Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Only You Can Save Roboseyo from Hating Korean Music!

Lovefool, by The Cardigans: a foreign band made a Korean pop-song, without even knowing it.

So, in a comment, Samedi (who runs a great blog which you should be reading) challenged my flip dismissal of the Brown Eyed Gulls and their uber-sexy-but-possibly-trying-too-hard and not-actually-different-enough-from-the-other-all-girl-k-pop-bands-for-me-to-give-too-much-of-a-rip "Abracadabra" video, which I'd only posted anyway because a bunch of K-pop boys then sent it up hilariously, and asked whether the only Korean music I hear is what I come across when I walk into, or past, ABC Mart and girly accessory stores.

Well, first of all, I have to differentiate between Korean music, and K-pop: I may not have made it clear in that post that I consider K-pop only one subcategory of Korean music... probably the most profitable one, certainly the most ubiquitous one, but only one. In the same way that there are a lot of music lovers who never listen to top-40 radio in N. America, I'm sure there are lots of Korean music fans who loathe the Gee Gee Generation of K-pop.

And secondly, Samedi asked whether I actively seek out good Korean music, or whether I just passively wait for recommendations.

Well... since you asked... I don't talk about music too often here, because it wouldn't take much for me to geek out about my favorite albums and turn this into a music blog, but I'll take a moment and tell you how I get my hands on new music.

A few things about Korean music in general -- obstacles to me going native on the tunes front, if you will:

1. Why would I limit myself to one country, when right now I'm listening to music from about a dozen countries? Sweden's Jens Lekman, Canada's Do Make Say Think, England's Radiohead, USA's Tom Waits, Iceland's Mugison, Japan's Shiina Ringo, and Tibet's Tuvan Throat Singers are all rocking my world; if Korea produces artists who can run with those cats, I'll listen to them. (Jang Sa-ik holds his own in that crowd: no doubt)

2. Why would I listen to "Korea's Justin Timberlake" when I can listen to Justin Timberlake's Justin Timberlake? Sometimes it seems like we're dealing with an equivalency chart ("If you like R.E.M., you might like ---" - which I had a lot of experience with back when I listened to more Christian rock music [and Jars Of Clay would be the band you should try if you like REM, according to the chart]. And some of those Jesus tunes are pretty good, in fact,) but if a band doesn't have its own voice, I'm honestly not too interested, and if you are at risk of appearing on an equivalency chart, you'd better friggin' wow me when I DO give you that cautious, hesitant listen. I'd just rather listen to Take That! than to the Female Christian Take That!

2.5 Here's the other, probably biggest thing I dislike about KMTV K-pop (particularly the hip-hop) - See, when a woman with a Korean figure tries to be sexy the way J-Lo or Beyonce can be sexy -- you know, with the boom! pop! pow! that they bring to the table, it doesn't work, (Beyonce does it better) and they shouldn't try. Korean females have plenty of ways they can be super-hot without using dance-moves more suitable for people with different body-types. As a matter of fact, the cutesy stuff in your average SNSD video, as candy-floss as it is, works better. Hyori pops it better than anyone else though: she's just got the charisma. Korean male rappers can be cool...but they can't be cool in the same way that 50 Cent is cool. I just don't buy it seeing some skinny Korean guy in a pink shirt wearing mad gold chains and rings. I'd buy it more if he were wearing geeky horn-rimmed glasses, and didn't take himself quite so seriously. MC Mong wins on this count. He's actually starting to grow on me. YG Family doesn't quite make it. Epik High isn't trying to be from South Central LA, and it works for them: the video's cute and goofy.

