Debunking the “Factory” Narrative: K-Pop’s Authenticity and Shifting Gender Politics

Girl in Fine Bros video sighing while watching "I Am the Best" by 2NE1

In January 2012, the Fine Bros released “Kids React to K-Pop,” the latest weekly installment of their growing “React” series, which featured elementary school children watching and answering questions about videos—in this case, Korean pop music videos. For the Fine Bros, a pair of YouTube moguls whose 16 million subscriber base is built on videos of kids, teenagers, and fellow YouTubers reacting to viral content, K-Pop videos were merely an addition to their collection of outlandish content used to sustain weekly production quotas.

But for many of K-Pop’s English-speaking fans, the Fine Bros’ video was a modern miracle. K-Pop groups, with as few as four or as many as fifteen members, release multiple albums and high-budget music videos per year, performing with elaborate choreography and colorful fashion. In 2012, after several years of potential blow-ups and no immense international breakthroughs, few of them had much recognition in the West. Influenced by a variety of global music genres, K-Pop was, as fans believed, ready to explode in English-speaking markets once Westerners were finally exposed to it. The Fine Bros, with a significant North American viewership, were giving K-Pop a new platform for global advancement.

In “Kids React to K-Pop,” they showed the children some of the genre’s most over-the-top songs (“Bonamana” by 13-member Super Junior) and highlighted those videos’ most outlandish moments (2NE1 members struggling in straitjackets in “I Am the Best”).

“How do you think they found each other and decided to start a band?” they asked the children, knowing that their innocence (“They were probably long-time friends!” a kid guessed) would be shattered by the reality that members of K-Pop groups are chosen by companies that put them through a rigorous training regime before debut, atypical in the garage-band-rock scene of the U.S. The questions became increasingly slanted as the video progressed: “Do you still like the music, even though it was essentially created by a company and not the artist?”

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By the end of the video, the kids had decidedly negative impressions. “Lots of weird people probably like it,” one said. “If I even liked one of them, I would be liking the person that trained them,” another concluded. When made aware of the genre’s growing worldwide presence, a third cried, “I hate my generation so much! Why couldn’t I be born in the Eighties?”

K-Pop fans were furious — a genre whose musical output they took seriously had been reduced to an exotic spectacle of Asian quirkiness that Americans could dismiss as too foreign and corrupt for their collective taste. With such a dialogue surrounding the genre, it is no surprise that journalist John Seabrook’s October 2012 New Yorker article on 9-member Korean ensemble Girls’ Generation was called “Factory Girls.”

Despite some K-Pop acts gaining momentum in Western markets over time—BTS became the first Korean act to top the U.S. Billboard 200 with their studio album Love Yourself: Tear earlier this year—discourse on the genre is barely advancing. In a recent article about Korean music acts performing at the PyeongChang Olympics, TIME defined K-Pop as “music churned out by South Korea’s music-making factories.” A quick Google News search of the genre yields a variety of articles, like the recent entry from CBC News entitled “The Punishing Pressures Behind K-Pop Perfection,” that portray the genre as the Fine Bros do in their video.

Most fans will not deny the indisputable truth — there is merit to the claim that K-Pop stars are rigidly controlled by companies and contracts. During interviews, four-member girl group BLACKPINK discusses rarely being allowed to leave dormitories outside of official schedules. Passing their third anniversary as a group, seven-member Oh My Girl revealed that their management only recently allowed them to use cell phones following the success of a recent single. Sadly, the term “slave contract” is well-known to many fans, whose favorite idols have suffered at the hands of companies that hoard profits and abuse workers. Laws have been passed in attempts to rectify the situation, but work conditions for most K-pop idols are less than ideal.

This “factory” narrative, however, is more reductive than it is factual—it dismisses thousands of singers, dancers, artists, producers, managers, stylists, technicians, A&R teams, and designers as industrial robots with no independent agency. While the portrayal in TIME’s headline attracts the attention of American onlookers fascinated by outlandish foreign creations, it fails to capture the essence of K-Pop as imperfect, but not worthy of dismissal by Western audiences.

“Authentic music” fans and critics often deem K-Pop meaningless and shallow. The initial impression is understandable—it is sometimes the case that none of the members of a group play a minimal, if any, part in the process of crafting music or choreography, aside from actually performing it (which in itself somehow gets overlooked, as if many Western pop stars don’t do the very same thing). But beneath the narrative that Western media curates for its viewers, one can quickly find evidence of K-Pop stars heavily involved in their artistry. G-Dragon, leader of popular boy group BIGBANG and successful soloist, is credited as the main (and sometimes only) producer of both his solo releases and those of his group; BTS is also often known to self-produce their hits. The same dynamic is true of a variety of male and female K-Pop acts—in recent years, producer royalties reaped by idols like G-Dragon, Jinyoung of male outfit B1A4, the late Jonghyun of SHINee, and L.E. of girl group EXID have rivaled those of K-Pop’s biggest behind-the-scenes producers hired by companies to make music for groups.

Speaking of hired producers, Western music writers struggle to grasp is the idea that K-Pop’s artistry isn’t exclusively about creative musical production—to some Korean artists, onstage performance is far more valuable than lyrics or melody. Unlike the American music industry, K-Pop places heavy value on dancing ability and performative skill. In a way, this system actually makes musical performance inclusive of a different kind of talent, creating an industry in which dancers, rappers and vocalists can enjoy the fame, audience, and respect often claimed by singer-songwriter solo pop stars in the U.S. Those with legitimate musical passion, maybe for singing the lyrics instead of penning them, can occupy the spotlight. Is that inauthentic or illegitimate? To rockists or classicalists, maybe so. But to those who aren’t theory geniuses or lack a natural talent for musical composition, it may just be “authentic” as ever, and no less worthy of the praise that critics and writers give to Western pop stars who work with production teams.

