We’ve covered songs of the decade and had a retrospective on how Korean hip-hop has evolved, so it only makes sense that we also talk about music videos. MVs are an effective marketing tactic, one that uses a visual medium to sell to viewers a song. The MV is also a hallmark of K-pop, and they are getting increasingly creative and diverse in the message.
But MVs come in different types, and it would be unjust to pigeonhole the myriad of choices in one list. For this series of the Seoulbeats Decade in Review, we have split the MVs into three types: performance, narrative, and aesthetic/symbolism-focused. In this list, we concentrate on the music videos that are dominated by aesthetic symbolism to elevate the song.
IU, “Good Day”
Most K-pop fans might know IU’s “Good Day” for the triple high notes on her belted line, “I’m in my dream.” But the aesthetics of the MV are a visual treat that endears IU to the audience. The video is set in a storybook world in which IU has a Macaw parrot for a pet. The brightly colored bird is in contrast with IU, who is meek and unable to articulate her feelings for the boy who works at her neighborhood shop. When IU’s courage fails, her parrot intervenes and declares her love for her.
The boldness that is in IU’s heart but that she cannot communicate is reflected in the song’s instrumentation. The soaring strings, driving drums and keyboard come to life in IU’s world via a musician following her around. His performance expresses the intensity she feels inside. Fittingly, the musician is covered in little feathers, almost as if he’s her pet come to life since he is filling the same role of giving her a voice when she can’t find hers.
While IU still cannot find the words to express herself at the end of the MV, the musician watches over her like a guardian angel, waiting for the day when she’ll have the confidence to let her true colors and voice shine.
2NE1, “I Am The Best”
The girl crush concept was championed by second-generation girl groups, and no song is more iconic of the era than 2NE1’s “I Am The Best”. The song‘s unapologetic sound (heavy, grating synth and repeating refrain) complements its unapologetic lyrics. The MV is similarly unapologetic, and all about the style and aesthetic of femininity that refuses to conform to society’s demands.
The MV is dominated by a black and silver-grey aesthetic, with artificial, sharply lined/geometrical sets framing the background. 2NE1’s crazy hairstyles (Dara even has her hair up in a Vegeta-like style at one point), black and silver outfits precisely tailored to suit their bodies, accessories that include spikes, and cocky expressions make them unapproachable. A poodle, hard fur all perfectly trimmed, also makes an appearance. In other words, there’s not a hint of softness to be found. The girls literally smash records with metallic baseball bats as they climb up the stairs to success; truly embodying role models of a bold confidence that is discouraged in many Asian societies, and something we could all learn from.
Big Bang, “Fantastic Baby”
Big Bang has had many excellent MVs through the years but “Fantastic Baby” is one of, if not the most, iconic. While ostensibly just a dance track, the MVs imagery turns the track into a battle cry for freedom and personal choice.
The visual palette of the MV is pure contrast: the dull, washed-out landscapes and dark places of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, yet the members of Big Bang are decked out in an abundance of jewelry and lurid colors on everything from their clothes to their hair. They don’t draw the eye as much as force it onto them. They stand out in a very deliberate manner, setting themselves up as the opposition to the powers that be who are attempting to cage everyone else in.
This is amplified by the imagery of Big Bang as deposed powers. When it starts, most members are confined in some way — chains, ice, paintings. G-Dragon is the first to speak, to summon them from his throne. There are other shots of them on thrones, but always alone, with no followers, until the end. The masses have been rallied, freedom and dance have been restored, and Big Bang sits on their thrones, content in their restoration to their rightful place. The final shot leaves no doubt: they are the kings, and while they can be temporarily constrained, they cannot be defeated.
Needless to say, G-Dragon has released plenty of creative MV’s over the years to fully portray his musicality. From “That XX” to “One of a Kind” and “Crayon,” each release stretched the boundaries to what he could dare to attempt. He often took drastic measures to fully curate his music distinct as his own. “Crooked” is no different, in that GD wildly immerses himself throughout London without any reserve but only signature behaviors.
Throughout the MV, viewers see GD running, dancing, or crying to reveal the endless scope of how he is “crooked.” He often stumbles or stares off, hardly staying still to keep busy. Yet, it doesn’t get redundant thanks to his variety of gestures and wrongdoings. And if preparing to pee by a wall or kicking plates off of a public table isn’t enough to prove it, then maybe the depth of planning behind this MV is. Beyond its message, the MV is enhanced with camerawork that captures him running in opposite directions. This brings multiple interpretations, based on whether he’s running towards the future or away from responsibility. Ultimately, GD resonates with his viewers through the mess that he boldly portrays as a realistic state of mind.
Orange Caramel, “My Copycat”
Orange Caramel’s music videos throughout the decade have been innovative, surprising and refreshing. There was no one making music videos like them then and no one right now. “My Copycat” is the most refined of their music videos. Firstly, of course, there is its brilliantly involving concept which reinvents the music video as a game of two parts. It is a what is the difference game and a Where’s Wally game.
Secondly, its scale is mesmerising with the images in the second half, filled with vibrancy and populated with so many distinct characters. Lastly, it strikes the perfect aesthetic tone, moving away from the fun but overwhelming ultra-cuteness to a more settling quirky whimsy style. However, as always, this music video is generous. The music video is packed to the brim with delights, the lingerie printed shirts and feather headdresses combo, monkeys and flamingos and some dancing nuns.
