I’m a simple human being – I watch a good music video, I gain a greater appreciation for the song. As someone who is largely dependent on music for their mental health, I really love music videos. They enhance a track’s impact by providing a visual for what it’s trying to convey, which is why I appreciate them so much. Being a fan of multiple K-pop groups and soloists with a general openness to the genre, I watch a lot of K-pop music videos in particular. In my early days of being a K-pop fan, I would binge-watch loads of them to get a handle on what artists were out there, as well as to see what the idols looked like and to sort of get to know them. Most of the videos I liked, many are pleasing to look at, but if I’m honest, a lot of them aren’t exceedingly memorable. Many of them do manage to generate a unique concept or something fun to experiment with, but it’s not often I get a K-pop music video that manifests strong emotions from me or causes the art critic in me to rise to the surface. I like to think of myself as being able to appreciate good filmography and creative executions of ideas or concepts, and whenever I get that sort of thing in K-pop, I seriously jump for joy. It’s not that a lot of K-pop music videos are bad, but many just don’t have the level of interesting meaning or imagery that I know they could.
There are quite a few K-pop music videos, however, that remind me why I’m still in this fandom. It’s one of my life missions to show everyone that K-pop is more than just what stan Twitter leads you to believe it is, and I think one of the best ways to do that is to talk about some of these stupendous music videos and their possible meanings. I can say with absolute certainty that these videos go hard.
SHINee – Married to the Music
Have you ever wanted to see your idols dismembered, severely burned, or robbed of their facial features? SHINee apparently asked themselves this question, as evidenced by them giving us exactly that with Married to the Music, released in 2015. Being a funky, 80’s style dance song with Halloween-like undertones, the song reminds me a lot of Thriller by Michael Jackson, and what would a song like that be without a delightfully disturbing music video? Horror concepts are something I don’t often see in K-pop, and not only did SHINee kill it, they made it their own and incorporated it into their iconic funk-inspired sound that I know them for.
The video starts with a message in the form of a neon sign that reads “marriage is a slow death”. Ominous, but what does it mean? I’ll discuss that in a minute. We subsequently see the members pull up to a party, where a mysterious hostess serves them this phosphorescent green slime that I can only assume is some kind of alcoholic potion. Not only are SHINee beginning to feel themselves and seem oblivious to everything around them, Taemin seems to have a particularly bad reaction. I don’t think glowing a sickly green is normal. He doesn’t seem too bothered by this though as we later see him cheering on a guy being a little too irresponsible with his bat while trying to hit a pinata. Unfortunately for him, Taemin ends up getting bashed in the head and his eyes pop right out of their sockets onto the floor!
Taemin isn’t the only member that has something unfortunate happen to him. The hostess from earlier thought it’d be funny to make Key her knife-throwing practice dummy. This is so horrible of me but the moment that the cleaver cleanly and perfectly decapitates Key is so good. It happens right before the beat drop for the chorus, and it literally made me gasp the first time, it’s just so well done. It’s okay though, because Key’s somehow still alive, although he’s been reduced to a talking head and a wandering headless body that ends up colliding with Taemin, who also can’t see where he’s going because, y’know, he doesn’t have his eyes.
Onew starts feeling a little sick from all the radioactive Everclear they’ve been served and stumbles to the bathroom to get some water on his face, only for a hand covered in orange slime to come out of the drain and grab his nose. Jonghyun’s also not doing too well as he begins vomiting confetti after eating some kind of cookie handed out by the hostess again. The hostess corners him immediately after and things get a little spicy, but alas, the kiss she gave him left him mouthless. Minho hasn’t been suffering too badly, but he does get his head incinerated when the hostess brings out a cake with candles and the rest of the members blow the flames in the wrong direction.