The debate extends to gender politics as well. In his “Factory Girls” article, John Seabrook portrays Girls’ Generation as a group of one-dimensional personalities constructed by their companies, calling member Tiffany’s characteristic eye-smile a “jolt of cultural technology.” But it would be Seohyun, another member of the same group, who would depart from her image as the group’s chaste maknae (youngest member) and pursue a sultry vibe for her solo debut mini-album Don’t Say No in 2017. The album concept and image change were entirely her own choices, some of which she made against her company’s advice. She also recently participated in the North-South Korean dialogue on multiple occasions, becoming a symbol of peaceful intentions of the South through performances in Seoul and Pyongyang.

Just like Taylor Swift’s pivot from country to pop with her album Red or Lady Gaga’s image shift in Joanne, female K-Pop stars can be fluid performers, capable in their own right of forging unique artistic destinies. When the Fine Bros reduce them to props of an industrial complex, they are robbed of the creative legitimacy and individualism they seem to rightfully deserve.

Cutesy K-Pop girl groups are often the first to receive criticism for musical and visual concepts that strike Western viewers are misogynistic and infantilizing. And they’re not entirely wrong—the patriarchy is as strong as ever in K-Pop, and many girl groups’ biggest hits are written by men and targeted for consumption by male fans. But as these groups top the charts and become noticeable fixtures of the Korean entertainment scene, the performers themselves reach a new level of empowerment. Seabrook’s “Factory Girls” Girls’ Generation have now been a girl group for a decade, comprising multi-millionaire members who each own property and run individual ventures, and have their own public personas. On her solo reality show, member Sooyoung recently talked about popular Korean feminist book Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982, explaining her reaction: “Things that I thought were nothing, were actually being treated unfairly just because I’m a girl.” With a platform built on her multi-gender fandom and supported by millions of dollars in the bank, Sooyoung is now one of many female K-Pop idols reading the book and talking openly about feminist issues in the media, despite South Korea’s overall aversion to the term “feminist,” which she has indeed shied away from.

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The cutesy songs may have patriarchal overtones, but the women performing the music have much more to say—the cultural structures they conquer as a group allow the members to use their newfound capital to then subvert those same structures. The Wonder Girls, formed in 2007, debuted to major commercial success singing bubbly pop songs produced by Korean singer-songwriter and businessman J.Y. Park. While the group’s popularity has fluctuated over the years due to a failed American advancement and lineup changes, the members grew to self-produce their music as their careers progressed. Member Yeeun, credited as HA:TFELT in solo releases, co-composed and wrote her entire debut solo EP Me? in 2014. By the release of their 2015 comeback album Reboot, members of the group were credited for lyrics and production on all of the album’s tracks, taking the sound of their music in a retro pop rock direction. Their subsequent 2016 reggae-rock hit “Why So Lonely” was also written and produced by the group’s members.

A similar example of growing into self-production, singer Lee Hyori debuted as a member of girl group Fin.K.L in 1998. Since the group’s disbandment in 2002, she has gone on to become one of the most recognizable women in Korean media. Moving on from the group and into a solo career, Hyori has taken greater control of her music over time, switching record labels frequently and dropping albums for which she designs concepts and writes and produces almost all tracks. Her success as a Fin.K.L member and soloist gave her the power to control her future releases—a narrative common among matured K-Pop acts, but largely overlooked in Western media coverage. From talking about feminism to performing with more empowered stylings, female members of Korea’s entertainment industry are slowly but steadily laying the internal groundwork for change to take place. The gender dynamics of innocent-seeming girl groups in K-Pop may be more complex than a face-value New Yorker article on Girls’ Generation could tell you.

Despite the advancements, restrictive body standards, contractual abuse, sexual harassment, and other horrors do run rampant in the K-Pop industry. Trainees work tirelessly against a low success rate to become stars, and many undergo abuse by companies that push them to their physical and mental limits. But in a world where Hollywood and public opinion have exiled Harvey Weinstein from public consciousness and all-but-convicted rapist producer Dr. Luke still profits off of Kesha’s albums, how can these abuses be in any way unique to K-Pop? Of course aspects of the K-Pop industry do make certain abuses widespread, but the ability to dismiss K-Pop as a whole over its ethical questions is a simultaneous failure to hold the Western entertainment industry accountable for the same problems.
So why do Western media outlets fail to report on K-Pop’s authenticity? The simple answer is convenience. Portraying K-Pop as freakishly quirky and industrially restrictive are worthwhile efforts for the Fine Bros, whose viral video series is based on reactions alone. The same is true of the articles’ authors and publishers, who profit in clicks from those curious about K-Pop’s apparent strangeness.

