The video for BTS’ hit Idol starts at dawn.
The members of the group are sitting at a table, with a Lion King-like scene at their back. Seconds later, they’re dancing in a white yard surrounded by Greek-style pillars and walls. Words appear in the sky in purple and green letters.
BTS gets down in a giant digital Korean building under rainbow-colored skies, then they zap to disturbing geometrical patterns and square rooms, then they are in a transparent box underwater with giant sharks circling – and so on and so on, to yet more sets, each one more visually mind-blowing.
How to interpret this frenetic visual explosion? That is up to you: The music video, or MV, which evolved as a marketing tool, is now digital pop art in its own right.
From video marketing …
With K-pop originating in the MTV era, MVs were as critical as the music. YouTube was a marketing channel that enabled K-pop labels to reach international audiences at no cost, and MVs offered overseas audiences who spoke no Korean something to look at.
The central visual elements are the images of the individual stars – pretty faces, youthful skin and stylish threads are what enable K-pop stars to land lucrative advertising endorsements – and their intensively choreographed dance moves.
“What’s important in K-pop is the dance,” said Seong Won-mo, one of the directors and founders of video production agency Digipedi. “It’s all about how the body expresses the lyrics, because people watching don’t always understand Korean. The climax is always the dance and especially the group leader.”
Fans of Exo’s Love Shot music video would not disagree considering the wow online reaction to band leader Kai’s “sexy moves.”
But MVs are about much more than capturing funky moves. Blackpink’s Kill This Love video, for example, is setting a new industry standard.
… to video art
“It’s the story of those four goddesses coming down from heaven,” Michael Hurt, a professor of Cultural Studies at the Hankook University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, gushed to Asia Times. “They are mighty, shown from a low camera angle because they’re not for consumption – they’re to be bowed to! It’s quite the new angle just after the Burning Sun scandal,” he added – referring to a sex/sleaze/rape/drugs scandal that has netted a slew of male K-popsters.
Ute Fendler, another specialist in K-pop aesthetics who teaches cultural studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, argues that the goddess angle is “a bit too much,” but does not disagree with the overall point. “The combination of the sets, the close-ups and the digital animation is nothing new, but Kill This Love looks pretty and surprising,” she told Asia Times.
In fact, Idol or Kill this Love are nothing really new. They’re just grand, modern mashups of many MV trends that have evolved over the years. What are the key elements?
Set design is central. Sets are multiple, and each one is specifically designed, built and then destroyed for each music video. BTS’s Idol music video riffs massively on this ingredient.
“If you look at Idol, there’s this moment when they are in an open Korean building and there’s giant version of them behind them, towering over them,” points out Fendler. “It’s quite meta, but it’s probably a mise en abyme” – a term from Western art in which a copy of an image is placed within itself, in a way that may suggest an infinitely recurring sequence.
Another element is lighting: There’s always intense brightness in K-pop. “It’s as much a musical as it is a visual experience – be it music videos or live concerts,” says Bernie Cho, a Seoul-based industry player with DFSB Kollective. “Even if they’re playing in clubs, we get our artists double lighting so that what gets lost in translation is understood in the vibe and feeling of the visuals.”
Equally important is setting visual rhythm to musical rhythm. The editing of Korean music videos is fast paced – two, three times more so than American MVs.
Then there is color. This aspect changed most drastically in the mid-2000s in the MV industry, when all-powerful MV production firm Zanybros’ pure light aesthetic was challenged by newcomer Digipedi’s digital color aesthetic. Zanybros came up with light and sets for MVs centered around choreography and each band member’s persona. Digipedi offered a more edgy and artsy approach. What it brought to the table were intense, clear-cut colors.
That worked out well for Digipedi. It has been 10 years since their aesthetics became a new norm.
There’s always been plentiful movement in K-pop music videos, defined by the Zanybros aesthetic. It’s a zoom-in on constant movement, that, as Fendler puts it, “freezes beauty while keeping it alive at the same time.”
In the last three to five years the cameras have starting turning, and moving to the sides. The recent Superhuman MV from NCT is an example, last year’s Love Shot by Exo is another one.
Winds of change
Things are changing not only in production style, but in what can go on screen. Some parody of the genre itself has crept in.
“When we did Orange Caramel’s Catalena MV, we thought it would be fun to go with a sushi concept and we had the girls wrapped in plastic,” said Digipedi’s Seong. “The TV public channel KBS censored the MV because it was ‘inappropriate.’”
Digipedi had taken the risk willingly to poke fun at the industry as a whole. “As we came up with the concept, we thought it might be interpreted the way it was: That we were saying K-pop idols are a product for consumption and that we were criticizing the Korean cultural industry,” Seong explained. “But we liked the dark humor so we still went with it.”
More broadly, in the past, due to Korean and East Asian sensibilities, raunchy looks and moves were a challenge.
“To get away with what you wanted to get away with – the sexiness – you had to make it look like art,” Hurt explains. “Americans never had to navigate this conservatism. They just put girls in bikinis.”
The recipe worked – as witnessed by some of the risqué moves and outfits in today’s K-pop. “The scene has changed a lot those last few years,” added Fendler. “You can show things you couldn’t before.”
And Kill This Love challenges gender stereotypes – at least, to a point.
“What I like about it, is that some girl groups did try the ‘tough girls’ angle a few years back, but it died because the companies didn’t support it,” said Fendler. “Blackpink brought back this element. It’s still not a full video about them being tough girls, there’s more traditional elements of ‘cute’ and ‘sexy’ in it as well. But it’s still a new element.”
Now, with K-pop surging overseas and the global music scene feeling the impact, more and more international artistes seek collaborations with Korean directors.
“People often ask me, ‘How do you get this look?’” says Cho. “I have to tell them that they’re going to have to wait a year, because that’s how long the waiting list is for many of the directors.”