When we think of K-pop, we mostly picture flashy cinematography, seamless choreography, and the catchy rhythms we’ve come to know and love. To some, traditional Korean culture and values can seem worlds away when compared to what we see in popular music videos. However, these K-pop songs prove that blending traditional Korean culture with modern elements creates a unique sound people of all ages can enjoy.
- "One of These Nights" - Red Velvet
Red Velvet’s 2016 title track release “One Of These Nights” doesn’t appear to incorporate traditional elements on the surface, but during promotions, Red Velvet member Wendy revealed the music video follows the storyline of the traditional Korean folktale of star-crossed lovers Gyeonwoo and Jiknyeo.
According to Seoul Beats, the story is about Jiknyeo, the daughter of a king in heaven, who descends to Earth to visit for one day. She meets Gyeonwoo, an orphaned cow herder, and they fall in love. Jiknyeo secretly decides to stay on Earth and marry Gyeonwoo, but eventually, the Jade Emperor finds out and separates them. When they part, the couple cries with so much sorrow that magpies felt compelled to form the Ojakgyo Bridge, a bridge across the Milky Way, for the lovers to meet once a year.
This folktale is the inspiration behind the annual Chilseok festival in Korea on July 7th, and the Korean title of Red Velvet’s song is a reference to this festival. The lyrics of the song describe a longing for reunion, beautifully capturing the sorrow of leaving and the glimmer of hope to meet again.
- "LALALAY" - Sunmi
Sunmi incorporated some of these traditional elements on her most recent comeback, “LALALAY.” Fans with a keen ear will notice the presence of traditional Korean wind instruments within the chorus of the song.
These wind instruments carry the main melody and are infused beautifully with dance-hall inspired beats that make a unique and stellar title track. But of course, uniqueness and excellence is something Sunmi has been praised for since her solo career began with her hit songs “24 Hours” and “Full Moon.”
- "Ddaeng" and "IDOL" - BTS
BTS have had their fair share of traditional elements incorporated into their music in recent years. After their skyrocketing success abroad and subsequent overseas schedules, songs such as “IDOL” and “Ddaeng” prove to the world that BTS has not lost touch with their Korean roots.
“Ddaeng” is an unofficial song written and composed by BTS members RM, Suga, and J-Hope released. It was released in 2018 for BTS Festa, an annual event that celebrates BTS’ anniversary.
Much of the melody of this cypher-style track is comprised of traditional Eastern-style instruments that strengthen the overall meaning of the song, which showcases BTS’ success in the face of adversity.
During a live performance of “Ddaeng,” RM, Suga, and J-Hope wore long jackets and loose pants in a hanbok style while RM carried a folding fan to tie into the vibe of the song.
Another example of BTS’ relationship with traditional Korean aesthetics and sound would be their title track “IDOL.” The music video features an abundance of references to Korean myths and folklore as well as other intricacies that non-Korean fans may not pick up on originally. The members can yet again be seen wearing hanbok in some scenes in the video. YouTuber DKDKTV explains the hidden meanings throughout the music video from a Korean perspective.
One of the most notable live performances of "IDOL" was at the 2018 Melon Music Awards, which featured all the elements of traditional Korean culture including folding fans and plenty of traditional-style hanboks. For a unique twist, each member of the group showcased a different style of traditional dance.
J-Hope started the intro with 북춤, bukchum, a traditional drum dance, Jimin showcased 부채춤, buchaechum, a traditional fan dance, Jungkook gave us 탈춤, talchum, a traditional mask dance with ribbons, and the intro ended with a 농악, nongak, dance performance, which is classified as a style of pungmul (풍물) dance which was popular among traditional farming culture.
BTS carried out the remainder of the performance, dressed in hanbok along with their backup dancers, showcasing how traditional Korean culture can be incorporated in a modern entertainment setting.
- "Shangri-La" by VIXX
VIXX’s 2017 comeback title track “Shangri-La” is full of traditional Korean influence in both the song and music video, showcasing an electrifying chorus with snippets of traditional Eastern instruments in between verses.
The music video features scenes with the moon present in the background, a significant symbol in many traditional Korean tales; as well as a solo dance break by VIXX member N after the first chorus, where he can be seen doing a traditional dance with a long, sheer, black ribbon.
Throughout the music video, the members pose in gorgeous, flowing hanboks of various colors and materials. During the dance sequences, they wear hanbok with a more modern appeal. To top it all off, folding fans were incorporated into the choreography for a more traditional yet dramatic appeal.
Due to the popularity of these songs, we can anticipate that more Korean acts will produce or incorporate more content that pays homage to their roots. For international fans, it could be beneficial to read up on traditional Korean culture such as music style, clothing, and symbolism to get a better understanding of the meaning behind these songs and performances.
Let us know in the comments which traditional elements included in these songs were your favorite!
Written by Justine Shaffer