure.
Big Bang’s sister group 2NE1 had a similar effectÂ on me with “I Am The Best,” a chrome-ladenÂ anthem of glamour and female empowerment.Â Wearing chainmail, figure-huggingÂ latex and urban street couture, the fourÂ members smashed things around themÂ with vigor, drove expensive cars and executedÂ powerful choreography in high heels””they balanced sex appeal and powerÂ to portray femininity as a force to reckonÂ with rather than something to titillate audiencesÂ with.
Fashion has always been the fulcrumÂ around which Korean music videos haveÂ sought to build tiny universes. Back in theÂ day, K-pop originators Seo Taiji & Boys incorporatedÂ American street-style and hip-hopÂ with Nineties-style baggy pants, jerseysÂ and caps. This gave Korean fans aÂ taste of Western culture and on the otherÂ hand, made Korean artists more relatableÂ to Western audiences. As more idols debuted,Â they began wearing carefully coordinatedÂ costumes that reflected the fashionÂ trends of the time. Soon, music videos startedÂ experimenting with full-blown conceptsÂ and themes. Boy group VIXX’s sensual, collaredÂ look for “Chained Up” (2015) is especiallyÂ memorable, as is Wonder Girls’ SixtiesÂ Motown revival with “Nobody” (2007)Â and five-member boy group TVXQ’s provocative,Â barely-there wardrobe in “Mirotic”Â (2008).
It was natural now for fashionÂ brands to start collaborating with theseÂ new-age stars; most Korean artists todayÂ favor urban couture with coordinated outfitsÂ right off the runway, often cruisingÂ ahead of the West with looks that are a seasonÂ ahead. Four-member girl group BLACKPINKÂ and boy groups Monsta X and NCTÂ have been praised for their sleek urban stylingÂ in music videos and live performances.
Referencing art and pop cultureAs time passed and K-popÂ began world domination, theÂ look and styling on the artistÂ in a music video became justÂ the tip of the iceberg. VideoÂ directors and artists looked to incorporateÂ visual metaphors in their films.
“In terms of symbolism, the first videoÂ that blew my mind was [Big Bang member]Â T.O.P’s ”˜Doom Dada,’” says Mumbai-basedÂ filmmaker and ardent K-pop fanÂ Ruchi Sawardekar. “The number of visualÂ references it has to post-modern artÂ and the history of cinema””it was a treatÂ for the eyes for a film nerd like me.” TheÂ video, released in 2013, showcases T.O.P’sÂ insightful understanding of art historyÂ and pop culture. The title itself refersÂ to the movement of Dadaism, which rejectsÂ logic and uses irrationality and absurdityÂ to point out society’s flaws. TheÂ video carries references to several criticallyÂ acclaimed cult films including TheÂ Blair Witch Project, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,Â 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. StrangeloveÂ and many more.
There are scenesÂ with T.O.P dressed as art icons SalvadorÂ Dali and Andy Warhol (with Warhol’sÂ infamous Studio 54 making an impliedÂ cameo) and two of Dali’s paintings (”˜BabyÂ Map of the World’ and ”˜The Three SphinxesÂ of Bikini’) are given hyper-realisticÂ shout-outs. There’s also a sequence withÂ T.O.P inside a Zoetrope, the perpetuatorÂ of motion picture, with images of skeletonsÂ running around him. In an interviewÂ with Fuse in 2014, T.O.P said, “I wanted toÂ make a unique video that looks like a cultÂ film with some fun elements, a video withÂ a message.” The entire video is a commentaryÂ on art as a channel for rebellion.
“It’s a literature student’s paradise, honestly,”Â says Meghna, a Kolkata-based postgraduateÂ student of English literature,Â referring to “I Need U,” “Prologue” andÂ “Run,” which were part of Â The Most Beautiful MomentÂ In Life series by current leading K-pop act BTS. Meghna is one of the most popularÂ fan theorists on Twitter (where sheÂ is known as @Kookminvasion) andÂ gained recognition thanks to her frame-by-frame Twitter thread analysis of K-popÂ videos. She shares that it was The MostÂ Beautiful Moment In Life which sparkedÂ her unique hobby in the first place. WithÂ those videos, BTS began the three-yearÂ saga of their fictional universe.
Each memberÂ portrayed various struggles facedÂ by youth in society, such as drug addiction,Â abuse, suicide and murder and howÂ friendship can be an escape from thoseÂ realities. By far, it is one of the most compellingÂ visual narratives to exist in K-pop,Â breaking multiple stereotypes, culturalÂ norms and language barriers to achieveÂ remarkable universal appeal. “Those threeÂ videos alone have spawned so many headcanonsÂ and theories throughout the fandom,Â it’s unbelievable that they did thatÂ in… what, 25 minutes of video?”
