For a beauty junkie like me, k-pop was a wonderland. Spica's makeup was so thoughtfully designed and immaculately executed that I imagined they must be one of the most successful groups in the industry. But as I soon discovered, Spica has been trying to break into the mainstream for several years and is best known for being "underrated." The visual aspect of k-pop is so important that even a group as cash-strapped as Spica will hire a nationally famous makeup artist to design their '60s-inspired cat-eye liner.
The music videos from richer entertainment companies may be more elaborate, with multiple sets, costume changes, and special effects (you can read about the insane production costs for k-pop MVs here), but it's rare to see bad or even boring makeup in any group's videos. After all, good makeup costs a lot less than a fake tank spray-painted pink. There are many other reasons why I love k-pop (the abundance of immaculately produced '80s-throwback songs, for one), but the attention paid to makeup and beauty is a huge part of the attraction for me. Korea has been in the vanguard of the beauty world for years, so it's only natural that their music industry should follow suit. Western media won't shut up about Taylor Swift's red lipstick (NARS Dragon Girl, don't you know), while k-pop makeup is off in a completely different universe.
As a rule, the k-pop industry makes little effort to hide the artifice that goes into creating the perfect girl or boy band. Idol groups don't develop organically; the members are selected by their entertainment agencies after a rigorous training process that can take over five years, during which time the trainees are largely cut off from the outside world. Idols are discouraged from dating, and certainly from dating openly. News of a singer having dinner with someone of the opposite sex can cause a scandal, even if that news is derived from a photo showing the reflection of someone's head in a spoon. It's all part of manufacturing a flawless image for fans who want to believe that they have a chance of one day banging/dating/marrying their favorite idols. The Western pop industry is also based on artifice, of course, but the artifice tends to be dissembled; in k-pop, it's right there in the open for anyone who cares to notice. So (if you'll forgive the glib amateur anthropology) it's no wonder that the k-pop industry prizes makeup, and no wonder that beauty products often feature prominently in Korean MVs. In fact, "prominently" might be an understatement.
The phallic shape of lipstick tubes is not lost on MV directors, I assure you.
One of my favorite activities while watching girl-group MVs is to try to identify the products that flit by in the frequent making-up scenes. (Boy groups wear makeup too, and even endorse it, but I have yet to see SHINee or Big Bang primping at a vanity table in a music video.) Some of these product shots are sponsored placements: if a corporate logo appears in a video, money has almost certainly changed hands. The lingering closeup of Thierry Mugler's Angel perfume in Nine Muses' "Wild" video is a good example:
Sometimes, though, the line between paid endorsement and "let's just use this lipstick we have lying around" is fuzzier. My understanding is that if only a monomaniacal screencapper can make out the brand of the product being featured, it's not a deliberate product placement—and these appearances, of course, are much more exciting. Over the past few months, I've compiled a small treasury of product cameos in music videos, as well as product shots from other kinds of videos (variety shows, behind-the-scenes clips, etc). Warning: very photo-heavy! Let's start with the MV for one of my favorite k-pop songs ever:
T-ara, "Why Are You Being Like This?" (November 2010)
For both product porn and quality of discography, T-ara is hard to beat. Early T-ara videos often had vaguely "retro" settings; this one is set in a club in the '80s. In one of the opening shots, Boram is applying an orange-red MAC lipstick:
Another shot reveals that 1) this is a limited-edition MAC lipstick with what looks like a gold bow on the tube, and 2) Boram has had a lot of plastic surgery and skin-lightening work since 2010. I could barely recognize her in this video.
I've done a truly embarrassing amount of research on the MAC collections that came out in 2008, 2009, and 2010, but I haven't been able to find this lipstick anywhere. Any idea what collection this might be from? Maybe something Asia-exclusive, or at least not sold in the US?
Later in the video, Jiyeon joins Boram at the mirror and puts on one of the dozens of pinky nudes available from MAC. The '80s setting would make the modern MAC tubes anachronistic, but k-pop MV directors don't care about such things, neither did Renaissance artists, and neither do I.
TaeTiSeo (Girls' Generation), "Twinkle" (April 2012)
In 2012, Girls' Generation announced its first (and, to date, only) subunit: the unimaginatively named TaeTiSeo, featuring main vocalists Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. "Twinkle" is yet another getting-ready-while-being-fabulous video, featuring some of the most shameless product placement I've ever seen in a k-pop MV. First we see Taeyeon applying a perfume called "Girl"...
...and then, a few frames later, we get a banner ad for that very perfume! Subtle, no?
