Perfect Sound Forever

Inky Gayo: Korean Popular Music

Yang Hee Eun 2 p.m. Seo Taiji

K-Pop Says "Anneyong-Haseyo" to the World Market
by Matt Bender
(April 2010)

One cannot begin to write about 'inky gayo,' Korean popular music, without first taking the nation's history into account. Japanese imperialism, for example, restricted all forms of creative expression until nearly halfway through the 20th century. China's presence is still felt too as the Chinese consider Korea to be more of a misbehaving borough than an independent neighbor: an Eastern seaboard that, for some reason, still denies its station in the glorious Chinese empire. This is funny to consider, cute even, until you remember that China felt the same way about Tibet until 1950 when they decided to invite themselves in. Kim Jong Il's missiles hang like a storm cloud to the North, a threat so consistent that it is rarely mentioned except by 'waiguks' (foreigners) in close company, and even then only in a casual, passing tone. Indeed, it seems everyone around here wants a piece of this enigmatic peninsula.

My experience with K-pop began when I first arrived a few months ago, being assailed by what I didn't know then to be 2 p.m.'s hit single, "Again and Again." This was a curious introduction as 2 p.m.'s leading man, Park Jae-Bum, a Korean-American, or "twink,"1 returned to his home in the States after an uproar that developed around a comment he left on the official 2 p.m. MySpace page describing the Korean music scene (of which he was a major player in) as, and I quote, "gay."

2 p.m. was not to be my last exposure to K-pop. In fact, it's hard to conjure an unexposed moment. K-pop blares from convenience store speakers - hip-hop from the store across the street - rolling down the halls and alleys into every window, every ear, in reach: coalescing in ways that sound like static or a tree limb heavy with insects. If it seems like overkill, remember this: Koreans are a proud people and 'K' is the new culture. It is not unusual to walk into a low-lit, smoky 'maekli' (traditional Korean rice liquor) bar2 and see old men trading stories, getting shit-faced as the new Brown Eyed Girl single plays in the background. They don't noticeably respond to the music - don't seem to even recognize its presence - but one of these guys had to have put it on at some point in the evening, right?

As previously mentioned, the history of Korean popular music is short, evolving from Westernized boy/girl acts that mimicked the sounds brought over by American soldiers during WWII in the 1940's and, shortly thereafter, the Korean War to a folk explosion with simple arrangements and lyrics as sad and evocative as Korea's own introduction to the 20th century. While one may imagine the copy culture that may have evolved as a now-sovereign nation attempted to catch up to what the rest of the world had been listening to, what actually occurred was more a melting pot of copyright laws3 and certain artists stand out. Hahn Dae-Soo, also known as the Korean Bob Dylan, began his noteworthy discography under the oppressive Park Chung-Hee government that came to power after the war. His records being, in the spirit of that era, somewhat anti-oppressive government were banned and Hahn was forced to leave for New York City where his band Ghengis Kahn played venues such as Trude Heller's (a Broadway disco in operation from 1961-79; home to Blossom Dearie and the Manhattan Transfer) and CBGB's.

Yang Hee-Eun, although not coming to prominence until the early seventies, could be called Hahn Dae-Soo's feminine counterpart: more refined and coupled with an unmistakable element of jazz. An artist who avoided political commentary and, therefore, ugly scenarios such as Dae-Soo's somewhat forced expatriation, Yang Hee-Eun (also known as the Korean Joan Baez) is a favorite among the older generation and the young housewives that I teach. I realize that it seems cheap and unfair to refer to another country's artists as versions of American artists but there is a good reason: the majority of musicians in the early folk/acid folk genre were all part of a family tree, a veritable genealogy of players in which status and skill were believed to be passed down from one artist to the next, categorized by fans and collectors into lineages such as the "Kim Min-Gi tree" or the "Lee Jeong-Sun family." To be labeled in association with a foreign, American artist was paramount to being labeled a traitor, an outsider4. Artists with such associations are said to be "fallen from the sky;" wholly original. This term, "fallen from the sky," became an important moniker for Korean music in the years to come as the 1970's brought not only an enormous economic boom (as the per capita GNI, average income of citizens, shot from $67 to $1,000) but by also the sound of psychedelia.

Also known as the Group Sound (i.e. band) Era, the late '70's and early '80's pioneered some seriously good psychedelic music, although the term itself is a bit of a misnomer here as laymen's terms would consider the word "psychedelic" only in association with music that's either drug-induced or good to listen to while on drugs. Seeing as how Asia's intolerance to drugs of any kind (except, of course, for Thailand, where anything goes) is pretty much universally well-known, it should be mentioned that there were no vigilante rockers brewing LSD in rusty tubs. Concerts were not orgies. Psychedelic is, as it should be, merely an adjective, a genre. Groups such as San Ul Rim and Little Giant fully embodied this sound: composing with extended feedback, earth-shattering swells and that chunky, dreamy attack pattern I've only ever heard described as "that shoe-gazing sound." While I wouldn't mind popping in a copy of San Ul Rim's, "You Are Already Me," at some point during my next trip, it is better to imagine the Korean psychedelic scene less like a dimly lit, Led Zeppelin-style "put the coke on my dick" party and more like your son's birthday potluck where he asks the kids from down the street to play a few songs and freak out all of the adults in the audience. This style of music was popular well into the eighties.

