The Storyline K-Pop Music Video: Ambiguous Narratives and the Viewing Experience

Investigating Music Video Culture in K-Pop

A K-Pop music video is known for its distinct aesthetic: highly stylised, larger than life sets and rich in colour — all captured in dynamic camera work. The music video’s role is more than just accompany the title track, but also complete a trifecta that is unique to the genre: visually expand the group’s current concept or theme, showcase the members (both in talent and looks), and most importantly, house their choreography. All is all, it’s there to be pleasing to the eyes, following an underlying rule — visuals first, narrative second.

Blackpink — Lovesick Girls (2020) Dir. Seo Hyunseung. This is the highly anticipated comeback of one of K-Pop’s most popular groups. Sandwiched between choreography, close-ups of the members, and the curated sets, are scenes depicting a broken down relationship — reflecting the song. They are brief moments, without explanation of how the love quarrels came about in the music video’s storyline.
Seventeen — Thanks (2018) Dir. Beomjin / VM Project Architecture. This is a classic example of a K-Pop music video trifecta that was described earlier. There is no plot to this music video, but visually showcases the group. That said, it does have an objective: accentuates the groups’s talent and agency over their craft. This is especially important to this group as they are known and promoted as “self-producing”, from their music to their performances.

However, when a storyline is involved, they have an interesting approach. In these narrative led music videos, what viewers often find is that the story is told loosely or is ambiguous in its telling. On simpler terms, these type of music videos are often referred to as Storyline MVs— a name coined by fans. Since K-Pop groups are composed of multiple members, they allocate different storylines to accommodate the numbers. This can be shown as: a narrative per member or shared between sub-groups (For example: 2-3 members, playing various characters in the same storyline). If possible, they interlace an additional storyline which involves everyone in the group to tie it all together. The stories are then simultaneously told, interchanging across the different narratives. Overall, it’s seen holistically as it aims to serve one group. Therefore, existing in the same universe. This technique is much more prominent in longer projects where they resemblance short films more in terms of structure, namely the ‘Comeback Trailers’ or perhaps the Teaser Clips which are released in anticipation for the main music video.

One of the Official Teasers for BTS — Wings (2016) Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens.
Official Teaser for BTS — I NEED U (2015) Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens.
BTS — I NEED U (2015) Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens.
BTS — RUN (2015) Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens.

Upon closer look, only the most significant beats of the individual stories are shown, with very little development in between. Although following a narrative can be more compelling as it provides more than just visuals, this particular style used can be difficult or confusing to watch for the average viewer. The multi-narrative structure these music videos follow so they can cater to all members can potentially leave their audience empty. Since the different storylines are strung together within a short time frame, it doesn’t give enough room for each story to fully develop — arguably lacking at times. As a whole, there’s a lot to achieve in such a limited amount of time.

A strong example of this ambiguous storytelling is in BTS’ Love Yourself Highlight Reel (2017) — Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens. This is a compilation of several teasers, released in anticipation of the “Love Yourself” album series. The narratives the members follow reflects the songs from this album trilogy. At large, it is theorised by fans to be part of the “Bangtan Universe”, a fictional world which the band explores in multiple videos. They have continuously referenced this since 2015, that began with their EPs under the “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” titles. It has taken the forms of short stories, books, a webtoon and a mobile game; mediums which goes in greater narrative detail.
BTS — Euphoria : Theme of LOVE YOURSELF 起 Wonder (2018) — Dir. Choi Yongseok / Lumpens. This is the music video/short film that follows the Highlight Reel (mentioned above), but focuses on their track “Euphoria”. The video references moments from their “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” series, in particular the “화양연화 on Stage : Prologue” short film.

Despite its vagueness, it’s what makes these type of music videos the most intriguing. Even though the storylines are not fleshed out in great detail, the ambiguity leaves room for the imagination. In a way, this deliberate creative choice creates a new viewing experience or introduces a different way of consuming music videos. Knowing the fan culture that revolves around K-Pop and how it is powered by that very force, the vague gaps allows fans to participate in the art form. This is evidenced by the original content fans produce based around the the music video. In its most conventional form, this can be seen through fan-fiction where they generate new stories based on the music video’s narrative. In a more casual approach, fans create their own theories and discuss possible meanings within their communities, found in threads across Twitter to lengthy posts on Tumblr. Both are clear attempts to fill in the gaps that breathes new life into the project. Arguably, taking ‘user generated content’ onto a new level.