3. I've always been verbally oriented. (hence writing hundreds of pages for free on a blog) - journaling, writing, reading - I respond strongly to a good turn of phrase. I adore Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell and artists who can wow you with a literary verse and a poetic bridge. This is an area where the language gap means I can only respond to Korean music the way I respond to instrumentals -- emotionally and intuitively, to the soundscape and the atmosphere, where a voice is just another instrument, which is legitimate, to be sure: that's how I respond to Eminem music, even though he uses my native language -- but let's just say one of the major avenues by which I enjoy music is currently closed, and all the Korean artists who focus on that part of the art of songcraft (who, if my English music tastes are any indication, are probably the ones I'd appreciate the most) are either partially or totally closed to me. And yeah, it's my fault they're closed to me. I could be studying the language hard enough to grapple with their lyrics... but I listen to music for diversion, not for language study or my own edification, and I sure don't listen to it for my blog readers' edification (as much as I love you all: don't get me wrong -- I pull out my camera three times more often than I normally would for your benefit, [sometimes to the annoyance of girlfriendoseyo] so kindly don't ask me to ALSO change my music listening habits, unless you start sending me presents. An external hard drive, Rosetta Stone Korean, or a nice leather portfolio would be nice, for starters). So I'm not listening to music in order to blog about it, or I WOULD listen to more Korean music, this being a Korea blog.

So those are the obstacles... now what's the upside?

Well, K-pop at its best is cute. There's not a lot wrong with that, as long as you don't mind sugar-highs. The non-bubble-gum stuff is still mostly gentle, and cute as well, but not in that "lollipops in my hair" way, but in that "charming kid next door with a devilish grin" way: there's a charming style to it that's not as gripping as a lot of other music I listen to, but is very accessible. A lot of it would fit in at a folk rock festival, or at Lilith Fair, on a festivals' second stage, though not always the headliner, and that's not a bad thing by ANY measure. Here's one of the videos Samedi linked, which I liked quite a lot. It's fun and winsome. Enjoy it. Mostly harmless, but certainly worthy of a closer look. Plus, the English phrase in the chorus is "Rocket Punch Generation!" I mean, how cool is that?

If you ARE into candy floss, and you don't mind asian poses, The WonderGirls and SNSD and Hyori and them are fun as heck! K-pop is a veritable bubble-gum pop goldmine, so dig in! It's like Hanson and The Mickey Mouse Club got stuck in a blender with a bunch of jelly-bellies (and some really short skirts)! On the other hand, if BSB, N-Sync, Britney X-tina and Avril weren't your bag back home, you probably won't like these cats and kittens much either.

But I've never been a music snob: Hanson's Mmm-bop is a bliss-out, just as surely as the Buck Futtons track I posted a week ago. Abba's Dancing Queen is pure joy, as is Thunder Road and Lazy Line Painter Jane and Avril's Girlfriend. I'll take my bliss-outs wherever I can find them. I'll also take music that has a unique voice, a cool style, a fun feeling, wherever it comes at me. I don't discriminate too much anymore: there's just too much good stuff out there.

So where is the good Korean stuff? Well, its' out there to be found, if you pay attention. It's certainly not on the charts, and the guy at Hot Tracks in Kyobo bookstore is more likely to point you to the Top Ten rack than to know what I mean when I ask them about, say, Singer/Songwriter Twee pop, or stripped-down acoustic roots folk, even less if I ask her, "Do you have any bands like Broken Social Scene in Korean?" ("Broken Social Scene? Are they more like Pushiket Dorrs, or Breck Eyet Peejuh?" [somehow Korea always goes for the cheesiest of OUR music, too]) And record shop owners I met in Hongdae who were really passionate about great music...well, I got a few good Korean underground bands from them before the shop went under itself, but if I just came in and said "what's good?" he'd slip me Aphex Twin, rather than leaning hard on the Korean sounds. (though he DID slide me some Kim Doo Soo, who is linked in the comments)

And, again, like with Christian music (sorry if I offend any CCM fans out there) I've had my hopes disappointed by enough of the popular/acclaimed/promising bands out there that, while there ARE some good ones, "Hansel: he's so hot right now!" isn't enough to win me over anymore. But if you tell me I ought to listen to someone... hey, I'm all ears.

With non-Korean bands, the process of finding a new one's pretty intuitive. I look stuff up, give it a listen, get rid of it, or sit on it for a while, keep my feelers out, ask friends, "Who's that singer on that cool TV commercial?" (it's happened) see if the same names come up again and again... THEN I listen a bit more closely, and by relying on the word of a few people and a few sources I trust, I can skip most of the music that wouldn't get through my filter anyway, and go straight to the stuff that'll make me glee.