Sunwoo Jung-A, “Springirls”
In the last decade, there have been a number of music videos that confront the forever present male gaze, subvert it and play around it like the brilliant “Ah Yeah” music video by Exid. However, for me, Springirls makes this list because it has nothing to prove. There is a bold freedom at the heart of this video. There is no male perspective and the intention is not to evoke the lust of the audience or wrapped up in layers and layers of girl power. Rather it is a celebration with the women being shown on their own terms in all their complexities.
They play around freely in clashing pastel and bright colours outfits and backgrounds, a display of distinct individualism. This music video in its imagery functions as a subtle, delightfully joyful and sensual ode to female desire and pleasure particularly, the flowers. Pair it with “Gashina” by Sumni which also is glorious and also an aesthetic successor.
BTS, “Blood, Sweat and Tears”
Quoting from Herman Hesse’s “Demian”, about a boy caught between good and evil, BTS’ “Blood, Sweat and Tears” explores greed, ambition and desire — the loss of innocence as one grows into adulthood, and the fall of angels from grace.
This is referenced through various art works in the background of the MV, including Pieter Bruegel’s “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, where angels were corrupted by sinful temptation. Symbolism abounds. The members cover one another’s eyes, mouth, and ears – “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil”. An ominous organ played by Suga fades into silence, as Jin kisses the devil and gives in to desire.
Over the years, BTS have effectively utilised transmedia storytelling to create a compelling universe. Consistency has been key, and they continue to engage meaningfully with “Blood, Sweat and Tears” even today. For BTS, being artists, it may be that art itself is the temptation. If the members gave in to desire in 2016, they were intoxicated with it in 2019’s “Dionysus”, and now believe the loss of art would be akin to death, in 2020’s “Black Swan”. It has been an achingly beautiful but cruel journey. Where will BTS take it next?
Zion.T (feat. Lee Moon Sae), “Snow”
Cross-Category: Symbolism & Narrative
The symbolism of snow and its ties to love within Korean culture runs deep. Nowhere is this symbolism brought as stunning into life this decade than with the MV “Snow”. With a narrative wrapped around the heartbreak of seeing the first snow without the love of your life. The loss then carried within the stunning cinematography as it is tied to the longing of Zion.T and Lee Moon Sae’s gentle vocals longing for snow, and therefore, of course, love.
The world crafted in this MV seems both tied to reality with Zion.T’s cameo as a bored celebrity. While somehow also attached to the sometimes magical and always otherworldly quality that Korean MV’s create. Where a coat-rack shapes and shifts (see also BTS’s “Intro: Singularity”), first symbolising the spaces his lover once held and then all of a sudden, shifting into memory space and pulling a lover from past into the present. “Snow” really seems then to me the MV of the decade for its symbolism which gives the MV such gravitas, bringing gentle vocals to soaring new heights.
Whether from the quiet collection of poetry by Hwang Ji-u being hidden and nestled in among the law books, protecting the memory of two lovers lost in the snow. Or the gentle waltz, that spins around cups of tea and ends with wordless conversations as snow falls along the edge of sleep.
There’s a lot that has been said about Dean’s “Instagram” which made it all the more essential for this list. The MV itself is a forest filled with little symbolisms hidden in every turn and in every crevice of every tree hollow. In construction, “Instagram” was about taking a step back and evaluating the relationship Dean had with instagram. Similar to the way the character Robinson Crusoe wrote about his experiences on a strange island, Dean wrote about how his experience of scrolling through instagram, and how lonely it had become with the anxiety that grew from comparing himself to those that he followed.
Dean’s experiences act as a mirror for us as listeners who feel the same way, without having thought about it until it was portrayed to us through “Instagram”. The MV for Instagram takes hold of the emotional weight of the track, creating a mood and visual board instead of trying to mimic an instagram palette as seen with Sunmi’s “Noir, San-E’s “Me You” or Loco’s “Post-It”. The MV itself becomes a canvas for the inner turmoil instagram creates. From bored stares to maniac laughing to black thoughts spewing out world crises “inside a square ocean”. “Instagram” is that MV! an aesthetic masterpiece that swims in modern sub-texts summing up the modern online experience.
Taeyeon, “Four Seasons”
Although Winner’s “SOSO” was a close match, ultimately Taeyeon’s “Four Seasons” won me over for this year. The beautiful aesthetics behind the MV are already clear to the eye, but what stood out were the small visual details that highlighted the change in seasons alongside the lyrics. The detail was subtle, found from juxtaposing two separate images to having certain phrases written out in emphasis on the screen. If done randomly, there wouldn’t be much meaning behind it other than another “unique” MV. But here, the juxtaposing images are selected intentionally to symbolize the jarring contrast in seasons, in tones, and thereby mood. Solo shots of Taeyeon are also arranged accordingly, particularly throughout the second verse.
Every second of the MV is correlated with the lyrics, without forsaking quality either. Both nature and Taeyeon are shown interchangeably in order to best reflect a change in seasons, both in the literal and symbolic sense. Viewers get a glimpse of how this change can look like for Taeyeon as well – or they can simply sit back and enjoy one of the most cinematic MV’s of this past year.