Are you all sick of my bellyaching yet?
This site has a storied history of rants against the K-pop industry – the very same industry that I profess to love. And yes, you can love something and be critical of it at the same time. In fact, I’d argue that the two often go hand in hand. But, this year it seems that I’ve been even more disgruntled with the changes I’m seeing happen in K-pop. Does that mean my love has grown? Who knows…
At the risk of being that old guy that yells at whippersnappers to get off his lawn, I can’t help but be honest. After all, that’s one of the tenants The Bias List was founded upon.
For the past few years, there’s been a growing trend of K-pop b-sides becoming more interesting and exciting that an artist’s title track. This wasn’t always the case. When I look back at albums from first or second generation K-pop, the title tracks seemed like obvious picks. Albums themselves were of decent quality, but often padded with quite a bit of filler. In this way, K-pop’s growing consistency is a good thing. I’ve always been an album person, and I love nothing more than a full body of work that I can listen to all the way through. In the age of streaming, that can be a hard thing to find.
K-pop has always been a high-concept art form, and that’s one of the things I love about it. When I first got into the music, I was taken aback by the expensive-looking videos and daring costuming. K-pop wasn’t just auditory – it was a full sensory experience. But importantly, those songs could still be enjoyed just as much when separated from their visuals. They weren’t yet beholden to a novel-length backstory and multi-album lore. First and foremost, they were great pop songs… that just happened to be accompanied by an iconic visual.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Bigbang – Fantastic Baby and Monster
These two music videos, along with their costuming and make-up, paint such a compelling world within which the accompanying songs exist. There’s a sense of backstory, but it doesn’t need to be expanded upon. The “stories,” such as they were, are supportive of the music – not the other way around. Both packages are high-concept, but you never get the sense that the concept came first. Fantastic Baby and Monster appeal on their own, and their visual treatment only enhances that.
Infinite – Back
This is another flawless melding of song and concept. It’s not connected to anything else in Infinite’s discography, and that’s okay. There’s a hint of a storyline, but it’s simple enough that it can be clearly delivered within the context of one song. You get the sense that Woollim Entertainment listened to Back, thought it was amazing, and brainstormed what kind of imagery would best support its appeal.
Lately, more and more focus has been put upon idol concepts, but it’s a different ballgame. Instead of a simple, one-song treatment, concepts have become long-winded storylines that can go on for years. Trilogies have become the norm for many groups, with a deepening sense of lore surrounding multiple comebacks. This is a very cool idea, and it’s no doubt brought many fans into the fold.
However, I’m concerned about what this strategy is doing to K-pop songs – and specifically, K-pop title tracks. Though I don’t have any insider, behind-the-scenes info, I get the sense that these overarching storylines and concepts are becoming the driving force behind many idol discographies. Rather than pick the best song to promote – the one that sounds like an obvious single — they’re too often choosing the song that best illustrates their concept. What’s wrong with that, you might ask? From a business perspective, I don’t think this is a horrible idea. But, from a purely musical standpoint, I worry what it’s doing to the sound of K-pop.
Let’s look at a few 2020 examples. Unsurprisingly, both have ties to Big Hit Entertainment, which popularized this long-form storytelling with BTS. But, there are many other agencies that are taking this same route.
GFriend – Labyrinth vs. Crossroads
If this comeback had happened years ago, I would have expected Labyrinth to be the clear title track choice. It’s the most impactful song on the album, and just sounds like a world-conquering pop single. Though not everyone agrees, this is the overriding feedback I’ve seen shared online as well. Yet, Source Music chose Crossroads, which fits more strongly within GFriend’s concept and an emerging sense of lore that they’re attempting to build. Crossroads is fine, but feels like a b-side when stacked against Labyrinth.
TXT – Drama vs. Can’t You See Me?
TXT have been moving through a planned trilogy, supported by a boatload of navel-gazing imagery and backstory. Much of it has been very cool, but as we arrived at their newest album Eternity, it became clear that it was time for the guys to “go dark.” Never mind that Drama was sitting right there, poised to soundtrack the summer and better highlight the group’s charms. Big Hit needed angst for this comeback, so they chose the track that best fit that storyline, even though I’d consider it to be one of the album’s least-engaging.
