Propelled by the enormous global fan bases of groups like Blackpink and BTS, K-pop music videos dominate view rankings on YouTube. These productions are shaping a new “feast-for-the-eyes” genre that entices astronomical numbers of viewers with ingenious concepts, dazzling costumes and sets, and captivating performances.
To say K-pop music videos lead online entertainment in the number of views hardly describes the degree of their popularity around the world. Consider the video for “How You Like That,” the hit single by Blackpink, the current No. 1 K-pop girl group. On September 8, 2020, the video reached 500 million YouTube views, matching in just 73 days the number of views the group’s 2019 “KILL THIS LOVE” music video achieved in 106 days.
The race to that new record time started immediately upon the video’s release. Thirty-two hours later, “How You Like That” had 100 million views, setting a new YouTube record and earning five Guinness World Record titles. The group’s next milestone is for an astonishing 1.4 billion views, reached in November 2020 with “DDU-DU DDU-DU.” This is a first for a K-pop group act, surpassing the 1 billion views of “DNA” by BTS, the current top K-pop boy band.
To put into context the dominance of K-pop videos, consider that outside of Korea the nominal dream of popular music artists is 1 million online views. Certainly, Blackpink and BTS benefit from their millions of fans worldwide (who may watch a video repeatedly) and exposure from worldwide tours. But other K-pop groups are no shirks. Their minimum target for a single video is 100 million views.
Blackpink pose in the closing scene of the music video for “DDU-DU DDU-DU,” the lead single of their first EP, “Square Up,” released in June 2018. The video reached 1.4 billion YouTube views on November 23, 2020, the highest ever in the history of K-pop.
The music video for “How You Like That,” the 2016 hit single by Blackpink, coupled the song’s powerful beat and the group’s dazzling moves to set a new world record for the fastest 100 million YouTube views.
The first K-pop music video to achieve 100 million views was “Gee,” the hit single by Girls’ Generation. Released in January 2009, it surpassed the 9-digit mark in April 2013, a slow ascent compared to today’s hyper-fast view count pace. But that was just the beginning.
At the time, K-pop had been slowly gaining a following in overseas markets and the rise of visual language accelerated this momentum. Idol groups, such as BIGBANG, EXO, Seventeen and Twice, were the key drivers of K-pop’s nascent global popularity, alongside major solo acts including G-Dragon, Taeyang, HyunA, Taeyeon and IU. Reaching the 100 million mark has since become a symbolic indicator of a K-pop song’s popularity.
The Korean pop industry first began to place greater emphasis on music videos in the early 1980s. The launch of the U.S. cable music channel MTV in 1981 hooked global pop music fans on visual images that accompanied their favorite music. It was as if the lyrics of the British pop song “Video Killed the Radio Star” were coming alive.
The “visualization of sound,” which until then had only been imagined, transformed the pop music landscape. MTV videos featuring flashy, provocative images 24/7 quickly became a prominent medium in the pop music industry. They were central to the success of 1980s pop culture icons Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. Likewise, British acts like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Eurythmics, characterized by distinctive visuals and musical styles, rose to global stardom on the back of their music videos. Ever since, music videos have become de rigueur for musicians.
Today, 40 years on, K-pop is the biggest beneficiary of the convergence of visual images and music. Entertainment agencies stress the importance of visuals, making sure the groups they back include at least one member with stunning looks or amazing dance skills. First-generation idol groups, such as H.O.T., S.E.S., Fin.K.L and Sechs Kies, rode the early wave of music that is “pleasing to the eye,” coming out with eye-grabbing music videos.
In the beginning, these videos featured one-dimensional images that mesmerized viewers instantly. They consisted of sensuous shots that captured and accentuated each member’s strengths, such as through close-ups of a member’s face or dance moves. Over time, these videos gradually began to incorporate storylines that narrated the experiences of group members or conveyed a message to their generation, some notable examples being H.O.T.’s “Hope” and Fin.K.L’s “Now.” These dramatized music videos were the prevailing format until 2012, when boy band EXO introduced “worldview” music videos, which based a narrative or message on an entire album rather than just a single song.
The band’s concept featured the idols as beings from another world outside our solar system – a so-called “exoplanet.” Computer graphics were used to depict the members’ superpowers, and myriad cutting-edge visual content, including scores of teasers, was created to portray the group’s “parallel world,” which included a tree of life and two suns in a story so profound and abstruse that fans joked about the need to return to university and major in EXO to understand their alternative reality.
The music video for “DNA,” the lead single from BTS’ EP, “LOVE YOURSELF: Her,” reached 1 billion YouTube views on June 1, 2020, nearly three years after debuting. The video depicts the moment of falling in love with bright, vibrant colors and cool, crisp images.
Music videos have similarly played a vital role in conveying BTS’ worldview and narrative concept, as in the case of their “youth series” albums released between 2015 and 2016 – “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1,” “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2” and “EPILOGUE: Young Forever” – that propelled the group to international stardom.
From the outset, Blackpink has projected a feisty image in their music videos, starting with “Whistle” and “Boombayah” from their debut single album. This image comprises two facets. One is of cool and hip musicians, common characteristics among artists from their agency YG Entertainment, a company that attracted many overseas fans long before the so-called “K-pop invasion.” The second element is the quartet’s strong presence as trend-setting fashionistas and powerful influencers with a huge number of global followers.
K-pop music videos have transcended their role as visuals accompanying music; it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that they have become a self-contained medium, spurring structural changes in the global music market. After Psy’s megahit song “Gangnam Style” went viral on YouTube in 2012 and its signature horse dance swept the world, the Billboard Hot 100 began factoring YouTube music video views into its chart rankings. This has proved a tremendous boon for K-pop artists seeking to make forays into the American market.
The phenomenal global success of K-pop, however, entails a formidable challenge. Korean music video producers share the common task of swiftly catching onto trends and staying a step ahead to create original and innovative content with a sophistication that has never before been attempted. This intense pressure carries the risk of indiscriminate plagiarism and cultural appropriation or misunderstanding, which can trigger an onslaught of criticism.
These are issues that should not be taken lightly as K-pop music videos continue to set new records, and especially because the genre now stands at a new threshold.
K-pop music videos have transcended their role as visuals accompanying music; it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that they have become a self-contained medium, spurring structural changes in the global music market.
EXO appears in the music video for “Power,” the title track of its studio album “The Power of Music.” EXO was among the first K-pop acts to create music videos presenting a narrative of the performers or the universal message of an entire album.
The music video for “Tempo,” the lead track on EXO’s studio album “DON’T MESS UP MY TEMPO.” The group introduced the concept of a “worldview,” which included fantasy elements such as a parallel world and supernatural powers.
Rapper G-Dragon appears in the music video for “Crooked,” the lead track of his 2013 album “COUP D’ETAT.” Filmed in London and released on the same day as the album, the video hit 100 million YouTube views in January 2017. G-Dragon’s fashion style attracted as much attention as his music.