How come K-pop music videos are so great? This question has boggled scientists (me) for years (about a month), and to find the answer I decided to dig deep. During an intense month I watched all music videos by over 100 K-pop girl groups (around a third of all of them, according to the K-pop database “Daisuki”) in search for what makes them so especially entertaining, impressive and visually pleasing compared to their Western counterparts, and what I realized makes them stand out is their visual complexity, their fast pace, their obsession with perfection, their high budgets which lets them be non-compromising, and their constant focus on humans and faces. But I also found that these surface-level characteristics pale in comparison to the personalities and creativity of the videos. That’s a short summary for y’all, now let’s dig into the long story (also, check out the top 100 list I made simultaneously to this process!).
Visual complexity is what the Youtuber “Olufemii” (whose video inspired me to write this text) claims is making K-pop videos stand out, and it basically means that your eyes never get tired of watching them because there’s so much visual stuff happening. In each video you’ll see a bunch of different looks, because it’s shot in a bunch of different-looking locations, and every corner of each frame is planned down to detail, both in composition, coloring, lighting, etc (which Olufemii goes into more detail on in the linked video), and I would say that the use of multiple shooting locations is particularly characteristic for K-pop. Not because they’re the only ones doing it, but because of how much they do it. You rarely see a high-budget K-pop video being shot at only one place, more often they’re like this, where you get three completely different looks (or settings, or environment, or whatever they should be called) – yellow room, pink room and toilet room – in only ten seconds of the video. It’s hard to get bored watching these kinds of videos, because when you do, the video re-grabs your attention by switching to a new location and look.
And in each of these different sections there are lots of clips. New clips come constantly and they’re in all kinds of angles and zoom levels. Not just one. K-pop rarely sticks to just one type of shot in general, because K-pop is not a genre of compromises. Think of every way you can frame a shot and they’ll have them all nicely distributed throughout the video. You never see a K-pop video getting conceptual around film-technical stuff like only zooming in on faces or only using zoomed-out environment shots, for example. All videos are like this, where you get to see the girls in Girls’ Generation from all kinds of distances in a short amount of time:
Apart from being visually complex, K-pop videos are also visually fast. Which means the wide variety of things inside a K-pop video (clips, settings, zoom-levels, etc) get switched between in a fast pace. You’re rarely left in the same place for long before you get thrown away to something else, and even if you stay in the same clip for a while, the actual happenings in the clip are probably also fast (like the dancing, singing, or whatever else the artists are doing in the moment). The fast transitions, camera movements, zoom-ins and -outs and the general feeling of intensity is a K-pop trademark that you can see here being taken to an extreme. They’re not all like this, but they’re all like this to some degree:
K-pop videos are also visually perfect, or flawless. All surfaces are perfectly lit and all artists look perfect, nothing in any frame of any clip is being left to chance, and the different clips also seem to be perfectly planned and distributed. No clips are better or worse than each other, they’re all amazing! This perfectionism goes through all parts of K-pop (I have for example never heard a badly or lazily mixed K-pop song), everything just has insane production quality, probably thanks to the high budgets. Just listen to the rapper Juni J before and after she became a signed K-pop artist, she’s making Korean music in both cases but she only does K-pop in the second example, because of the higher production value.
Another typical K-pop thing is the choreographed group dancing, but I doubt people love K-pop because of this, I think it’s just something they culturally do. Another thing is the super-common close-up of member’s face. Seeing a cute/cool/attractive member’s face makes that member’s fans happy, and sometimes they don’t even do anything in the shot except looking into the camera totally still without context. Like a way of saying: “This is me. Here I am. Look at how cool I look.” These close-ups are frequent in almost all kinds of K-pop videos and show the genre’s heavy focus on humans and faces. No matter what you say, the humans (the artists) are the main focus of K-pop and not the music. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a K-pop video without people in it, and very few that don’t constantly highlight them. And if something else than a person would be shown on screen for a second, it would quickly switch back to the person as soon as possible, because that’s what people (me) want.