Of course, this is all subjective, and I understand that these multi-album, world-building strategies have many cheerleaders. I guess it just comes down to how you consume K-pop. I certainly watch the music videos – though not as repetitively as I used to because they all kind of look the same these days. But for me, at least 90% of a K-pop song’s experience is purely auditory. The songs I love best have stood the test of time on their own merits, supported by visuals but not beholden to them. A knockout performance can certainly elevate a track, but only by so much.
So in short, here’s my wish for the industry:
Less developed, but more iconic concepts
Rather than opt for depth of symbolism that spawns fan theories and backstories, give me a simple, one-comeback concept that really pops. I want to see more gripping, self-contained music videos like VIXX’s Error, paired with imagery and costuming that grabs attention and instantly forms an indelible image to go along with a song.
Pick the best song, and form a concept around that
Rather than looking for the right song to fit the message you want to convey, just pick the best actual song – the one that sounds like a classic, hit single – and build the message around that. In other words: music first, concept second.
What are your thoughts, dear readers? Am I totally missing the mark? Do you like the way that K-pop is currently handling concept, or would you rather see an approach similar to the ones I outlined?
Or to use an ancient example of pick a good song, wrap a visual around it, skip the complex multi-part theme: “Yellow Submarine”. The Beatles. Sure, “Eleanor Rigby” was a better choice, the themes explored are more expansive, but who goes around singing “Eleanor Rigby” while pottering about in quarantine.
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Yeah, NO! friggin depressing. We all live in the Yellow Submarine, right here, right now!
It was kind of relieving to go look at your TXT review and realized that I wasn’t the only one who heard “Can’t You See Me” and immediately thought ‘oh no, they’re going to just be every other boy group now’.
I think one of the things I’ve disliked most about this forced approach to lore is that you will inevitably hit those darker concepts. That’s not bad necessarily (I love a lot of dark concepts’)…it’s bad when it’s what everyone in the genre is also doing. Picking the grittier concepts doesn’t just leave the songs similar, choreo has been becoming staler as well in my opinion. Well…it’s ‘hard hitting’ and all that but is that what I wanted from pop music? Part of the charm of pop dances are that they can be done by normal people successfully (well…it varies haha). Zico’s song blew up and had an easy memorable point dance and was a charming song. Brighter songs can be more playful and showcase refreshing choreography in comparison to the catalog of similar sounding releases.
I think a lot of groups are wandering down the path of ‘dark concepts’ with the misconception I think you see with DC movie adaptations. Because it is darker or more committed to a concept, it’s considered more artistic and serious. It looks like more and more k-pop groups want to push towards being considered “artists”. The thing is…they were already artists. There’s nothing to prove here. The general public still won’t separate idols from being idols. In fact, it looks like the general public has turned away from a bulk of k-pop. A decade ago k-pop releases were well known…Now? Definitely not in the same realm of relevancy.
So now I guess we have the solo ballad releases vs the group dark concepts to try to prove artistic integrity. How boring.
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But think about TVXQ, H.O.T years i feel overall tone or “seriousness” is not really the problem
Look from the other side of the fence, the modern dark concept is almost toothless compared to the real deal.
What you and @anailuridae said just summarize it all. There really isn’t much else to say. You are absolutely right and it’s a shame that this is what companies took from BTS’ popularity.
Even BTS’ concepts become more and more overdone. They were great when they started doing it because it wasn’t trying to be too deep or artsy, they were just telling a simple story. Eventually symbolism got overdone and too ambiguous and fans just ate that up and it ended up being a circlejerk of theories that BigHit took advantage off to profit. The concept can never outshine the music that supports it, not when it comes to the music industry.
Agreed. I can’t tell you how many times cringed when seeing a member of a fandom explain to people that they don’t ‘get’ a song because it’s about when Poseidon created the Horse or something like that.
