What is a music video? What requirements must one satisfy? What should be accomplished? When f(x) released the music video for “Red light,” we found ourselves asking these abstract questions. Which is strange, considering that f(x) has never been very innovative with their music videos. So what is going on here?
Make no mistake, this is not a review. This is a quest to understand a part of Kpop that has few, if any, rules. By focusing entirely on imagistic representation in “Red Light,” we will attempt to answer the question, What is a music video? We do so knowing full-well that there can never be a single, all-encompassing definition.
Part 1: The Photoshoot
First and foremost, it is difficult not to recognize the number of solo, close-up shots of each member of f(x). “Red Light” focuses so frequently on these solo shots, in fact, that we started to count them, and then we started to collect them and categorize them. At least partially, “Red Light” is a photoshoot. There is the color shoot, the black and white shoot, and even the light-show shoot. There’s the all-white shoot, the red shoot, and the artistic ruin shoot. Shoot. What are we supposed to do with all of these barely animated images?
Answer: stop and stare. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that part of the goal of any music video is to showcase the group’s image. Kpop is image-conscious and image-heavy. SM Entertainment is not only selling music, they are selling the image of f(x). For that, they need to create an atmosphere in which the women look like models, are treated like models, and therefore seen by the viewer as models. The easiest way to do that is to turn the music video into a barely masked photoshoot.
For the most part, it works. But how do these interjections of model-shots play out in the wider frame of the music video? More on that later.
Part 2: The Archetype
The art of storytelling is extremely difficult when condensed into a four-minute video clip. Most modern movies are about two hours, by comparison, which is partially why music videos tend to rely so much on Jungian archetypes. Partially. In actuality, every type of storytelling relies on archetypes because as humans we connect to one another through archetypes. Some of them are so basic that they appear in nearly every story ever told. For example: love, revenge, creation, motherhood/fatherhood.
Larger narratives are frequently built around basic archetypes. In the modern music video, however, archetypes frequently replace narrative altogether. Take a look at some of the images f(x) gives us in “Red Light.” Is there a story that we can create here? There seems to be a connection between the things exploding (lightbulb, flower, house), or a connection between the Big Brother image and modern slavery. Or the black cat, the witch (?) burning the book, and the cross in Krystal’s head-jewelry. Or no, the gas mask, the girls running, and the camo-outfits. The pirate patch, the ruins...okay no, there’s no story here.
The reality is that, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, the music video is not required to tell a story, and therefore relies on common archetypes to invoke emotion in the viewer. What we can say, after watching “Red Light” a number of times, is that all of the random, ephemeral images together create a feeling of tension and uneasiness about the future. Which works with the repeated line in the song, “You’ll be a witness to change” (translation).
It may be hard for some viewers to accept this reliance on archetype, especially from a group like f(x) who are famous for being a bit different from their competitors. We understand, and sympathize, with those of you who don’t buy into it. For us, the archetype of the telephone is difficult to pin to any emotion. And coming as both an introduction and conclusion to the video, it is difficult to ignore. Is the ringing a warning? Is it a tension that is heightened by picking up the receiver, but never finding out what the message is? And is an image of a telephone (both seen and heard) enough to provoke that emotion? Our hypothesis is all extrapolation. Yours might be wildly different. That is the inherent danger in relying on archetypes. At the end of watching “Red Light,” the viewer is left with a series of images and a puzzle to be decoded.
Part 3: The Dance
Successful promotion of a song in Kpop requires the ability to perform said song in an exciting way. As such, it’s common for groups to focus on their dance in the music video. Many even release a dance-practice version. They are hoping that their choreography and performance are exciting enough that we will remember, or even learn the moves ourselves. Before the first live performance, most of their audience will already be familiar with both song and dance. That level of knowledge keeps expectations from being too high without really sacrificing any of the excitement. In “Red Light,” it must be said, the only thing holding the music video together with any coherence is the dancing.
“Red Light” is a difficult music video to watch because it requires the viewer to make their own interpretation of what they see on the screen. That’s not the case for every music video, but actual narratives are becoming scarce. There’s nothing wrong with the photoshoot or the archetypes or the dance, but clipping them all together results in a product that makes little sense, other than as a study of form. f(x) achieves all of their goals with this music video, but did we, as the viewer, have our expectations met? Or are we, more and more, being asked to fill the gaps with our own imagination?
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.