2020 was a year unlike any other, with the emotional, societal, and creative landscape heavily affected by unexpected global events. Not only did the industry face setbacks from sudden restrictions, but they have had to alter their approach to themes and quality. With concerts not an option and much of society stuck under quarantine, Anna, Gina, and Tássia discuss how MVs have upgraded into cinematic productions, relying on experimental or religious themes to speak on today’s culture.

Gina: I remember how last year’s EOY MV Reviews noted K-pop’s relatively barren landscape, but this year proved to be different. With greater fervor in music and creativity, 2020 saw newer artists grow and familiar artists return with new colors. I think most of our MV selections highlight bold visual and conceptual choices, whether dabbling in animation, fantasy, or even theatrics — such as IU’s “eight” or Taemin’s “Criminal.”

Anna: I can’t agree more, Gina. I picked IU’s “eight” because it was both meaningful and extremely well-crafted. There was a nice mix of futuristic elements, and IU proved her versatility with the various styles she pulled off here. The MV itself was beautifully shot, but the fantastical animations of IU’s “eight” elevated it, complementing the story she was trying to tell. The hyper-reality of the animations blurred the line between truth and fiction, between the protagonist’s dreams and her daily life, and this tied in well with lyrics such as “If this is a nightmare, I don’t want to wake up forever.” Fan theories abound as to whether the characters in the MV refer to Shinee’s Jonghyun and f(x)’s Sulli, and while such a symbolism would add a layer of depth to this video, the sense of longing portrayed here is already extremely relatable, especially in 2020. Gina, why did “eight” stand out for you? 

Gina: For me, “eight” stood out for its versatile ways in highlighting a season we can never be reminded too much about: youthful innocence. Altogether, “eight” was a cohesive, aesthetic production that fully embodied the cost of losing our vibrant dreams. The futuristic elements were a nice touch indeed, but also renders “eight” to be a timeless piece — our present era will go on, but this will still be relevant. How I viewed it is, despite the advancement in technology, time, and technique, IU rediscovered her pure touch through art — which, essentially, is another means to symbolize our roots. One could view it as merely “analog” or still “art, in the form of technology” — but nonetheless, blurring the line between truth and fiction enabled her to break the barrier. IU and her team having brought all of this forth audibly, visibly, aesthetically rendered an applause and immediate addition into my list. 

As for the theories, it breaks my heart to think that it is a possibility. After all, IU’s works always include the most detailed touch and thoughtful additions. And fantasy realms offer all the possibilities of creating multiple interpretations and perspectives. Similarly, GFriend’s “Apple” is a fantastical production that touches on visual storytelling. What about it caught your eye, Tássia?

Tássia: Since I first saw IU’s “eight,” the melancholy from the alleged symbolisms was too hard to ignore. It’s beautiful, but also a heavy watch for this year. On the other hand, there was no shortage of amazing videos in K-pop, and I struggled to choose only five.

As you mention, Gina, storytelling is part of why Gfriend’s “Apple” made it to my list. It picks up from a well-explored theme—Eve’s apple—but ties in with GFriend’s narrative universe, giving fans and non-fans a multilayered playground to dive into.

But most of all, the exhilaration I first felt when watching this MV hasn’t gone away. Whenever I replay this MV, right before their witchy chorus hits, I catch myself on the edge of my seat, entranced by their visuals, their voices, their magic. I love how the MV transitions from innocence (the white outfits, the garden of Eden), to falling into sin (dancing on table tops, eating flowers, spilling drinks), to full-on eeriness (the black outfits, Yuju smoking a butterfly, SinB being the embodiment of an apple). Also, whether as tall goddesses in white or dark vamp divas, I loved to see their visual experiments—all while expressing magic as power.

“Apple” is a MV I can’t get enough of, much like my second choice—Stray Kids’s “God’s Menu.” Anna, I see this is your favorite MV of the year. What made it your pick?

Anna: The MV is so fast-paced and so many things are going on all at once – where do I even begin? The song is an absolute banger, and I was instantly addicted to its beat. Its colorful and chaotic video is the definition of an organized mess. From a thematically relevant kitchen we are transported to a construction site, then to a race track, all through some deft camerawork and impressive editing skills. These quick shifts give the whole MV a lot of dynamism, matching the high energy of this song. 

The members look amazing in their outfits here, as both their individuality and group identity are captured in their styling. I also love the way the camera follows the group’s choreography, accenting each movement and highlighting Stray Kids’ trademark synchronization. The members have developed the ability to commandeer the full attention of viewers with overwhelming charisma whenever they are in front of the camera, and their strong presence is undeniable. What about you, Tássia? What did you enjoy about “God’s Menu”?

Tássia: You took the words off my mouth. The organized chaos, the nifty camera work, and Stray Kids’ undeniable charisma make this an unforgettable release. Their discography is quite experimental, but “God’s Menu” feels like finding the group’s own special sauce—plus a glimpse of their brilliant cooking process. In a way, they broke the fourth wall by exposing all the aspects of idol life (the creativity, the experimentation, the competition), while simultaneously playing God with the viewers. The only thing missing in this comeback was their own food merch. We need Felix’s brownies!

