How would you describe Kpop to a person that has never heard of it? You could probably use words like “cute,” “quirky,” and perhaps even a splash of “aegyo.” That may have been more true several years ago when groups like SNSD and SHINee first released massive hits like “Gee” and “Noona You're So Pretty.” Lately, it appears that many of our favourite groups have begun to sink their teeth into music videos that comprise more than just dancing in a lighted box with awkward close-ups. We here at Critical Kpop have noticed that there has been a marked shift in the number of groups and videos that have adopted “dark” concepts and moved away from the “aegyo” concepts of yesteryear. But what does this mean, and why is it important?
By “dark” themes, I don't mean music videos that rely solely on things like skeletons, zombie makeup, and vampire teeth, although those do play a role in the acceptance of supernatural and “horror” themes, which I will briefly talk about afterwards. But a concept that is “dark” can also include situations that are deemed mature, including war, violence, death, and sometimes the strange and surreal. In July of this year, f(x) brought us “Red Light” with its red light filters, geometric light overlays, and the girls themselves styled with a heavy emphasis on alternative fashion. This is a cinematography style that is very popular in art house and/or Gothic films where images are meant to be somewhat disturbing and also just plain strange. While there is nothing inherently scary about the music video, it is miles away from the f(x) that brought us “Chu” several years ago with its bright colours, upbeat sound, and cute concept.
I find it increasingly difficult to find a “cute” concept that is appealing or has any sort of lasting effect. Most of the time, they are forgettable because they are based on formulas that have been done to death. Cute concepts usually rely on females, more than males, showcasing traditional gender stereotypes of what it means to be attractive, including being shy, coy, vulnerable, and demure. A song like “NoNoNo” by A-Pink drives this point home for me. There's nothing wrong with the song or the group themselves, but the cutesy style relies on the females in the group to maintain a very youthful appearance and demeanor as they play with balloons in a sea of pink, and cook pastries. They are stereotypically feminine and girly. The concept is just plain OK, and somewhat bland. A group can still be cute, but in a way that is more appealing. Crayon Pop's “Bar Bar Bar” is cute, certainly, but it relies more on being quirky and peculiar than idolizing the perfect representation of femininity. For one, the members are wearing helmets carrying pogo sticks. There's also no sign of a kitchen anywhere in the entire music video.
Girl groups that take on dark concepts also tend to shift away from a soft version of femininity. Instead of being coy, they become sexually confident and independent. They are still feminine, but in a way that presents the image of them being more in control. In a music video like 4Minute's “Volume Up,” not only is there a heavy dash of horror and Gothic elements, but we also receive a powerful female figure that is linked to the use of these symbols.The Temptress has long been a popular figure in the horror genre, and is responsible for luring mere mortals away from the “divine and pure.” She is seductive and uses her physical appearance to get what she wants. There is heavy girl-on-girl skinship, which doesn't feel jarring or out of place due to the character being played. The costumes are classy and distinctively female while the males stand around like props. The girls are sexy but presenting it based on their own terms, and even appear more comfortable doing so.
Popular society is seeing a rise of neo-Gothicism through the growing popularity and acceptance of the dark, the Gothic, and the supernatural. The relationship between the strange or unusual and evil is one that has been debated and debunked since modern civilization began. In many ways, it is an outdated and simple argument that does not seek to move beyond outward appearances. Much classic literature has focused on throwing the idea of the evil monster out on its head. Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” is an excellent example of how evil does not have to be linked with the strange, ugly, or the unusual.The concept of “evil” refers to an absence of morality and the opposite of that which is “good.” There has been much philosophical thought that explains that people themselves cannot be wholly evil and only their actions, especially ones that inflict undue pain or suffering onto others are the actual presentations of evil. This carries with it the expectation that these acts, and those that partake in them, need to be punished. This is perhaps best illustrated in Sunny Hill’s music video for “Pray,” where the beautiful female lead kills a vulnerable, disfigured, and ugly creature, making her evil through her actions.
People are attracted to these dark themes because they satisfy our desire for fantasy and escapism, while helping us cope with our own lives which have become increasingly difficult. The character of the vampire is sexy and charming, embodying desirable traits such as comfort with being alone and being different. But there is also a plethora of characters in supernatural and horror themes that are easily recognizable and understood: the fallen angel, the tamed beast, the tragically spurned lover, and so on. When these tropes are introduced in music videos there is no need to explain their presence since they come with built-in understandings already. This makes the process of storytelling, especially in a short medium like a 4-minute music video considerably easier. Furthermore, there is no language barrier when it comes to supernatural presentations. Cultures around the world have some sort of folklore that retells the story of ghosts, or demons. These are universal symbols. Many Kpop fans might not understand the Korean lyrics of songs, but associating a zombie bride to a story of a dead lover could very easily bridge the language gap.
There is also something to be said for the growing maturity of many Kpop groups and artists. Groups like Beast, who once delivered songs like the peppy “Beautiful” are now filling their discography with darker tracks like “Shadow” and recently, “12:30.” Groups that are decidedly more established than others have developed a strong fan base, so that they can afford to take on riskier videos and concepts. The members themselves within those groups are also maturing, and perhaps adopting the flower boy/girl concept of aegyo becomes awkward and uncomfortable. As these idols become more independent, it could very well be possible that playing with the ideas that society once deemed “off-limits” becomes rebellious, and frankly—fun. Boyfriend has taken this idea to heart, as they throw on the vampire concept all without taking themselves too seriously, and enjoying it. Adding in complex imagery and symbolism also means directors of music videos have more wiggle room to take on themes that are beyond just dancing in a box, especially in a medium like Kpop. Where music videos were once limited to wearing cute outfits and dancing, there is now a huge rise in videos becoming globally-known artifacts on their own. Even within Western media, well-established film directors have tried their hand at conquering the artistic medium of the music video. Kpop is no exception: Lee Jung Hyun's “V” was co-directed by the mastermind behind the cult classic Korean horror film “Oldboy.”
In the new release from VIXX, “Error,” the members transform themselves into cyborgs through CGI, makeup, and choreography. Right from the start we are met with a graveyard of human-shaped robot scraps, and the members of the group with their heads placed onto half-finished metal skeletons. The presentation is unnerving at best, even for a devout horror film fan. Using the disfigured human as a tool to create terrifying settings is not new. Many directors and designers have based monsters on the human image in order to create a psychologically disturbing image and distortion of reality. H.R Giger's famous Alien was based on the composition of the human skeleton, and especially the skull, which resulted in a creature that is frightening on several mental levels. The human brain is wired to recognize fellow humans as non-threatening, but when that human is not actually human, it incites a panic because something is wrong, although we cannot figure out quite what it is. Reality becomes distorted. In “Error” this imagery is used to tell a well-known story of lovers torn apart, but with a science-fiction twist. Popular media has made sure we know what cyborgs are, and what they symbolize: immortal life, manufactured humanity, artificial intelligence, and so on. Adding this specific trope into the music video adds multiple layers to the story, all within the span of five minutes. In this case, using supernatural and darker themes elevates the music video into a miniature piece of film that can be analyzed, dissected and enjoyed on more than just a casual level.