Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Beautiful Rivers and Mountains 아름다운 강산 - Shin Joong Hyun 신중현

A friend on Facebook recently asked a group I belong to for suggestions on niche Korea blog topics that aren't being filled right now, and I suggested he take older Korean music -- rock and pop stuff -- and make a blog dedicated to making the modern history of Korean music more accessible to English readers. Since G'Old Korea Vinyl stopped updating, that seems to be one gap crying to be filled. Matt from Popular Gusts does too, but not nearly often enough. [Update] and we can't forget The Korean's long-running countdown of the fifty most influential Korean music artists.

If I'm wrong, and you know just the website I should be following, please tell me in the comments, of course!

So a few weeks ago, I saw this on TV. (Warning: if you only click on one video in this post, don't let it be this one.)

It's actor and singer Im Chang Jung, whom I first recognized from raunchy sex comedy "Sex Is Zero," the Korean equivalent to "American Pie" where he played Korean iteration of the Jason Biggs character - the one who gets humiliated a lot. He does well enough as a singer that he got the final performance of an episode of 불후의 명곡 ("Immortal Song" is how the show title's translated. Here is the Show's Facebook Page). "Immortal Song" is a show where they call in one of the great artists from Korea's past, and ask young, up-and-coming artists, less-established bands, and sometimes stars or idols singing solo (not with their superstar groups), to do versions of that artist's songs, and the artist gets to give them a score and choose a winner.

Lee Sang Mi was judging this time, and one of her old favorites, it appears, was a cover of Shin Joong Hyun's "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" (see her do it live, here) Im Chang Jung did a version of that song (아름다운 강산). My wife said "Oh, that's a Shin Joong Hyun song" to me, and the story came back to me from my Korean Pop Culture class.

I've known about Shin Joong Hyun for a while. I even wrote about him a few times on the blog: Here and most recently here. Shin is known as "The Godfather of Korean Rock." He cut his teeth performing as Jackie Shin on US army bases. Read his interview by Mark James Russell here. Popular Gusts talks about him here here and a few other places. His song Mi-in is discussed here. I talked with a few friends about this song on Facebook a while ago, and want to thank Matt and Gregory and everyone whose contributions there led to this post. During the late 60s and 70s, he was like the Prince of the 80s and the Jimi Hendrix of the 60s combined for Korea: he was doing new things with the guitar, and combining genres and sounds from abroad in wildly interesting ways (Hendrix) and meanwhile, when he wasn't recording his own music, he was writing songs and producing music for many of the other best artists of the era (80s Prince). Korean rock music of the time was really, really interesting.

And then Yushin happened. Longtime dictator Park Chung Hee shifted his dictatorship into high gear with the Yushin constitution, where he declared a state of national emergency... because he didn't have total power yet, and needed it, I guess. His moral vision of the country excluded decadent rock and roll, and music got regulated more and more strictly. The very fun movie Go Go 70s explores the police persecution of artists (trailer).  Artists of the time were required to have a "건전가요" - one "wholesome song" on each album, a song that encouraged people to work hard, or save money, or be somehow virtuous, which painted an idyllic postcard image of Korea. Flowers in my basket, going to the market and stuff. The Korean wiki suggests these as representative examples: 아 대한민국 시장에 가면 어허야 둥기둥기. President Park had enough invested in this moral vision of his, he actually even wrote a "wholesome song" himself. Here it is, with a HUGE thanks to The Korean, who slipped me the link on Facebook.

UPDATE: More on this song - including an English translation of another patriotic song also written by Park Chung-Hee is at Popular Gusts now.

There are lyrics under the video box if you can read Korean. I haven't been able to find a translation of them - they're all geographical names (think This Land is Your Land), strength and sweat and pride and ancestors and greatness - but just listen to that military aesthetic.

According to the interview by Mark Russell linked above, in 1972, Shin got the call from the President's office: the president wanted him to write a song in praise of the dictator. He refused.

Instead, he wrote the song "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" -- or 아름다운 강산. Now, I really want you to listen to the song right above this. Then immediately after, listen to the song right below. The lyrics are in the "about" section under this version of the song.

This is the 1972 version from the Shin Joong-hyun Anthology. The version he wrote and recorded just after being asked to glorify the president in song. (If you only click on one video in this post, let it be this one.)

So... the president asks you to sing a song praising the president. The style he would prefer, if the video above is any indication, would be a terse, military march. President Park was also known to admire sentimental ballads.

Instead, you go into the studio, and write a huge, shambling, sweeping, psychedelic song that builds and builds and builds to a wild cry of passion, with lyrics like this (these aren't all the lyrics - as translated on the youtube link above):
Opening lines: Blue Sky / White clouds / A thread of wind rises / To fill my heart...
In this beautiful place, you're here and I'm here...
Hold my hand, let's go and see, run and see that wilderness...
Into this world, we were born. This beautiful place. This proud place we will live.
Today I'll go to meet you... time will pass, we will live together, then fade and fall.
Spring and summer go, Fall and winter come. (at 3:58:) Beautiful rivers and mountains!
(4:05-4:30) Your heart, my heart, You and me, Us Forever We are all, all in endless harmony.

