by Yihui Yeo
On 3 November 2018, girl band K/DA released their debut single “POP/STARS”. The music video went viral—within three days of its release, the music video garnered over 10 million views, and by the fifth day, 9000 copies were sold. On 9 February 2019, “POP/STARS” officially topped the Billboard chat for World Digital Song Sales, beating out major K-pop boy bands EXO and BTS. Impressive enough that a new girl group manages to beat out two of the most popular K-pop boy bands dominating the market today, but what makes this truly interesting is this:
K/DA isn’t real.
At its core, “POP/STARS” is nothing more than an elaborate marketing strategy by game developer Riot Games, designed to showcase and sell a new line of character cosmetics for four playable League of Legends characters: Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’sa. In reality, American singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns are the voices behind Evelynn and Kai’sa, while Soyeon and Miyeon from K-pop girl group G(I)-DLE lend their vocals to Akali and Ahri. With these new skins come special backstories for the four characters—according to the League of Legends website, Ahri and Evelynn are the vocalists of the band, while Akali is the rapper, and Kai’sa the dancer.
In light of this, it’s at least a little ludicrous how the “POP/STARS” music video has gripped people all around the world, whether or not they are veterans of the game League of Legends, or even know that it exists. To date, the music video has been viewed 167 million times on Youtube, and that number is still rising.
Yet it is not hard to see why. Not only is the song itself incredibly catchy, the music video itself is a masterpiece in animation. As Youtube user ‘Legendary Bubble’ commented, “The worst part is you can’t just listen. The animation is so good you feel guilty for not admiring it”. “Whoever animated Akali’s rap scene deserves a medal!” wrote user ‘i hate watermelons’—an off-handed remark that shortly became the top-rated comment in the section, with 62999 likes. The visual power of the music video cannot be overstated; if you have not yet seen it, it is well worth a look.
What, then, does “POP/STARS” say about art in the present? Firstly, it broadens the definition of art beyond paintings and sculptures in museums—the “high art” that we are all familiar with—into the everyday, the pedestrian. We cannot forget that this is essentially a marketing gimmick; yet, despite its rather mercantile beginnings, Riot Games is venturing further into the music industry, and actively creating within it. With its sleek animation, “POP/STARS” challenges us to look closer at anything animated, to see the effort in every movement, to realise that every frame we see has been drawn by hand. Art can be found anywhere if we only know how to look.
But perhaps most intriguingly, K/DA blurs the boundary between the real and the imagined worlds. Not only are these characters entirely fictional, there exists an unusual tension between this imagined K/DA universe and the in-game world. InLeague lore, Ahri is a nine-tailed fox, Akali an assassin, Evelynn a succubus, and Kai’sa a survivor of a horrific dimension called The Void. Arising from this is a peculiar cognitive dissonance—the characters are exactly what they seem, yet at the same time, exactly not. In consuming K/DA content, we become aware that we are diving into a palimpsestic world, one full of possibility, one capable of infinite permutations. To quote Kai’sa in the K/DA interview published on the League website, “There is a place between fantasy and reality where anything can happen. You have the power to be anyone, and do anything. It is your dream. In our in-between world […] we can do anything, and so can you.”