This is the first post in a series of Korean culture primers. I expect we will cover a board array of topics: food, fashion, film, etc. So you know, stay tuned, or something.
DISCLAIMER: None of the information gathered herein is specialized or even particularly well researched. I don’t have time for anything more substantial than a few Wikipedia pages, but I figure this will give us all something to laugh at later when I realize exactly how wrong I was about everything.
So, pop music… Gotta say, not my first choice, but I’m open minded. Apparently this flavor of non-traditional, mixed-genre Korean music finds its origin in a Japanese invention: the combination of gospel music with Asian instruments, vocals and aesthetics. Wikipedia tells us that this genre, known as trot, “was developed in the years before and during World War II around the early 1900s.” Um… ok. So we know it wasn’t an invention of the 60s. Gotcha. Thank you Wikipedia, the 21st Century’s most ambitious palimpsest! Anyway, trot was the dominant western-inflected musical genre from World War II (in the early 1900s) to the 90s. Then came Seo Tai-ji Boys. Enjoy their debut on 1992’s Korean answer to X-Factor (if you want to get directly into the groovy tunes, jump to 1:18):
I give Seo Tai-ji Boys 6/10 awkward dance routines.
With that precedent set, the sky was the limit. In 1995, a
factory was built talent agency was established to foster the boy band/girl group phenomenon in Korea. I won’t get into the many, many intervening steps between then and today, other than to hand out the Award for Best Name to Fin.K.L (if you follow the link, your ears won’t be happy but your funny bone will be delighted by the earnestness). This may be an egregious omission for which I will suffer in the eyes of HCB’s colleagues and friends, but how many boy bands have you listened to today? Yeah. I thought so. I’m doing yeoman’s work.
Fast forward fifteen years or so. Welcome to the modern era of K-Pop, codified and exported to teenagers and homosexuals the world round. Now I have to admit, the dancehall queen that lives deep, deep inside me isn’t entirely displeased with this music. Some of it at least. Meet 2NE1:
I give 2NE1 8/10 studded-leather, high-heeled boots.
If I had to guess, I’d say HCB will not hate 2NE1, but then again, I’ve never totally understood the segment of his music tastes that we’ve named, “meep mop music.” It’s like that tone that only high school kids are supposed to be able to hear. Kids these days, with their rap music and their low-rise jean… Anyway. You know, they’re listenable if you’re in the right mood. Who am I kidding? They’re pretty fierce.
Now we come to something that I actually find somewhat interesting. Not for the music, mind you, but for the gender politics. Meet Girls’ Generation:
I don’t want to get all UCSC about it, but I am REALLY curious about gender in Korea now. Not that it’s any better in the US. Just different. [Caveat: a single music video does not a thesis make. It may be the exact same for all I know.] Girls’ Generation is so… wholesome. I mean, I suppose they could be singing about depraved acts, but I doubt it. I also don’t have the visual vocabulary or demographic sensitivity to say for certain, but this video was not made for the pleasure of men, right? The 2NE1 video had some sex, but I can’t find it here. Is this Tailor Swift? Rebecca Black? I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. Also, are you supposed to dance to this? A base beat struggles to emerge, but so… much… bubblegum. I give Girls’ Generation 3/10 Judith Butlers.
If we’re really going to do this, we can’t ignore the gentlemen. Honestly, I like boy bands, regardless of national origin, even less than I like girl groups, so I can’t say I’ve been exhaustive with the guys. Here is Big Bang:
Big Bang earns 5/10 post-apocalyptic landscapes.
I really only posted this one for the blonde guy with the safety pin earring and the wife beater and the baggy slacks and the decorative cross. My guess: he’s a time traveler. What do we think? From the early 90s?
To finish off, I’d like to share one more video that poses more questions than it answers. Meet TVXQ:
This is one of the mast flamboyant, campy pieces of media I’ve ever seen, and I’ve written on Auntie Mame and watched every episode of Absolutely Fabulous. The hall of flames. The fur-lined, sofa upholstery suits (2:10). The dancers (1:26). OMG. Amazing. I’m sure you could pick apart any US boy band video from the early aughts and find the same sort of thing, but it’s still nice to see that for as much as my life will certainly change in the coming year, some things will remain the same. TVXQ gets 7/10 waxen-faced lead men.
In conclusion: In case it wasn’t clear before, I don’t know anything about Korean popular culture. Someday, I’ll come back to this post and cringe and hopefully my future Korean friends won’t hate me for what I’ve said here. I just don’t like pop that much! And, you have to admit, that guy had a funny earring. Also, I both want and do not want to know what the lyrics mean. Ignorance is a blessing in the realm of pop (think how much “Genie in a Bottle ” suffered for its lyrics), but still. So curious. But until I can do it myself, no translations. I have to earn that privilege.