K-pop, Literature & Mythology
K-pop’s newest concepts – Literature and mythology.
K-pop music videos are known for their elaborate and high-budget styles. But with the increasing saturation of such quality, groups may find it difficult to find new ways of showcasing their concepts. One of the ways in which these concepts have manifested is through the influence of literature and mythology.
BTS’s recent comebacks have garnered attention due to many reasons, one of which is their clever use of literary allusions. Fans searched through their bookshelves, and Instiz even reported a sudden rise of book sales upon the release of BTS’s Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Their most recent comeback with Spring Day sees another literary inspiration. This time from Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story – The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The short story opens with the Utopian city of Omelas preparing for the Festival of Summer. Soon, the narrator unveils a secret: for the citizens of Omelas to remain happy, a child must be locked away in a basement underneath the city in perpetual agony.
All the citizens know it is there. This is explained to them from the ages between eight and twelve. Upon witnessing this injustice, the young people often ‘go home in tears, or in a tearless rage [and] may brood over it for weeks or years.’ But they soon come to a realisation, ‘their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.’ They become more compassionate, more gentle with children – ‘there is no vapid, irresponsible happiness’, because they realise they too, like the child, are not free.
Yet there are others who do not return home and weep or rage. Man, woman, old and young – they leave Omelas and they never come back. The narrator muses that ‘the place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.’ And there’s melancholy, maybe a sense of reassurance in that ‘they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.’ It leaves readers questioning: is it better to stay and know, or to walk away carrying the burden of that knowledge?
Perhaps, with the way BTS has approached social issues in their music, and their aim to speak of the challenges that youth faces today, this is just another way of saying that rather than walking away and not doing anything about this injustice, they will, instead, spread this knowledge through their music. If BTS walked away from Omelas in Spring Day, they return with more strength to fight in Not Today. And all through this, all through the journey, and all through these challenges, they reassure their audience that they will ‘never walk alone.’
The use of literary allusions in BTS’s concepts began with their second full length album, WINGS. With the release of Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Rap Monster’s narration of passages from Hermann Hesse’s Demian, fans have been quick to draw parallels between BTS’s music videos and Hesses’s novella.
“There are numerous ways in which God can make us lowly and lead us back to ourselves. This was the way he dealt with me at that time.”
A bildungsroman, Demian follows Emil Sinclair’s growth and journey amidst a Scheinwelt, a play on words that means ‘world of light’ as well as ‘world of illusion’. The novella explores themes of duality, spirituality, and the space between youth and maturity. BTS’s goal is to ‘defend the prejudice and suppression thrown towards the 10s and 20s and protect their musical value with confidence’. It is fitting then that their recent concept would be inspired by a tale of someone, who is attempting to find his place in a constantly changing world.
Other than drawing inspiration from Hesse’s novella, there is also the motif of ‘The Fall’. Throughout the HYYH: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series, BTS explored the freedom but also the struggle of youth. With WINGS, BTS shows the dark side of youth – the fall to temptation. From the beginning of Blood, Sweat and Tears, we see Jin staring at Bruegel’s The Fall of Rebel Angels. We see Jungkook levitate in a room, and behind him hangs Herbert Draper’s The Lament of Icarus. As V jumps off the balcony with a smile, the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus dominates the background.
‘Take care,’ said Daedalus. ‘To fly a middle course, lest if you sink
Too low the waves may weight your feathers; if
Too high, the heat may burn them. Fly half-way
Between the two.’
(Daedalus and Icarus, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Oxford World’s Classics, p.177)
But ‘The Fall’ is not only symbolised through the myth of Icarus. V’s revelation of torn wings is perhaps reminiscent of the Fall of the Rebel Angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This continues from the Demian’s descriptions of Sinclair’s youthful vices as he ‘was forced to recognise the existence of a drive within [him] that had to make itself small and hide form the world of light […] like an enemy terrorist, as something forbidden, tempting and sinful.’ Sinclair even admits ‘once again I belonged entirely to the world of darkness and to the devil.’ Yet, perhaps, it is as Nietzsche says (and this quote can be seen in V’s concept photos as well): ‘You must have chaos within you, to give birth to a dancing star.’ After all, ‘the bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.’ Perhaps, this ‘Fall’ is only a precursor to a rebirth. With the release of Spring Day and Not Today right after Blood, Sweat and Tears, this rebirth takes the form of a renewed vigour, a reawakened drive – a revolution.
Gain’s Paradise Lost, on the other hand, explores a modernised reinterpretation of the tale of Adam and Eve.
Gain’s Paradise Lost deconstructs the grand narrative of the story of Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost. She does this right from the beginning:
The idea of a ‘grand narrative’ was first introduced by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Defined as ‘a representation of a history constructed into a story within a particular ideology,’ they are narratives which attempt to make sense of a chaotic history.
‘They’re talking about a fantasy, they’re making up a story, so that they can control you and me.’
By rewriting the usual reading of Adam and Eve into a tale of two women following the story of their fall from the Garden of Eden as a result of ‘the first temptation’, Gain’s Paradise Lost emphasizes the free will she possessed, and rejects the ‘paradise’ imposed by the society around her. Instead, she beckons those who seek this paradise to look for another where they can be free.
If BTS rallies to fight against the injustice that riddle society, then Gain emphasizes one’s free will to do so. In this sense, both artists embody the idea of fighting for your ‘most beautiful moment in life’, or for that ‘paradise’ you long for.
While both BTS and Gain also explore the theme of duality, VIXX takes the idea of duality on a whole new level. Taking inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the music video for Hyde embodies the very idea of duality.
In the form of a love song, Hyde tells the story of an obsessive love. What’s particularly interesting is the conversational and contradicting nature of the lyrics. ‘Don’t leave (leave me). I love you (no, I hate you)’ – a paradox of personality that the speaker cannot control.
This theme of obsession and jealousy continues with the group’s fifth single album, and the first part of the VIXX 2016 CONCEPTION trilogy, titled Zelos, after the Greek god of jealousy and rivalry. This is followed by Hades (after the Greek god of the Underworld), and Kratos (the Greek god of War). In Fantasy, we see the members appear in a forest, maybe hell, maybe the space in between.
Although the music video description suggests otherwise, the red-tinted aesthetic, eerie smoke, and the presence of an unknown girl and a white door is reminiscent of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In this tale, Eurydice dies as a result of a snake bite. Orpheus descends into the underworld to rescue his wife, wielding only his gift of music. He makes his way across the Stygian realm. He manages to charm Cerberus, before making his request in front of Hades and his wife Persephone. ‘Reweave, I implore, the fate unwound too fast of my Eurydice,’ Orpheus says. He plays his lyre, and persuades the king and queen of Hell to return Eurydice. But under one condition: Orpheus must never look back until they reach the light, otherwise he would lose Eurydice forever. At the last moment, Orpheus turns around. He feared the gods have tricked him for he heard no footsteps following from behind. He turns around just in time to see his wife’s shadow descend back among the dead.
VIXX proves once again their strength in producing elaborate concepts, whether influenced by literature or mythology.
These are may other artists or music videos inspired by literature and mythology. Boy group Boyfriend has ventured into the dark side of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in Bounce. Sunny Hill, on the other hand, draws inspiration from a fable in The Grasshopper Song, and SHINee’s Sherlock … Well, you can easily guess what inspired that one.
With K-pop constantly re-inventing itself, it should be interesting what else the genre will draw inspiration from. Whether from literature or mythology or films, this is surely something K-pop fans can look forward to.