Let’s be honest: hardly anything is 100% original in music, notwithstanding K-pop. It’s easy to get tired of what we see. None the less, this doesn’t mean everything needs to be boring. Just when the songs start to sound the same, the dances feel like déjà vu and the color begins to fade, someone or some group reinvigorates our senses with a brand new, or freshly painted, concept.
In the K-pop world, a ‘concept’ is the look, sound, mood and experience of a release. Some people would describe it as its theme, but I feel that word is quite one-dimensional. A concept encompasses multiple elements; and the tighter its screws are, the better. A concept needs to be intentional, comprehensive and with purpose, and it ought to have a relationship to the audience. We need to be thought-provoked about whatever symbolism it suggests, curious about where it was inspired from, or at least realize that we don’t remember seeing anything like it before.
After a tiresome browse through the World Wide Web, along with invaluable help from my good friend Inyoung Kim (if you’re reading this, thank you!), I’ve decided on five of what I believe are some prime illustrations. As always, keep in mind that this list isn’t exhaustive, because ‘creativity’ may very well be ‘each to her own’; but I think we can all agree there’s no reason Crayon Pop’s ‘Bar Bar Bar’ should be included in anyone’s list. Like ever.
This was confusing. (Courtesy of Sony Music Ent. Korea & VEVO)
Shinhwa – ‘This Love’
(Courtesy of SHINHWA Company)
Album: XI The Classic
Released May 2013
With ‘This Love’, the legendary, longest-running group Shinhwa does what is unprecedented in K-pop, particularly for male idols: voguing, or vogue dance. Originating in Harlem’s ballrooms in the 1980s and popularized a decade later by Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, this choreography style emulates moves and poses from the fashion runway. It’s essentially a combination of fluidity and crispness, leading many to see it as ‘femme’ more than anything.
Yet this is exactly why ‘This Love’ makes an amazing presentation. Rather than coupling this Euro-synth dance track with conventionally ‘masculine’ moves, Shinhwa embraces the elegance, sensuality and sophistication voguing emphasizes as the very expression of both their ‘manliness’ and ‘maturity’ as thirty-year-olds who would’ve otherwise moved on from the industry. The decision to integrate voguing says something about the group’s intentions to keep up with the times, but still retaining the same touch of originality and boldness that has kept them going for the past fifteen years.
After School – ‘첫 사랑 First Love’
(Courtesy of Pledis Entertainment)
Album: The 6th Maxi Single [First Love]
Released June 2013
Speaking of sensuality, After School’s ‘First Love’ delivers a whole lot of it and more through the delicacy of the track and the intensity of its performance. I’m talking about its choreography, which the group asks us to call ‘pole art’ in order to disassociate them from strippers and showgirls. Personally, I would’ve preferred it if they joined the movement to redefine the ideas of pole-dancing, but let’s save that talk for another day.
The group admitted that it took a month to merely balance themselves on the poles, and six more to master the entire dance. In that case, far beyond the possibility of a mixed reception from their audience, performing on poles requires the flexibility, strength, endurance and grace many of us can only dream of. And strangely, in the bigger picture, it works. This acrobatic display combined with the song’s slow and tender arrangement unites to create that certain intimacy akin to what one experiences with their ‘first love’.
On top of it all, to sing live? Evidently ‘First Love’ was not an easy feat, and I have nothing but admiration for After School for a stage we barely see, if not ever, in K-pop.
Lee Jung Hyun – ‘와 Wa/Come’
(Courtesy of MBC TV)
Album: Let’s Go My Star
Released October 1999
It’s inevitable that the pursuit for unconventionality in music will lead us back in time. The year is 1999 and soloist Lee Jung Hyun debuts with a dance track ‘Come’, stunning the nation with heavy techno pulses and onstage visuals so idiosyncratic you would think she was Lady Gaga’s muse.
At first glance, it’s difficult to pinpoint what ‘Come’ is all about. For her performances, Lee dons a gown reminiscent of the flowing robes worn by Korean shamans, a regal headdress or hair adornments, handles a huge fan and, finally, wears a microphone on her pinky. You heard right. Moreover, I can’t tell how much of the dancing is choreographed or if Lee is following a more natural range of motion. With that said, I understand that ‘Come’ may be a confusing pick, but the crux of the matter is the time of its release.
The ‘techno’ thing was just getting hot in Korea, and what made Lee stand out from the rest was her novel take on the style. She combines the old and new in both sight and sound, and even mixes in hints of fantasy (bluntly placed, I feel like I’m watching a theatrical spin-off from Mortal Kombat. A more-toned down and less violent version, of course). The timelessness of ‘Come’ is self-evident of how fans loved it back then; and as for the finger mic, it just adds to its distinctiveness so much that I’m not surprised any of her successors braved to follow her footsteps.
Gain – ‘돌이킬 수 없는 Irreversible’
(Courtesy of Nega Network)
Album: Step 2/4
Released October 2010
Gain of Brown Eyed Girls has been making herself known as a performer of more mature content. Her most recent works ‘Bloom’ and ‘Fxxk U’ garnered attention for conceptualizing seasoned experiences of sexuality, and the good and bad of love; but I believe she outdid herself from the very beginning with her solo debut ‘Irreversible’.
Telling a tale of an abandoned woman’s slow mental and emotional degradation, the difference between this track and others of similar taste is how Gain treats it as something more than just a topic. She takes it beyond a music video narrative and embodies it fully via the song’s texture, her dance, her onstage demeanor and visuals. I’m especially intrigued by the integration of tango into the song and choreography – tango is often thought of as a dance heavy with lust and connection between the partners, catalyzed by the signature ‘embrace’. Gain sort of flips this on its head, and while still impassioned, expresses the total opposite: separation, hysteria and anguish. Kindling the symbolism even more is her eye makeup and the fact she dances barefoot on stage (which should’ve been a hotter topic that Sunmi’s ’24 Hours’ simply because she did it first).
The result is a theatrical and emotionally charged presentation, so charged that Gain had to modify the climax of the choreography into something ‘less violent’ for television. She still pulled it off, so whatever.
VIXX – ‘저주인형 Voodoo Doll’
(Courtesy of Jellyfish Entertainment)
Released November 2013
Gain’s ‘Irreversible’ is a quality example of ‘performing a concept’ emotionally. VIXX, on the other hand, are the kings when it comes to ‘performing’ technically. In my totally unbiased opinion, no K-pop group today does it like them when it comes to the mechanical cohesion and delivery of a concept. In other words, the evident idea and vibe of ‘Voodoo Doll’ is literally captured in all aspects of its production and performance: the music video, the onstage aesthetics, the song’s orchestration, its lyrical content and symbolism, and even the choreography, making for a meticulously organized, seriously well-packaged concept.
But the best part of everything is the dance. With the help of minimal props, the choreography integrates everything relevant to images of voodoo. Notice the most overt, like the stabbing, the puppet-like limpness and angularity of certain moves. Notice the subtleties, like the allusion to one’s limbs being controlled by another, the infliction of pain and its indirect reception. In the larger picture, the entire dance is essentially the continual exchange between the ‘stabber’, the ‘doll’, and the ‘victim’.
I don’t know about you guys, but the sheer fact that the concept is evoked by even the smallest components blows my mind (even their hair color is the same!!); and to date, I have yet to see any other performer dish out something of similar keenness for detail.
Now I want to ask you – which concepts do you feel were superbly executed, unique, or ought to be left at the bottom of the ‘reject’ pile to gather dust and never to be touched again? Scroll down and comment away!
Disclaimer: The opinions shared in this article are solely those of the author’s and not ATK as a whole.