July 11, 2023

7 K-Pop Music Videos Featuring Historic Sites in the United States

  • By: Emma Peters

Many believe South Korean music, known colloquially as ‘K-pop’ in the United States despite encompassing a multitude of genres, only entered the United States’ cultural sphere in recent years. But did you know that in the 1950s and 1960s, South Korean pop trio The Kim Sisters performed on The Ed Sullivan Show over twenty times?

Why K-pop has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States over the past decade is a source of constant debate and discussion. Akin to the British Invasion in the 1960s, the Korean Wave (or “Hallyu,” written in Hangul as “한류”) likely exists because its offerings resonate with Americans, and our countries are close allies. The relationship between South Korea (known officially as the Republic of Korea, or ROK) and the United States—specifically, the cultural exchange of music and entertainment between the two countries—has deep roots, though it can most easily be traced to the signing of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. Since then, this alliance has evolved into a “partnership which serves as a linchpin for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” In 2021, President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in reinforced this alliance in a joint statement. The increasingly close relationship between the United States and South Korea provides fertile ground for cultural trade, which extends to the music industry.

To celebrate this relationship, we are exploring when and how the fields of historic preservation and public land conservation have intersected with the ever-experimental genre of K-pop. From California to New York, let’s explore seven instances in which the realm of K-pop has engaged with historic sites in the United States.

“Black Swan” by artist BTS—Los Angeles Theatre (Los Angeles, California)

Designed by architect S. Charles Lee and built between 1911 to 1931, the Los Angeles Theatre is an ornate, French Baroque-inspired structure that hearkens back to the era of 1930s Hollywood. In “Black Swan,” it stars as a haunting space. Lyrically, this song studies depression from the perspective of an artist who is no longer inspired to create (the title is inspired by the 2010 movie of the same name, about a dancer whose craft rules every facet of her life). The exploration of this feeling against a space that celebrates a bygone era results in a moody, gothic atmosphere that is exacerbated by the members’ shifting shadows and black wings. The Los Angeles Theatre was listed on the National Register in 1979, and this site has been used in a number of other South Korean music videos.

Interior view of the Los Angeles Theatre featuring the stage with its gold decorations.

photo by: Floyd B. Bariscale/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Interior view of the Los Angles Theatre.

BTS (방탄소년단) "Black Swan"

“ICY” by artist ITZY—Bradbury Building (Los Angeles, California)

While this particular music video was filmed at a number of historic locations throughout Los Angeles, California, the Victorian interior of the Bradbury Building is the first structure prominently featured. Commissioned by gold-mining millionaire Lewis L. Bradbury and designed by architects George Wyman and Sumner Hunt, construction on the Bradbury Building was completed in 1893. The interior of the structure, which features a large Victorian court and open cage elevators, provides an appropriate background to “ICY,” a summery song with lyrics that poke fun at those who prize conformity and tradition over everything else. “Don’t bother to try and trap me inside your box,” member Yeji Hwang sings at one point while walking through Grand Central Market. Playful and arrogant, “ICY” functions as an upbeat song of empowerment that serves to dissolve the tension between the members and some of the traditional spaces they find themselves in. Other sites featured in “ICY” include Eastern Columbia Lofts, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, and the Los Angeles Theatre.

View of a brownstone building in Los Angeles known as the Bradbury Building.

photo by: Carol Highsmith

Exterior view of the Bradbury Building.


“Highway to Heaven” by artist NCT 127—U.S. Route 101/Mojave Desert (California and Nevada, multiple locations)

Filmed in multiple locations along historic highway U.S. Route 101, as well as in the Mojave Desert, NCT 127 filmed this music video on location in 2019 when the group embarked on their first tour across the United States. NCT 127 explored various cities and national landmarks during this tour, and a wealth of content was released on their YouTube channels during this period, which acted to promote both the group and a plethora of culturally and historically significant sites across the United States. Unlike other music videos on this list, NCT 127 mentions this historic site by name in their lyrics (“On the 101, let’s see just where it goes”). The Mojave Desert, which is featured prominently in “Highway to Heaven,” was protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 and is home to more than ten national and state parks. Also visible in “Highway to Heaven” are the iconic Yucca palms, or Joshua trees, that are native to the desert.