Since we’re talking about food, B1A4’s “Like a Movie” features some giant, surrealist sweets among its enchanting imagery. What has drawn you to this MV, Gina?

Gina: From the first watch, “Like a Movie” attracted me not only for its surrealistic, alternate plot lines but for the subtle aspects of humor that make every moment shine. Some moments are cute, others are magical, and some are hilarious with how random they are. Per example, how does a sudden zombie apocalypse, UFO capture, and dancing on a bus in front of the moon find themselves in the same music video? Every backdrop feels like a fantasy movie still, and appears like multiple trailers tied into one.

Thankfully, happy endings reign. CNU avoids the falling desserts and proposes in place of losing his lover to an alternate planet; Gongchan fires his shot of love with his neighbor; and Sandeul will most likely (?) make it out of the zombified laundromat, but at least he’s not alone. Nonetheless, the choreographic moments sprinkled throughout the intertwined plots truly make it a cinematic experience – also since the back dancers wear animal masks reminiscent of musicals. Overall, this MV did a fantastic job in displaying what a movie-like romance can entail. 
Another MV I found to be cinematic is Taemin’s “Criminal,” which both Tássia and I selected. What about the MV made it into your pick?

Tássia: Well, Taemin is Taemin—undeniably one of the best performers in the world— and “Criminal” did justice to that. What makes this MV extraordinary is Taemin’s ease in communicating with his body. You don’t need a storyline to get his message, just watching him move is enough.

As you might have noticed, I love a good, dark concept with religious undertones, and knowing Taemin was behind these ideas made it even more special. It’s a hauntingly gorgeous journey through hell and purgatory, furthering Taemin’s ethereal yet profane, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-this brand. It also helps that “Criminal” is one of the best songs of the year, making the whole package an instant classic. What about you, Gina?

Gina: I agree! Everything from concept to aesthetics, choreography to song, and Taemin’s artistic portrayal pieced it all together into one cohesive, ethereal portrait. It’s beautiful, haunting, breathtaking, and expands the boundaries of Taemin’s artistry as he struggles between heaven and hell, morals and love. 

Upon first look it can seem like a fancy music video depicting his fall from a dark, seducing lover — but dive deeper and you realize every second counts in expressing this very fall. It’s raw and unrelenting, as our artist goes beyond himself to show this inner struggle: how consent is blurry in the face of love; how he must choose between himself and her; and how the label “criminal” isn’t so black and white when humanity and vulnerability is involved. Not to mention the quality is top-notch: the design team has considered every detail, from the skeleton hand to a religious motif and a classic aesthetic reminiscent of literary times. Overall, I believe “Criminal” is one of Taemin’s best, well-rounded projects to date. 

Meanwhile, Lee Hi’s “HOLO” is a chilling, bittersweet depiction of life and death, pain and growth – how did the MV make it into your list, Anna?

Anna: “HOLO”’s MV is reflective, thought-provoking and carries an empowering message. The eye-catching MV opens with a woman in a black dress peering over the edge of a high-rise building, before cutting to Lee Hi, a guardian angel. She sits with the suicidal woman before going to play with a younger girl and the subtle color changes between the scenes are remarkably effective at conveying the change in the mood, especially since the song picks up once the catchy chorus kicks in. This young girl initially seems blissful and carefree as she plays with Lee Hi, but this joy is short-lived. In a heart wrenching turn of events, the young girl tries to drown herself. 

After a grand emotional climax, the true twist is revealed when the suicidal woman from the opening finally turns her back to reveal that it was Lee Hi. She was saving herself all along. This reflected how “HOLO” is a deeply personal song for Lee Hi as well – she is singing this to remind herself to stay strong. I loved the MV’s depth, and the sensitivity with which themes like depression are portrayed. 

Seems like the theme of death is prevalent in CIX’s “Jungle” as well, albeit in a darker and more threatening fashion. What was it about this MV that stood out for you, Tássia?

Tássia: I am only now realizing that this is my fourth pick centered in a religious theme. Can anyone tell I went to a Catholic school? I digress. “Jungle” first caught my attention because it is simply gorgeous. ETUI Collective did a splendid job creating striking imagery and astonishing special effects. The golden man? The giant LED above their heads? All the warping and glitching and camera-turning? “Jungle” is a masterpiece.

And then I learned it was based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. A whole new layer of meanings opened up—like Taemin and Gfriend, CIX offers us a lavish plunge into their own darkness. Less of a story and more of an experience, “Jungle” slowly burns instead of setting fire. There are no right or wrong interpretations, just many facets translated into archetypal wisdom.

YooA’s fittingly-named “Bon Voyage” also takes us on a trip beyond the obvious. What made it to your list, Gina?