Give me some cool melodies, great cinematography in the music video and I’ll be hooked.
concept or not I just want good songs to listen to… then maybe a good mv and/or live performances. Everything else are easter eggs that I’ll forget a year later.
I also like songs with memorable chorus so I can sing along with people. Those songs become somewhat rare recently? My country is a SE Asian country which used to obsessed over Kpop, I heard them everywhere. Nowaday it’s hard to find a shop/cafe with Kpop songs and those who still do that, they play old classic one from 2010 – 2014 era, both fun and dark songs.
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I’m just not really a fan of convoluted story lines and intricate symbolism. Hurts my head if I were to try and decipher what it means when an idol stands and stares at a random piece of architecture. At this rate there might as well be a university degree on Kpop mv analysis. Of course that is just my personal opinion. Some of these blue clues sleuths here rlly enjoy it, posting and commenting theories everywhere and everyone going 😱😱😱 OH MY GOD! KINGS! I GOT GOOSEBUMPS! THEY SAVING THE INDUSTRY AND MY DGHTSHSTTH!!!
I want to focus on Anailuridae’s comment abt general public turning away from the bulk of kpop. It is true. 2019 year top 100 Korean songs on melon chart only one idol song in top 10. That was Boy in Luv. The rest were ballads, indies and slow burns and mid tempos. In 2009 it was 7 songs. Gee, I don’t care, abracadabra, heart breaker, again & again, fire, sorry sorry, lollipop.
And over the years it has become less and less idol songs gaining general public popularity and more ballads, osts, retro remakes, indie. Why is that? Has the mood shifted in Korea? Is it because of the saturation in kpop? The lack of quality? Does the 10s 20s and 30s population rather listen to mellow stuff cos they’re depressed from living in a highly competitive education and workplace society? Curious if anyone’s got any guesses.
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I’m sure the current social and economic problems weigh on peoples experiences and feelings but I think with streaming services being the norm and internet being available everywhere, people are just gravitating to music they relate to on a personal level (mostly lyrically). Kpop is fun but the lyrics are, for the most part, pretty bad or bland. Most people feel the need to connect to music on a personal level and music that doesn’t take itself that seriously nor tries to be super well written (again, lyrically) tends to be pushed to the side as less artistic and less genuine. It isn’t anything new but I think the accessibility of music right now is just making that distinction even clearer.
It is really confusing sometimes about how much people actually care about lyrics. People can take “Cheer Up” at face value and literally use it as a cheer up song it blows my mind
Don’t have any answers at the moment, but I’m obsessed with this part of your comment:
“…if I were to try and decipher what it means when an idol stands and stares at a random piece of architecture”
Made me laugh much harder than you probably intended. It’s just so spot on!
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ha hah ha! Why is he staring at this wall. Is it this wall? Is it the staring? Is it him? Why?
There was a random yellow van in someone’s multipart video series (Loona’s?), and the fan theories were just all over the place.
There is art, there is dada, and then there is just making shit up.
For my fellow ELF’s at this point we would share a gif of Siwon staring at his hand at the beginning of “Bonamana”, and call the conversation done. … or a pic Kangin crying over the watermelon in “Mamacita”.
The wall is staring at him …
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I will never forget the man crying over the watermelon. That was some serious stuff that resonated with me on a deep level.
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Glad to have made you laugh!
BTW, I’m not tired of ur rant posts. I love it. And I’m sure many would agree. We’re all here for the tea and we expect it to be served piping hot. Ur rant posts provide a base for healthy discussion and debate. Exchanging of differing opinions and ideas is what I come to ur blog for.
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I started liking txt because of their ethereal sound this album let me down because fairy of shampoo was really the only song I liked maybe drama and eternity were nice too, but I miss the dream chapter magic it was my favourite of the trilogy with roller coaster and poppin star. I almost always skip can’t you see me because it is kina boring overall pure txt is the best txt
I’m guilty of heavily enjoying LOONA’s overarching Loonaverse concept/lore back in 2017 and 2018 because it was just really “out there” and always kind of fun, with symbolism of members being androids or in cults or lost in some proverbial wood or existing on either side of a metaphysical möbius strip…it never seemed to take itself too seriously or necessitated them to go too moody. However I also really liked their musical output at the time, as well as the striking Digipedi-lent visuals in their videos. If the music hadn’t appealed to me I doubt I would’ve been half as interested, so I agree it should be prioritized.
