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K-indie and Expressions of Korean Identity

June 5, 2012

          In exploring the world of contemporary Korean music, you will quickly discover that “k-pop” is the genre dominating that scene.  Short for Korean popular music, k-pop (a term derived from the same naming trend that gave us the term “J-pop” for Japanese pop music) spans a variety of styles including dance, electropop, hip hop, rock, and R&B.  With its upbeat danceable tunes and processed, saccharine vocals, k-pop epitomizes the current mainstream.  Another prominent feature you’ll find thrown in with the drum machines, synthesizer, and AutoTune, is the use of English in song lyrics.  These k-pop characteristics create a striking contrast with Korea’s indie music, often referred to as k-indie.  As in many cultures, pinpointing a definition of indie music presents a challenge, k-indie encompasses a variety of music put out by independent record labels, marked by its lo-fi aesthetics and more introspective, poignant lyrical content.  Gone are the flashy production values of mainstream media, and gone too is the omnipresence of English.  Upon inspection, it becomes clear that although k-pop dominates the airwaves, k-indie is a more authentically Korean art form, and this difference is symbolically represented in the relative frequencies with which each genre uses English in its lyrics.

            South Korea’s top hits are compiled in the Gaon chart (self-identified as a Korean equivalent to the Oricon chart of Japan and Billboard chart of the US).  If you browse the top ten singles for the week of May 20th to May 26th, you will find just a single song (“Humility is Hard” by Leessang, coming in at #6) containing no English words or phrases.  For an extreme example of Western influence, I recommend watching the video for the number two song, “2Hot” by singer G.NA (aka Gina Choi).  Not only are the lyrics peppered with bits of English, but the video is overflowing with gratuitous Western imagery:

The house where the video opens looks like something straight out of a quiet, middle class American neighborhood several decades ago, complete with manicured lawn and white picket fence:

Image

When the girls head downtown later on, all the street signs and building labels in English:

Image

            Indeed, the ubiquity of English phrases in k-pop songs is widely acknowledged.  As the writer KisforKarenx3 on the Korean music website Soompi puts it, “many (nearly most) pop songs have bits of Engrish sprinkled on top.”  (For those unfamiliar, “Engrish” is a somewhat offensive slang term referring to unusual and/or incorrect uses of the English language by people of East Asian descent.)  Blogger Ngoc Nguyen goes so far as to say that “English has intertwined its way into KPOP songs so thoroughly that we have come to expect its use in every single song.”  The presence of Western influence in Korean pop should come as no real surprise.  As globalization pushes forward in the world of music, musical features common to certain cultures are adopted and exchanged freely, and trends in Western music have proven to be especially pervasive.  Given the extent to which Western traits dominate global popular media, it seems natural that we would start hearing things like heavy bass beats, AutoTune, or even some English words in k-pop.  What might come as more of a surprise, though, is just how much of this is actually a calculated strategy, rather than innocent adoption of a pervasive style.

            For several decades, the popularity of South Korean entertainment has been spreading across Asia and beyond in a phenomenon known as the “Korean wave”.  If you are a Korean musician looking to capture a larger audience, adding some Western sounds to your music is certainly one way you could try to broaden your appeal and garner more international attention.  Enter the Asian financial crisis.  Back in 1997, Thailand’s currency collapsed, and South Korea was one of the nations hit hardest by the ensuing economic repercussions.  In a wounded economy, it suddenly wasn’t so easy to sell records anymore.  The music industry was under a great deal of pressure, and they responded by riding the Korean wave for all it was worth, capitalizing on the international fan base of their cultural exports, according to a January 2010 article in The Economist.  Several music labels were making serious efforts to market their music outside of Korea (Hyunjoon 150).  In fact, The Economist reveals that the South Korean government itself employed the same tactic, funding organizations that introduce and market Korean culture overseas in hopes of mitigating the stagnation they experienced in the years following 1997.  I maintain that this had a nontrivial amount of influence on the direction of k-pop, creating clear incentives for the incorporation of Western musical features as Korean musicians tried to market their work to an international audience with unprecedented fervor and urgency.