This ambiguous approach isn’t the typical way of communicating stories — certainly not in western media. Generally, stories are told from A to B; with a beginning, middle and end. Through the use of this method, the music video deviates from the standard dialogue: “here’s a story, you consume”. Instead, it asks: “here’s a story, what else could it possibly be?”. There’s this beautiful give and take relationship between the audience and the content. While the music video provides enough structure by showcasing the stories’ significant points, the viewer is free to make the story their own. It offers them the liberty to fill in the rest, like sentences waiting to be completed. As a result, the audience isn’t just a passive viewer, but an active consumer.

Another Bangtan Universe Twitter Thread. This time, the original poster adds their own interpretation of the narrative. Again, creating conversation. This shows how willing their audience is to participate in the story.
An example of an interpretation of the music video’s narrative, encouraged by the ambiguity of the plot. Again, demonstrating full engagement with the story, with photographic evidence to support their case. It’s evident from the detail how much they enjoy creating their own theories. Some fans consider this as their favourite aspect of an album cycle.
Some interpretations aren’t as detailed as others. Like this example, a brief idea or a short impression will do. Across the few examples shown, you can see how vast the reactions are from the material offered by the music video. Despite how interactions may appear, there is engagement for sure.
BTS — Fake Love (2018) — Dir. Lumpens. A video essay, exploring one music video alone. While Fans like to analyse and theorise links between videos (in this case, a larger universe), they also give the same amount of effort and energy onto singular projects.
BTS — Map of the Soul 7: Interlude Shadow (2019) — Dir. Oui Kim. Another video essay, exploring a singular music video alone. Aside from the storyline, they reference other elements within the film (e.g. set design) to support their claims.
Red Velvet — Peek-A-Boo (2017). The past few examples given revolves around the same band. This is because they utilise the storytelling technique particularly well across their projects. However, the technique is not exclusive to them. Other groups apply the same technique and attract the same kind of interaction with their music videos. I believe it would benefit the report to have more examples of the technique, especially in a girl group context, to further the study and strengthen its case.

Looking at the K-Pop music video culture at large, it seems that the ambitious storytelling acts as a direct invitation for their audience to take part in the narrative. This relationship is different elsewhere within the music video landscape, where audience participation is mainly seen through views and comments. At most, a general conversation debating whether the music video is “good or not”, and some critique on the music video’s creative direction. That said, the music video is usually seen as is, as intended — no more, no less. Additionally, user generated content are additional features, instead of being ingrained in the culture. In contrast, the viewing experience in K-pop cultivates a culture of its own, and the techniques found in their music videos facilities this unique relationship exclusive to the genre. Through the way a K-pop Storyline MV can’t just be seen as intended due to its fragmented telling and cryptic style, it rethinks the way music videos or short films at large can be experienced. On a personal level, some of the best viewing experiences I had as an audience is when a story is left on a cliff hanger or when the plot requires a bit more thinking. The Storyline MV is reminiscent of that feeling. The narrative ambiguity keeps you guessing. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you curious. You guess. You add. You anticipate. This is an exciting way to be an audience — a sentiment which fans can agree on, and perhaps one of the reasons why the genre has become well-loved across the globe.

BoA — Disturbance (2013) Dir. Kwon SoonWook / Metaoloz

Another way this technique is effectively used is in BoA’s music video for ‘Disturbance’. Interestingly, this was released in 2013 — much earlier than the other examples provided. For this music video, additional supporting clips are created to compliment the main narrative. The fans can then choose how they would like to end the narrative in the original, provided with two choices: a happy ending and a sad ending. Through this, the filmmakers and the creative team involved truly understand the music video culture in K-pop. For this project, active participation in the narrative is not only considered but encouraged. They take it one step further by providing options, directly requesting its viewers to fully participate in the music video’s story. Ultimately, elevating the viewing experience.

“Go Back to the Past” — The Happy Ending, where the characters reconcile.
“Let Time Go By” — The Sad Ending, where the characters break up and move on.