But the not so simple answer is racism. The Spice Girls and NSYNC may have gotten similar flack about authenticity back in the 90s, but the Korean-American dynamic of K-Pop’s newfound Western popularity makes the “factory” narrative not only musically, but also culturally objectionable. Like Americans laugh at Japanese variety shows, gawk at harajuku culture, or imitate native Chinese speakers, sensationalizing the controversial aspects of K-Pop gives the Western mind an excuse to stigmatize Korean culture as ridiculous and outlandish. Conflating K-Pop’s nonsensical moments with its ethical dilemmas for Western viewership, TIME and the Fine Bros allow the English-speaking mainstream to dismiss foreign-ness simply because it is foreign. Americans won’t have to reconcile K-Pop’s sonic, visual, and cultural values with their own if they can simply call it weird or unethical and go on with their day. Thus, “Kids React to K-Pop” was an exercise in ignorance—a lesson in xenophobia. And as more kids “react” to K-Pop as it grows in stateside relevance, we can only hope that better lessons are taught. They are only kids, after all.

K-Pop Unmuted: Produce 48 & What is an Idol?

On Episode 31 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Tamar Herman, Stephen Knight, and Joe Palmer join guest Patrick St. Michel to preview Produce48 and to discuss the concept of an “idol” and what makes a great idol. In our Unmuted K-pop Picks we talk about GIRLKIND’s ‘S.O.R.R.Y,’ Yubin’s ‘Lady,’ ONF’s ‘You Complete Me,’ and WJMK’s ‘STRONG.’

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on SoundcloudiTunesGoogle Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know your thoughts on Produce 48 and what you think makes a great idol in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: Goodbye Fiestar

On Episode 30 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Tamar Herman, Joe Palmer, and Stephen Knight discuss the career of perennially-underrated girl group FIESTAR. And in our Unmuted K-pop Picks we talk about Kim Sunggyu’s “Shine,’ (G)I-DLE’s “LATATA,” and FAVORITE’s “Where are you from?”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on SoundcloudiTunesGoogle Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know your thoughts on FIESTAR and their disbandment in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unumted: April 2018 Roundup

On Episode 29 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight and Joe Palmer look back at Kpop releases from April 2018. We discuss HIGHTEEN’s Timing, EXID’s Lady, Lovelyz’s Shining Star, HAON’s Boong Boong, Snuper’s Tulips, and Pentagon’s Shine.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on SoundcloudiTunes, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in April 2018 and KultScene’s latest episode K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-rapper ARTLOVER talks blending music & fashion, British & Korean influences [interview]

Resultado de imagem para ARTLOVER K-POP

The current, up and coming generation of female Korean rappers is made of versatile and open-minded women with the ability to think outside the box. And while the scenario isn’t exactly ideal for them yet, as standards for female and male rappers are not the same, it hasn’t deterred new names from joining the scene. Amongst those names, ARTLOVER is definitely one we should keep our eyes on.

The 25-year-old, whose real name she would rather not reveal, is the typical multifaceted millennial who gathers inspiration from multiple experiences to create something unique. Formerly a makeup artist who has worked with severe fashion magazines, she is now ready to show her own colours through music.

ARTLOVER’s first single “Want U Back,” released on March 2nd, is a melodic tune with a retro sound that showcases her rapping and singing skills. She worked on the lyrics, composition, and art cover design for the single, which just got a music video as well.

But music, fashion, and design are not the only amount of diversity ARTLOVER has her heart on. Being Korean and based in London, she also divides her time between the two countries.  

KultScene talked with her about her first single, her inspirations, and views on being a multi talented artist exposed to two different cultures.

KS: Congratulations on your first release! Please tell us what inspired the lyrics and composition of “Want U Back.”

ARTLOVER: Thank You! “Want U Back” is about young love and the pain of losing it. I started out with a few chords on the piano and the rest just followed so I didn’t really plan it out beforehand. It just happened in the spur of the moment.

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KS: How was working with Tae-Seop Lee (producer/mixer engineering; has worked with GOT7, Twice, DAY6, etc.)? How much do you usually get involved in the production?

A: I started out with Swedish writer/producer Max Billion who has worked with a lot of dance artists such as Mike Perry, Paris Blohm, and Cazzette. When we had a solid foundation we took it to Tae-Seop who then put his touch on it. I trust producers that I work with and I always give my opinion.

KS: Your stage name is quite unique. We’ve read that you designed the art cover for “Want U Back” and that you’ve worked as a makeup artist before. How do you think all these passions and talents come together when it comes to your music?

A: I would say that the practical aspect of working as a makeup artist has helped me a lot, especially when it comes to being professional and get things done. The visual aspect has always been very important to me, so it would come as no surprise that I think about this a lot when it comes to my music as well. I creative direct a lot of my videos, etc. I think that music and fashion goes hand in hand and it’s very difficult to separate the visuals and the music.

KS: Being Korean but living in London, how do you see the differences between the mainstream music scene of both countries?

A: Korean music is wilder for sure, more effects, bigger songs, and more parts. In many ways, it resembles western pop music and follow more or less the same pattern of trends, but with more ‘90s soul and more creative arrangements. People take pop music very seriously in Korea. Just as they approach other aspects of Korean society, K-pop has always been about perfection.

KS: It is natural to expect that you will at some point be labelled as a K-pop artist by some people. How do you feel about that? And how do you describe your music and style?

A: I don’t really have an issue with being labeled K-pop, as I think it helps me find an audience, especially outside of Korea. I still think that my music really stands out and doesn’t sound like anything else in K-pop at the moment. If my music was purely European or American, it’s far from certain that it would get as much attention.

Also on KultScene: Ego tripping, & not, in Korean female rap

KS: “Want U Back” sounds heavily inspired by ‘80s synthpop music. What are your biggest influences in music and your favorite artists?