And there IS Korean music I like. Not all, and certainly not what's popular, though I'll go to any live show I can find, and enjoy Bobby Kim and Kim Geon Mo (who are both fine entertainers, though neither are my first choice when I'm picking the tunes). But here are a few I like.

The two kings:
Kim Kwang Seok
Jang Sa-ik

Other strong contenders
Park HyeGyung 박혜경 (her album Seraphim is a solid one), and so far what I've seen on Youtube has her knocking on the pantheon's door.
자전거 탄 풍경 is also pretty great: best known for this song: 너에게 난, 나에게 넌, but the rest of their album doesn't sound like Fastball. (My best friend's wife got me into those two.)
I've mentioned Jang Gi Ha
And what's not to love about Cherry Filter (or Chaeli Pilto, depending who you ask...but dang, can that woman sing!)

The genre to love: I love the stuff from the '70s and the '80s: the singer-songwriter acoustic stuff. If you can ever get your hands on some 통기타 music, this is where Korean music really shines. Park Sangmin Sori Sae - Keudae, Keurigo Na - you can get this kind of music at rest stops on highway roadsides, in fact, that might be the BEST place to get it. I bough my set from a peddler who came by on the subway, and I wish I'd bought the double instead of the single (6cds for 10 000 instead of 3 for 6000). Man that stuff is great.

So yeah. Once I start looking around at my collection, there's a TON of Korean pop music I like. Just not packaged boy-bands or girl-bands. And hopefully you can find something in there to get into as well. There are others I haven't even mentioned, but seriously, don't write K-pop off after watching a few overplayed videos, all the sarcasm in my previous post aside.

How's that, Gomushin Girl? Samedi?

So I've given a start, and as per the post title, here's your chance to stop me from hating Korean music: Who are the other Korean bands I should be listening to, to restore my faith that Korean music is NOT just a bunch of bubble-gum jailbait bands going through the paces their managers told them to?

ps: just in case you think Korea's the only country with cheesy bubble-gum pop...


asadalthought said...

Yes, Jang Sa-ik is King, and his 4th album is just immense. In my opinion, you won't ever hear better Korean music than that.

saharial said...

kim kwang seok is awesome - i discoevred him via sung shi kyung's cover version of 'around thirty' ^__^

Roboseyo said...

sweet! for the benefit of the community, of course, can you include links?

White Rice said...

A very solid music taste manifesto. Everyone should have one. I need to do one of my own. I daresay ours would not intersect much outside of Korea music, yet I will go seek out some of the 70's and 80's Korean singers you recommend. Let me suggest YPC's "정" as one to have in your arsenal for when the Soju rounds turn to you to sing a Korean number.

helikoppter said...

With an invitation like that I could spend hours lining up suggestions! I'll try my best to keep it short though, without too much advertising...

- EE is positively one of the most awesome acts Korea has to offer. They were awesome last year and made a comeback a couple of weeks ago - check out awesome new 80s inspired High Collor.

- Kim Doo Soo is one of those guys that write melancholic folk songs so well that the language doesn't really matter. Here's a performance of Bohemian. (A few songs of his were included on the "International Sad Hits Volume One" compilation, should you feel that you need a translation anyway. The Turkish guy on there - Fikret Kizilok - is higihly recommended too in case you enjoy this.)

- Dringe Augh offers music inspired by British folk, and he sings in English too! Quite lovely, all of it (and Tutelar in particular): http://www.myspace.com/dringe

And of course, for an easy way to actually hear a bit of new Korean music out of the mainstream every now and then - check out Indieful ROK the 15th every month. That's when the Music Alliance Pact posts happen. I'm quite proud of all my picks so far (Sunkyeol sing in English on the amazing song for August!) and it's all posted with permission from the artists. Oh, and I do have a bit of twee material over there too ^^

the Korean said...