It is a sweeping, gorgeous tribute to the beauty of Korea, and Shin's pride in his country, it contains time, seasons, mortality, harmony -- this is Shin's love of his land, with a loose, sloppy song structure, no chorus, few repeats, just a love poem sung straight through, all draped in shambling psychedelic, fuzzy, decadent rock sounds, ending with an extended musical washout as "we are all in endless harmony" disappears into the endlessness of great music.

There you go, Mr. President.

So instead of singing a tribute to the President, Shin pointedly, and passionately, sings about the beauty of the land. NOT the beauty of the government, the leader, or a vision of greatness for the people. No exhortations to respect your teacher or work hard. The rivers and mountains. He places all the politics and ambitions and dreams of the people under a giant sky of washing guitar, and sings that they will fade and fall, but the land, the beautiful land, will outlast them all.

To me, knowing the story of it, the song screams, "I love this country, Mr. President. Not you." Not only is it a pitched act of defiance, it also might be the best song he ever made.

Of course, he was on the president's shit list then. His albums and songs started getting banned, and finally in 1975 they pinned marijuana possession on him, and arrested him. His songs were banned from being played until President Park's assassination in 1979.

I just can't get over this song. As I listen to the song again and again, each time it gets more powerful to me. Be careful about listening to it repeatedly on headphones in public spaces, I guess. This Starbucks got really dusty. The section at the end - the "Your heart, my heart, you and me, us forever..." - is a cry of passion. The version with the most beautiful climax might be this, by Kim Jung-mi, who infuses it with so much longing, but the way the original spirals off into the sky at the end has the sweep and scale the others lose when they shorten it. It's a beautiful song that reminds us what is used to mean to say something was "epic" -- before the bros seeped all meaning out of the word by overusing it.

If Park Chung-hee's song got an embed, Kim Jung-Mi's version deserves one, too. If you only click on two videos in this post, let this be the second one:

After the ban on him was lifted, though, music tastes had changed. From Mark Russell's interview:
Shin says, with a soft, matter-of-fact bitterness. “It was completely physical, with no spirit, no mentality, no humanity. That trend has carried over all the way to today, so people are deaf to real music. They don’t know because they are never exposed to it.”
Here's the 1980 version he recorded with "Music Power." The meandering intro is gone. The bass is higher in the mix, the rhythm is more driving. It's a disco song now. A disco song.

I mean... it still kind of rocks, but the synth (rather than rock organ) is a big letdown for me.
The horn section at 3:10 becomes the "hook" in the cover version at the beginning of this post. He's also repeating lines now, rather than letting the song end with a musical meditation.

To me, this sounds like he's trying to make a pop song, rather than trying to make a great song. And it's better than most disco songs you'll ever hear, but it's still a gelded version of that original, which sounds like it's coming down from the top of a mountain. The call at the end after the cry, 아름다운 강산, the climax of the song, where the lyrics come faster, before ending with the musical breakdown - the "Your heart my heart, run together" just after 5:00 here, has none of the emotional impact from the original.

And the sad thing is, the disco version? That's the one that got grabbed, and popularized... as if to prove, to twist the knife on Shin's assessment that "people are deaf to real music." We heard it up above, sung by Im Chang Jung and Lee Seon Hee, whose version is here, and whose version the other singers are referencing. She has a powerhouse of a voice, but the song includes a synthesizer making ocean noises, and '80s power chords. You can almost hear the feathered hair and shoulder pads. And oh. Did I mention? In case you didn't click, the version on Immortal Song at the beginning of the post has a rap solo added. As if the point hadn't already been made. (Apologies to any JYP disciples who think every song is better with a rap solo... I disagree.) And just to make that point really hurt... here is Orange Caramel's version. In case, along with rap solos, you think aegyo is another thing that makes every song better.

Again, I disagree.

And that's the legacy of the song. A defiant cry to heaven, turned into a disco standard. I'm not sure what to make of that, except to just go back and listen to the original again.

In 2006: Shin did a "Last concert" (Covered here by Mark Russell)

That horn "hook" in the 1980 version sounds way better as a power guitar riff, in my opinion. But the song is all the way down to 5 minutes. Now, for a "greatest hits concert," I guess maybe he doesn't have the energy to keep calling out to the skies, especially when the public has chosen the disco version anyway... but I can't help but feel wistful and sad that this is what's come of the song.

I think the gelding of this song is symbolic of what happened to all of Korean music when President Park clamped down on Rock Music. Korea could have been the heartland (or hub, if you will) of an Asian rock scene that might have done all kinds of interesting things we'll never know, because by the time the censors loosened their grip, public tastes were no longer with the innovators. That is a tragedy if you care about Korean music, and I do.

But you know what? You can still listen to the original, so it's not a total loss, I guess.

My man, Shin Joong Hyun

1 comment:

Roboseyo said...

Just an FYI; if your Facebook friend does start to blog about Korean music, s/he should at least be aware of The korean's intermittent series http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2010/04/50-most-influential-k-pop-artists.html . Of course, there's a lot of room left in Blog-space for more on Korean music.