            Deviating from the mainstream norm of k-pop, we have the Korean indie music scene.  In place of over-the-top energy, bouncing dance beats, and flashy celebrities, k-indie offers a mellower sound, often bittersweet or intellectual in nature, and more artistically crafted lyrics.  One of the most well-known independent record labels in South Korea today is Pastel Music, whose musical ideology is described as pushing for “gentle, soothing melodies like the murmuring of the river or children’s laughter resonating form a nearby playground,” to quote a March 2010 article on the site minipopcube. K-indie has seen a considerable upswing in popularity over the course of the last five years or so.  Some k-indie bands have even developed a modest fan base overseas, participating in festivals and concerts in areas like Japan and North America (Hyunjoon 147). This music scene can trace its roots back to the early 90s, when it grew out of small clubs in the western end of Seoul.  Korean music got a new lease on life in 1987 when the government changed hands and strict censorship standards were relaxed.  The early and mid 90s were a time of optimism, social liberalization, and economic prosperity, and it was in that environment that k-indie got its start (Hyunjoon 153).  This alternative music scene was based in Hongdae, a district of Seoul.  The several universities nearby contributed a sizable student population to the area, making it a perfect hotbed for underground music.  The music was a refreshing challenge to the norms of the mainstream media, and the indie scene was mostly made up of small-scale concerts and festivals, and DIY record releases.  When the Asian financial crisis struck, it became harder than ever for indie musicians to get work.  This came right around the same time as the advent of digital music on the internet, so illegal file sharing and piracy compounded the financial insecurity of the music industry.  Many artists gave up on music, pursing other ways to support themselves, and the first wave of k-indie essentially collapsed (Hyunjoon 154).

            However, a second wave of indie music emerged in Korea not long afterward.  This wave of musicians were influenced by recordings from the 70s and 80s, and they gave more thought to their place within the history of Korea’s musical legacy (Hyunjoon 155).  By 2004, Korea had managed to stabilize the chaos surrounding the availability of digital music, becoming  the first country where digital music sales beat out physical sales.  On top of that, bands had ready access to home recording equipment, and often took advantage of it rather than using professional recording studios, making it easier than ever to market your music without the backing of a wealthy major record label.  With this background in mind, it is now time to look at a few particular k-indie acts.

Hot Potato

            Formed in 1997, k-indie band Hot Potato is currently made up of bassist Koh Beom Jun and singer Kim C (biography courtesy of the site go kpop).  Hot Potato is well known within the k-indie community, and in 2010, their song Confession even made it to the number one spot on Korea’s Cyworld rock chart, according to music site all kpop.  Here is their song “Irony”:

Consider the following translation of some of “Irony”’s lyrics:

Season comes again and again, and wind blows again and again

Thought/mind is again in that state, and although (I/we) had thought/decided that it would be when (I/we) become adult/grownup

Between 17 and 22, exactly what seems to have changed?

Hurting and dreaming and exactly what did change?

 

            The sound of the music is stripped down and simple, not glitzy and dolled up like k-pop.  Even without understanding the lyrics, you can appreciate the sincerity of the emotion in Kim C’s voice.  Armed with an understanding of what the words mean, it’s easy to see that “Irony” is a pensive and honest song, exploring real feelings that people can relate to in a meaningful way.  Also, notice that the lyrics are purely Korean (it sounds like Kim C is saying “irony”, but the Hangul word for irony is just pronounced the same way as the English word).  This song is artistic expression, not a tool for feverishly seeking attention and money.  Lead singer Kim C once explained in an interview that he isn’t concerned with how people perceive him and his music.  He said that back in the days when people didn’t ask him questions about his music, he didn’t worry about it, commenting that “whatever the image, it’s all still me.” (The transcription and translation of this interview were provided by the blog Dw4p TommyROT.)  Hot Potato is not a group concerned with fame or image.  They’ve been at it for a long time, and they clearly just love what they do.  Over the last fifteen years, they’ve had undeniable hits as well as clear misses, and through it all they have stayed true to their alternative expressive style, never selling out and adopting mainstream trends.