In my opinion, the message of this music video isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. I think it’s exactly what the sign at the beginning said, “marriage is a slow death”. SHINee drives up to the party with tin cans tied to the back of their car, giving the hint that they’re “newlywed”. The hostess, whose face is never shown, is wearing a white veil and white lace gloves, clothing indicative of a bride. She is also the one causing most of the mayhem happening to the boys, giving them strange food and drinks that have unpleasant side effects, throwing knives at them, seducing them only to steal their mouths, and serving a cake with dangerously combustible candles. We see her alone in a room, obsessively cutting out pictures of the members from photos she has. So I suppose the message is “commit to a partner and they’ll chop your fucking head off”. I feel like the exaggeration of the saying “marriage is a slow death” is so great here that it’s obvious that they’re making fun of it, so yeah, don’t take this all to heart. Relationships can be healthy.
You don’t know how much I love stuff like this. I think K-pop shys away from horror concepts because it’s hard to make something genuinely scary or disturbing without sacrificing the idols being all pretty or handsome. Not to mention there are plenty of younger K-pop fans that could get frightened. Despite that, I think SHINee pulled it off with flying colors. Although the dismemberment is freaky and bizarre, there’s no blood or genuine gore (unless you count Key’s neck flesh, but it’s edited to be non-bleeding green flesh that resembles the inside of a lime). The styling is also fantastic for the concept – the boys are in flashy, slightly ghoulish fashion with wild hair and brightly colored suits, which honestly makes them look like they just came out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Overall, Married to the Music is completely unique and charmingly perturbing, as well as just plain silly. I really wish something as visually and conceptually interesting as this was more common in K-pop.
Red Velvet – Russian Roulette
I hear Russian Roulette around a lot, in memes, on Tiktok, you name it. The song’s really popular in the K-pop sphere, which is partly by virtue of it being Red Velvet, but also by how insanely catchy it is. When I first heard it I got so fixated on it I think I must have listened to it 50 times in one day. For such a happy, cute, and poppy-sounding track, it’s got a bit of a morbid title, doesn’t it? Red Velvet are known for their “cute but psycho” concept that they generally tend to have in their tracks and themes, which on its own opens up a lot for them to have creative imagery or scenes in their music videos. However, as opposed to other music artists I can think of with this aesthetic (like Melanie Martinez, for example), Red Velvet tries to hide the messed up part behind the cute concept a little more than most. Russian Roulette, released in 2016, is the perfect example of this. The video is drenched in bright colors and, for the scenes that the girls are dancing in, they look pretty happy like nothing bad is happening. But just about everything else in this video heavily contrasts what it wants you to think it is.
The song sounds happy and the colors are vivid and cute, so you want to think this is just another happy K-pop song with pretty girls dancing and smiling, right? However, a bit into the video you begin to notice that something’s kind of off. I listened to the song before I ever saw the music video, and although I knew of Red Velvet’s concept, it was nothing like I had expected. I feel like the entire purpose of the video is to just unnerve you and wonder why on earth they’re doing the things they’re doing.
The video takes place in a multitude of settings, including a gym, a house, a tennis court, a locker room and a pool. The girls don’t seem interested in going for a swim or having a little game of tennis, however. Wherever they are, they straight up use all the resources they can in each of these areas to try and kill each other! Truly only something besties would do. The scenes depicting this include but are not limited to: Wendy pushing Yeri into an empty pool with an expression devoid of any emotion, Joy and Irene sitting in the way of a piano pushed by the other girls falling down the stairs, and Seulgi in the path of a dangerous set of locker dominos. The camera always cuts away right before something terrible is about to happen to one or more of the girls, leaving it up to the imagination what happens next. Contrast is a powerful tool in the making of good art, and I find myself thoroughly enjoying the immense difference in the aesthetic of the video from that of what is actually going on.