Basically, I think I’d love to see more wacky sci-fi/fantasy “lore” from groups if they have to do trilogies and the like. I’ve grown kinda tired of the dramatic edgy stuff with “deep” meaning.
I agree with about 75% of this article.
But I think concept should not be restricted to the mv only it can be concept in the whole album ,lyrics and how the songs in an album connects to the story.
I love the concept in the album tracks, when you can listen to the albums in an order and can relate how the lyrics connect them (Yes I understand Korean). Its like wow these songs are like a story and that’s so satisfying and pleasing to the ears.
But if you don’t understand the language then this point just becomes a null.
The example you gave:
Concept is not the main culprit for the songs going bad, they should’ve just kept the concept too and elevated the song level while they were at it. Angst and Dark concept have seen better tracks as u said.
As you used Bighit as an example let me share my experience with BTS in that regard too:
I love the love yourself & Hyyh series from them (although the prior was somewhat shaky in the later stages). When you relate to the whole album of ‘Tear’ on such a personal level its a great feeling.. The lyrics in the whole album and it’s flow with the songs was great.
Now coming to the mv for these, I don’t care much, I was like oh nice ,there’s water, fire etc. and that was the end of it. Some people might be like dark concept, etc but if u like the song everything else falls along. Armys would have possibly done the whole research but for me it was simply a song with cool mv.
Another eg. I was watching some Stray Kids songs which I like few days back, and comments were like he looks back to his past, searching for the key..I didn’t understand any of it but many others do.. if fans are enjoying it lets just let them.. I don’t delve into theories and just watch it casually.. yes I am cool like that lol, even if the mv is interesting and by chance I became curious, it lasts for a second only.
Some people just enjoy making theories and dissecting the mv..its like a hobby I guess.
Who are we to judge them.
At this point the company can make an mv with zero reference and people would still be able to find out links to one another.
Also I usually listen to the whole album and mini album and just keep the song that I like, so no worries regarding that too.
Now saying all these points,I totally get what are you trying to say… These days rather than the song riding the concept it’s the other way around and that’s a shame.
Sorry if I come out as rude.. I just wanted to put all the points which were against this article as u asked the question.
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Are you all sick of my bellyaching yet? – NEVER!
KPop MVs are great and all, but the high a really good song gives you is something else.
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My friend wanted me to recommend some K-pop to him and I had to explain that my experience of some of my favorite songs is so tied up in the music video that I can’t separate the two (he ended up listening to the songs first, watching the video second).
I always describe K-pop as a “performance oriented genre” to family and friends. It’s not just sound, it’s the sound and image packaged into an experience. The visuals and choreography are given just as much care and attention as the music (or given more attention, as your blog points out) and can’t be ignored, in my opinion.
Choreography was a big factor that got me into K-pop, and I’ve found that watching choreography helps me better appreciate songs I would’ve dismissed earlier (EXO’s “White Noise” being an example). I’m definitely not at your 90% auditory experience (somewhere around 70%, maybe).
As for concepts, I have to admit I really loved the Wings Era of BTS. I wasn’t someone who dug deep into the connection to larger storylines, but it was a lot of fun to recognize the tub or watch the black circles get new patterns every teaser video until they formed the album cover. It felt really high art, and I even wrote a paper for a philosophy class about the “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” video.
I think some companies have tried to imitate Big Hit’s success of having a narrative emerge from careful viewing. The trouble is, in their attempt to make it mysterious, these companies strip away so much story that it becomes just a series of recurring symbols. I think I saw this in VIXX’s Greek trilogy. It was fun, but I had a hard time understanding what what supposed to be going on. Nowhere near as tight as the stories in their earlier stuff.