Just like music videos in general, K-pop videos don’t really use narrative and storytelling as much as traditional movies do, they’re more like a bunch of random clips thrown together to look cool for three minutes. Or? I’d actually argue that the order the visual information is presented in throughout a good K-pop video creates some kind of narrative. Not all K-pop videos are fun to watch from start to end, some just look good for a few seconds, but if the clips are varied in a way that creates a surprise factor and a depth, it becomes captivating to watch to the end even if there’s no connected story. And no one beats K-pop when it comes to this kind of “visual narrative”.
So… That’s what a K-pop video is! My explanations are general with many exceptions, but the recurring patterns are enough to at least tell something! But can we use this generalized/not generalized description of K-pop to answer the initial question of why K-pop videos are so great? Are these characteristics the single reason to K-pop videos’ greatness, or are they just a bunch of characteristics of K-pop, a genre with a lot of great videos? If you know correlation and causality you may know where I’m going: While some of the reasons I’ve mentioned may be what makes K-pop videos so impressive, some of them may actually also hold them back from being better. Because many things K-pop does are cultural. Like: They dance in big groups because… they just do. They also do things like banning their artists from dating and drinking, and disbanding super-popular groups after less than ten years, in some belief of old people being washed-out (when in reality, do you think committed fans would stop to like their favorite artist just because it turned 30?). After all, K-pop is made by people, and people have a lot of ideas of what’s reasonable to do, and they’re not always reality-based. So, treating all characteristics of K-pop as a predictor to their success is a bad idea. Also, K-pop artists breaking the patterns rather than following them are often more interesting. BLACKPINK, the biggest K-pop girl group of all (at least in 2022), has much in common with the “typical” K-pop group but also stands out a lot, both in language, attitude and musical style. Looking at the biggest K-pop groups, not following the norm seems to lead to success as often as following it. So talking about which patterns make K-pop great when the deviations from the patterns are as many as the evidence for them feels weird.
Or maybe we just have to revalue the model a bit? What if we take a look at some things that can’t be seen but can be felt: Personality and creativity! I believe this is what separates the massive stars from those who are just really great. People comment “I can’t believe how this group hasn’t blown up yet??” on good-looking K-pop videos with a low amount of views, and by that they miss one crucial point: That group didn’t have that little extra. They didn’t have the personality and creativity. They didn’t have that natural talent of being fun, charming, cool and creative while performing, like real superstars have. This explains how a simple and almost home-made looking music video like this one by 2NE1 can be better than most other technically “perfect” music videos. Because 2NE1 are cool:
And I think personality and creativity is a huge part of what makes the videos good. Maybe >70% of it. But personality and creativity is hard to measure, so people don’t talk about it. This text is meant to inspire you to learn from K-pop’s philosophy, but if you only watch the surface you’ll miss 70% of it. This may be the reason why some K-pop groups do everything “right” but still aren’t that good, and some do everything “wrong” and are amazing. Because you can’t copy K-pop without considering the personality and creativity. And if you try to copy the personality and creativity of a one-of-a-kind artist you’re also wrong, because you can’t copy being unique. You can imitate the style of a 2NE1 video, but you can’t copy the starpower of CL. With that said, I want you to be inspired by K-pop, and maybe it’s even better to if you’re in a totally different lane than K-pop or even music. Wanna do something great? Learn from K-pop! Because they know how to do it. Their understanding of how to get your attention and keep it there could be studied by everyone, and their way of going all-in on everything and not choosing between being easily-understandable and artistically unique is really inspiring and questions stubborn beliefs.
The making of a K-pop music video (Youtube documentary)
How K-pop music videos are made / Meet legendary MV maker Zanybros (Youtube video)
Director team discusses making of K-pop music videos (article)
Director behind iconic K-pop music videos (article)