View of a Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert

photo by: Sue Lowe via Pixabay

A Joshua tree sitting in the Mojave Desert.

NCT 127 엔시티 127 "Highway to Heaven"' (English Version)

“Lilili Yabbay (13월의 춤)” by artist SEVENTEEN—Brooklyn Borough Hall (New York City, New York)

Designed by architects Calvin Pollard and Gamaliel King, this Greek Revival-style structure was built in the 1840s and opened to the public in 1848. Four members of SEVENTEEN perform in front of the northern facade of the structure in "Lilili Yabbay," a song which lyrically describes the idea of planning to meet someone in the thirteenth month of the year (in other words, never being able to meet them again). Whether intentional or not, the lyrics of “Lilili Yabbay” feel reinforced by the structure the group decided to perform in front of, as the Brooklyn Borough Hall was effectively abandoned in the early 1900s, and in the 1930s multiple proposals to raze the building emerged as the structure was deemed unimportant. After suffering multiple threats of being razed, the structure was designated a New York City landmark in 1966 and listed on the National Register in 1980.

Exterior view of the Brooklyn Borough with a large patriotic panel banners between columns.

photo by: Jim Henderson via Wikipedia CC0 1.0

Exterior of the Brooklyn Borough Hall.

SEVENTEEN(세븐틴) "Lilili Yabbay (13월의 춤)"

“Flower” by artist Jisoo of BLACKPINK—Millennium Biltmore Hotel (Los Angeles, California)

Designed by architectural firm Schultze & Weaver, the Millennium Biltmore is a hybrid structure that encompasses an abundance of architectural styles, including Mediterranean Revival, Moorish Revival, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Beaux Arts. The hotel opened in 1923 and has had a riotous history since then. In “Flower,” this historic hotel acts as a bright and opulent backdrop that foils Jisoo Kim’s gray and morose lyrics. Despite these tonal differences, the Biltmore Hotel, like Jisoo, is alone (or empty) throughout most of the music video, implying that they may not be so different as at first they seem. The Millennium Biltmore Hotel was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles in July 1969.

An opulent hall area at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

photo by: P.G. Roy Photography via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A view of one of the corridors of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

Jisoo "꽃(Flower)"

“Drip Drop” by artist TAEMIN of SHINee—Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park (Agua Dulce, California)

Named after Mexican bandit Tiburcio Vásquez, who used the site as a hideout in the 1870s, Vasquez Rocks is home to rock formations that date back millions of years. In “Drip Drop,” a song that features lyrics that tap heavily into water imagery—including references to the ocean, sailing, anchors, waves, the color blue, and more—this site provides an appropriate contrast. Naturally, the yearning present in “Drip Drop” is dialed up a notch when paired with Vasquez Rock’s dry, barren visuals. In 1972, Vasquez Rocks was added to the National Register of Historic Places, due in part to its significance as a prehistoric site for the Shoshone and Tataviam peoples.

A view of a rock outcropping at the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park

photo by: Thomas from USA/PDTillman via Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

A rocky outcropping at the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park.

TAEMIN "Drip Drop"

“On” by artist BTS—Sepulveda Dam (Los Angeles, California)

Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Sepulveda Dam was necessitated by flooding in 1938 that resulted in 144 fatalities. Construction of the dam was completed in 1941, and though it is still in active use for flood risk management, it is also authorized for recreation. It’s difficult to disassociate this military affiliation when watching “On,” which features a heavy, percussive sound (not unlike a marching band) as well as a troop of backup performers. “On” is essentially a motivational song that likens the members to fighters, and toys with imagery and lines related to Jungian archetypes. The Sepulveda Dam emphasizes these lyrics, silently reminding viewers that it has the power to control chaos. Managed by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center is home to several recreational spaces, including a park and wildlife reserve.

A view of a concrete dam in Los Angeles.

photo by: Wikimedia (Public Domain)

A view of the Sepulveda Dam.

BTS (방탄소년단) "ON"

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Cadillac Ranch by Ant Farm (Lord, Michels and Marquez) copyright 1974. David Kafer

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Emma Peters is the Associate Manager to the Chief Marketing Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A history graduate, she is constantly humbled by the way past lives and societies can alter the way we consume the present.

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