London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Keith Howard (ed): Korean Pop Music – riding the wave

Riding-the-waveKeith Howard (ed): Korean Pop Music – riding the wave
Global Oriental, 2006, 250 pp


A very readable introduction to the history of Korean popular music. While the book is a collection of articles by different scholars, careful selection ensures that there’s no duplication and that the coverage is chronological. And for once in a book of this nature there’s evidence that the editor has actually done some editing: articles, where relevant, cross-refer to each other; footnotes direct the reader to the other articles; the articles call themselves chapters rather than papers. It’s a simple enough thing to do, but so often there’s no evidence that anyone apart from you has read the chapters in sequence, and no evidence that much thought has gone into putting the book together at all. Not so with this book.

Apart from editing the book, Keith Howard provides two of the chapters. And in fact if you’re mainly reading the book for coverage of modern K-pop Howard’s is the first article that will be of interest — but the earlier chapters are extremely interesting reading, particularly for someone whose interest was aroused by Kim Changnam’s talk at the London Korean Festival this year.

You have to feel some sympathy for the terrible travails and hardships that academics have to go through in the name of research. Here’s one of Howard’s field trips:

Back in June 1999, I joined screaming fans, perhaps 70 percent middle school and 30 percent high school students, and 90 per cent female, at SBS for the weekly show. CLON were to be judged against other groups to elect the new No. 1, and backstage they were pessimistic of their chances: Kim Hyun Chul was also waiting around, arguing there was no point being on stage since he had no chance of achieving top position. The show began with dry ice. Lots of ice, drifting across the stage. Lit from behind, a coffin was raised almost to a standing position, surrounded by muscular men slowly moving from side to side to the regular pulse of a drum machine. The coffin lid was thrown off, and out emerged the star, Yoo Seung Jun. Yoo, wearing a white suit and with close-cropped hair, was greeted by his screaming fans, and the camera briefly left the stage to search them out. Yoo’s recent album, his third, had, according to his publisher’s internal figures, achieved sales of 743,540 within two months. This though, was the show that pushed Yoo off the top. The new No. 1 was by FinK.L, an all-girl teenage band chosen by managers and put together for teenage fans, with a lead singer in pigtails. Their dancing was simpler and slower than Yoo’s, and their fans younger.

I can think of people who would give their right arm to be surrounded by such an audience at FinK.L.’s debut No. 1.

You wonder how seriously, though, you are supposed to take some of the earnest language and scholarly endeavours. First, here’s Eun-Young Jung struggling to analyse one of Seo Taiji’s raps:

When I transcribed the first section according to the scheme for analysing lyrics proposed by the ethnomusicologsts Cheryl Keyes (1991) and Robert Walser (1995), I could not identify significant points: the juxtaposition of metal and rap seems to be unplanned.

And I can imagine Captain Bootboi being somewhat perplexed that an album that he appears on could be open to the following accusation:

We are the Punx engages in an inter-textual dialogue with 1999’s Choson Pongku CD…

in Stephen Epstein’s piece on Korean punk music.

For omnivores of Korean culture, this collection should be read cover to cover. For those interested purely in modern K-pop (and the title of the book, with its catchy hallyu-referencing subtitle, suggests that that’s what the book is about) chapters 8, 9, 10 and 16 will be the highlights. Here’s a chapter-by-chapter summary of the topics covered.

