Falling On Deaf Ears: The Curious Case of Popular Music in Korea

A grievance for many foreigners living in Korea is the perceived lack of variety. The food, whilst excellent, is typically built around the same staple ingredients. Anyone arriving here expecting a local beer to rival those of Eastern neighbours Thailand, China, Japan and India will be bitterly disappointed. The choice is small; the taste of each is poor. It’s visible in the schools, where the kids are forced to wear regulation haircuts; in the streets, where young lovers parade dressed in couple sets’ matching outfits; and in the workplace, where signs of individuality are often greeted with suspicion.

Where I noticed this most, though, is in the music. Having conducted a little research before I came here, my expectations weren’t very high. I understood that mainstream Korean music was similar to Japanese: sickly sweet and nauseatingly choreographed. However, whereas Japan is famous for its niche markets, its fascination with bizarre elements of Western culture and its resultant spawning of independent scenes rivaling those of the West for fervour and devotion, a parallel seems lacking in much of Korea.

I underestimated the reach of the mainstream pop music scene in Korea. As a well-developed, industrialized country, a functioning democracy and the fastest internet connection in the world, the seeds of variety, the key ingredients of lifestyle choice and the means with which to pursue them are all present. In my own experiences, there just isn’t the appetite. No matter where you go in the city I live in, Gwangju, it’s wall to wall K-Pop. In the bars, clubs, restaurants and even on the street. There are megaphones affixed to the sides of buildings churning it out, relentlessly. It’s inescapable. It also seems to be embraced by people from every demographic: old and young, rich and poor. If you see an impromptu K-pop performance or dance routine on the street (as you often do), the audience will be a hodgepodge of middle-aged women and middle-school kids, all clapping along blissfully. If there is an underground scene, it’s so far subterranean, you may need to enlist ultrasonics to locate it.

Seoul, I’m certain, would offer a vast improvement in terms of diversity. It is a cosmopolitan mega-city, home to more than 20 million people. When touring acts do decide to make the journey to South Korea, they generally play a show in Seoul and sometimes Daegu and Busan. Friends in Seoul have spoken briefly of counter-culture, but it’s not an area I’m well-versed in. Gwangju, though, is hardly a rural backwater. With a population of 1.5million, it has almost the same amount of people as my home country, Northern Ireland. We may get the odd ex-pat band playing in a local foreign owned bar. There is the occasional indie gig, sponsored by the radio station. But amongst the Koreans I encounter regularly, there is little interest in an alternative to K-pop.

Girls Generation – Chocolate Love

So what music is popular in Korea?

K-pop is an intensely saccharine version of the music congesting the charts in the UK at the moment (from what I can tell). There are electronic, hip-hop and R&B elements or strands to it, but truth be told, each sub genre varies very little from the other. When I went home at Christmas, I briefly tuned into Radio One and was shocked to hear the amount if Auto Tune and vocador used to distort the singers voice. That has a presence in Korea, too.

The pop music here, though, strikes me as being very basic. Although a charge angled at lots of ‘fads’, it is bereft of depth, instantly forgettable and awfully annoying. It is childlike in its composition, often featuring insanely high-pitched vocals or faux-macho rap interludes. Some pieces remind me of an even less palatable Black Eyed Peas. Where we differ here, though, is that the format of the music reminds me of the boy/girl group boom in the West circa mid-1990s.

As anyone who has spent time in a Korean classroom will testify, boys and girls don’t mix very well. This may explain the saturation of single-sex pop acts dominating the airwaves. The most popular girl groups are probably The Wonder Girls (who became the first Korean ‘artist’ to break into the Billboard 100 in 2009) and Girls Generation: gaggles of insanely pretty, scantily clad pixies with barely a note in their collective heads. Of the boy groups, I could rhyme off any number of acts, but the ones I hear most often are B2ST (Beast, clever). Shinee, BIGBANG, 2AM, 21 and CN Blue. To their credit, CN Blue actually play instruments. They’re akin to McFly doused in Kool Aid and incarcerated in a music box. The boys are all handsome, clean-cut and fresh-faced with a prepubescent innocence that seeps out from their music videos.

B2St – Breathe

The Pop Idol format is kingpin in Korea, too. Many of the acts mentioned above came through the ranks of one of the local versions. No problem there… I recall just before Christmas my Facebook and Twitter feeds were inundated with X-Factor inspired comments. But there doesn’t seem to be any cynicism towards programs like these, or the superstars they spawn. Cynicism within a culture helps to engender an alternative, but people in Korea lap up the produce unquestioningly. When I have called this to various Korean people they have turned it back on me: “why would we?” Most people seem to be content with being spoonfed: it saves them the bother of developing a taste of their own.

Why doesn’t there seem to be any musical diversity in Korea?

The notion of adolescent peers frowning on individuality is not a new thing. It was present when I was growing up and I’m sure it will be when my grandchildren are. But in the wider spectrum (and certainly more-so in theory than in practice), the Western ideal is said to prize individualism. This is not the case in Korea. Groupthink is rife to an extraordinary level amongst people, particularly the young. Opinions are formed without questioning the reason: logic is often lost.

