There are plenty of reasons why K-pop is becoming everyone’s favourite, including the brilliant visuals and aesthetics, the variety of tunes ranging from upbeat to melancholic, and the amazing camerawork in music videos. Nevertheless, one of the most interesting aspects of K-pop is the compelling storylines intricately interwoven into the content produced by its various artistes. Subsequently, these alternate universes and plots lead to sustained interest and investment for the audience, which stretches beyond the crisp and melodious tunes.
Intricacies of the K-pop world
K-pop concepts are certainly not a new phenomenon. Groups mostly debut with a particular concept, like empowering the youth (BTS), extraterrestrial beings with superpowers (EXO), and more. The boy band H.O.T, considered to be the first K-pop idol group, was formed in 1996, with each member being designated different colours. Further down the line, K-pop concepts have now evolved to include labyrinthine plots that go on to create intricate universes much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The girl group Aespa, which debuted in November 2020, has an interesting concept that is perhaps extremely pertinent to the increasing digitalisation of the world. Formed by SM Entertainment, all the members of Aespa have their own online avatar-like virtual counterparts (called “aes”), who feature across the band’s content, primarily the music videos.
Aespa and the concept featuring their AI counterparts symbolise a pertinent aspect of today’s world — having a digital persona
Crystal Bell writes in Teen Vogue, “On the surface, Aespa’s story is rooted in the concept that we exist in two worlds — the real world and the virtual one. In this virtual world, we all have digital avatars that have been created with our data — every photo we upload, every video we consume, every song we listen to, every purchase we make, and so on. As the physical manifestation of our online selves, the aes are a more perfect version of us. They are who we choose to show to the world: similar, but not always truthful. But what happens when your æ becomes corrupted? That’s where Aespa’s concept takes a darker, and more compelling turn. If the Black Mamba (from their debut music video Black Mamba) somehow represents the very worst of our digital selves — a virus of hate, greed, and temptation — then this symbolic splintering of our offline and online personas becomes the crux of Aespa’s narrative....” Interestingly, Aespa’s story is a part of a much larger universe, which has been developed by SM Entertainment, the SM Cultural Universe (SMCU), comprising other artists under the label as well.
Dreamcatcher, who have influences of rock and electro pop in their sound, have had a horror-like concept, where the members are nightmares trapped in a hellish realm, being pursued by a nightmare hunter.
Dreamcatcher, who have influences of rock and electro pop in their sound, have had a horror-like concept
Originally, however, Dreamcatcher was a five-member group with a colourful and bright concept called Minx. The CEO of Happyface Entertainment, which manages Dreamcatcher, has explained why the change was necessary to stand out in a market that was already saturated with the “innocent charm” concept: “We decided on a darker concept and a non-mainstream music style after discussion. We went with a slightly fierce kind of music, but it was different than ‘girl crush’. If we had to put a genre on it, you could say it had a rock base with a pop-metal style. On top of that, we put on a nightmarish view of the world.” VIXX, who debuted in 2012, is also known for their dark and mystical concepts that often draw from mythological tales. For example, their VIXX 2016 CONCEPTION trilogy was derived from Greek mythology and featured Hades and Kratos.
Concepts for most K-pop artistes are largely fluid even though they might be following the same storyline. The difference in concepts is indicated through various visual components of an “era” (the period between the release of an album and the next), such as hair colour, outfits, promotional photoshoots and more. For example, Red Velvet has an interesting mix of cheerful and dark concepts. Their “Red” concepts are bright and cute (seen in songs like Happiness, Russian Roulette and so on), whereas “Velvet” comprises their darker concepts, with songs like Pyscho and Bad Boy. Yet others like TXT or Tomorrow by Together debuted with the cheerful Crown but moved onto darker and more serious narratives like the one that can be seen in the music video of their 2020 release Can’t You See Me and have since alternated between the two.
Most storylines in K-pop are quite ambiguous. It is often spread over multiple types of content released by the artiste and not just the music videos and have different evolving fractures. The multi-narrative structure may seem confusing at first but can be quite addictive to piece together K-pop is an evolving world that while primarily based on music, is certainly not confined to it. Not only are artistes singing and dancing, exhibiting a high level of preciseness and proficiency, but they are embodying stories through impeccable aesthetics, culminating in a high-quality visual experience
Increasing fan engagement and investment
Most storylines in K-pop are quite ambiguous. It is often spread over multiple types of content released by the artiste and not just the music videos and have different evolving fractures. The multi-narrative structure may seem confusing at first but can be quite addictive to piece together.
K-pop juggernaut BTS have one of the most intricate storylines in K-pop currently and it is continually evolving. Not only are the developments of it available through their various music videos (not all, however) but also webtoons (Save Me, available on WEBTOON), games (BTS World) but even concert VCRs (shown during breaks in a concert) and videos were shown before their performances in award shows.
The mobile game, BTS World, is largely a user-choice-based game, among having other user-interactive features, which allow fans to follow the storyline of their universe at their own pace and even take part in it. Moreover, BTS’s storyline is pertinent to the message of hope they are spreading, especially against struggles and temptations that today’s youth face, and depicts friendship, which makes the storyline easy to follow and relatable.
Most K-pop storylines keep on evolving and developing. However, the vagueness that is predominantly present is not as off-putting as it may seem, primarily because it leaves space for audience imagination and participation. The gaps in the storyline, which may or may not be intentional, are inevitably filled by fan conversations and theories across YouTube videos, tweets and more. Unlike fully fleshed-out storylines that might be seen outside of K-pop, it therefore creates a unique fan experience with a give-and-take relationship between the artiste and the fans.
A fandom is definitely a force to be reckoned with and such storylines bolster fandom engagement. It also sparks fan-powered and fan-created content like fan arts, and fan fictions and even lengthy Twitter threads analysing a music video for hints that can tie up with the storyline further, sparking off discourse and conversation involving thousands of fans across the globe. As a result, the audience does not remain as just a passive viewer, but becomes an active consumer who has somewhat of a stake in the proceedings of this alternate universe. This makes the music produced by the artiste not only an auditory experience, but a visual and cinematic one as well, which is perhaps unique to the genre itself. As a fan, you are not only anticipating music, but a story, and actively participating to create it.
Grabbing the spotlight
Beyond the household names from K-pop that we mostly know of today, there are a plethora of other artistes and groups emerging almost every day. This makes a need to stand out inevitable. There are certainly umbrella concepts that comprise many artistes such as the “girl crush” concept or the time-travelling concept. Nevertheless, it is making them unique that grabs the attention of the audience among many others doing the same or similar concepts. Such unique employment of plots and storylines further engagement, and keep it sustained over a period of time, if well-maintained.
There is much to discover when it comes to K-pop. It is an evolving world that while primarily based on music, is certainly not confined to it. Not only are artistes singing and dancing, exhibiting a high level of preciseness and proficiency, but they are embodying stories through impeccable aesthetics, culminating in a high-quality visual experience. And not only that, their fans have an active engagement with those stories. Having a tale behind an album might not be a thing exclusive to K-pop, but, compared to concrete storylines that emerge in the West, K-pop presents cryptic and enigmatic plots that not only bolster fan dedication but help them become a part of the art that they are choosing to consume.