With their 2016 LP WINGS, BTS tookÂ the mythology further and began exploringÂ the limits of life and death, parallelÂ universes, literature, mythology and religiousÂ symbolism in their work. SeveralÂ videos since have referenced works inÂ literature, art and pop culture that areÂ recognizable to people across the planet.Â “I think every single BTS video is mind-blowingÂ in itself, because sometimes oneÂ scene has five different elements I needÂ to analyze, and some of them I can’t evenÂ talk about in a simple Twitter thread becauseÂ there is so much context behind it,”Â Meghna explains.
Books like Demian: The Story of EmilÂ Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse, TheÂ Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas byÂ Ursula Le Guin and Antoine de Saint-ExupÃ©ry’s The Little Prince are some ofÂ the key works that have inspired the pathÂ of BTS’ storyline while several more lieÂ hidden within frames. The video for theÂ group’s recent track “Singularity” is particularlyÂ outstanding””it incorporates allusionsÂ to the painting Ophelia by SirÂ John Everett Millais (and therefore WilliamÂ Shakespeare’s Hamlet,) Oscar Wilde’sÂ The Picture of Dorian Gray and theÂ myth of Narcissus to name a few.
ManyÂ fans take it upon themselves to read allÂ these works of literature to understandÂ the narrative better and keep up with theÂ band’s attention to detail. In an interviewÂ with Rolling Stone India in 2017, BTS’Â leader RM spoke at length about their intricateÂ stories: “Star Wars came out tensÂ of years ago, but a dad and his son still goÂ to the theater to see [it]. It’s not just likeÂ a five-year or a 10-year thing, you knowÂ what I mean? So our company knew thatÂ and they always told us about how importantÂ it is to make a world like Star Wars orÂ Marvel [did].”
Meticulous metaphors and visual puns
Apart from amplifying a track’sÂ lyrics, visual symbolismÂ sometimes also serves as aÂ substitute for it. “G-Dragon’sÂ ”˜Coup D’etat’ is a great example,”Â Sawardekar points out. “It’s a self-expressiveÂ song that’s made even more powerfulÂ by the video. He’s able to speak aboutÂ his experience as an artist with regard toÂ creative freedom, dealing with constantÂ scrutiny and struggling with his own artisticÂ identity even to somebody who doesn’tÂ understand the lyrics.” In “Coup D’etat”Â the ‘King of K-pop’ dives deep into his ownÂ psyche to spark an internal revolution. HeÂ must kill a part of himself to give rise toÂ something stronger and create a new narrative.Â The film is replete with metaphorsÂ for self-destruction (seen by the wreckingÂ ball hanging over his head as it destroysÂ the structure he stands in from within),Â capitalism, toxic relationships and the pitfallsÂ of show business. He is also self-deprecatingÂ when he uses Easter eggs fromÂ past tracks and music videos to scoff at hisÂ own frivolity. Symbolism, visual puns andÂ clever Easter eggs have since become staplesÂ in G-Dragon’s work.
Everyone agrees on one thing though:Â VIXX are the leaders in the game. TheÂ six-member boy group built a reputationÂ as K-pop’s ”˜concept-dols,’ utilizing diverseÂ storylines, allusions to literature and mythologyÂ right from their 2013 vampire-themedÂ video for “On and On.” “I don’tÂ think they’re giving up [the title] any timeÂ soon,” Meghna says. “They probably holdÂ a record at this point for most number ofÂ diverse storylines.” She points to “”˜Fantasy”Â in particular, the dark and sensuousÂ single from the group’s 2016 EP Hades. “IÂ had to sit down and screenshot the videoÂ several times just to understand it better,”Â she recalls. The EP was part of trilogyÂ conceptualized around and named afterÂ three Greek gods: Zelos, Hades and Kratos.Â The videos of each lead single from theÂ EPs featured refined symbolism that woveÂ the members into mythology. “That wasÂ one of the other severe shock moments, IÂ think””when I realized that one of [the members]Â was Hades and the other was Persephone.”
Symbolism isn’t restricted to the worldÂ of K-pop; it’s an art most Korean artistsÂ put their faith in. Rapper Zico’s 2017 musicÂ video for “Anti” canoes through his consciousness,Â exploring the repercussions of fame and self-criticism. R&B singer DeanÂ takes inspiration from American pop cultureÂ and history to tell his own stories. HisÂ 2016 video for “Bonnie and Clyde” depictsÂ the tragic story of the infamous villains ofÂ the same name, but is re-imagined to takeÂ place sometime in the Eighties. His mostÂ recent video “Instagram” is a single-shotÂ film that uses clips of significant momentsÂ and figures in history projected aroundÂ him to critique the modern despair of socialÂ media.
Korean artists often choose notÂ to explain what their videos mean, allowingÂ audiences the freedom to create theirÂ own interpretation of their work””this leewayÂ inevitably creates a unique bond betweenÂ the artist and the audience who areÂ free to take what they need from the storyÂ to make themselves happy.
According to Sawardekar, no one has mastered cinematographyÂ quite like Christian Yu. The Korean-Â Australian filmmaker is the founder of DreamÂ Perfect Regime, a music label and productionÂ company that has worked on music videos for artistsÂ in Korea, including DPR Live, the sole singer signed toÂ their label, YG Entertainment’s Mino and Bobby and manyÂ more.