It would be an oversimplification to reduce this storytelling style as mere fan service; a marketing technique to increase investment into the musicians which music videos are created for. Through the ambiguity, the audience is allowed to actively engage with the narrative. In turn, a relationship between the music video and the viewer is formed. In a way, the viewers are treated as creative equals, invited to craft their own art or interpretations based on the narrative. They are treated with their own sense of agency. Together, they create this unique viewing culture; making this specific branch of the music video industry special.

This also speaks of the potential of the music video as a medium. While it can be intriguing to be offered a music video with a solid narrative at hand, with the arcs fully realised and nuance in the characters, it might be interesting to drift away from that and allow room for something different. By considering who’s going to be in the receiving end of the music video and how they might connect with it, it can bring something new to the table. As seen through these style of K-Pop music videos, this is entirely possible. The filmmaker and/or artist doesn’t always have to claim full control or ownership of the narrative; they can share it instead or be open for interaction— inviting others to relish in the story. Above all, this storytelling technique breathes new life into the song it’s trying to interpret. This adds another way which the audience can connect with the music or deepen its impact. In turn, transforming not only the viewing, but also the musical experience. It’s a win, both sonically and visually.

As we move forward, it would be interesting how this style evolves, especially as K-Pop’s popularity worldwide strengthens even more. How will it play out in the future and adapt to change? Will it become obsolete and what will it be overtaken by? What does this say about the wider K-Pop music video landscape? On a closer lens, it would be worth investigating which stories are best told using this technique. On the other hand, I would like to see this style applied in other musicians, especially non K-Pop acts: would it be just as effective, or it this technique only effective within K-Pop? Above all, it’s also important to evaluate the impact of the technique itself; who is more influential in the outcome of the music video, the viewer or the filmmaker? There’s more to this storytelling method that needs to be explored.

Afterword: It’s also important to emphasise that not all K-Pop Storyline Music Videos follows this ambiguous style. In fact, there are many other music videos that features cohesive storylines which are fully realised on screen; some of them considered as genre classics and pioneers of the Hallyu Wave. However, in a genre as saturated and ever-evolving as K-Pop*, it has its own set of trends and styles which ebbs and flows — this is just one aspect. In particular, the narrative, drama-style music videos were popular in the genre during the early to the mid 2010s. In another essay, I will attempt to track where this exactly begins and ends, the factors which influenced its rise and decline, and perhaps touch on its relationship with K-Dramas.

*K-Pop is often used as an umbrella term. At times, it is used as a synonym for “Korean Music”, rather than solely focusing on the pop genre in the Korean language. I will expand on this on a different essay, as I touch on more topics related to the music videos crafted from this part of the world.

Taeyang — Wedding Dress (2009). The music video follows a love triangle storyline, featuring the best friend and missed-opportunity tropes. It showcases choreography, staying true to the genre elements. That said, what is shown on the music video is a direct interpretation of what is the song is about. Even still, this music video has broken the hearts of many and further emphasises the message in the song. Since its release, it’s been considered as one of the most iconic K-Pop music videos and one of the the first to become widely popular on the internet, propelling the genre forward in its early days — attracting covers and remakes. This also launched Taeyang’s career as a soloist and as a stand-out act in K-Pop, beyond his group Big Bang.
After School — Shampoo (2011). A music video that resembles a K-Drama plot. The storyline involves everyone in the group, with one member as the main character. Interestingly, it ties the Tap Dance concept they have for this album seamlessly, which they focus on in another video titled “Let’s Step Up”. In this music video’s narrative, the members of the group are all part of a Tap Dance group; the storyline, the members’ characters and the dynamic between them are explored in that context. On the other hand, the song’s message and the music video storyline doesn’t totally align. The lyrics describes a relationship using scent metaphors; while that is not visually illustrated, the music video does lift the song’s romantic themes.

This study is part of a personal project that I’m conducting, “ BTS: Music Video Culture in K-Pop”. This is a research project focusing on the moving image side of K-Pop: tracking trends, investigating the craftsmanship behind the scenes and the developing market within it. More to come on this soon! Please get in touch if you would like to know more, discuss ideas and/or potentially collaborate with me on this endeavour.

Find me here: Charlene Louise

As F.R. David once sung, “Words don’t come easy to me” — so here’s me trying. Talking design, film, and pop culture; from east, west and everything in between.

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