No 이소라? Listen to her earlier albums -- just amazing voice. In my book, only woman who tops her voice is Whitney Houston in her prime.

chiam said...

I pretty much stopped taking this post seriously when you said "Korean male rappers can be cool...but they can't be cool in the same way that 50 Cent is cool."

First of all, 50 Cent is not cool, he's manufactured in the same way that Korean "rappers" are. The only difference between a Korean pophopper and an American pophopper is that American pophoppers didn't spend their entire life in a hagwon, they spent it "slangin shit, capping shit, and banging shit". 50 Cent got shot a bunch of times, and did some jail time...but how many American rappers brag about not being shot and not spending time in jail?

If we're talking production, costumes, and popness of the music, they're exactly the same. What makes them different are their lives and experiences.

The closest I have ever come to really good Korean hiphop (that actually had a music video) is a song by a Korean rap band called KROSS called "the rebirth of kross". That song is hard, brutal, and rough. I think it came out between 2002/2003.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah, but if you construct 50 Cent's image as "a guy who would actually intimidate me if I met in real life," for example, I'd buy it. If the guys from Epik High tried to come across as if they had a concealed firearm somewhere on their person, I wouldn't buy. That's what I mean by "cool in the same way".

Sure, they're both manufactured, but they need to be manufactured differently, because they're different people, with different looks, different backgrounds, and different cultures they emerged from.

Everybody: links would make me and the other readers happy!

chiam said...

But Epik High aren't manufactured to make you think they carry heat. Can't they be a different kind of cool? There is a lot of good hiphop out there by people who don't brag about selling drugs, anal sexing chicks, and selling kp's of ice ya know (see blackalicious, latyrx, buck65).

Also, you make reference to the stupid English phrases in kpop, for example (I'm genie for you, baby!). You should read this blog (http://www.snacksandshit.com/) You'll see equally stupid shit being said by, ahem, native English speakers. Seriously, the site is hilarious.

Sorry, I don't have a link to the KROSS song. It was so cool, it wasn't popular.

Roboseyo said...

They ARE different kinds of cool. But in the same way that if Sohee tries to shake what her momma didn't give her, I don't buy it, if Epik High tries to project the same image as 50 Cent, I don't buy it. They're better off aiming for notes they CAN hit. If 50 Cent tried to be cute and made heart shapes with his fingers at the girl he liked, it would be equally horrible.

There's tons of diversity in the rap world: Busdriver's one of my favorites, because he's smart, random, weird, and funny as hell. What I'm saying is let acts be who they are, not pretend to be what they aren't: if Abba wrote an introspective singer-songwriter album, it wouldn've sucked; if Joni Mitchel wrote a disco-dance album, IT would have sucked. If a band works with a style and image like MC Mong or Epic High, they should do it, because it works, and not try to have an image that doesn't work for them.

In general, most of the Korean rock bands I've seen can pull off a more credible Weezer impression than a Black Sabbath one, so they should be playing to those strengths; that's basically what I'm trying to say. Not that there isn't a Korean band out there that could rock the house out with some death metal, but bands need to find what works for THEM, is all.

(ps: Kross: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuipEZTXrKY)

Gomushin Girl said...

I think you're essentializing "korean-ness" a bit for some of these groups . . . like chiam, I think that by making Korean pop a discrete category that *should not* transgress into American pop tropes and styles, and *ought* to be something different, you're being unfair. Why on earth should Koreans be less able to copy and co-opt styles they like?
I think a big part of the problem is that you're simply not their target audience. K-pop groups by and large are making their stuff for domestic and greater East Asian audiences, who DO want to enjoy some of the same styles and forms of music as we listen to on top-40 radio. But, just as you're too lazy to learn enough Korean to enjoy the lyrics of K-pop fully, Korean pop music is fufilling a desire to not have to learn English to enjoy the same kind of musical thrill of . . um, . . . Britney Spears.
Even so, I think you're once again being too dismissive. Epik High isn't a rap group ,for example, they're a group that incorporates rap. And Korean rap is actually in and of itself a really interesting genre (and, I would argue that it's also the more mainstreamed and matured version of the musical rebellion that punk music helped launch in Korea. Incidentally, Korean punk rock . . .well, it rocks!)

