Conceptual continuity – explaining the truth of repeating motifs and fan theories in k-pop

Have you ever wondered why there are common elements in k-pop songs and videos, and what it really means?  Then this post is for you!

Pop music concepts that cut across multiple music videos and content actually aren’t that difficult to understand, and if you understand the idea of “conceptual continuity” then you can understand them easily.  While Madonna pretty much perfected the “idol pop concept” where each song has its own non-continuous visual ideas (and this has been discussed on this blog before), Frank Zappa was probably the first musical artist to deliberately and self-consciously exploit the opposite in his body of work, and he referred to this practice as conceptual continuity.  I’ll let him explain it:

“Well, the conceptual continuity is this: everything, even this interview, is part of what I do for, let’s call it, my entertainment work.  And there’s a big difference between sitting here and talking about this kind of stuff, and writing a song like “Titties And Beer“.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all part of the same continuity.  It’s all one piece.  It all relates in some weird way back to the focal point of what’s going on.” — Frank Zappa, Interview by Bob Marshall, October 22, 1988.

So how do the disparate pieces across various media relate to each other?

Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’

Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.”

“…In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc, etc.  I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection.’” — Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book.

Conceptual continuity doesn’t just exist in music media, it can exist in any recurring media item at all.  Let’s use this blog as an example.  The body of my own work under “Kpopalypse” has various phrases and ideas used repeatedly in different contexts across this blog as well as social media to unify the collection of work that I’m creating, and give it a unique flavour – certainly not as unique as Frank Zappa’s, but not quite the same as anything else either.  The effect is that for better or worse, you probably know when you’re reading Kpopalypse (or something Kpopalypse-like) as opposed to something else.  Some motifs are of my own invention (such as the observation that someone may “meet required standards”, deployed by myself as a recurring antidote to the cringe of people constantly losing their shit over how attractive someone supposedly is) whereas others are borrowed from k-pop culture itself and reappropriated into the mix (such as “reflect and return with a more mature image”, which has been taken on and redeployed in various writings as an exaggerated parody of its usage within the k-pop sphere).  As I don’t want to be too obscure to the point where people lose all understanding, The Kpopalyspe Lexicon was set up to document these various usages so they could be more easily understood.

If we apply this to k-pop, we can see that there are concepts that cut across various works, in a deliberate attempt to unify the collections.  To start with a really simple example, Twice yelling their own group name all the time is a very basic form of conceptual continuity.  The “Twice!” sample that appears at the start of a bunch of Twice songs is actually the same recording, I wouldn’t be shocked if JYP has a “Twice!” button programmed on his keyboard that triggers this vocal sample.

Speaking of JYP, him as well as other k-pop producers also attempt to unify their own songwriting collection publicly with various audio watermarks.  It’s not really to stop piracy – watermarks specifically added to prevent music piracy are usually inaudible, so as to decrease the chances of them being found and removed by tech-savvy pirates – the shouting of producer names has less to do with this and a lot more to do with “branding”.

The next step in the process is when the “branding” becomes more than just a statement of an artist but also conveys some small extra meaning.  Blackpink do yell “Blackpink!” a lot (especially in “Ddu-du Dd-du“) but they also have the catchphrase “Blackpink in your area”.

The “Blackpink in your area” phrase that appears at various places in “Boombayah” reappears in “As If It’s Your Last” – for no real reason other than to “stamp” the two songs with the same motif.  It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the meaning of either song… not that there is really much of a meaning to “Boombayah” anyway, but it has a separate meaning of its own, just the idea that the group is back with a new song (finally).  The effect of the repetition of this phrase is that it becomes something specific that fans identify with the group, part of their own “lexicon”.  This conceptual continuity artifact is simple but powerful and it can be tested, by making a joke about it that can be clearly understood, even by casual fans.  This one refers to Blackpink’s US/European business deal:

Phrases that become associated with a group can be a big deal, they can wind their way deeply into popular culture, so much so that it can even make sense to someone as incredibly stupid as CinemaSins, a true arch-moron and creator of the most worthless, unfunny and intellectually bereft Internet content of all time:

He notices here that Lisa says “Toxic” and comments “whoa there, get your Britney out of my Blackpink”.  In other words, the word “toxic” is more heavily associated by him with Britney Spears and her song “Toxic” than anything else in idol pop music, so for another idol pop group to use it feels wrong to him, in the same way that “Twice in your area”  would feel wrong to someone familiar with Blackpink’s catalog.  Of course, he chalks that up as a “sin” because he consistently fails to intellectually grasp the meaning of any content that he is presented with, so is far too fucking stupid to realise that the word was probably included there deliberately by Blackpink songwriter Teddy, who would surely be familiar with that particular Britney Spears song and would know that many fans worldwide would have that association embedded in their brains.  The jarring of the two “continuous concepts” fighting here is therefore very intentional, the implied message from YG’s team being “Blackpink are as relevant to pop music as Britney”.

Conceptual continuity doesn’t have to be just audio.  A very simple example – most heavy metal groups tend to print their band name exactly the same on every album, with a “changed logo” often only being deployed to indicate a radically changed sound.

Visual ideas of course form conceptual continuity content in k-pop as well, where the visual is arguably far more important than the audio to many people.  Blockberry have done their best to unify the twelve Loona solo debuts visually in all sorts of different ways so that they are all essentially sequels/prequels of each other.  I won’t go through all the connections because it would be boring but most readers will be familiar with Chuu’s “Heart Attack”, a video which is the most striking example of this and where some of the scenes won’t even make any sense unless you’ve already watched Yves’ “New” beforehand.