A: It makes me very happy you say that, because we used mainly old synths during the recording. Max Billion brought his collection of vintage gear from the ‘70s and ‘80s so we stuck with those. I love Madonna and Cher, but my favorite artist of all time is Michael Jackson.

KS: What are your plans for 2018? Can we expect more music from you?

A: We are currently working on my debut EP that is due out in June, so that’s very exciting for sure. I’m also looking forward to playing shows.

Check out ARTLOVER’s “Want U Back” music video:

What do you think of ARTLOVER’s debut? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: Jazz & K-Pop

On Episode 28 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight is joined by musician and podcaster Rhodri Thomas to discuss Jazz and Kpop. We talk about the influence of jazz on a dozen Kpop songs. We also discuss our K-pop Unmuted picks, The Snowman by Jung Seung Hwan, and Bboom Bboom by Momoland.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2017’s latest and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: 2017 Awards – Part 2

In the 27th episode of of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight, Joe Palmer, Tamar Herman, and Gabriel Wilder reflect on the best moments and songs out of Korea in 2017, and even give out some of their own unique awards.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2017’s latest and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

2017 Hyuna was the best Hyuna

hyuna hip & lip 2017

Between starting the year with a tour in North America and ending it as a mentor on the career-reboot show The Unit, 2017 was a busy year for Hyuna. With the disbandment of 4Minute in 2016, we might have thought that it would mean one less possibility to see her in the media. However, Hyuna surely made up for the absence of the group by promoting in a diversified range of activities, between solo projects and her work other Cube Entertainment artists, and it was a year filled with the best version of Hyuna the world has ever seen.

2017 was the year we got to see many of Hyuna’s previously unseen colors. Her star quality was evoked when she lent a hand in CLC’s transition of concept, plus she wrote the lyrics for their single “Hobgoblin” and styled the music video. She also took part in the trifecta Triple H, formed along with Pentagon’s Hui and E’Dawn. But it was in solo promotions that we saw the most interesting sides Hyuna showed this year — or, I dare to say, the best of her entire career.

While 4Minute always had a powerful concept, Hyuna’s sex appeal was too strong to be restricted to a role in a group (although, needless to say, she outshone the rest anyway). Noticing that, her agency branded her as an outrageous bombshell, which resulted in solo works mainly based in catchy electronic bops and sassy music videos. And, of course, the provocative duo Troublemaker, formed by her and former member of Highlight, formerly known as Beast, Jang Hyunseung (even if their comeback is long overdue).

Also on KultScene: Female K-pop soloists owned 2017

The exploration of Hyuna’s image through an outrageous concept, like said before, made it less credible for me, to the point that I’ve always had a hard time liking Hyuna, because sometimes it seemed that she was trying too hard to look like a bad girl. And, while I believe that she holds enough sensuality and fierceness to make it unnecessary to bring out these attributes 24/7, I also believe that the most wrongful side effect of it was making us think she was a one-trick pony. She definitely isn’t. And her latest releases “Babe” and “Lip & Hip” prove just that.

Although it’s not exactly a ballad, “Babe” was the softest thing Hyuna has ever done, both sonically and aesthetically. The lyrics about living a love that makes her feel younger, together with the music video that shows her in light colored dresses and high school skirts, were definitely surprising. The Hyuna factor was still there: hip-shaking, dancing between boys, her unmistakable rapping. But it was definitely refreshing to see a slower paced song and a bit less party-hard image from her.

Conversely, “Lip & Hip” might seem at first like another typical Hyuna song, and sonically, it is. However, it’s the concept for the music video and her performances that has brought us the most interesting side in the “sexy Hyuna” videography. If in “Red,” “Bubble Pop,” “Roll Deep,” and “How’s This?” Hyuna was firming her image as a sex symbol, in “Lip & Hip,” she is mostly arousing us to think of sexuality (hers and ours too) in a more curious and playful approach. The song talks about a girl’s confidence towards her own body, and the visuals showcase two versions of Hyuna dealing with her puberty changes and exploring the possibilities of how she can look like.

The music video has tireless close ups of Hyuna’s body parts, but it’s different this time. We can see how “Lip & Hip” differs from her previous work if we compare, for example, her chest shootings in “Red” —obviously meant for the appreciation of third parties — and in “Lip & Hip,” where they seem more like the recording of a young girl discovering that her boobs are growing. It’s still provocative, but through a different perspective. It is relevant to say that showing cleavage is not well received in Korea, and by showing hers, Hyuna is not only defying Korean taboos, but also defying us to think of why a natural part of the female body is so sexualized. If you didn’t catch this, you’ve been successfully manipulated.

This video plays with your mind, going from Hyuna dealing with braces (symbolising teenage struggles) to the rapper doing a sexy dance with a bustier (symbolising her grown woman attitude) in a few seconds. Of course, the type of scene that catches the most attention is the last one, and it will make you think “Lip & Hip” is just about Hyuna being the Hyuna she’s always been. But make no mistake: this is her most unique and clever music video so far.

Also on KultScene: Best K-pop music videos of 2017

Overall, a good synthesis of “Lip & Hip’s” smart irony is the end, as Hyuna leaves home with torn pants that let you see her underwear, alluding to her previous sexy and daring figures in past releases. But, joke’s on you: she doesn’t appear internationally sexy or desirable, she’s just looking like a normal young girl, with glasses, a backpack, and a bear. After all, panties are just a piece of cloth made to cover a piece of skin, aren’t they?