More interesting are the vanity tables littered with anonymous products, including what look like liquid lipsticks:
Also interesting is the dramatic irony hanging over this scene. In one of the biggest k-pop scandals of 2014, that guy in the middle, a member of boy band EXO, ended up breaking the hearts of thousands of fangirls when it was revealed that he and Taeyeon (in blue) were dating. Apparently, it's unthinkable that two adults in the same industry, and indeed in the same entertainment company, should have a romantic relationship.
T-ara, "Lovey Dovey" (May 2012)
In the bathroom of another club, a girl applies another MAC nude, this one a peachier shade like Myth or Creme d'Nude:
Spoiler alert: it's zombies.
Glam, "In Front of the Mirror" (March 2013)
If any music video is going to abound in beauty-product porn, it's a video called "In Front of the Mirror"—and indeed, this video delivers. The song is great, too.
So much stuff! I spy three MAC eyeshadow quads: the abundance of MAC in k-pop videos is interesting, given how many domestic brands are available in Korea. I'm thinking the lipsticks might be YSL, but I don't recognize the little pans of blush. There's also an eyelash curler, a triangular beauty sponge, and some creams and sanitizing sprays and brushes.
Idols accrue mountains of debt during training and don't see much (or any) income unless their group hits it big, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that one member of Glam was convicted last year of blackmailing an actor. The group has since disbanded.
Nine Muses, "Wild" (May 2013)
I like this song, and Nine Muses is one of my favorite k-pop groups in general, but the video is...not my thing. It's a montage of nine women striking alluring poses and applying liquid lipstick, mascara, perfume, and nail polish as sexily as possible. I'll be honest, the sexiness is lost on me.
I'd say that I'm probably not the target audience, but the video doesn't seem like your typical straight-male-gaze bait either. I mean, those jeweled lips in the lower left corner aren't exactly inviting:
Not sure what brand the red liquid lipstick might be, but it's interesting to see a really opaque red in a k-pop MV, since so many of the lipsticks in videos are applied sheerly for a tint effect.
Red Velvet, "Ice Cream Cake" (March 2015)
Filmed in Southern California, this video has a Burning-Man-meets-Tumblr-meets-retro-ghost-town aesthetic. In one of the first scenes, member Wendy sits at a vanity table littered with MAC eyeshadows or blushes, a MAC Wonder Woman mascara from Spring 2011, and a red lipstick whose packaging I don't recognize:
Wendy, don't you know that you shouldn't use a four-year-old mascara even if it looks cool?
miss A, "Only You" (March 2015)
The plot of this video is, once again, hot women getting ready to go out. Min certainly has a lot of nail polishes there. Alas, I'm not sure of the brand(s).
So there you are: the fruits of my time-consuming screenshot habit. But music videos aren't the only sources of product porn in k-pop: there are also behind-the-scenes videos, like this one for Nine Muses' "Drama." I can see some NARS eyeshadow duos and blushes, a Bobbi Brown bronzer (?), and some stuff from 3CE, RMK, and a few Korean brands I don't recognize (who makes the clear packaging with the squiggly white lines?).
Korean TV shows often have pop idols offering their opinions on makeup. On the web show "The Ranking Is Up to Me," Solji of EXID ranks five different lipsticks from Korean brands Aritaum, Etude House, The Face Shop, Nature Republic, and Tony Moly. (Watch with subtitles here.)
With Aritaum's Wannabe Cushion Tint in Trinity, Solji demonstrates how to sheer out a dark color for a subtle gradient:
I won't tell you which lipstick won, in case you want to watch the episode yourself. No spoilers here!
In another recent show, three members of Girls' Generation present their favorite makeup products and routines. The video has been removed from YouTube since I took these screenshots several months ago, but I'm sure you can hunt down segments of it if you're determined. Born and raised in California, Tiffany reveals an impressive cache of American products, including three Revlon balm stains (I think that's Lovesick and Cherish on the right, and Crush wedged into the middle):
While Hyoyeon and Yuri marvel at her massive collection of red and pink lip colors, Tiffany offers the product junkie's classic excuse:
She's got some YSL Glossy Stains and Rouge Pur Couture lipsticks, a few MAC lipsticks (I'm going to guess Angel, Ruby Woo, and Creme Cup), and three Etude House Fresh Cherry lip tints. Yuri shares Tiffany's love for the Glossy Stains:
In a later post (much later—it took me forever to upload all these screenshots), I'll cover my favorite k-pop makeup looks. For now, let's give the last word to Yuri, the face of Urban Decay's upcoming Korean launch:
Yeah, we know.