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How SM Entertainment's 'Box' Format Defined an Era of K-Pop Music Videos

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This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week's worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we take a look at one of the most prevalent types of K-pop music videos this century, and analyze the ways the form has limited and liberated its artists.

In 2015, the K-pop girl group f(x) declared, “Love is four walls.” For years, their company, SM Entertainment, seemed to take that notion literally. A cursory glance at the canon of SM music videos -- referred to as “MVs” in K-pop parlance -- might make you believe the now-quartet is singing about the phenomenon dubbed "the box" by fans.

For those uninitiated, the box is probably the most recognizable -- and controversial -- visual trick in K-pop video history. SM Entertainment, Korea’s No. 1 music company, has a long history of shooting music videos in a similar-looking enclosed spaces. (Ironically, “4 Walls” was one of f(x)’s rare MVs shot outside the box.)

There isn’t one single box, and the set-up can take many different forms: There’s no limit to the shape and size of the box, which can be set anywhere from an empty apartment to an explosion of geometric lights. Boxes can be elaborate, as in the case of f(x)’s “Nu Abo” MV, or stark and simple, like with Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry” MV. But an in-the-box MV typically has a few defining characteristics: As soon as you see a long shot of a group in an enclosed space, expect lots of choreography. A typical box also contains a generous helping of solo close-up shots along with an intro and narrative scenes added for variety.

The box style isn’t entirely unique to SM Entertainment. The format can be found across South Korean entertainment companies, and it even had a presence in America in the ‘90s: SHINee’s “Juliette” MV, for example, would have been right at home in a classic clip from director Hype Williams (whose iconic aesthetic was recently the subject of a meme about cheese-graters). But SM became associated with box MVs with because of how often it appeared artists’ videos, and how similar the set-ups were. It’s unclear exactly when the box became a constantly recycled device, but early usage of the formula dates back to the late-‘90s with the company’s then-flagship groups S.E.S and H.O.T.

The box came to be a standard format because it excelled at capturing visually striking choreography, which is a huge reason why TVXQ’s “Catch Me,” “Mirotic” and “Spellbound” are considered classics. “The typical dance-and-solo-shots set-up of it might seem like a good idea,” Seoulbeats wrote, “especially when one has an imperative to sell not only the song but also the individual members and their dancing ability.” Since K-pop is a largely performance-based medium, the box just so happens to kill several birds with one stone.

However, the formulaic nature of the box is divisive in an industry that demands ever-shifting content. Making videos sometimes involve trade-offs: If you want to highlight choreography, the shots can only have so much variety. If you want a plot-driven mini-movie, dance moves must take a backseat. (There are some exceptions, including SHINee’s “Amigo,” that attempt to blend both narrative and choreography.) Yet sensory overload is a huge part of K-pop’s appeal. Comebacks are in constant demand, and concepts have a rapid turnover rate. Idols are usually expected to be chameleon-like in their ability to switch between, say, cute and sexy concepts with ease. That means that the visual elements (including choreography, videos, and fashion) need to be ever-changing.

So it’s little wonder why the box is one of the most hotly contested conventions in the K-pop sphere -- its omnipresence is a symbol of predictability and a lack of imagination. f(x)’s “Rum Pum Pum Pum” received plenty of flack for appearing too similar to their previous music videos; critics have even broken down the standard SM music video into a tongue-in-cheek formula.

Yet the paradigm of the generic SM production started to go out of fashion in 2014. One Redditor cites Red Velvet’s debut single, “Happiness,” as a turning point that marked a creative shift at SM. Since then, SM has favored video treatments that push visual boundaries. As the walls came down down, the creative possibilities expanded exponentially: Hitchhiker’s “11” served up Dadaist fare perfect for a meme-attuned viewing public; Super Junior’s “MAMACITA” was a fitting vehicle for the group’s (over)acting chops; and f(x) bounced back from the criticism directed at “4 Walls” with visuals that showcased open-world storytelling.

Over the past few years, the box has all but folded, but it’s not entirely a relic of the past: SM’s latest boy group, NCT U, debuted in the box with “The 7th Sense” in 2016; a day later, they released released “Without You,” which was a far cry from typical SM visuals. The two-song debut package simultaneously placed NCT in and outside of the box -- an apt metaphor for how SM has tried to navigate the often competing demands for content and innovation.

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