I like K-pop storytelling, actually

There are problems, but as a lifelong fantasy and sci-fi lover, I'll take all the engaging narratives and theories you give me

On Sunday night, November 27, I was at one of the most popular venues in the Tri-State NY area for a K-pop concert, the Prudential Center. Since I moved back to NY from Hong Kong back in March, I’ve been to the venue several times, including for NCT 127, Blackpink, and Stray Kids concerts.

None of the previous ones had pirate ships, though.

ATEEZ didn’t actually bring a whole pirate ship, for the record, but it felt that way based on cool CGI and staging fixtures.

While ostensibly a great asset for a concert experience it, like a variety of other props and flags featured throughout the night, tied into the whimsical, pirate-y story ATEEZ has featured in their releases over the years. (Kate Halliwell at the Ringer wrote a feature on it earlier this year' that’s a fun read for those who are interested.)

ATEEZ are pirates, that’s just a fact to their fans, with even their lightsticks arriving in cardboard treasure boxes.

They also may be the Lost Boys led by leader Hongjoong’s Peter Pan, it’s unclear. That’s for you to decide, and that’s really intentional.

Taking on an identity like this may sound unfamiliar for casual K-pop fans, or anyone new to the rabbit hole that is being a K-pop fan. But ATEEZ’s pirates, or lost boys, are just one in a bevvy of character narratives K-pop acts have pulled upon themselves, with creative teams behind them crafting stories ranging from otherworldly (EXO, BAP) to supernatural and fantastical (TXT, Le Sserafim, Enhypen, WJSN),  to virtual reality (aespa). Dreams and reality are explored by others, a reoccuring theme in NCT’s various units, and Dreamcatcher’s nightmare series. At this point, universes abound, like BTS’s BU and the Loonaverse.

I’m just reeling off a handful, and I’m 110% missing some. Please drop the honorable mentions in the comments, I clearly have some homework to do!

But if you know a single one of these, you probably know what I’m talking about: the mythologizing of K-pop stars and their music. It’s like the grandeur of epic poetry reinvented for the chaotic flow of content in the Tiktok era; you may not listen to one storyteller sharing a tale, but you’ll likely notice the tale among the stories.

Nowadays, companies like Hybe (BTS, TXT, Le Sserafim etc.) and SM (NCT, Aespa, Red Velvet etc.) are dedicating immense energy and creativity to creating these stories, as they are very marketable IP.

They are also a lot of fun, which is why this week’s newsletter is a defense of them, after hearing from too many friends that they’re over some of the intense dedication to some band and brand’s efforts at creating an engaging narrative via music, videos and more.

I’m often asked to define K-pop, which is so complex of a question I usually sidestep it (yes, this is a question that keeps me up late at night). But one thing that certainly is an identifiable element of K-pop is the audio-visual factor, with performances and music videos valued just as much the music. By sprinkling repeated narrative bites across medium, audiences are left wanting more, returning to discover the end of the story and, in many instances, to theorize.

You can also ignore it, or not even be aware of it. That’s fine too, it’s just engaging one-off pieces of content. Second generation K-pop artists often did in fact do just one-off concepts, most notably VIXX. (In general, plots were more straightforward in that era though, which may actually have shifted due partially to this whole storytelling, theorizing-able, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit to that theory 100%.)

As a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan, who has spent years (decades sometimes!) waiting for a new book or TV show or film, or a creator to comment on some plot point, this is all brilliant to me. That’s essentially what these companies and creatives are trying to do, and do it via music. Pop artists have done it for ages - think of Bowie and all his personas - but this just feels more expansive, often set off on day -1 of a K-pop star or group’s career. I love it, this is literally built for fiction and, especially, fantasy and sci-fi lovers, who are primed for this sort of multi-faceted narratives.

The difference, of course, is that these are less like straightforward stories in most instances and more like an esoteric choose-your-own-plot stories, based less on actually what’s being presented and more what you, or your fandom’s, creative minds come up with. It’s not quite immersive theater, but the reliance on fan engagement, and often interpretation, is at the very least immersive cross-literature analysis, K-pop style.

For all of you haters out there, don’t worry, I see and respect your opinion: I will be the first to admit that I think at times some storytelling and narratives in K-pop aren’t succesful. Some ideas are dropped too quickly, or drag on too long, or simply are not narratively defined as much as they could be, either by intention or lack of planning. Sometimes things don’t work out simply because of real-life issues impacting an act. But I think that all of the difficulties and naysayers don’t mean it’s not worth attempting when it comes to elevating art and engaging audiences.

Listening to - Red Velvet’s The ReVe Festival 2022 - Birthday  EP

Just a note

As I edit this week’s edition of Notes on K-pop, an interesting situation is taking place as the majority of Loona’s members reportedly are attempting to break their contracts with Blockberry Creative after the company ousted Chuu from the group. It’s the latest move in ongoing discord between Chuu and Blockberry, following a lawsuit earlier this year and reports that Chuu, a popular star reportedly being mismanaged by Blockberry, was seeking to cancel her contract with the company. To many, the members attempting this is a sign of solidarity, and an attempt to get what they deserve, especially after allegations that they haven’t been paid.

As this is currently breaking, I didn’t write about it for this week, but may address it in a later piece, as 2022 has seen a variety of situations (including Omega X’s, discussed in last week’s edition) that seem to show a shift in the industry this year, where K-pop groups are fighting and speaking up for themselves in a variety of ways.