In 1992, with the debut of Seo-Taiji and the Boys - coupled with the event of Korea's per capita GNI jumping to a miraculous $10,000, a 200 fold increase from 1963 K-pop was born. Seo-Taiji is still around, making appearances on talk and reality shows along with other artists, and is considered somewhat of a humble hero, a visionary whose efforts defined what the future of the Korean music scene would sound like. Bands in the wake of Seo-Taiji are uncountable, spiral arms that embrace every waking moment.

Currently, hip-hop is the new deal, which is cool except for the gratuitous use of auto-tuned vocals a la Kanye West. The pop is "flavor-of-the-week" style, meaning that you hear the same ten songs playing everywhere you go for about a month until they are phased out by new ones, a characteristic that is somewhat annoying yet strangely comforting - as if you are witnessing evolution. While I don't casually listen to K-pop, it is nice to hear a familiar melody wafting through the shouts of a crowded bar, a moment where you can turn to the friendly 'Ajusshi' next to you and confer in broken English, "I remember this one. Those were the days." K-pop is reaching out its little fingers, as well, most recently with New Jersey's own DJ Relic remixing the G-Dragon song, "Heartbreaker."

I'm either a sucker for a good cause or soaking up 'jom' like a cold toe under warm blankets, but the longer I live here, the more attached I become. The money's good, the future is bright - the hunchbacked old men who worked so hard to make things this way are taking it easy. With little natural resources to burn or dig up, Korea is reliant on production and export: Samsung, Hyundai, LG, products that you use every day and never stop to think about where they come from. 'K' is the new wave. We all have our fingers crossed.


1. I'd previously only heard the word "twink" tossed around in reference to thin-boned homosexuals - those vacuous ladyboys who hang like fresh linen dresses from the arms of their Daddy-O's. However, this is not the wildest of associations considering only thirty years ago the word "punk" hit the world by storm as a musical genre and lifestyle while at the same time being synonymous with, in the words of William S. Burroughs, "Someone who takes it in the ass." In all fairness, the official term for an American-born Korean is 'kyopo.' A twink is a 'kyopo' that talks shit about Korea, like Jae-Bum did.

2. 'Maekli' is a fermented rice broth of sorts, and is growing in export popularity due its addictive taste and probiotic, yogurt-like qualities. Also, the effect is quite nice. The first sip tastes like cold champagne that someone left open in the fridge for a few days. Three bowls into a teapot later, however, the world starts to shine. Other drinks one might find in Korea are:

3. Korea has been unfairly labeled a copy culture- the last stop, where copyrights go to die. While it is true that popular foreign candies can be mimicked and re-packaged in an identical wrapping or that you can buy a cheap leather purse with PRADA stamped on the side from a street vendor for the same price as a taxi ride in Manhattan, innovation is not inherently absent (see next footnote). One problem is that Korea doesn't deal with international copyright laws- doesn't even consider them to be an issue, in fact, which has led to some trouble with the FTA and international business deals. A very recent development is that the G-Dragon song, "Heartbreaker," the newest to break out onto the world scene, has about 30 seconds of sound unabashedly ripped from Flo-Rida's "Right Round," a song which is, essentially, a remix of the original Dead or Alive song, "You Spin Me Round (like a Record)." Personally, I could give two shits about this as even the original version of the song is pretty boring, but the controversy has put G's record label, YG Entertainment, on the chopping block and is a good counterpoint for reconsidering the nation's stance on intellectual property.

4. The Korean peninsula has been invaded by foreign aggressors over 3000 times in recorded history. Its location, climate, and accessibility make it a perfect port of entry when trading with China, Japan, or the greater Pacific regions. Koreans, as a result, have been subjected to a bloody and unfortunate biography - many of the invasions/occupations occurring less than 10 years apart from each other. Only the notion of 'jom' (essentially "neighborly love," although the term can only be defined through analogies such as, "if Korea were an egg, 'jom' would be the yolk") and a remarkable sense of perseverance that the culture remains intact. References to Koreans being a proud, resolved, or traditional people are no joke: it is this dedicated nature that allowed them to create a functional democracy over a period of only 50 years, to rebuild their cities and flailing economic status from the poorest nation in the world in 1953 to the 13th wealthiest nation over the same span of time- achievements that have taken other world powers nearly three times as long. Considering that almost every instance of contact with the outside world has had negative repercussions, it is understandable that Korea is resistant to foreign influence and strong supporters of anything and everything Korean, meaning that the "Made in Korea" tag on your BeanPole brand jeans isn't just there to look pretty. It is a 'taegukki,' a celebration of patriotism, a century won, despite staggering difficulties.

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