An Explanation of ‘Concepts’ in K-Pop—Plus, an (Almost) Comprehensive List of the Many Faces of Concepts
Every style you like, K-Pop has it.
Like any fandom, K-Pop has its own bits of unmissable knowledge—things you absolutely have to know in order to enjoy the fandom to its fullest. Or, in some cases, to even start to understand it. In K-Pop, examples would be terms like “biases” and “ultimate” (which I explain here), and of course, concepts. The concept is quintessential to K-Pop. There’s no K-pop group without a concept, and while the right one can blow up an act to the top of the charts, the wrong one can make a comeback flop the moment it’s released.
What is a ‘concept’ in K-Pop?
To put it simply, the concept is the theme of an album—and albums are called “comebacks” in K-Pop slang. Every time a K-Pop group releases new music, they make a comeback. And each comeback has a different concept, meaning a new theme. And this theme influences everything—the songs, their style, the photoshoots used for photobooks and promotional material, and really, the image the group members portray in public.
So, how a group evolves, as artists and public personas, is often based on the concept for their new music—which is not to say they become a totally different group with each comeback. Most groups also have a “general” concept that overarches their entire career, shaping their image to the public, and that is found in different variants of each of their comebacks. Take Dreamcatcher, for example, a group who have an overall horror concept that reflects itself in all their comebacks. But one might be more on the nightmare concept side (like 2017’s Fall Asleep in the Mirror) and another on the dystopia concept side (like 2020’s The Tree of Language).
While it might be confusing at first, the concept is a fundamental part of K-Pop and also a big element of what makes it so fun. Here’s a guide to some of the most famous K-Pop concepts—because describing them is one thing, but seeing them in action is definitely the fastest way to learn how to recognize them and tell them apart!
The Cute Concept, with bubbly sounds and wholesome styling, is a K-Pop staple. Many groups have debuted with a Cute Concept and while some have made it a staple of their career—like TWICE did before their Big Concept Switch™ Of 2020—it’s rare to find a K-Pop act that hasn’t dabbled in a cute or cute-adjacent concept before. And that goes for both boy groups and girl groups from every generation of K-Pop.
Think Girls’ Generation culture-defining “Gee”:
Or TWICE’s “What Is Love?”:
Or TXT’s “Blue Hour”:
Girl/Boy Crush Concept
If the Cute Concept sits at one end of a spectrum, then at the other end, there’s the Girl or Boy Crush Concept. Think hard-hitting music, eccentric and fashionable outfits, daring make-up, and a lot of attitude. A fan favorite, there are a thousand interpretations of this concept, and a lot of groups have dabbled in it throughout their career—while some have made it their defining trait.
YG Entertainment groups, for example, are known for their Boy and Girl Crush concepts. Here’s 2NE1’s “I Am The Best”:
And BLACKPINK’s debut track “BOOMBAYAH” (as well as most of their title tracks from “DDU-DU DDU-DU” to “HOW YOU LIKE THAT”):
And BTS’s early music was very much Boy Crush Concept, like “Danger”:
High School Concept
It wouldn’t be K-Pop without someone whipping out some school uniforms. While the High School Concept can fall under the broader domain of the Cute Concept or the Boy/Girl Crush Concept, it’s such a popular option for a group’s earlier comebacks that it deserves its own category.
Some examples include EXO’s “Growl”:
And also ASTRO’s “Confession”, which has a completely different vibe:
And Apink’s “Mr. Chu”:
The Military Concept plays with the same fascination for uniforms as the High School Concept—except this time they’re military ones. It can generally be found a bit later in a group’s career, and it’s probably more common among boy groups than girl groups, but once again, it’s a genre staple that deserves its own spot.
Take SHINee’s “Everybody”:
And ATEEZ’s “WONDERLAND”:
But also EVERGLOW’s “ADIOS”:
Defining the Supernatural Concept is a bit trickier since it encompasses everything from monsters or powers to overall fantasy vibes. While it’s a bit harder to describe, it’s definitely one of the best to enjoy—the music and styling usually go all out, as well as the storylines for each music video.
Some examples include Red Velvet’s “Peak-A-Boo” (and Red Velvet’s discography in general, “Psycho” is also such a good take on the Supernatural Concept):
And also Apink’s “Eung Eung”:
And Sunmi’s “Full Moon”:
And also, arguably, BTS’s “Blood, Sweat & Tears”:
This concept doesn’t need much explanation to be understood. Everything inspired by previous eras of music can be considered a Retro Concept. It has enjoyed some pretty significant popularity these past few years, with 2020 being an especially good moment for Retro Concepts everywhere.
Take EVERGLOW’s “LA DI DA”:
But also TWICE’s “I CAN’T STOP ME”:
And GFriend’s “MAGO”, all released in 2020:
Another pretty self-explanatory one. Sexy Concepts usually cause a lot of conversations among fans—some love them and some hate them, especially when they’re thrown onto a group whose members are too young for it to be comfortable. And understandably so. But when done right and properly, the Sexy Concept can be just as entertaining as all the other concepts on this list.
For example, Sunmi’s “TAIL”:
Or EXO’s “Love Shot”:
But also MONSTA X’s “Love Killa”:
Another sub-category with a life of its own, the Summer Concept is usually a Cute Concept that is, of course, dedicated to summertime. But since there are so many releases each year that choose to go with a Summer Concept, it deserves to be treated separately.
Let’s take, for example, TWICE’s “Dance the Night Away”:
And ATEEZ’s “WAVE”:
Together with Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor”:
While K-Pop has always looked to the so-called “West” for inspiration, it has never forgotten its Korean roots. There have been several groups that have chosen to incorporate elements of traditional Korean culture—be they sounds or clothes or both—into their comebacks, and it’s a trend that has gained popularity, especially in recent years.
Think BTS’s “IDOL”:
And Yoongi’s solo release as AGUST D, “Daechwita”:
But also STRAY KIDS’ “Thunderous”:
(image: YG Entertainment)
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