            You may have noticed while listening to “Irony” that it has a somewhat similar feel to familiar Western indie music.  During k-indie’s formative years, there were already established alternative music scenes in countries like the US and UK, so you can hear traces of that inspiration in k-indie.  However, there’s a lot more than just those Western influences; you can also hear a diverse range of domestic influences.  Local trends and traditions are reflected in Korean indie music as well, which is a dimension more or less absent from the nation’s pop.

Broccoli You Too

            Broccoli You Too got together in 2005 and consists of members consists of Yoon Duk-won aka Duk-won (bass and vocals), Ryu Ji-hyun aka Ryuji (drums and vocals), Kim Jan-di aka Jandi (keyboard), and Ban Hyang-ki aka Hyang-ki(guitar and vocals).  They are known for their borderline-melancholy sound and relatable lyrics.  While many people describe Broccoli You Too’s sound as “songs of comfort”, Duk-won disagrees with that notion.  He said in an interview with 10asia reporter Lee Ga-on that their songs are more about sharing “the pain that is hard to be comforted”, maintaining that those emotions are important to confront.  The song “Dance” provides a good example of this lyrical quality:

 

            The narrative in “Dance” talks pensively about dancing and stepping on a partner’s feet, and how being together is not easy, but neither is separating.  A verse toward the end asks the following questions (rough translation courtesy of the site lyricalmovement):

We are dreaming a long dream
Will we wake up suddenly one day?
Will everything disappear when we open our eyes
As if nothing ever happened?

 

            K-pop caters to people constantly seeking energetic happiness and constant stimulation, and indie songs like “Dance” step in and provide a space for introspection.  Music like this gives listeners a creative space to explore their lives, thoughts, and feelings in a deeper and more sincere manner.

            In 2010, Broccoli You Too released an album entitled “The Graduation”.  They wrote the album as they were growing up and getting through their 20s, hence the name.  As Duk-won said the aforementioned 10asia interview, “graduation is a part of growing up, and don’t most people go through that stage?”  In particular, the years surrounding graduation can be a tense stage in life, as youth unemployment and underemployment continue to be an issue in South Korea (Hyunjoon 154).  This is a kind of music that hasn’t lost touch with people’s experiences.  It speaks to the lives of its listeners.  In that interview, Duk-won also shed light on his writing process, explaining that he “wanted to write as simple as possible the irreversible part of life such as encounter and separation”, and that the process of revising his work “led me to write things that are more intimate”.  Band mate Hyang-ki added on that “[the] lesser the words, [the] larger the space for empathy.”  Their uncluttered sound and somewhat minimalist lyrics leave room for thought, and their messages are relatable and thought-provoking, making this a culturally significant art form.

Chang Kiha and the Faces

            Chang Kiha played a major role in the success of independent record label Boongaboonga Records (aka BGBG).  BGBG referred to themselves as a “no budget indie label” (a cute play on the more commonly heard term “low-budget indie label”).  For a while, they cut costs by burning singles onto blank CDs one at a time and distributing them to a few individual shops.  Although they continued operating as an independent label and stayed true to their “sustainable entertainment” mission, things became easier for BGBG following their artist Chang Kiha’s breakthrough.  The effort that kick started Chang Kiha’s fame was a grassroots effort by his fans, who went online and uploaded video clips they’d taken at his concerts and other performances.  He now performs as part of the band Chang Kiha and the Faces.  In honor of his musical beginnings, here is an unofficial fan recording of Chang Kiha and the Faces performing their song “정말 없었는지”:

            As with the other two songs, you can appreciate the simple, relaxing tone of the music while sensing the pensive emotional undercurrents.  Also, the lyrics are once again all in Korean.  This stylistic choice is particularly significant now that the band is gaining more recognition outside of Korea, even performing in Japan.  In 2010 Chang commented in an interview with The Japan Times reporter Shawn Despres that “the Korean lyrics are very important in our music… one of my main goals is to make our lyrics as Korean as possible.  Our priority is to do well in Korea.”  Chang Kiha and the Faces are focused on their domestic audience.  That’s who they write for, regardless of the success they achieve elsewhere.  Now that they’re doing shows in Japan and released a record over there, they are thinking about ways to make themselves accessible to those fans; in that same interview with The Japan Times, Chang mentions that he’s learning Japanese to speak in between songs, and toys with the idea of making “picket signs” featuring translations of key lyrics.  Although the band is branching out, they are keeping close to their indie roots, and the discourse on finding ways to involve international fans has not turned to changing the essential Korean content of their music.