“As a filmmaker, I have to give props to DPR whose attentionÂ to detail on the visual aesthetic of the music videosÂ is so evident,” says Sawardekar. “Not to say that other artistsÂ don’t do this, but my first response to DPR Live’s “Jasmine”Â was that it was visually stunning.”Â The color grading in “Jasmine”Â as well as his other film “Martini Blue” stands out spectacularly,Â pairing unusual hues in high-contrast, thereforeÂ making for striking plays between dark and light. Highly pigmentedÂ frames and sweeping shots at exotic locales allow YuÂ to transport his audiences completely for those three or fourÂ minutes.
VIXX and the six-member group B.A.P too excel inÂ visual escapism; the latter have earned acclaim for their 2017Â video for “Wake Me Up,” which broaches the topic of mentalÂ illness, as well as their other action-movie style, plot-heavyÂ 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 choreographyÂ can sometimes have the biggest pull. “I got into K-popÂ soon after watching SHINee’s “Lucifer” in 2013 and at theÂ time it was really the music and dance that attracted me toÂ the genre,” Sawardekar recalls. In fact, many long-time fans pointÂ to the five-member veteran boy group’s 2010 single as their first encounterÂ with K-pop.
Sawardekar does admit “Lucifer” was a bit formulaic,Â but since then the evolution in creativity has been meteoric.Â “Seeing groups dancing in a standard box set to now [combining]Â complex narratives has been pretty impressive. Around 2013-2014,Â I started noticing that groups were trying to be innovative and differentÂ even with typical choreo-heavy songs. [Boy group] EXO’sÂ “Growl” is my favorite example to give.” She explains how “Growl”Â highlights the choreography with a minimalist set and a single-takeÂ format with the camera’s movement zooming in to focus onÂ individual members’ movements. BTS’ “Save Me” and EXO’s sisterÂ group Red Velvet’s “Be Natural” echo similar visuals.
Bigger groups like Seventeen (13 members) and NCT (18 members)Â rely on the rather impressive visual of fast, complex and preciseÂ dance moves. Hailed as the ”˜kings of synchronization,’ SeventeenÂ formulate the majority of their choreography themselves andÂ use their large number to their advantage. Their music video for theÂ 2017 single “Don’t Wanna Cry,” for example, features aerial shotsÂ to show off the intricate formations the group utilizes.
Most artistsÂ also include ”˜performance versions’ of music videos””SHINeeÂ member Taemin, who is known to be one of the best dancers in theÂ industry, tends to favor this sort of format (as seen by “Drip Drop,”Â “Press Your Number” and “Move”) to play to his strengths.
There’s also the aspect of ”˜point’ or ”˜key’ dance which refer to aÂ move fans love to learn or follow or a piece of choreography thatÂ makes for a engrossing visual. PSY’s massively viral 2012 videoÂ for “Gangnam Style” for example applied the former and it wouldÂ seem that the entire world learned to mimic the producer’s moves.
The future in frames
K-pop has always been associatedÂ with memorable visuals butÂ now the perception has shiftedÂ to ”˜complex’ and ”˜creative’ ratherÂ than ”˜crazy’ or ”˜outrageous’ courtesyÂ the current global spotlight on BTS’ artistry. “A K-popÂ fan’s engagement with the music and theÂ culture is mainly through music videos,”Â says Sawardekar. “Given this, it’s understandableÂ that fans have expectations ofÂ artists and of music videos. Also especiallyÂ because the industry is getting saturatedÂ with new artists, more music and videos,Â audiences are constantly looking for somethingÂ different and interesting.”
The competition to put out better work is cutthroat and younger groups are successfully carryingÂ the torch forward; Monsta X’s The ClanÂ and The Code series of videos explore timeÂ travel, rebellion and societal reform whileÂ 12-member girl group LOONA dabble withÂ multiple realities, possible same-sex relationshipsÂ and Biblical doom.
Meghna explains that the nuanced storylinesÂ and symbolism in Korean musicÂ videos have also challenged dismissive attitudeÂ audiences might have towards AsianÂ or non-English speaking artists. “It aidsÂ discussion with fans who love the bandÂ as much as you do and who want to knowÂ what exactly happened””or what couldÂ happen in the future,” she says. OnlineÂ speculation keeps a fandom in sync as peopleÂ band together to talk about each newÂ theory. Friendships are instantly forgedÂ when fans engage in contests to decipherÂ metaphors.
Last year RM pointed out howÂ impressed he was with fans’ efficiencyÂ in decrypting BTS’ videos. “Actually, I’veÂ seen some [theories] and I don’t know who it was, butÂ there was a video””like an interpretationÂ of the whole thing””that was really close,”Â he told Rolling Stone India about a fanÂ who had nearly cracked the code of BTSÂ three-year storyline. “I think they’re gettingÂ too smart and too talented!”
This story was originally featured in the June 2018 issue of Rolling Stone India
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