The aesthetic of K-Pop and its universal appeal
March 26, 2019 · 3 Minute Read
Every listener of K-Pop who is not Korean makes you wonder about the universality of music. For those who don’t speak or understand Korean, what does it mean to follow K-Pop? Beyond the viral YouTube hits that were funny (PSY’s “Gangnam Style” immediately comes to mind), there’s an entire industry of K-Pop artists who may be sticking to their language, but know there’s a global audience waiting on every communication.
Perhaps the biggest allure of K-Pop is its attention to detail in crafting an audio-visual package that doesn’t just stop at the music. Hints and teasers are dropped via social media, and K-Pop news is at an all-time high, in terms of consumption. Credit, for the most part, goes to one of the biggest groups in the K-Pop world right now – BTS. Among their predecessors and still one of the most popular names in K-Pop, rapper and singer G-Dragon also took the concept and persona game to a new level. While he not only maintains an androgynous look, for which the genre’s aesthetic has gained followers from the fashion world, but he also treats his moniker as an alter-ego. On his last tour, he began alternating between a soft-spoken shy self and a glamorous pop king.
Just like G-Dragon is backed by a large label called YG Entertainment, it is Big Hit Entertainment that helps unravel BTS’ K-Pop. By most estimates, the fictional universe of BTS began with videos for songs “Run” and “I Need U”, off their 2015 albums The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Young Forever in April, followed by Part 2. It shone a spotlight on topics not normally explored in the manufactured world of bubblegum K-Pop songs and carpe diem themes, with fans poring over each frame and visual cue. Translated lyrics and visuals showcased themes of loneliness, mental anguish, and even politics. “I Need U”, with its gripping storytelling and scenes of violence, made many sit up and take notice of a new approach to building a K-Pop identity.
If we look back a few years before BTS, the path was set by the likes of groups such as SHINee, VIXX, and of course, G-Dragon. Many fans closely following are looking out for signature statements in their music videos, one of the main tools of the trade in the K-Pop world, along with choreography. While G-Dragon’s seminal song “Coup D’etat” in 2013 was a deep dive into his vulnerable psyche, the music video tied together references to previous releases and lyrical themes of self-destruction and the world of show business.
The relatively newer group, VIXX, has stuck strong to crafting a universe with each release, whether it’s envisioning a future with androids on “Error” or adapting the concept of horror/thriller novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for their first mini album Hyde in 2013. The music, too, takes a turn, like their 2016 EP Hades, which takes from Greek mythology. The band mentioned that it takes on all concepts and their execution as a fun challenge, but ensures that the fans aren’t too stressed out in figuring out the meanings behind their work.
Literature certainly seems to be a big draw from K-Pop artists, considering SHINee also took on detective figure Sherlock Holmes for 2012’s Sherlock – the title track’s music video features the members as sleuths trying to crack a case. EXO, also among the rulers of the charts in the K-Pop world, took their name from the idea of an exoplanet, with each of the members having their own superpowers that gets introduced on their 2012 debut single “Mama”. There are references and timed releases coinciding with lunar movements, including a lunar eclipse, which is certainly one way to keep fans hooked.
Once again, it never matters that these K-Pop songs weren’t in English, save for the occasional hook. “Fake Love,” which released in May 2018, may arguably be BTS’ biggest global hit for its English phrases, but 2016’s album WINGS carried forward on themes of parallel universes, literature, and mythology, which were lapped up by the fans. Earlier this year, one of their most finessed works came out – the video for the neo-soul leaning track “Singularity”, off Love Yourself: Tear. Its frames referenced paintings by Sir John Everett, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, accompanied by slick choreography and top-notch cinematography.
K-Pop artists certainly think in the most detailed terms when it comes to how they present themselves, whether it’s a an album teaser on Twitter or a “comeback trailer” that’s essentially a music video. BTS’ Rap Monster explained in an interview that there were seven different characters in their videos, mirroring real characteristics from the members’ real lives. In the same interview, the band member gushed about their devoted following that disseminates everything they put out, only half-jokingly saying that BTS fans – or the ARMY as they’re known – are among the smartest and most talented.
While genre fluidity is easier, considering pop music has had an intrinsic history in reinventing itself (from Madonna to Michael Jackson, everyone has jumped from disco to rock to electronic music), the real appeal of K-Pop songs probably lies in their presentation, engaging listeners to piece together a puzzle. Tune in and take a trip down the rabbit hole of K-Pop. You certainly won’t be complaining about not understanding Korean.