• Bhargavi Govindan

Storytelling in K-Pop

The general perception around Korean Pop music (shortened as K-Pop) is that people cannot 'relate' to it due to the foreign language and visuals. But, what is often overlooked is the human-interest stories this category of music tells - struggles that you and I go through everyday. The best part? The story is depicted not only through the lyrics.

Sit tight and have YouTube open on the side because we are about to find out what fans mean when they say K-Pop is 'more than just music' / 'a complete package'.

(Fair warning: K-pop fans know that K-pop is a blackhole! Hence, I am picking very select examples to get my views across. Interpretations here are subjective based on the original videos and songs I watch and articles I read on the internet.)


The K-Pop glossary: 'Concept' and 'Storyline'


Right from the start of a tune to the finish of the physical album package, a K-pop artist and the team behind them are consistent in everything they do. K-pop fans call this a 'concept'.


In business terms, 'concept' is the 'brand story' of a particular album or artist, like 'Never settle' of OnePlus and 'Think Different' for Apple. It is a theme/mood that governs the entire album.

If a 'concept' is for a single album, then a 'storyline' is what ties these concepts together and spins them as a bigger narrative. Storylines are what drew me (and a million other fans) to K-Pop.

One of the classic examples for storytelling is HYYH by BTS, which focuses on the struggles of youth. The rebellion from their debut slowly caved into struggles highlighted in HYYH and concluded with Wings.

All set with the glossary? Now, let's dive into the various aspects in which K-Pop uses storytelling!


P1Harmony in their movie P1H: A New World Begins, the storyline of which is continued in their albums; Source: P1Harmony YouTube

Storytelling through music videos


From the day my friend showed me a video of Shoot Me by DAY6, I have never been the same. The music and the visuals struck a chord with me, especially the bullets at the end which the male protagonist fires. The entire video is open to interpretation and adds a unique flavour to the song which talks about breakup and pain. I unearth new meanings each time I see it!

Young forever conveys the personal hurdles all the BTS members go through by portraying them as collectively stuck in a maze and finding their way through it. As the song transitions to hope, they find their way out of the maze and run into the sunset, which is a beautiful visual to look at!


BTS in Young Forever, where they find their way out of the maze together; Source: HYBE Labels YouTube

Given a chance, I would write pages about Hit by Seventeen! The brilliant play on light and graphics perfectly illustrates what the song stands for- Seventeen's success. The video is characterised by set designs that one would normally see in a magazine, interview, photoshoots. It can be an excellent introduction to a movie about Seventeen with all the graphics, names and multiple video panels. Pledis, are you listening?


Seventeen's Hit, a song about their success; Source: Seventeen YouTube

I love Red Velvet's Russian Roulette and TXTs Drama purely because on the surface they are your typical colourful K-Pop videos but they have dark messages hidden in their sugar-coated visuals. The irony and conflict is hard to pull off and these music videos do a great job making it interesting and refreshing to watch!


Russian Roulette by Red Velvet, a colourful but dark music video; Source: SMTOWN YouTube

Storytelling through sounds

When I say sounds, I mean purely the sounds, not the lyrics.

The soundscapes are the star of the show inSpinning Top: Between Security and Insecurity by GOT7. An entire listen from the start to finish of the album would reveal that half of the songs are bright and happy and the other half is characterised by angst-y sounding tracks! It is pretty interesting because the album art, the pictures everything pit stability against instability and the title track's demo version does huge justice with angst and the slightly upbeat sounds running at the same time!

Spinning Top: Between Security and Insecurity stays true to its name

JAY B, the leader of GOT7, is also a part of a crew called Offshore. In an interview he mentioned that he decided the order of the songs for one of Offshore's albums (Scene #2) and he said that the album flows like a conversation between friends which starts with talk about work and moves on to relationships and life. Mind-blowing, huh?


JAY B's Interview with Beauty+ magazine where he talks about Offshore; translated by Defdaily

BTS' Wings starts off and continues with very dark and serious sounds but when it reaches Outro: Wings it conveys that the protagonist(s) have battled temptation and are moving towards a hopeful future!

Storytelling extends beyond visuals and sounds?

If you think K-Pop physical albums just contain the CD and maybe a lyric book, you are very far from the truth. Each K-Pop album is loaded with photos, books and special contents that are indicative of the 'concept' / 'story' for the particular album. One of my favourite physical albums has to be GOT7's DYE which was based off Romeo and Juliet. To keep the theme of literature going, the album has a hard bound cover with a bookmark too!


My copy of the DYE album with a hardbound cover and bookmark

K-Pop's storytelling extends to even how they release their album's 'concept' pictures (pictures of the artists and aesthetic of a particular album). TXT's Minisode: Blue Hour (one of my favourite concepts of all time) started off with a video game theme and they released the pictures of the members through an interactive mobile screen on their website (it's still available). You can enter the password and download the pictures and videos.


A couple of albums later they also had location pins and released their pictures through an interactive messaging feature! Notable here is that TXT took this video game concept to their variety show To Do X TXT where the introduction and icon/text are similar to 8-bit games.


The introduction of To X TXT, TXT's variety show, as an 8-bit game; Source: Tomorrow X Together Official YouTube

The most recent GOT7's EP 'GOT7' had three sets of concept pictures which signified that they were 'building' something. This step-by-step release of the pictures culminated in them celebrating in a house(a sophisticated one at that) which they 'built'. All of these condense the group's journey in K-Pop and give us a sequel of their future plans! As I always say, GOT7's concepts are always flawlessly executed!


A shot from GOT7's NANANA with the recurring imagery of 'construction'; Source: GOT7 YouTube

I am no expert at choreography so I am going to keep this pretty short. But even with my limited knowledge, I find that k-pop choreographs can get pretty intense with storytelling. 24H by Seventeen has a very good choreography and formations that indicate the movements of a clock, while GOT7's Home Runhas the entire sport in a choreographic form!


A stunning choreography with frequent references to a clock in Seventeen's 24H; Source: Seventeen Japan Official YouTube

I will not close this article without mentioning DPR's Yellow Cab and Dean's instagram which although are not K-pop, still fall under the category of Korean music.

After all of this, one point which would be hard to miss is how storytelling in K-Pop is pervasive. Brands can take a page out of K-Pop's 'concepts' and how their messaging is consistent from sounds to the album packages. Very similarly, in business storytelling too, it is essential to have the brand's story visible consistently across the website, brochures, social media and any communication channel.

There are more interesting things in K-pop (and films, in general) beyond the two-inch barrier of subtitles, as famously said by director Bong Joon-ho. All that matters is taking the plunge! So, if you have reached till here, thank you for diving with me into the waters of K-pop and beholding this wonderful world through the goggles of storytelling.