The most disturbing part of the video for me, however, is the amount of scenes where the girls are clearly still lip syncing to the song, but they’re sitting as still as statues and staring right into the camera, their faces completely emotionless. Let me remind you that this song is a complete earworm, a snappy, lighthearted, bubblegum-like piece of music in nature. So to just have these girls staring right at you with blank faces mouthing the words to this happy song is quite unsettling, to say the least. To make it even more impactful there are scenes with them dancing like normal thrown in between, which provides an extra dose of whiplash. I’ve never seen anything like this in a K-pop music video to date. Not even someone who understands Korean would have known the music video would be like this from the song, because the lyrics just compare loving the singer to a game of Russian roulette. I would suppose they mean to convey it’s a large gamble to commit to them or something along those lines, but Red Velvet might mean that a bit more literally than at first glance, given the music video.
I’ve said before in previous articles that I’m not the hugest fan of cute concepts for girl groups, mainly because it’s been overdone in its pure form. It’s also not something that appeals to me specifically unless there’s some sort of clever twist on it. This is exactly why I love Red Velvet, because although they do cute concepts about half of the time, I always enjoy it because there’s usually something grisly hidden underneath. It really keeps things interesting for me, and Russian Roulette is the epitome of this. The music video is very creative not just in concept, but the murder methods the girls all try to employ for each otherl. I think Red Velvet found their bearings early on with their musical identity, which led to a very solid, somewhat terrifying release like this. The music video has certainly become memorable for me from the first time I saw it, which truly earns it a spot as one of my favorite girl group music videos.
ATEEZ – The Real (Heung Version)
If you’ve read my other articles, you’re probably tired of me talking about Ateez. I am so sorry, but The Real (Heung Version) is just way too awesome to not include here. Whether it’s Ateez’s song or not, my opinion on it genuinely wouldn’t be different- it’s the very definition of “going hard”. Only being released last year, The Real (Heung Version.) was on my list of 2021 K-pop comebacks that I previously discussed in this article, but in case you haven’t read it (which you should), you should know The Real wasn’t a new song at the time of its music video release. Ateez had released the song earlier that year, but they repurposed it into a full comeback by adding extra instrumentals to make it more “fun” (which is what the word “heung” loosely translates to) and also by giving it the best music video in 4th gen K-pop, filled with the perfect balance of badassery and humor.
The video begins with Mingi coming in for his first day at a new high school (he’s 22 at the time of this video, but, you know. It’s for the concept). This school, however, doesn’t look very personable. There’s graffiti all over the walls, it looks sketchy as hell, and with all the eyes Mingi gets in the hallway and in the classroom, likely a lot of hostility among the students. The other Ateez members are students here, and they’ve got some interesting extracurricular activities: San and Wooyoung are the baseball team captains, Yunho and Jongho head a biker gang, and Hongjoong and Seonghwa host a very extravagant brush stroke painting club. It’s implied that the school is basically run by these three factions, so naturally rivalry exists between the three of them. Still, they all seem to have a bone to pick with Mingi. Maybe it’s because they just want to bully the new kid, maybe they’ve been previously acquainted with him and are holding a grudge, who knows.
There’s also the last member, Yeosang, who is probably the most perplexing part of the whole video. He doesn’t usually appear with the rest of the group, rather he’s watching what’s happening to Mingi and the clubs from afar. He is a student because he’s seen wearing the uniform while in the school, but he’s also seen hanging out on a rooftop a good mile or so away, wearing an extravagantly adorned white suit. So what’s his deal? I think he’s meant to be the peacemaker that helps the other members settle their differences. The climax of the music video involves Yeosang interrupting the final sequence, where the clubs (and Mingi) really have it out for each other. He quietly walks onto the quarry grounds where this is happening and everyone involved stares at him, forgetting what they were just doing. He looks smug, hands in his pockets with a smile on his face. Then he stops and the music begins again. He starts to dance the choreo, and for the last leg of the video it looks like the animosity has dissipated. The entire group is soon seen performing the choreo together for the first time, and they even start a street dance circle, all of them smiling and enjoying themselves.