There is intemperate jingoism and fervent nationalism. Interview a cross section of people on any number of topics (current President Lee Myung Bak, mad cow disease, Japan, for example) and you will get 99% of the same vitriolic response. Ask them to back it up with reasoning, some will struggle. So whilst Korea is eager to embrace elements of modern culture, it could be argued that they don’t have the confidence to go the whole nine yards… independent thought isn’t a priority.

(I would like to point out here that I am in no way actively encouraging and hoping that Korea pursues “Western ideals”. I am a staunch critic of standardization and it sores me to see Starbucks’ popping up on corners here. I do not consider independent thought to be a Western virtue: more something that’s essential and present in a fully functional society.)

You can see it in the classroom, where students are encouraged to stifle their eccentricities. Hair, long considered the emblem of teenage rebellion, must be regulation length and colour. The learning-by-repetition models adopted in many classrooms are a few steps away from the “hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There is such an emphasis on achievement here, creativity falls by the wayside and with it, the desire or ability to form musical taste. Children are not championed for their flair or uniqueness here, but for their productivity and aptitude to study.

The prizes are so great. Failure is not an option (explaining the ridiculously high suicide rate). Humiliation equals death. Face and honour are the most valuable things in Korean society and as such, the system of learning is geared to build an army of obedient, successful robots. The emphasis on education is stifling, so if a kid takes his eye off the ball for a split second, he’s left in the dirt. From middle school, students attend up to seven extra academies after they finish their formal education. After completing their homework, some finally get to bed in the wee hours of the morning, before rising at the crack of dawn to begin all over again. One of my students was operating at four hours sleep per night, six nights a week. He is fourteen. When he goes to high school, he tells me his school hours will be from 7am-11pm. Where is the opportunity for these kids to develop a taste in music? So whilst we spent our teenage years holed up in our bedrooms taking our first steps in a sonic journey that will last a lifetime, Korean kids have to make do with what’s rammed down their throats: without the onus or will to question it.

Another obsession of the Korean people is image. Plastic surgery is common; particularly double eyelid surgery amongst women, where they try to make their eyes look more Western. Without so much time to devote to actually listening to music or watching movies, it’s important to them that their stars are all beautiful. Ask anyone why he or she likes a particularly movie star or singer and they are probably more likely to say “pretty” or “handsome” than, “they sing well”. In this area, ability is secondary. People are slaves to image and it’s certain that this has an effect on what they are listening to.

The most popular hobby in Korea, gaming, is so socially obtrusive that I would argue it too is a factor in the suppression of the music scene. When they do have some free time, a huge percentage of young people (and not so young) spend it in the PC Room. Combined with the countless hours of study, a large amount of time in here is a huge hindrance to the social skills of kids. Many lack confidence, are inordinately shy or simply don’t like interacting with other people. Again, any inkling they may have had to involve themselves in an alternative scene is effectively corroded. It seeps into their ambition, their fashion and of course, their music. With competition like this, credible musicians stand little chance.

I hope none of what I’ve written is offensive to Koreans reading this. Whilst I have spoken generally, I have done based on what I see before me daily. I hope that readers will highlight any erroneous statements, and counter my views with their alternatives. The music here has been one of the only frustrations I’ve experienced and something I’ve thought about a lot. I would be very interested to hear what other people’s take on this issue is… please feel free to comment below.

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13 thoughts on “Falling On Deaf Ears: The Curious Case of Popular Music in Korea

  1. wendy says:

    Really enjoyed reading this breakdown, F-bar. I think your observations are perfectly astute. I have personally been feeling anxious due to the lack of variety in my surroundings, and am craving the comfort of diversity in food, music, and conversation. Developing an interesting individual taste in music is a challenge for a lot of people out there (see any top-20 chart), but especially in an environment where a hobby is a luxury.

    I propose an idea for a new reality show: (since there just aren’t enough!)
    Wife Swap concept, but with Korean and Western students. Minds would be blown.

    • FBermingham says:

      That would be interesting Wendy! I read recently that some Korean teachers have been teaching English as part of their training in the States… maybe it’s the start of something similar. What I miss most is being able to go out and catch a band, or a singer, at the weekend. Not necessarily someone famous, but something decent. Something quiet!

  2. Mark Hayden says:

    I think you are right about being “slaves to image,” but I also think Western society is, too. The only difference is that Koreans aren’t ashamed of it. Our Christian society in Western society often shuns that, so if we do get plastic surgery here, your peers will judge you and call you vain, but in fact, it’s just more accepted in Korea to be vain. It’s not a problem there and people can get away with it. I kind of think that’s better in a way, because at least they’re not faking it and doing what they want, whereas here, people have to go through all kinds of loopholes to look good without being called a narcissistic ***hole. I also think it’s better because it cuts down on obesity. People here don’t care what they look like and end up being 300 pounds all of the sudden. But there, I think that also has to do with people being very blunt when calling people “pretty” or “handsome.” They just lay it out there. I think these days we’re starting to see more artistic ability being praised more than looks, but really only on the indie side of the things. Mainstream is all about looks here, too. How often do we see ugly popular musicians in western society? I think it’s we are very similar to them in a lot of ways, but we just hide it.