I’m so whipped for SM, but I think they’ve been really smart about concepts. Their concepts with a bit of story are memorable but never overstay their welcome, and some repeated symbols (Red Velvet’s table, EXO’s powers) are flexible enough to fit into different concepts. Two of my favorites are “Peek-a-boo”, and “Married to the Music” (can you tell I like spooky things?).
Lastly, I agree with your wish for the industry. I hope groups like ATEEZ and Dreamcatcher will keep releasing strong concept bangers.
I feel like we consume k-pop in the same way. There’s songs I hate but just can’t dismiss completely because of the great MV- for example, Go by NCT Dream.
I find SM Entertainments MVs to be the most visually pleasing. They might not always entertain the same way as JYPEs, but the way colors and shapes combine and how I feel like they often bring something new to the table is enough for them to be my favorite pick among the bigger companies. I also feel that they’ve been ahead of their time on some occasions, like with f(x)’s album art video for Pink Tape. Familiar tumblr aesthetic from first half of 2010’s, but I can’t really recall other kpop MVs in the same style except for SPICAs Tonight.
Fun thing, I also wrote a paper on Blood, Sweat & Tears but in my case for art class… and unexpectedly got a great grade. But even as a supporter of BTS, I have started to feel that many fanmade theories are a reach (“they’ve planned this since their debut!”). But then again their best eras in my eyes was between 2015-2017 and I don’t care about their newer stuff as much so that could be why. And while talking about concepts- what has happened to the cover, packaging and visual concept for their albums? Why have they all looked the same since LY:Her? And can’t they just release one album as a stand alone? Do they all have to be a part of something bigger and have a myriad of different versions (capitalism)?
Gotta say though, I didn’t mind when Red Velvet did their The ReVe Festival series since I found it engaging and each day/comeback was a complete surprie and unique.
Anyways, I’m grateful for both Ateez and Dreamcatcher, since I feel that they add flavour to the industry, both when looking at concept and music.
Being a massive Exo-L, i do love a good concept and storyline. Trilogies kind of bother me so I’m glad exo doesn’t go with that, even though I stan txt, monsta x, stray kids, etc who all do trilogies and series. Its fine I guess. What I love abt exo is that their title track is always so standout and evident. For example on Obsession, Jekyll demonstrates the conflict of Exo vs X-Exo a lot more, even the lyrics. Trouble also has such a strong hook to it. But Obsession has its own vibe to it that suits exo the best. It feels like they worked the (might I say, stunning) MV around the song rather than picked the song to fit the theory. Of course exo have had their concept since debut. But not everything is about the story. Tempo and Love Shot for example, love me right, and call me baby too, they weren’t so crazy of the storyline. The track was the clear winner there. Of course the MV some Exo-ls like to pick apart and analyze which is cool but there is no explicit hinting at anything to the bigger picture. Obsession was a clear cut wild concept but I still love the direction exo went with it rather than letting the concept dictate the album. Sorry I’m a big exol but there is some thing I appreciate more than anything else lol. I always have good things to say about them. Also that’s just my opinion so its okay to disagree 🙂
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‘Of course, this is all subjective, and I understand that these multi-album, world-building strategies have many cheerleaders.’
including ME! I’m definitely sold most on how a group shows us with their music and videos the type of artist they are and the narrative voice/concept their music is supposed to embody – a good example of this is how Nine Muses used their songs to have a very clear ‘adult woman living fully in her choices and owning her sexuality’ voice.
I think what appeals about letting groups ebb and flow in concept is that….you can’t be happy all the time and to be expected to be so is unfair. Angst is normal and having songs/concepts to express that are ultimately a good thing. Now, do I think some of these songs could be more ‘engaging’? Yes. But I think allowing groups to have that ‘down’ time alongside the happier ones adds to the depth of what they can offer and ultimately help them in the long run. There’s nothing wrong with finding a good niche but then you run into the trouble of how you’ve felt about Monsta X – formulaic.
Ultimately groups swinging big and taking chances includes things like choosing to add lore to their releases or going for just stand alone music or mixing up the two. Every group has to find their balance and I’d argue this is simply growing pains more than anything else.