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.