Well, of course you don’t need to doubt your own sanity if you missed the point of the music video and only saw Hyuna’s body and sexy dancing. There is, indeed, a lot of intentional sexual content in “Lip & Hip,” both in the music video and in the performances she has done so far — but, that’s not all there is to it. And that’s where my complaint lies: Hyuna has always been sexy, but why is that the only concept we’ve seen of her so far? “Babe” and “Lip & Hip” have shown that she can be sexy while also exploring different nuances, and I just wished Cube hadn’t waited so long to show it. After all, Hyuna is more than just pretty lips and hips, but we don’t really see that a lot.

Now that we’ve seen different sides from Hyuna, I believe that there’s enough room for her to keep shining and doing amazing things. 2017 was the year that Hyuna showed that she has what it takes to last in this industry, and she definitely deserves to.

What was your favorite moment of Hyuna this year? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Best K-pop music videos of 2017

Last year, South Korea was overrun by some great new music, and some of that music came with beautifully shot music videos that had the KultScene team enthralled. So here we present our best K-pop music videos of 2017.

“Goodbye” by 2NE1

From the standpoint of my emotional attachment to 2NE1, this video, the group’s last, is still difficult for me to watch. At first glance it is easily the group’s darkest music video, filmed entirely in black and white. Starting with CL arising on a bed of roses and candles, she passes in front of projections of past music videos, concert footage, and photoshoots. Most notable is the inclusion of Minzy in the video clips, not as a passing member but sometimes as the sole focus of the video, despite the fact that she wasn’t included in the song at all and had previously left the group before the group disbanded. The visuals remain equally depressing throughout as Dara sits on a staircase full of candles, and passing shadows of Bom eventually materialize into her appearance in the second chorus.

Every depiction of group activity, from bowing at concerts to smiling for pictures, is a painful and evocative shot for fans watching. It grows even more painful when one tries to interpret the video’s abstract stylings such as Dara’s veil, the shiny curtains, etc. as having some sort of deep meaning about the group’s disbandment or future.
The most striking moment of the video, however, is the last second, when the three of them lay together on a bed, Bom and Dara cuddled around leader CL in the group’s final shot together. As a Blackjack, I’m thankful that, despite all the scandals and confusion leading up to disbandment, at least 2NE1 dropped a high-quality, gut-wrenching final video for fans to reflect on before the members went their separate ways.


“Hands Up” by B.A.P

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “hands up”? For some, it could mean to have fun, like when the DJ at the club or event tells everyone to put their hands up. For others, this phrase can make them tremble in fear, like being held up. Fortunately, unlike the negative perception that surrounds this phrase, B.A.P’s recent comeback with title track “Hands Up” off of their 8th single album Ego, is about shooting for the stars and living out that dream you’ve been dreaming about. The music video starts off with the camera pointed at the blue skies up above, panning down at member Himchan as he raises his hand. To have him be the face we all see at the beginning of the music video, with hand raised, actually makes a lot of sense considering the fact that he’s usually the first member at a B.A.P concert to tell the audience to put their hands up.

To help correlate the lyrics “Ayo, believe in yourself this moment, put your hands up to the sky toward your dream, hands up” it’s no wonder a lot of the choreography had various hands up movements for each verse. There’s a sense of empowerment everytime they lifted their hands up pointing towards the sky, to never back down and to strive towards whatever it is you want to achieve in life. B.A.P usually doesn’t have this many dancers in their music videos but it was a pleasant change, especially since it gave the video a “this is my squad and we’re going to live it up” type of arua. Aside from the 8 second (and very unnecessary) intro that TS Entertainment always puts at the beginning of every B.A.P music video, “Hands Up” is a reminder to everyone, no matter how old, to break free of whatever stigma that might be holding you back and to fight for your freedom. Let this be the new anthem to inspire.


“Power” by EXO

While the song itself might leave something to be desired, the music video is anything but. Replete with self-deprecating humor and Easter eggs, it is a fresh tongue-in-cheek change of pace from the usual deadpan concepts we are used to seeing from EXO. The melodramatic opening is a jab at the phalanges-curling “Mama” introduction, which then flips to a scene of elves on a far-out planet, a beckon to a segment the boys have done before at their EXO’rdium concerts. The narrator leafs through more pages of the comic book of a video, skipping past references to their parallel universe teaser and “Love Me Right” era, until we arrive at the appropriate page, a strip that has the members wrestling against a robot with one of Dr. Octopus’s mechanical appendages. The rest is straight out of a sci-fi action film, with every cut as busy and entertaining as the last. Nothing must have came cheap. The modish 3D animations vibe well with the 2D Cartoon Network-esque artwork, while the random transitions amidst all this to toys, falling orbs, kittens, and Power Ranger sequences are imaginative and kitschy. The editing and production value is by far one of the best K-pop’s ever seen. It’s really nice to know that at least all that EXO money is being put to a good use.

And then there’s the ending. Following the members’ show of superpowers (yes, one final nod to the pre-debut EXO lore we all hate to love), the convivial tone takes an abrupt turn for the dark and mysterious. Baekhyun falls out of the sky and into a body of water, looking suffocated and dazed. It seem like it could be a preview to something for “Sweet Lies” off of the same THE WAR: The Power of Music album, but until this cliffhanger is explained, the music video does not really have any closure. In the meantime, we can only settle on the fan theories.