Now that we understand basically how it works, we can apply the idea to a more complicated fan theory to see what’s actually going on when fans extrapolate their ideas way out into space – in the below example, quite literally.

This person correctly identifies that Loona sing about the “universe”, “you and I”, “reflections”, “dreams” etc a lot in various different songs, and extrapolates from this that Loona’s writers may be hinting at some kind of deeper meaning or perhaps they just really like relativity science and astronomy a lot.  He’s actually right about the first part, but the deeper meaning isn’t exactly what he thinks it is.  Loona’s songwriters are simply working with similar elements across multiple songs to unify the collection.  The word “universe” is probably most relevant in the idea that “love is universal” and that two people deeply in love “share a universe” (i.e they don’t give much of a shit about what goes on outside of each other), and this also ties into the idea of Loona creating a separate “universe” which is them plus their fans and the love they share for each other and blah blah excuse me while I find a bucket.  These words only really come up in Loona songs in those sort of contexts, which is just the usual first-love-bordering-on-lust-lyrics that all k-pop girl groups are forced to sing (even the underaged ones – but don’t point this out because fans will call you “creepy” for exposing it instead of admitting that maybe the old men running the agencies they stan for have issues.  The video creator even implies that Einstein may have been one of these old men if he was alive today, which may be a harder theory to test than relativity).  There’s not really anything lyrically happening that’s all that deep when you look at what the songs actually mean, but by alluding to the overarching concepts, Loona’s songwriters can imply an extra meaning anyway, making everything seem a lot deeper than it really is.  Blockberry are actually really good with this, and they pile on esoteric images and references into all their content deliberately for fans to seek out, find and make wild theories about.  Fans aren’t actually “discovering” anything at all, they’re just following the marks on the map that Blockberry have deliberately laid out for them like a tutor in an orienteering class.  This helps unify the concept of Loona themselves, as well as the songs, and also (hopefully) the fans with the group, increasing the emotional investment, which all makes up that “Loonaverse” everyone in their fandom keeps talking about – the “Loonaverse” can therefore be understood as the “conceptual continuity of Loona content”.  If you’re a big Loona fan and you’re wondering why you’ve been drawn to them so much and feel that it’s perhaps something aside from the music and whoever you like in the group, this might be why (or it might not be).  In summary, Einstein may have liked Loona, but Frank Zappa would have liked Loona a lot more (or at least recognised exactly how the concept-based marketing works while simultaneously not liking them).

Oh and speaking of which, then there’s BTS:

Nobody can apply anything even remotely rational to the crazy shit that some BTS fans think up.  These kids are just nuts and their agency doesn’t even need to try.  Dopamine is a powerful drug.

The post ends here, thanks for reading!

19 thoughts on “Conceptual continuity – explaining the truth of repeating motifs and fan theories in k-pop

  1. I refuse to get that deep into Loona, I like their songs, I think Gowon looks like my dream inner teen, and Olivia Hye looks her weird, sassy best friend and I liked their songs along with Heejin’s the best, and that’s that.

  2. ok somehow before reading this I hadn’t watched either of these Loona videos and now I am very angry with myself because they are awesome (loonaverse or no) I will go and reflect while listening to all the rest of their songs. Maybe after that I can survive the stan loona game.

  3. Actually Tesla’s future president’s song is an example of non continuity: while everybody was releasing shitty christmas songs there she goes with an up beat, fun song with tragic ending (she keeps being a forever alone).

    C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker!

  4. thanks for this! I like reading intellectual stuff and feeling like I learned something. Wouldn’t music genres and styles also be a form of conceptual continuity? Take, for example, Sistar’s summer comebacks or BtoB’s not-so-great ballads; we know exactly what to get with this group and eventually it becomes a trademark of some sort.

  5. i actually found fan theories to be annoying sometimes… like it’s not that deep why make it so complicated with your theories/what if stories ._. especially when a ONCE overanalyzed TWICE’s Dance The Night Away concept based on the teaser photos that it’s gonna be a scary concept, that some members are ghosts haunting others/dead due to their expression, and unlit candles etc. when it turns out the MV was about having fun while stranded .-.

  6. The only theories and ‘conceptual continuity’ I can tolerate are from EXO, mainly because Lee Soo Man is a nerd who believes in aliens and I kinda enjoy it when the boys cringe and get embarrassed.

  7. I’m not sure if you know that the ‘loonaverse’ is something that Blockberry introduced themselves and have talked about a lot, not just fans imagining it. Polaris CEO also talked about how they wanted to draw fans who liked to engage in a fantasy world through Loona. They use the word universe a lot because it’s literally an ‘alternate universe’ they’re trying to portray in their videos. There’s a difference between conceptual continuity as you’re describing it, and actually having your group’s entire concept be a story/cinematic universe type thing that you want fans to understand and follow along.

    • I never said that fans were imagining it. I agree with you, that it’s there because Blockberry put it there. I wonder if you’ve actually understood what I wrote.

      • The way you started off writing about their concept made it seem like we would agree, but then you continued with “Loona’s songwriters are simply working with similar elements across multiple songs to unify the collection,” and tried to make a point that any details in the lyrics or videos are just common elements, and are only implying an extra meaning while actually having none. Maybe I haven’t understood what you wrote but then I’m confused why they would be your big example in a write-up about the ‘truth’ of repeating motifs, and why you would say Frank Zappa would like them, if you knew that Blockberry isn’t just trying to unify their collection.

  8. It kinda reminds me of what Tiffany said at some Interview with a American Radio show, it meant something like that you don’t get fans by perfection, but by building a relationship with them.

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