Dimension-hopping pirates. Super-powered aliens. Fairies who’ve lost their wings. Spiders trapping people in nightmares. Gods, goddesses, existential crises and time-travel…
If the western music industry is, depending on who you ask, a precarious, bleak landscape in which young musicians are as starved of funds as they are of ideas, there’s one place that is its polar opposite. K‑pop, by contrast, is a playground for the imaginative, bankrolled by deep-pocketed entertainment companies willing to indulge artists in all kinds of fan-serviced projects.
And nowhere is that ambition more apparent than in bands’ high-concept, epically interlinked – not to mention bonkers – ideas for their music videos.
Earthbound fairies and arachnophobia are just some of the narrative backbones within the DNA of a growing number of idol groups (a term given to Korean pop groups formed by entertainment agencies). Their storylines not only inform music videos but also photoshoots, lyrics, album art, VCRs (videos shown in concerts, often containing easter eggs) and even episodic webtoons.
Over the past decade, this creative strategy has built universes that rival Marvel and Star Wars, deepening the staunchly loyal connection between fans and K‑pop idols, while also helping to open up K‑pop globally.
And in the pursuit of those easter eggs, powered by their determination to unravel the visual mysteries of their favourite acts, K‑pop fans’ sleuthing skills are second to none. FBI? Sherlock Holmes? They could never. While bands like TXT or EXO can be thoroughly appreciated without having to decode their work, it’s damn hard to beat the dizzying endorphin rush of connecting all those subtle hints and clues across their videos.
“These storylines contribute to creating an identity and aesthetic that’s unique to each group,” says Rome-based Gaia, 33. She runs Bookish Theories, a YouTube channel where she dissects music videos and trailers for multiple K‑pop groups, examining how each new release advances a band’s story arc. Gaia started kickstarted the channel in 2019, with a breakdown of BTS’ Jimin’s Serendipity. “It’s especially useful considering the high number of groups debuting in the last few years,” Gaia adds. “It’s important to find a way to catch the attention of the audience and leave a lasting impression.”
Gaia is far from the only K‑pop fan sharing their theories online. As groups’ story arcs grow increasingly complex, a digital cottage industry of analysis has sprung up with fandoms seeking to decode the hidden messages in each release.
“Narrative can be used from a surface-level viewpoint, and from one with deeper or dual meaning,” says 27-year-old, Tokyo-based YouTuber Laina Sunflower. “It also gives freedom to talk about issues with society or within the industry.”
She references the music video for TXT’s (Tomorrow x Together) Sugar Rush Ride. At first, it seems as though the band are simply shipwrecked on an enchanted island – which is, obviously, fantastical enough. But to Laina, its deeper meaning is the social critique within the song’s existing lyrical framework of desire and sensuality.
“Giving into the instant gratification of the internet and its illusion of fulfilment is much like the lies hidden on the island they’re lured to in their storyline. It’s not real life, and [it] will eventually fall out from under you,” she says. “Dig a little deeper and the storyline reveals exciting information that connects to so much else [they’ve done], while also conveying a meaningful message. That’s what makes storylines so appealing.”
The roots of these narratives lie in what was once known as “drama versions” of music videos, which were popular in early 2010s and often featured toxic relationships, wild nights out or gangsters. Take TVXQ’s 16-minute Before You Go, for example. But long-form storytelling in K‑pop, as we know it today, was born with the 2012 arrival of SM Entertainment’s 12-member boy group, EXO.
Accompanied by two prologue music videos and a six-minute cinematic MV for MAMA, they set up an origins story of – deep breath – the band landing on Earth from a distant planet, with each member possessing a superpower gifted by the Tree of Life, which they protect from falling into the hands of the Red Force. Like most things new and experimental, it drew mixed reactions from the fiercely partisan K‑pop community.
Sarah (29, Kuala Lumpur), Kate (27, Philippines) and Valentina (29, Jakarta) run the biggest EXO fan account on Twitter, EXOGlobal. While Kate was immediately intrigued by MAMA, for Valentina the story’s finely threaded detail and breadth meant it took, rather startlingly, “one-to-two years to really understand the concept”. Sarah also recalls not being immediately attracted to the story: “I remember the concept was met with a lot of sceptics, including me. But EXO maintained their narrative, the motifs were more subtly incorporated, and fans got more into analysing them.”
Then there’s K‑pop juggernauts BTS, who debuted with 2 Cool 4 Skool, the first instalment of their School trilogy, featuring spoken-word skits and tracks that took shots at South Korea’s competitive education system. BTS’s urbanism and EXO’s high fantasy put them at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both bands’ creative and commercial successes in the mid-2010s spawned a narrative boom in K‑Pop between 2015 and 2018. What once looked to be a trend became an evolving art form, seeking to go beyond pop’s default love and heartbreak setting. Or, at the very least, give it a fresh spin.
Over the years, other groups’ trilogies have explored subjects like high school, boyhood, Greek mythology, death and time constructs, horror, grief, and rebellion. Even the time-consuming project of creating origin stories for bands has remained, with groups like LOONA and their LOONAVERSE, Kingdom’s historical fantasy storyline, and one of the biggest girl groups in recent years, aespa, whose 2020 debut was shared with their AI avatars from another dimension.
For both casual and hardcore fans, all of this can be… a lot to take in. “Every release essentially builds upon a story, so trying to catch up can be really overwhelming. Sometimes it’s overwhelming for me,” says Laina Sunflower.