“Lip & Hip” by HyunA

HyunA isn’t afraid to be herself and come out with a funny concept while remaining true to her aesthetics that she’s been showing us in her solo career. The music video for “Lip & Hip” is full of sexual innuendos and double meanings that had some viewers laughing out loud and other ones gasping and thinking to themselves, “Is this video going to get banned in Korean TV?”. HyunA owns her sensuality in a very sexy and smart way on this music video. Even if she flashes her cleavage or her derriere it doesn’t seem vulgar. “Lip & Hip” is one of those videos that if you pause it you can literally find really cool references and little well thought details that were created by amazing art direction. One really good example of this is when HyunA is sitting in the toilet, if you pause it and take a look around you’ll see how with every little detail they are defying what society thinks of femininity and how a woman should look. Once again HyunA slays us with one her funniest music videos and gives us a little to think about without really putting it on our face. Yes that was pun intended.


“Limitless” (Rough ver.) by NCT 127

As K-pop seemed to take a break from story driven music videos this year, it was a great time for groups to have some fun with the more cliched video styles. Nobody did this better than NCT 127 with the rough version of “Limitless.” It’s a grand song about connecting across the entire world, becoming a limitless version of yourself. Instead of supplementing this idea, the music video completely undermines it. It’s contained in one derelict setting, the members wear tracksuits and other odd clothes as they mess about with basically no point to anything. They start lip syncing in a shot and then stop to chew gum, they pose like gorillas, and stare blankly at the camera. Adding to that, it’s partially shot with an actual low quality camera and seemingly edited by a child who just learned how to use a computer. That’s not to say it’s all a big mess though. It is in fact so deliberate to border on genius. It feels like they’re making fun of the grandiose and silly videos of the other boy groups of the day namely BTS, Infinite, and EXO. As if they had to make an epic video with no budget and somehow ended up with the best postmodern K-pop video in history.


Also on KultScene: 25 best K-pop songs of 2017

“I Smile” by DAY6

The song on its own would have been emotional enough, but this beautiful music video greatly enhanced it. Sungjin truly impressed with his acting in this video, especially since he could only do it with his expressions. He was shocked at first when he saw his ex listening to him perform, then showed through his expression that he was accepting how she had moved on and was with another guy, and finally a painful smile to show that he was happy for her. He embodied the song perfectly. I loved the way the music video built up to a climax along with the song, where at the final chorus the female lead smiles for the first time in the whole video, and the video brightens up along with the instrumentals. It was heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, which was perfect for this bittersweet song.


“Lonely” by SISTAR

Sometimes it’s not so much about the music video itself, it’s about the context that provides meaning to it. The disbandment of SISTAR caught everyone off guard, since they definitely weren’t lacking vitality to survive between the newer acts. “Lonely” was their goodbye, and the music video for this mellow pop ballad was a touching metaphor of their trajectory not only as SISTAR, the successful group, but as Hyolyn, Soyou, Bora and Dasom, the human beings. Even in spite of SISTAR being one of the biggest chart-topping girl groups in K-pop, what was emphasized in the visuals for “Lonely” was the ladies’ success in staying friends and being there for each other. After all, just like becoming relevant in a competitive scene is an impressive achievement, keeping good friendships for so many years in this environment is not easy either.

With a trip to Macau as a background, the music video shows a series of cute moments of the four ladies having fun together, but also being introspective and sometimes reflecting on their own. There were punctual little moments that allude to significant aspects of their history, like a scene of Hyolyn and Soyou taking a picture together, with Bora and Dasom in the background trying to make an appearance (a probable metaphor for the fact that Hyolyn and Soyou, the outstanding vocalists, received more praise than the other ladies). But what’s sweeter about those moments is that they were always followed by others when the group is complete and happy. Even when Bora is swimming alone in a pool, she afterwards found out that the other girls are behind her, watching her all the time. Even when Hyolyn, Soyou and Bora are driving and Dasom is left behind (a probable metaphor for the fact that Dasom was the least popular member), Dasom doesn’t seem rejected; she is laughing and having fun with it; and later we see them all together again. It’s for little things like this that “Lonely” is the type of music video that can make you smile and cry at the same time.

If you were a fan of SISTAR, it will bring you beautiful memories and warm your heart with all those details of the group’s dynamic. If you weren’t a fan, it will certainly touch you too, as you will be reminded that everything comes to an end, and when it happens, what’s worth remembering is the impressions you left on those you love, and vice-versa. And, for both, it’s safe to say “Lonely” is always going to be remembered as one of the most significant disbandment music videos ever.


“Dream In A Dream” by Ten

While most K-pop songs are created with a music video as an afterthought, the relationship between Ten‘s “Dream In a Dream” and the video is different: the song serves as a dedicated soundtrack to the glorious performance-focused video. There’s something innately magical about the brightly-hued aesthetics of this music video, with a vibrant, ambient colorscape that emulates an animated dreamstate. Blending traditional and modern choreography styles together, the video focuses on Ten’s expressive physicality, highlighting his delivery of the dance moves and his facial expressions. There are three different dance scenes primarily featured throughout the video: one featuring Ten in all white surrounded by backup dancers, a second where he is performing a highly-stylized courtship dance, and a third where he is on his own, as if the other two segments are part of his solo dreams. There’s surely some deeper meaning in “Dream In A Dream” than is obvious to my unartistic eye, but even at its most basic understanding it is a magnificent piece of K-pop visual artwork that is worthy of praise.