Gina: Beyond the beautiful, fantastical elements, “Bon Voyage” spoke a beautiful message about roots that is very fitting for this day and age. Though we never tried being beautiful elves like Yooa, we can relate with how “ordinary, modern life” can blind us from the extraordinary: nature’s power of stillness and the quiet freedom that it emits. This is captured so powerfully – from outfits, breathtaking natural (or dreamy CG) backgrounds, and even with the choreography. 

Having found her way back to where she started, Yooa takes a trip down memory lane, re-discovering who she was and where she came from. Her facial expression differs by the end, emphasizing the power of memory and roots. And we too can take a breath and look back on what our own memories might be, afterwards. Altogether, I was blown away by the execution and delivery of an otherwise simple but sweet message. It wasn’t just the plot or aesthetics, but rather the whole package that not only signified her as an artist but cemented her voice as well. 
Dwelling on “Bon Voyage,” I’m reminded of Lucy’s “Flowering,” which takes inspiration from nature in the form of flowers. What about it grabbed your attention, Anna?

Anna: I love your use of the words ‘breathtaking’ and ‘dreamy’, Gina! These are words that I would definitely use to describe “Flowering” as well. In this MV, Lucy transforms a barren land into a paradise of blooming blues, and the masterful use of color throughout the video really complements the emotional dynamics of the song. For instance, the first verse is shot with a dark background, interspersed with black and white shots of the members, but this is transformed once the song enters its first chorus. All of a sudden the band is in broad daylight with the members jumping about excitedly. The 180° change  is 100% consistent with the dynamics of the song, and fits its lyrics perfectly as well.

Yechan’s violin solo is definitely a highlight of the MV as the members are in their elements, playing their instruments with all their heart and soul. It is essential that their instrumental scenes are captured in a lively way, much like how choreography shots are so crucial in a dance group’s MV, and “Flowering” definitely succeeds in this regard. 

Rothy’s “Ocean View” is also full of beautiful sights and colours, it’s really making me want to go on a vacation right now! Gina, what caught your eye about it? 

Gina: What caught my attention with Rothy was the heartbreaking irony that was present: while she seems to be enjoying a great vacation, you realize how it’s all an image. The eye-catching aesthetics hazily conceal the truth, revealing how easy it is to look “happy” or appear to be having “fun.” She orders and takes photos of two burgers for one; holds a selfie stick to pretend someone is filming her; and overall attempts to avoid loneliness. Ironically, the MV introduces how to go on a trip alone, and even lists down tips: all cover-up’s. As her day goes on, she comes to acknowledge the loneliness sinking in deeper. 

The plot is so poignant in today’s day and age, considering how the pandemic has made us confront isolation and loneliness. A vacation may be what we all dream of, but is environment our only factor in loneliness? The scenery may be beautiful, but our perception of it can change based on where we stand in being alone… or lonely. Through this amazing production, Rothy has us consider the impact different factors can make, as we’re currently experiencing a social mechanism like no other. Not to mention the song is super cute and catchy, and Rothy is steadily growing into her own artist!

Another MV playing on the factor of loneliness is TXT’s “Can’t You See Me?”. What about the MV brought it to your list, Tássia? 

Tássia: I love “Can’t You See Me” because it depicts an often forgotten subject: navigating friendships in adolescence. And TXT did it with such finesse and nuance that watching it feels like a healing pill to my inner teenager.

Few times I have seen on screen the alienating feeling of having a group of friends, yet being misunderstood and misunderstanding everyone all the time. One moment you are laughing and watching TV together; the next you’re screaming, the house is on fire, and you never felt more alone. You’re never sure if you have the best friends in the world, or just enemies in disguise.

The members’ hesitating and impulsive actions throughout the MV reveal the intensity of these experiences. It’s hurtful—and very real—to see an open hand become the one that throws tomatoes at you. To joke around, only to realize you are the joke. It’s a visceral, life-changing phase and “Can’t You See Me” treats it as such. The destruction of the house is particularly symbolic, because a house is a safe place. Who are you when the most solid structures in your life begin to crumble?

TXT makes us relive the past and question ourselves, all in under four minutes. Even Of Day‘s “Where The Sea Sleeps” holds a similar healing message, albeit on a more positive note. What do you love about it, Anna?

Anna: That analysis of “Can’t You See Me” is spot on! As for “Where the Sea Sleeps”, this debut MV from Day6’s first sub-unit is both bittersweet and comforting. 

In this animated video, Day6 is represented through their Denimalz characters, with Don, Pil and Ke (Dowoon, Wonpil and Young K respectively) taking the centre stage. The characters embark on an exciting intergalactic journey but encounter life-threatening situations along the way. The animations are extremely well thought-out, with Bang and Jje (Sungjin and Jae’s characters) featured in photo frames, and in plushies that Don carries even as he is ejected from the ship. These highlight how DAY6 is still one united entity, and just as the name Even of Day suggests, the morning where all five members will return will soon come again. 

Wow, we really covered a wide range of MV’s here, but that speaks to the great diversity we were treated to throughout the year. Looking forward to the artistry that K-pop will have to offer in 2021! 

(YouTube (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12); images via WM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment, MYSTIC89, & Bighit Entertainment)