The origin story of TXT, one of her favourite bands, began in 2019 when its four members were between 16 and 18. Their multi-layered, multi-dimensional coming-of-age tale has (so far) unfolded across five Korean EPs and two studio albums, three Japanese releases, and two ultra extended music videos. So labyrinthine has the TXT universe (known as The Star Seekers) become, that Laina’s explainers sometimes clock in at over 20 minutes. “I spent 40 hours working on an explanation for Eternally,” she says. “The first two days were simply script work. It took me about two hours to record, the rest was editing alone.”
One of the biggest challenges of K‑pop’s hard lean into narrative-led pop, then, has been keeping fans engaged in the storyline, without going so far as to alienate newcomers. By the late 2010’s, for example, EXO’s story was becoming less linear, more enigmatic and more challenging to piece together. The band then switched things up. In came the hyper-coloured visuals and satisfying kitsch of 2017’s Kokobop and Power, which appealed to fans whether they were following the story or not, before plunging into the dark EXODEUX era with 2019’s Obsession. It was, Sarah considers, a smart move.
“[Entertainment] agencies must figure out a way to maintain the narrative in subsequent releases but in a way that doesn’t restrict future direction of the group,” she says. “In my opinion, an ambiguous storyline works best if the group already has some form of narrative established in their other releases, so fans have a greater time drawing connections, parallels and theories.”
BTS, on the other hand, doubled down, evolving and vastly expanding what’s officially called their BU (BTS Universe) story into 2016’s WINGS album (influenced by Herman Hesse’s 1919 novella, Demian). It came with seven short films, a comeback trailer and the single Blood Sweat & Tears. Like we said: a lot.
But for 30-year-old, Las Vegas-based Rosan (known as xCeleste on YouTube), a stalwart of BTS’s ARMY fanbase, the WINGS era remains a personal favourite. “The visuals and meaning of each short, and the easter eggs, was insane. Demian was about a young boy who struggles in an immoral world, caught between good and evil. This was something not only the characters in BTS’s fictional story were going through but it was relatable. In life, you experience the loss of innocence and the hardship of reality. Not only were they growing as artists but they were also growing as humans alongside their fans, ARMY.”
And Rosan’s on hand to help ARMY newcomers make sense of all. Having begun by making reaction videos, she turned her hand to explainers in 2017. “I started out by sharing my theories when I realised how confusing everything sounded, especially if you were a new fan. I figured collecting all the information, creating a script and compiling clips would help fans understand better,” she says. “It was really fun trying to piece everything together with others, [and] we’d theorise together online, which made every comeback or clips released even more exciting.”
Since then, entertainment agencies big and small have continued to refine the storytelling process. And by “refine”, we mean pursue a “more is more” strategy. HYBE (the conglomerate born from the success of BTS) is currently, and arguably, its most ambitious player. Take Le Sserafim’s recent Burn The Bridge, a spectacular, partially-futuristic trailer that preceded their debut album UNFORGIVEN (the final piece of their first trilogy). In it, the five members traverse a desert, a kitchen, a hotel and a beach, while all around them things – angel wings, books, a tree – burn.
Similarly, HYBE’s young boy group Enhypen’s latest album DARK BLOOD came with glossy concept teasers in line with their vampire webtoon DARK MOON: The Blood Alter, while appearing to pay homage to numerous movie aesthetics, including Blade and Let the Right One In. The album has since shot to No. 2 in the US charts and, as of writing, #enhypendarkblood has over 65.9 million views on TikTok. Meanwhile #lesserafimunforgiven has racked up 126.4 million views, as fans made edits, created vibey cultural mashups and shared theories.
“I immediately think of the sense of community these stories help develop,” Gaia says. “K‑pop fandoms are already known for their dedication and involvement, but storylines contribute, too. People talking about them boosts engagement, raises expectations, encourages conversation and creates friendships.”
Are your eyes watering at the very thought of dipping into this K‑pop visual multiverse? Don’t worry, the community gets it. “Not everyone will love the idea of a continuous narrative – some people just like the story condensed into one, maybe two music videos,” says Laina. “Maybe they don’t want to be that invested in a group. Maybe they don’t have time. Maybe it’s not their style. This is perfectly understandable, it’s not for everyone. But what is, really?”
It might not be for everyone but it’s certainly working. It was the empathetic, empowering stories and intricately executed content that helped BTS become global megastars, with multiple US No. 1’s on the album and singles charts. ATEEZ’s visually arresting, feverishly entertaining tale of rebellion is an integral part of their journey from small label rookies to selling out North American and European arenas. And aespa’s meta approach of traditional good vs evil-meets-tech futurism has caught music fans’ attention and curiosity, helping turn them into multi-million album sellers.
Now, as a new generation of story-focused idol bands set and break records, and the creative stakes grow higher, the question directed at K‑pop’s continued success should shift away from “How?”, and focus on “Where – and what – next?” In a cultural landscape where songs are being written specifically for TikTok and rappers (OK, just Drake) are dropping poetry slicked with cringe, the artful, carefully plotted escapism of K‑pop music videos is exactly the wonderland fans need right now.
“I’ll never forget the elation TXT’s Magic Island (2019) brought me,” says Laina. “And I don’t think I’ll ever forget how incredible the community was during that time. It’s one of my favourite memories.”