“Peek-A-Boo” by Red Velvet

In a time when the cool girl concept for K-pop girl groups is nothing but a memory, Red Velvet pulled through with their last comeback of the year and cemented their position as that b*tch. “Peek-A-Boo” is a cutesy, boppy song, but the music video told a grimmer story. Decked out in amazing outfits, the girls lured a pizza delivery boy into their house with their charms and looks and pretty much killed him for sport — and implied they had been doing it to more than a few. Music video plots are rare in K-pop, especially with SM Entertainment, making “Peek-A-Boo” stand out even more so. The girls all looked sickening and completely owned the roles they were playing. Red Velvet has proven they’re not above a bit of wickedness in their music videos (I mean they did all try to kill each other on “Russian Roulette”). With “Peek-A-Boo” though, they’re taking the infantilized imagery that both audiences and, initially, their company projected onto them and pretty much destroying them. Whether the group pursues less cute concepts moving forward is still up in the air, we’ll always have Yeri hunting down the boy with an bow gun.



Like NCT, DIA BCHCS (a sub-unit of DIA containing Yebin, Chaeyeon, Huihyun, Somyi, and Eunice) took a classic music video formula and made it weird. “L O O K” is half Friends-inspired sitcom half 80s music video. Directing team OGG Visual uses tropes from both, and adds modern takes to each, adding vapour wave and a Twitter style confessional shot, to tell the meta story of how all the members hate Chaeyeon because she’s beautiful and popular. In a cruel turn however, Chaeyeon is still the main character and she plays it with relish. Her blank angelic face is a wonderful palette for all kinds of expressions. The best of which comes at the beginning as she smiles alongside the first synth wail. It’s a catalogue of great Chaeyeon expressions. Newest member Somyi is the other standout as she hams it up at every chance. Her face at the opening couch shot is the best mix of awkwardness and cuteness I’ve ever seen. Her excessive blinking is just right.


“Move” by Taemin

One of the best songs of 2017 wouldn’t deserve less than one of the best music videos as well. The photography of “Move” is beautiful, the urban scenarios are amazing; everything is incredibly well designed to lay emphasis on the alluring presence of Taemin as he seduces us with a mature, sophisticated, brave, sexy performance that defies gender stereotypes. The main vehicle for it is the choreography, beautifully and intelligently created to draw attention to Taemin’s thin body line, that elegantly moves as if it’s guided by a strong yet subtle energy that does not present any signs of commitment to neither a masculine or feminine concept. Taemin and choreographer Koharu Sugawara have said that it really was their intention to make something mysterious and appealing by blending both masculine or feminine movements, and dear Lord, they made it.

It’s impossible to blink when Taemin moves his hips in the chorus; it’s so slow but so intense. It takes a lot of confidence to use body language with so much control; and his firm, mesmerizing gaze during the whole time in “Move” shows that he knows what he’s doing, he’s absolutely aware of his sex appeal and of the amount of energy that is being carefully discharged through the alternation of languid and powerful moves. Let’s make it clear, though, that when we say he’s in control, it’s not because there is something to be manipulated or hidden; instead, it seems that Taemin is exploring all the possibilities of himself, completely unafraid of being labelled in regards to his sexuality or gender. And again, we say: you have to be really, really confident to do such thing.


“Lilili Yabbay (The 13th Month’s Dance)” by Seventeen (Performance Unit)

For any true New Yorker, there’s no mistaking the first few seconds of audio at the start of “Lilili Yabbay (The 13th Month’s Dance).” From the chattering to the honking horns to the squealing of the traffic, this is is New York City at its finest. (Or not, depending on how you feel about Brooklyn.) And laying there, on a gross, disgusting, New York City sidewalk that nobody should ever lay down on, are the four members of Seventeen‘s performance team in white outfits straight out of a contemporary dance class. But, New Yorker-bias aside, this music video in its aqua-filtered hues is one of the most glorious dance performance videos that K-pop’s ever seen. The videography follows the fluid motions of the dancers, zooming in and out in rocky motions to emphasize each key point of the dance as the quartet moves in ways that make the viewer question both the abilities of the human body and the limitations of gravity. It’s sensual and passionate while all at once overflowing on screen with a sense of classical grace; crotchgrabs and grinding are countered by smooth motions, as the four move as one and as individual entities. Seventeen’s choreography is always impressive, but it is hard not to be awestruck by the presentation of “Lilili Yabbay.”


“All Night (Clean Ver.)” by Girls’ Generation

“All Night” captures Girls’ Generation at their 10th anniversary prime, enjoying a girls’ night out together as girls who have been friends for longer than ten years would do. From the video’s first shot, the girls’ sequined outfits and the hazy, colored disco lights set the song in a retro dance-party, matched by the song’s retro-influenced instrumentals. Like any great GG MV, the video flashes between shots of choreography (which, for this song, is surprisingly unique and complex). But unlike “The Boys” or “Lion Heart,” the camera at times takes the role of another guest at the party, quickly panning around the setting as a tipsy party goer might. This effect is even utilized in the dance shots, focusing only on one or two members at a time and making full group shots elusive throughout the four-minute video.