 

            From its inception, k-indie has blazed its own trail, largely unswayed by the commercial incentives for squeezing itself into the mould of Western pop norms or widespread use of English lyrics.  I mentioned earlier that there is no dearth of sources acknowledging the ubiquity of English in k-pop, but that isn’t the whole story.  Most of those acknowledgements actually come up in the course of mocking the genre’s often-poor English use.  The English in k-pop rarely serves to communicate anything.  It is often garbled and nonsensical, adding no value to the song.  K-indie avoids that blatant pandering to international audiences, and as a result, the finished product reflects a much higher degree of artistry.  As k-pop chases global trends, it loses its connection to the everyday lives of common people, while k-indie retains narratives about life in a specific time and place.  While k-pop continues to be the international face of Korean music, it isn’t a characteristically Korean sound, but instead, it lives in the transnational space of global popular music.  As a genre, k-indie does much more to express a sense of Korean identity.

 

 

I’ll leave you with a mixtape of enjoyable k-indie songs I came across in my exploration.

 

1. Belle Epoque//December

2. Broccoli You Too//Kkookkookkoo

3. Peterpan Complex//Swallow Feelings

4. Hot Potato//Rain Tears

5. Belle Epoque//Not Yet

6. Casker//꼭 이만큼만

 

 

 

 

References

KisforKarenx3, “Top 5 Ridiculous Uses of English in K-Pop,” Soompi, October 20, 2010.

http://www.soompi.com/2010/10/20/top-5-ridiculous-uses-of-english-in-kpop/

 

Ngoc Nguyen, “10 ridiculous uses of English in KPOP songs,” ningin, June 17, 2011.

http://blog.ningin.com/2011/06/17/10-ridiculous-uses-of-english-in-kpop-songs/

 

“Hallyu, yeah!”  The Economist, January 25 2010.

http://www.economist.com/node/15385735

 

Hyunjoon Shin, “The success of hopelessness: the evolution of Korean indie music”, Perfect Beat Vol 12.2(2011): 147-165.

“Pastel Music 5th Anniversary: We Will Be Together,” minipopcube, March 19, 2010.

http://minipopcube.blogspot.com/2010/03/pastel-music-5th-anniversary-we-will-be.html

 

“Hot Potato,” go kpophttp://www.gokpop.com/hotpotato/

 

jeshicaa, “Confession by Kim C’s band, Hot Potato achieves #1 on music charts,” all kpop, April 27, 2010.

 http://www.allkpop.com/2010/04/confession-by-kim-cs-band-hot-potato-achieves-1-on-music-charts

 

“Kim C says goodbye to 1n2d,” Dw4p TommyROT, May 12, 2010.

http://dw4ptommyrot.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/kim-c-says-goodbye-to-1n2d/

 

Lee Gao-on, “(Interview) Indie band “Broccoli You Too”,” 10asia, November 22, 2010.

Part 1:

http://10.asiae.co.kr/Articles/new_view.htm?sec=ent0&a_id=2010111716044590663

Part 2:

http://10.asiae.co.kr/Articles/new_view.htm?sec=ent4&a_id=2010111716154938960

 

“Broccoli You Too- Dance lyrics,” lyricalmovement, September 12, 2009.

http://lyricalmovement.livejournal.com/4718.html

 

Shawn Despres, “Indie breakout, ‘kimchibilly’ rockers bring Seoul to Japan,” The Japan Times, November 12, 2011.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fm20101112a1.html

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