Roboseyo said...

I'm pretty sure I referred to Epik High as a hip-hop group, which isn't the same as Rap, of course. But Epik High succeeds because they know what they are, and what they can believably pull off, and run with it. If another Korean artist can credibly pull off a hardcore rapper schtick, good for him/her!

As I said in the comment previous to this: if the band can pull it off, they ought to go to town. But if they can't pull it off - sorry, but Ahn So-hee can't do the "single ladies" dance like Beyonce can - they shouldn't try, in my opinion. There ARE Koreans who CAN pull it off, I'm sure. I'd like to see them be given center-stage, frankly.

I suppose it's like food, architecture, and everything else: if it comes across as sheer imitation of something from another culture, I'm not too interested. Bring something new to the table: that's what I'd ask of ANY artist. I AM interested in an honest attempt to bring a Korean spin on something found in another culture -- that is, REAL fusion food, not just taking a western food and putting more mayonnaise on it -- REAL fusion architecture that brings a Korean twist into things, in an inventive way, not just aping the exact designs found in every city in the world -- REAL attempts to bring an artist's unique voice, and a culture's unique approach, to elements found in other cultures -- then I'm very interested. There's lots of Korean music that doesn't fit on equivalency charts. And that's usually what I like. When I come across stuff that takes a foreign artist's template, and basically treats it like a paint by numbers project, filling in Korean faces, colors and styles in as close a facsimile as possible... well, for a guy who looks for something unique and original, of course it doesn't fit. Who'd expect it to? Sometimes, a song or artist will burst out of the template by sheer emotion or charisma or talent or joy (not-too-guilty secret: I like the SNSD's Gee. It's an honest bliss-out. For real.), but I've never liked derivative non-Korean music, either.

Yeah, I'm not Korean music's main audience, and I'm CERTAINLY not K-pop's main audience, but hey, this is how I, personally, choose music I, personally like, and listen to on my own, private time. I try to be as open-minded as I can, but I like what I like, and leave the rest.

Still: I'm ready to hear and listen: instead of criticizing my personaly expression of my personal taste, tell me who I should be listening to!

WHICH rap groups, and WHICH punk groups are we missing out on?

Wayne0714 said...

I like Psy's version of "서른즈음에(around thirty)". I'm not a big fan of Korean hip-hop, I've always thought his artistry is a little underrated even though he enjoys immense popularity.
I like this version too.

Wayne0714 said...

I also like to mention Yoo Jaeha(유재하), Lee Sunhui(이선희), Lee Sangeun(이상은), and one and only Cho Yongpil(조용필). Sure Cho's old stuff but it is still loved by the young and old alike even today.
How about giving a shout out to Shin Haechul (신해철) and Lee Seungchul(이승철)? I enjoy 70's folk songs as much as the next guy but we can't talk about Korean music without mentioning these 80's and 90's stars.

ambearo said...

Korean bands that I enjoy include Nell, Huckleberry Finn, Sugar Donut and My Aunt Mary. ^^

ROK Hound said...

Rob, if you like Cherry Filter, grab up You-jeen's solo stuff when she was in Japan. I guess that would make it J-pop, though.

She rocks it pretty hard in Japanese, too, although I was surprised to fnd out it was recorded BEFORE she came back to Korea to re-form Cherry filter.

katrina said...

Gang, San-eh (강산에)
Kim C
Drunken Tiger

chrisrawk said...

I & I Djandan, good Korean dub:


Melissa said...


I don't know HOW it happened - but I didn't have you linked on my new blog! And as I just read the posts as they come in (newer posts first) I hadn't really registered that I wasn't reading your blog.

Well, it took a while but I finally noticed. And I'm glad to have dropped by! This is a great post you have here!

Thanks - and remember - I'd be happy to start up a music blog with you, anytime!


PS: you've been added!

Justine said...


snowmon said...

King Kwang Seok ftw, by the way very interesting point by Gomushin Girl