To fully appreciate the video, I think knowing some things about the track itself is helpful. Although the English title of the track is The Real, the Korean one is 멋 (or meot), of which the most accurate (but not perfect) English equivalent would probably be “swag”. I’m not an expert in Korean linguistics, but from what I’ve researched, if you describe someone as having 멋, you’re conveying that that person is cool, respectable, but also intimidating. No one wants to mess with them, but they don’t use that as an excuse to hurt others. I think The Real means to convey what 멋 looks like as well as what others might mistakenly think it looks like. Each of the clubs profess in the killing parts of the song that “they are what 멋 looks like” but based on how they treat Mingi, I’m not sure that’s true. The point for me is that Mingi is the one with 멋, because he doesn’t engage with the clubs when they try to provoke him, but when he gets physically attacked he skillfully defends himself. This music video undoubtedly has some other meaning having to do with Ateez’s overall storyline, but I’ll never be able to decipher that on my own. For now, I like focusing on the message that hey, being humble and kind is cool, but stand your ground if someone else uses that as a weakness for you.
To add even more to this theme, the song is also heavy with traditional instruments, and the lyrics are no less rooted in Korean culture. Several Korean idioms make their way into the wordplay, and the killing parts of the song that I mentioned in the last paragraph are some of the members speaking in their hometown’s regional dialects, or satoori. This is a really neat detail, because from what I have heard, idols are often encouraged to drop their dialects/accents and speak like Seoul city kids, so Ateez just threw a fat middle finger to the industry by including these satoori lines. I think these aspects of the song are encouraging 멋 in yet another way, to stay grounded and not forget your roots, no matter what people do to change you.
Images the director of The Real posted on Instagram. The caption reads “sometimes the manga nuance is more important than precise angle”.
This music video rules. It just does. There’s lots of little humorous moments subtly incorporated into the storyline of the video, and it’s just so good. What really stuns me though is how well fleshed out the concept was. The way the members carry themselves, their expressions, the way they wear their school uniforms, the run-down academic facilities, they really all look like they’re about to kick your ass. When I first watched it, all I could think about was how much it reminded me of an anime or manga with a high school delinquent protagonist/cast. There’s other little anime-like quirks that happen too, like Yeosang holding bread in his mouth and a huge pillar of energy shooting out from the four way punch that gets thrown in the climax. This is no coincidence, since the director of the video was likely aiming for that. He made a post on Instagram with some of his sketches for the video hinting at how he was going for a manga-like overtone, and boy did he succeed. The Real brings such nostalgia and refreshment for me (a weeb) whenever I watch it. There’s lots of little things that happen that I love that I can’t afford to talk about here, so if I’ve made you interested in this video at all, please go watch it, especially if you’re a manga/anime fan!
It’s really meaningful to me whenever K-pop music videos are produced with the amount of love and creativity like the ones I’ve just discussed. I worry for the industry a lot in recent years, because if I’m honest, I’ve seen a drop in the quality of concepts and music videos as more and more new groups come out. I’m not one of those fans that think 2nd gen K-pop is the only good K-pop and anything being released today sucks, but I do see their point to a degree. I don’t want K-pop to fully become a large marketing scheme that profits off of the idols being cute or sexy and then letting the quality of the content go to the wayside. Seeing some videos like the ones discussed here (all of which are at least fairly recent) helps give me some hope for the industry.
I want to note that although I only had time to discuss three music videos today, there are several others among my favorites that I would love to discuss in a future article. I like looking at pretty idols just as much as the next K-pop fan, but as usual with any form of media, there’s something to be said for creativity. I feel like the three groups I’ve talked about here are particularly good at experimenting within their general group concept, and I’ve genuinely had such a good time experiencing their content because of this. I find it hard to get into a group if they don’t have interesting enough content, in fact. I will die on this hill that K-pop has plenty of gems despite all of the stigma around it, in music videos as well as the music itself, and I’d love for more people to experience it and appreciate it.