    • Drew says:

      Trust me mark… you never just ‘end up being 300 pounds all of the sudden’… I had to work very hard to get to that point, and it cost me a lot of money in food and beer… But you do have a point in many ways, people in America sometimes don’t outwardly express that they care what others think… but if I thought everyone thought I was a hideous chud I’d get plastic surgery… However, you and my other friends don’t just judge me by the way I look. I can still make friends with this thing called personality… mine is unique because we each have to develop our own in the west… My current boss did not even want to interview me because I am bald, and have facial hair (and possibly because I’m uber tall)… here it is best if you like what your boss likes. I have been told that if I go to dinner with an older Korean they will order my food, and if I don’t eat it they will be insulted…

      I understand Koreans want badly to hold onto tradition, but the only things they are really holding onto are racism and xenophobia…

      and there are many other things in Korea that are far worse than the music… but overall I love Korea, and most of the people…

  3. Mark Hayden says:

    I do really like this post, by the way. It’s a great explanation of how K-POP encompasses the people there.

  4. FBermingham says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the feedback. The main point of the piece was to establish that in Korea, there is no ‘indie’. Mainstream is the only option. So whereas in the West, artists who don’t comply with popular taste are categorized accordingly and will have a group of followers who adhere to that scene. It’s just not the case here, and that’s a shame.

    Also, regarding plastic surgery. I think a lot of people who get it done here do so because they feel like they have to. They have been made feel ugly by the mainstream imagery of beautiful boys and girls. Is this really freedom to look how you want? I think there are other factors that reduce the obesity rate… traditional diet, metabolism, work rate… but of course it’s good that the level is lower.

    As I mentioned, I’m not saying: West is Best. I just wish the people of Korea had more of an arena for independent thought and expression.

  5. Joanne says:

    Hey Finn,
    Great article bud! I couldn’t agree more with you – I’ve been craving music for the last 2 years now!
    Another thing that has bothered me since I came here is the fashions. I didn’t realise that it was something I did at home, but it has become very apparent to me that I do judge people by how they present themselves. At home (Ireland for me, in case you’d forgotten!) if I saw someone wearing “Goth” attire for example, I would instantly make some presumptions (regarding music, etc) about that person – sometimes wrong I’m sure, but I believe mostly correct. In Korea, I’ve come across people with a very specific look who have shocked me by being so… normal, for want of a better word! I find it very bizzare to meet a person who dresses like they are on their way to an animal sacrifice, but are in fact listening to The Wonder Girls on their iTouch!
    I like to have some idea who I’m dealing with and I’ve been caught off gaurd once or twice. I recently helped out a girl on the bus when she realised that she hadn’t enough change to cover to cost. She was very grateful and she seemed like a nice girl, so when she asked me to go with her for a coffee some time I thought there would be no harm. After some texts messages from her it became obvious that she is a VERY religious girl and had hopes of saving my lost soul. The part that confused me was that I can usually see these sorts of people coming from a mile away. She didn’t seem like the “God Squad” because she was dressed like the girls in the Kpop videos!
    In relation to Mark’s comments… I agree that it’s great that their isn’t a huge (no pun!) problem with obesity here in Korea. But I do think there is an opposite problem. I won’t mention names, but Mark and I have a mutual close friend (Korean, female) who survived on an apple a day recently so as to reduce her already very slim frame in the hopes of getting an interview for an airline here.
    Another shock came only last week (still getting shocks after over 2 years!!), when a parent of one of our kindergarten kids rang up and complained that Stew had given a spelling test the day before and her daughter was upset as she’d only spelt 2 words correctly out of 20. When I explained to the Korean teacher that Stew and I like to give little tests to determine how the students are progressing (or not!) I was told that we shouldn’t do that anymore, and if we must that we should award all the students with 100% regardless of how they did! This shocked me to no end, but the teacher eplained that she often does this for the kids’ Korean tests. The reason behind this is that the parents are paying a lot of money to get the best education for their kids and that, in their opinion, is the only evidence they need that their kid is the best!
    All in all, Korea has been great to me, but after over 2 years, I’m very ready to go west again.

    • FBermingham says:

      Hey Joey, thanks for reading and for the monstrous comment! It’s amazing that Korea still has the power to shock you after all this time. I can imagine that the idiosyncrasies that people joke about can get a bit tired after a while.

      The point you make about the test scores is ridiculous. A friend told me that there’s a similar system in place in the universities. They are not allowed to fail anybody, since they’ve paid a lot of money. It results in a lot of under qualified folks doing important jobs.

      Appearances can indeed be deceptive here! The God squad undercover… whatever next?!

  6. Natalie says:

    I have never been to Korea…..loved this post. So interesting. Infact I’m enjoying all your blogs, and I’m actually gutted I have to get off the bus in a few minutes for a night out with friends….could happily sit in my cosy pjs in bed with a cuppa, reading your blogs Finbar! X

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