This video is one of 2017’s standouts for the simple reason it shows the Nation’s Girl Group do what it does best — dance, sing, laugh, and wear beautiful, shiny outfits. With unique choreography and styling, “All Night” is simultaneously the quintessential Girls’ Generation video and an innovation on their previous work. But most importantly, it makes me want to meet up with them for a night on the town.


Also on KultScene: K-Pop Unmuted: 2017 Awards – Part 1

“Teenager” by GOT7

“Teenager” showcases GOT7’s youth and playful side with laid back choreography as they dance with relaxed smiles on their faces. The simplicity of the set and mellow choreography made it all the more fun to watch. There’s no noisy background or flashy props to take away from the members just having some good ole fun, to which you can see they truly enjoyed themselves. When member Youngjae sang this line “I don’t know why I’m like this when I’m with you. I’m so excited, everything seems fresh to me,” with that big ole grin and joy oozing out of his eyes, you could tell that he (and the other members) could relate to those words. Whether the feelings came from previous dating experiences or even with a family member or friend who truly makes you feel like you’re on the top of the world. Just like anyone else out there, idol or not, one of the best feelings you could ever ask for and receive is pure bliss, and that’s what “Teenager” showed.

GOT7’s ability to go from back and mid air flips “Girls Girls Girls” to an intense choreo full of angst and emotion “If You Do” to something so chill as “Teenager” shows their versatility and development through the last four years. Of course it wouldn’t be a GOT7 video if there wasn’t any dabbing involved, although minor usage compared to their live performances but I’ll let this one slide though, considering the rest of the music video was delightful and charming.


“Spring Day” by BTS

I was first enthralled by BTS’s live performance of this song, but the music video ended up leaving such a strong impression on me. It wasn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it was beautifully shot and well thought out, with some subtle (and others not so subtle) references made to movies and books, like Snowpiercer and Omelas, which added layers to the video. These gave rise to a lot of fan theories about the meaning behind the music video, which were interesting to consider and made the viewing experience more enjoyable to watch (or examine). There were many scenes that resonated with me in particular, such as Jungkook joining the crowd running around him (3:23) or Jimin holding a pair of shoes in front of a tree (5:08). These scenes spoke to me about conforming to society, about being left alone, about loss. And whether or not this video was meant to be this symbolic or not doesn’t matter because of the emotions it evokes, accompanied by this very meaningful song.


“Will You Go Out With Me” by DIA

The best kinds of music videos do not need high production, big budgets, or fancy effects, and “Will You Go Out With Me” by DIA proves exactly that. Taken from the streets of Tokyo, it follows Chaeyeon — the group’s natural main character succeeding her appearance on Produce 101 and participation in the now disbanded I.O.I — as she roams the city and coyly messages “oppa.” Fortunately, the rather trite plot views less like an accompaniment to a song than it does a tourism campaign for the busy capital, which plays into a strength considering how the romantic, scenic backdrops of nighttime metropolis can translate to love in a strange city. The deliberate shots of ramen, cherry blossoms, railroad crossings, and claw games are all definitely attempts at capturing Japanese culture for their exotic value, but since they are also done so in a way that makes them picturesque, this furthers giving the music video depth while giving the country its free promo. The dreamy purplish filter might have something to do with this, and so might the gloomy aesthetics of the world still wet after a refreshing rainfall. It’s altogether the kind of moody and wistful that will have viewers longing for a place they have never been to on the basis of how the colors interact or on the potential of an intertextual reading alone.


“Dinosaur” by AKMU

Starting with their teasers that were full of mystery and reminded us of posters from Netflix series “Stranger Things,” AKMU let everyone know their inspiration for their music video. When the MV for “Dinosaur” was released we were able to confirm their inspirations but we also got to see other references from cult movies like Spirited Away and vintage mythical legends like the Loch Ness monster. The track itself already made us feel like we were listening to a score from a movie, but accompanied with the music video everything fitted perfectly. The MV is a little short film that depicts a dream that Chan Hyuk said he had and when onto create this track and music video. But if you instigate closer and knowing AKMU’s brothers past family financial difficulties, the meaning of the video turns a lot darker, with many fan theories out there about what the “Dinosaur” music video really means. The video is accompanied by a beautiful cinematography, a beautiful color correction, CGI creatures, and amazing drone shots that follow the brothers in their cute little story that created one of AKMU’s most memorable videos to date.


“Don’t Know You” by Heize

Part of Heize’s allure is her overall aesthetic. From her music, to her fashion, she just screams dope girl. And now, her music videos are following suit, namely “Don’t Know You.” The concept centered around 14 ways to, mind the misspelling, “loose your teddy bear,” which is really just how to get back at your former flame. The ex-boyfriend in question is a huge teddy bear, which Heize beats, throws tennis balls at, kidnaps, shoots, and pretty much anything abusive you can think about. Though the actual execution of the plot is a bit wonky, it doesn’t take away from the fashion, the photography, and the originality. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it turns out this jerk teddy bear is played by SHINee’s Onew. Heize is an up and coming artist, and with songs and music videos as amazing as “Don’t Know You,” we can bet she’ll be a household name in no time.


What was your K-pop music video of 2017? Let us know what you think of this list in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: 2017 Awards – Part 1

In the 26th episode of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight, Joe Palmer, Tamar Herman, and Gabriel Wilder reflect on the best moments and songs out of Korea in 2017, handing out the awards that they personally deem fit and conversing about some of the hottest topics in K-pop over the 12-month span. This is Part 1 of two year-end episodes.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2017’s latest and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.