  1. (Young Mee Lee) Introduction to music (taejung kayo – popular songs) in the colonial era: Yuhaengga / trot / turotu / ppongtchak and shin minyo / new folksong.
  2. (Hilary Finchum-Sung) Explores shin minyo / new folksong – which was ultimately a blind alley in the development of Korean popular music
  3. (Roald Maliangkay) Describes how the needs of the US forces for entertainment were met, and talks about how some of the local Korean stars (such as the Kim Sisters and brothers) subsequently became famous in the US.
  4. (Okon Hwang) Describes how popular music became political, and talks about the tong kita music (influenced by American 1960s folksongs), and the song movement (norae undong) led by Kim Min-ki and Kim Changnam.
  5. (Roald Maliangkay) Describes the counterblast of propaganda songs promoted by the government, and the censorship policies
  6. (Gloria Lee Pak) An interesting diversion which recounts the debate as to whether ppongtchak was “Korean” or “Japanese”.
  7. (Min-jung Son) Describes the ongoing popularity of ppongtchak / turotu in cheap cassette compilations – still popular even in the 21st century.
  8. (Keith Howard) K-pop in the 90s: introduces some of the trends which mark the birth of modern K-pop.
  9. (Heather A. Willoughby) Describes how stars are manufactured, and how the raunchy images of K-pop stars are really just escapism from fans’ more conservative daily lifestyles.
  10. (Eun-young Jung) Describes the introduction of Rap into Korean by Seo Taiji in the early 90s
  11. (Millie Creighton) Talks about Korean noraebang / karaoke rooms.
  12. (Rowan Pease) Modern music trends in Yanbian, the Korean autonomous region in North East China. Focuses on the dilemmas faced by the music industry in trying to attract a young audience while still retaining a national flavour to the music.
  13. (Keith Howard) Focuses on popular music in the North. Howard talks about the work of two prolific officially sanctioned groups, Pochonbo and Wangjaeson. Since they were established in the 1980s Pochonbo have produced more than 140 albums. Songs have inspiring titles such as Our Happiness in the Embrace of the Respected Leader. Howard tracks how the subject matter of the songs changes with the prevailing politics of the time.
  14. (Sang-yeon Sung) Talks about the Korean wave in Taiwan. While dance acts such as CLON have been successful, it’s the soap operas and their related sound track CDs which are the big sellers. Notes how the initial cost of a Korean soap was $1,000 per episode. This has now escalated to $500,000.
  15. (Rowan Pease) The Hallyu in China, documents the material presented by Pease at the Birkbeck conference in March this year, including a focus on the cult of Kangta.
  16. (Stephen Epstein) Takes a lively look at the history of punk in Korea and the bewildering streams within punk – which, in over-simplified terms can be boiled down to (a) the initial acts coming out of the music club Drug – including Crying Nut. This school became known as Chosun Punk, and became a victim of its own success; while (b) acts on the Skunk label, such as RUX, retain a more radical edge:

    We try to stay original and purly Korean punk. Not that bullshit “Chosin Punk” or any of that cliche shit.

    Epstein notes the international outlook of the Korean punk movement, with many of their lyrics written in English. He also recounts a striking anecdote:

    At the 2001 Fuji Rock Festival in Japan … [Korean band No Brain] burned the Japanese imperial flag on stage during a punk version of the Korean national anthem. Nonetheless, their audience for the most part applauded the action, regarding it as an internationally punk anti-imperialist, rather than a nationalist Korean and specifically anti-Japanese, gesture.

  17. (R. Anderson Sutton) Looks at the different MTV channels on Korean TV and finds them remarkably similar.

The thing I find most frustrating about this book? Wherever possible, the authors helpfully refer to CD catalogue numbers. But most of the ones I’m interested in listening to are unavailable as far as I can see. Probably that’s a feature of the Korean music market. Walk into HMV Oxford Street and you’ll find displays of golden oldies and of the top 100 CDs you must listen to before you die. As far as YesAsia is concerned, you should be listening to all the latest mass-produced stuff that the record companies are trying to flog right now.

I did however find a possible source of Pochonbo CDs here (don’t know if it works or not), and, courtesy of orienkorean, the Skunk label here. Does anyone know any other decent sources of the back catalogue?

One thought on “Keith Howard (ed): Korean Pop Music – riding the wave

  1. Whenever I look for something Korean that isn’t available from YesAsia, I ask mrkwang – he has yet to fail me. For samples on CD from Pochonbo as well as other North Korean music, Sublime Frequencies’ “Radio Pyongyang” is highly recommended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.