K-pop artists are increasingly making music about what it's like to be LGBTQ+ in the world they were raised in. (Illustration by Hannah Delmore, Kent State University)
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The k-pop times they are a changin’.

The world of k-pop is one filled with eccentric themes, pumped-up choreography and attractive singers. Its stars, once relegated to fame only in the genre’s native country, South Korea, have become international celebrities in recent years. However, as much as k-pop has come to dominate radio waves worldwide, it has a glaring flaw that has hindered its universal appeal: a lack of LGBTQ representation.

Compared to America, South Korea is conservative. As a result, while there are many out and proud Western artists who write songs explicitly based on their experiences as LGBTQ individuals, there are barely a handful of similar musicians in the world of k-pop. This lack of diversity stems from the prevailing mores of much of Eastern Asia, an area whose cultures still admonish homosexuality.

However, despite the at-times restrictive values of the region, a few artists have begun using their platform as musicians to represent the gay community in whatever way they can. Below is a list of several k-pop artists who, through their music, are fighting to give a voice to the LGBTQ community.

1. “Please Don’t”

There are actually quite a few music videos from Korean artists that advocate LGBT representation, one of the most well-known of which is from singer K.Will, titled “Please Don’t.” The video portrays a couple getting ready for their wedding day, as well as a friend/best man who seems to be pining over the bride to be.

Between flashbacks of the two looking very happy on their own versus them in the present with the future groom, the viewers feel sympathy for the lovestruck man who seems to be suffering from a case of unrequited love. However, the twist at the end shows the friend ripping up a photo of the three of them at the wedding, edging the part of the photo containing himself in the bride’s place, next to the groom.

The shocking ending caused a huge buzz not only in Korean media, but international media as well. There are hundreds of videos posted on YouTube of unsuspecting viewers reacting to the twist, many expressing joy and shock at a Korean artist showcasing LGBT representation, even though it did not have the happy ending many wanted.

2. “159cm”

In the music video for “159cm,” by Tenny, the beginning portrays two young girls fooling around and having fun, while also kissing and embracing each other. This is a huge step in the Korean music industry, as having same-sex couples being so openly affectionate is extremely rare. One of the first scenes shown is a close-up of the South Korean flag, which is framed on the wall and reminds viewers of the country’s traditionalism.

The girls are deliberately hiding their relationship from one of their mothers, who is ironically hooking up with a priest (but this isn’t about them). When their family accidentally discovers the girls making out, the girls run to the ocean to avoid more beatings. The video ends with them gazing out to the ocean, kissing and talking about future plans.

However, before the very end, there is a shot of two pairs of shoes in the sand. Many viewers thought that, unfortunately, both girls had both committed suicide to escape the situation they were in.

One person commented on the video, “The ending was actually really well done – everyone had the exact same thought when we saw the shoes, because that’s what we EXPECT from LGBTQ+ stories, that it ends in tragedy and one or both of them end up dying – seeing them pick up their shoes after that moment was a nice touch.”

Calling out this type of queer-baiting emphasizes what the LGBT community is used to: gay couples who never get their happy ending.

3. “One More Day”

When it comes to LGBTQ representation in the more “pop” section of k-pop, no conversation is complete with the now-disbanded girl group SISTAR. They were one of Korea’s most beloved girl groups, coming out with bop after summer bop until they decided to part ways in 2017.

However, before they parted ways, they released a song they had collaborated on with producer Giorgio Moroder, called “One More Day.”

This is yet another video full of twists. Beginning with two young women lugging a heavy suitcase down a dark alley, there is already suspicion swirling in the air. The video then cuts back to what seems to be a flashback, where the two are lounging about with each other, stealing glances and sharing smiles. It becomes clear that there is a sort of dreamy, romantic air between the two girls, as they take turns putting lipstick on each other and physically linger longer than friends. There is also an insinuated kiss that isn’t fully shown, before the video cuts to the next scene.

From there, there are a few conflicting scenes. It is revealed that one of the girls is in an abusive relationship with a man, and that he is trying to track her down. When he finds them, he chases down his ostensible girlfriend to his place, and starts to hit her; meanwhile, the other girl attacks the man with the brick. Soon, two bottles are smashed on his head and, before you know it, there is a dead man on the floor and two panicking girls.

The video then circles back to the opening scene with the suitcase, which now is understood to have the man’s body in it. The girls toss the suitcase in the trunk of a car before lighting the whole thing on fire and then walking away from the blaze together. Literally no one was prepared for this kind of twist ending to occur, and many viewers found it impressive that such a popular girl group would choose to portray themselves as murderous lesbians.

This was huge for pop culture, having such an unflinching portrayal of a sensitive subject shown to the world from a beloved group. Many extend gratitude toward SISTAR for bridging the gap just a bit more in their own, eccentric way.

4. “Neverland”

In terms of actual LGBTQ artists in Korea, there are only a few out and proud names. Recently, the musician who goes by the name Holland made his breakthrough debut as one of the most recently, openly out artists.

His debut song, “Neverland,” portrays two men in love: just a couple, happy and thriving. His later video for his song “I’m Not Afraid” is made in response to the haters, in which he makes it clear that he is no longer afraid of being out in a homophobic society.

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