You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression. Creative director Jaden Jeong knows this. He's built a successful career in the Korean entertainment industry from this very creed. But spinning a first impression into a lasting one is a lot harder; it's lightning in a bottle — part luck, part intuition. Jeong knows this too.
The mastermind behind K-pop girl group LOONA and their multidimensional LOONAverse, Jeong has a knack for compelling storytelling. An ambitious project years in the making, the LOONAverse unfolded throughout visually arresting teasers, sub-units, and monthly music videos that introduced each artist with her own distinct sound, aesthetic, and story. Each new piece of content added to the mythos, building interest and anticipation like puzzle pieces falling into place. They were separate but connected somehow, somewhere within this nebulous otherworld. That "separate but connected" ethos is something Jeong honed through his work with 2PM and 2AM in 2008. By the time LOONA made their official debut as a 12-member group in August 2018, fans (including singer and visual artist Grimes) were already hooked — and the #StanLOONA phenomenon was born.
Now Jeong hopes to capture that magic with his latest boy group OnlyOneOf.
Members from left to right: KB, Nine, Mill, Rie, YooJung, Love, and JunJi
OnlyOneOf quietly debuted in May with a seven-member lineup — Love, KB, Rie, YooJung, JunJi, Mill, and Nine — and a melodic sound that bypassed the current trend of heavy drops and trap beats. "Savanna" is a groovy pop-R&B song with slinky synths, while the nostalgic pop ballad "Time Leap" showcased their vocal charms — broody rap verses and wistful crooning. Their visuals were just as distinct; where "Savanna" was oversaturated and dynamic, a flurry of various cuts and edits, "Time Leap" was a blank canvas. They were separate but connected through the same motifs — fire, circular imagery (a visual reference to their name, OnlyOneOf), technology, and religion. And like all great first impressions, it gave you enough to keep you interested without telling you too much.
That was, of course, part of Jeong's plan.
"LOONA was one path of storytelling, introducing characters one by one and then showing you how they come together and connect their music and message in a world," Jeong told MTV News. "This time I wanted to focus on bringing the world and mythology into focus bit by bit, and then introducing you to the characters."
Concepts are common in K-pop; a group will adopt a visual aesthetic and storyline for each new release. Sometimes those storylines carry through into other videos, and other times they're abandoned altogether in favor of a fresh start and a new dynamic. There's no one way to be successful, but it's hard to deny the effect these sprawling universes and gripping narratives have on a fan's emotional investment in a group. After all, there's a reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made $22 billion globally.
Jeong spent three years developing OnlyOneOf's sophisticated concept, drawing inspiration from religion and specifically biblical texts. "Even though I’m not religious, I have been studying the Bible, its symbolism, and storylines," he said. "I am trying to understand the belief systems of people around the world." The results of his extended creative process can be seen in the video for OnlyOneOf's new single, "Sage." Partially written and composed by Jeong himself, the slick pop song is darker and more dramatic than their debut tracks, and more importantly, it dives deeper into the mythology and characters of this new world. "My innocent desire, my clashing despair," leader and vocalist Love sings. "I’ve gotten so tainted, please save me." Images of Mary Magdalene and crosses can be seen throughout the visual, and the members themselves even stand atop structures, smoldering intently as if asking to be worshipped.
Jeong calls OnlyOneOf a "unique collection of artists," strong in the various elements that make well-rounded K-pop stars — dance, rap, singing, and performance. Several of the members also compose for the group, and all of them contribute to the overall narrative. "I work with them on storytelling, to help them write their own story," Jeong said. "Within K-pop, OnlyOneOf is really telling their own story themselves, which makes them stand out. That also means that they work harder because have a genuine attachment to the music."
And a genuine attachment to the story, which isn't always the case for artists who are thrust into these sweeping universes without much say. "Sage" and their latest EP, line sun goodness, is a continuation of their debut single album, dot point jump, and some of its themes and imagery. The color red, for example, plays an essential part in both their visuals and lyrics. Jeong is also keenly inspired by typography, the very foundation of his aesthetics — like the random capitalization, geometric shapes, and symbols that can be found throughout his work. "Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is so beautiful, harmonious and economical," he said. "The Latin alphabet and numeric symbols have a lot of power for people across the world." He's incorporated these various symbols into OnlyOneOf's "Sage" — but don't expect him to give away all of the secrets. "The fans are so dedicated," he said, "they usually figure it out themselves."
For Jeong, every new story starts with an ending. It's part of his process. He doesn't begin a narrative without knowing how it all wraps up. He envisioned the LOONAverse as 45 parts, from solo songs to sub-units to official comeback singles. But he didn't get to see his vision all the way through due to creative differences with Blockberry Creative's new management who wanted to put "less significance" on the LOONAverse. "I found that we just didn’t align as we had before," Jeong said. In August, he left the company, with LOONA's repackaged album, X X, being his last project with the group. A ballad album was scrapped in the process. "I felt very empty when I couldn't proceed further with LOONA," he added.
Though, the book isn't completely closed on LOONA either. In fact, he's looking forward to having a "second synergy" with the group sometime soon. "I am expecting to return to the LOONA universe," he said, adding that conversations to bring the girl group to the Japanese market are underway and that he's currently "reviewing" the offer. "It's looking pretty positive," he said.
There's also a part of Jeong that finds it really satisfying to "birth something" into the universe and see how others respond to it. "Mentoring young artists, watching fans fall in love with a new group and then seeing how that group flourishes from that love, it’s impossible not to have a sense of pride from knowing you were involved with the creation," he said. There's an excitement and a newness that's hard to replicate — and for Jeong, it's just a lot more fun to start something than to finish it.
But he does know how OnlyOneOf's story concludes. How they get there, however, is up to him and the members, who are "adding their own gifts to a project and taking it to new places [I] never imagined it could go."