Monday, October 27, 2014

Some Old Korean Rock.

Yes, I have heard the complaint that some kinds of Korean music do nothing artistically -- they just take foreign music and put it in the mouth of somebody Korean.

I think the conversation is much more complex than that -- the act of mediation has a lot of different things in play -- why are they choosing this song or this style instead of another, and why does some stuff catch on, and other stuff not? I had a student tell me about her abiding love for U2, which surprised me, because U2 is almost never the foreign band mentioned when you ask your Korean friend who loves foreign music, to name a few bands they like. I've never heard a Korean pick a U2 song in a noraebang. Not to mention, you can just put on a record... so why do we want our singers to bang out live versions of songs, if accuracy is the issue? It's not. There's simply more going on. And even if imitation is the only thing that's going on, well so what? Anybody impressed with the cover is very likely to look up the original, and might even accidentally come across some great music, thanks to a shitty cover.

Those covers don't always work. Some covers do strike me as utterly unnecessary because they've done very little with the original except add a new color scheme, dance moves, or a different vocal style. But then, that doesn't only happen across cultures (original). And when it doesn't work, we can get rude and dismissive.

But then you come across Shin Joong-hyun's cover of In-a Gadda Da Vida (original by Iron Butterfly)... and I'm willing to forgive a lot of derivative works if every once in a while, something this magical comes across.

Play it through. Play it loud. Or don't bother. But... bother. It's worth it.

And ultimately... I have no problem with the idea of adapting things for a target audience. Why the heck wouldn't you? Italian food is so successful worldwide because pasta is easy, and sauces are infinitely flexible, and thus infinitely adaptable to available ingredients and local taste. And yes, there will be someone somewhere sniffing about authenticity, and they should just go to Naples. Ditto for music. You've got to use the available ingredients, and suit things to local taste. As long as royalties are being paid... all the power to ya!

The Pearl Sisters

Their live version of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" made them famous.

Another thing I like about Korean music is the way certain songs keep coming up. There's kind of a repertory, and if you listen to enough music, you'll start recognizing them. Not all of them are even Korean songs anymore - somebody always wants to drop Nella Fantasia or "The Susan Boyle song" into the mix.

For example, any female who wants to show off her pipes chooses this one. (Kim Chuja is the original singer.)

It's an emotional rail spike, and it's effective as hell when a woman with a lower range pours her heart into it.

(If she wants to show off her pipes and her English, she picks Mariah Carey's Hero, or Let it Go.)

You can find dozens of versions of it, from darn near everyone. Here. Get started. It's viral video bait in Korea -- right up there with Nella Fantasia (aka Gabriel's Oboe)

I've been listening to more Shin Joong-hyun again lately, and I've heard him revisit songs with different artists and different arrangements a bunch of times, and I love how he brings out a different side each time. Numerous songs appear multiple times in his 8 disk anthology, which was generously shared with me by a reader. (Thanks, Adam.) It manages to highlight both his songwriting (to write a song that glows under so many different lights) and his musicianship (taking a song we know, and still surprising us).

He's done this song (떠나야 할 그사람 - The Man Who Must Leave) a bunch of different times, and each one is interesting. It started with the Pearl Sisters, one of his first proteges, and from there everybody did it, including Shin himself. My favorite might be this version by 김선 (listed as by Kim Chu-Ja by shazam, but that's a boy's voice). And more recently, In-Sooni took it in a totally different direction.

Another one is 봄비 or "Spring Rain" - which has been done by a swack of people, (Park In-Soo, Jang Sa-ik... but there's another song floating around with the same name, by the way) and has a very distinctive "na na" ending that you'll remember if you've heard it. This is another of those songs that makes everybody feel that happy kind of sad.

Shin's own version of this song is the saddest, in my opinion. As he got older, his voice just oozed some kind of disappointment. Fittingly.

Some people might argue that this kind of recurrence of songs is a minus in Korean music, but I have to disagree. First of all, the cult of the singer-songwriter is a culture and even a genre-specific phenomenon coming out of western (mostly white) rock and roll, where Rolling Stone writers got swept up in The Beatles, who made it a selling point on their artistic originality that they wrote their own songs. Now there's something really admirable about a great songwriter -- Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are two of the artists that find their ways back on my playlist more than almost any other -- but it's also silly to take points away from someone just because the song's not an original. In jazz music, it's fine to sing the standards, and even preferred if the alternative would be a great singer or musician doing crappy songs, because they're limiting themselves to their own bad songwriting. In classical music, you're pretty much required to perform other people's compositions, and nobody rages on Glenn Gould for doing all those Bach cover albums.

If you take points away from Aretha Franklin for not having written "Respect" (she didn't) or Jimi Hendrix for not writing "All Along The Watchtower," then in my opinion, you're kind of missing the point. Learning someone wrote their own songs is great while I'm scanning the bio, and I often do prefer the original version once I find it, but as soon as I press play, it's about the music, not the origin story. In his "50 Greatest K-pop artists" series (which you should be following, by the way), The Korean talks about the role Kim Kwang Seok played in helping to develop the repertory of Korean songs, and that's important work, developing a sense of heritage from which future artists can draw inspiration. While the originality of some artists is great and praiseworthy, it's not the be-all and end-all for a great musical experience, even if your songwriter was some Swedish ringer. Furthermore, sometimes a well-placed cover demonstrates a sense of history, a sense of heritage and respect for the pioneers, that deepens an artist's repertoire, even as it honors what came before.

So while I don't like every new cover of an old song, and while I in fact think that "Hallelujah" has been wrecked (but not irreparably) by too many crappy reality talent show audition covers, I think it's great when artists nod to their past, and bring us a new look at a song we already know.