In the great big book of pop history, a number of televised milestones all but rise off the page. There’s Elvis’ early broadcast performances in 1956; the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show in ’64; the 14-minute “Thriller” epic defining music videos and redefining the charts in ’83; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hitting MTV and dethroning Michael Jackson in ’91. No less significant has been the offscreen discovery of musical techniques that in turn lead the way toward new expressive continents: King Tubby’s accidental development of dub reggae, and the remix itself, in late ‘60s Jamaica; DJ Kool Herc’s anticipation of loop-based music, contemporary sampling techniques, and hip-hop writ large, in the Bronx of the early ‘70s; Brian Eno’s codification of ambient music with the beginning of his Ambient tetralogy in 1978. The canonical narrative of popular music is one of constant revision, but moments like these have settled well into their ink, too bold and clear to be questioned.
Someday, when its aesthetic value and global significance are better understood, Korean pop’s first such moment to pass the textbook committee will be the 1992 release of Seo Taiji’s “난 알아요” (Nan Arayo).
Among its international adherents, the boundaries for where K-pop begins and ends make for a bit of a coastline paradox. So let’s be straightforward: in the cultural development of both “K-pop” and “Korean popular music,” there is no figure more important than Seo Taiji, no inflection point more decisive than “난 알아요,” no single moment that can claim a bigger imprint on Korean society. Translating to “I Know” (as we will heretofore refer to it), Seo’s debut single sparked what has since been understood to be “the biggest mania in Korean music history,” selling 1.7 million shrink-wrapped copies in its time (with casual estimates of bootleg cassette sales more than quadrupling that figure). Just two years later, magazine of record JoongAng Monthly would count him among the 50 people most influential to Korea since the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 – an accolade time has only vetted further. The Korean public likewise dubbed him the nation’s de facto “President of Culture” while he was still young enough to be a college student. It’s a title that often attends his name to this day.
These are measures of its domestic influence, but “I Know” also marked the precise moment Korean music became something that could someday change the world. It set into motion the creative, economic, and sociocultural processes that would soon converge to enable the internationally infamous K-pop “assembly line,” and all the artistic accomplishments it later produced. Kim Chang Nam, author of K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, wrote in 2012 that Seo “can be negatively perceived as a crucial contributor to smothering diversity in [Korean] popular songs and laying the foundation for the monopoly of dance music over the Korean pop music market” – an interpretation that couldn’t be more wrongheaded. It’s true that this young singer-songwriter single-handedly catalyzed the overwhelming shift towards dance pop in the Korean mainstream, but “I Know” nevertheless provided the nourishment – however rough and raw – for Korean music’s most vibrant and exquisite flowering. With this song more than any other, Seo made possible the exact kind of K-pop we (someday the world) would come to treasure most.
But as we will see, what’s most significant isn’t that Seo Taiji accomplished these things within the span of a single song. It’s that he accomplished these things while being a massive weirdo.
1992 needed Seo Taiji. More than that, 1992 wanted Seo Taiji – even more than 1991 wanted Nirvana, or 1983 wanted a Michael Jackson who had finished growing up. 1 As an artist – only ever as an artist. In the early ‘90s, South Korea was a rapidly modernizing society without much modern culture to call its own. The country had only just become functionally democratic in 1987, shaking off the last of a chain of military regimes whose leaders had coiled their respective death grips around Korean culture. Things long stagnant accelerated swiftly from there: the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul occasioned a hasty facelift for the entire city, as modest town squares and farmlands were leveled overnight to make room for more vertical business districts. The momentary flood of foreign athletes and sports fans that followed, as well as Korea’s corollary loosening of international travel restrictions, permitted a positive experience with outside influences that was unprecedented for most living South Koreans at that time. 2 However, the liberalization of study abroad for the wealthy in the authoritarian early ’80s also bears mention, as well as the growing number of diasporic South Koreans around the world, some of whom would repatriate with favorite mementos and memories of their time in cultural elsewheres. The economy surged forth, birthing what the media quickly named shinsedae – a “new generation” of comfortably middle-class teens and twenty-somethings much resembling the baby boomers who came of age and purchasing power in ‘60s America and Europe. While the western world started LP collections, acid trips, and free love cycles, more than 50% of the average household budget in South Korea went to food – but by the liberated late ‘80s, that percentage had nearly halved, and commodified leisure had become commonplace. By the early ‘90s many Koreans were even buying satellite dishes to watch superior foreign television (primarily Japanese stations), or importing western music. In these first few democratic years, Koreans consumed far-flung ideas with a freedom and fervor unlike ever before.
Korean pop, sitting at room temperature as it had for decades, began to taste stale by comparison. It was a recipe for disaster: two public TV stations, KBS (Korea Broadcasting System) and MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Company), 3 “Munhwa” literally meaning “Culture;” they understood their power, and wanted the kids at home to understand, too. imposed nearly as tight a leash on the national pop imagination as Chun Doo-Hwan’s dictatorship had. Korea would lack an equivalent to the US Billboard charts until the advent of the Gaon in 2010, 4 Some, bearing concerns about sales figure manipulation, would say it still does. and at the time, these two stations’ weekly competition shows (active even today) provided not only the sole metric by which to compare musicians’ popularity, but also the sole platform for effective music promotion in the entire country. Worst of all, performers were forced to use these networks’ in-house bands and dancers, creating a bottleneck effect 5 Two in-house bands were responsible for performing every promoted song in Korea! and imposing an arbitrary common denominator to all pop music as it was broadcast to the public 6 To quote rock philosopher Joe Carducci in his seminal tome Rock and the Pop Narcotic, such circumstances precluded any possibility of a popular Korean group presenting a “unique band voice” – in other words, a fresh idea. – mostly because these two stations didn’t want to bother dealing with outside personnel or equipment. It should shock no one, then, that young Koreans preferred western music to their own, with international pop and rock commanding a 60% market share at the time.
Just as unsurprising is how Koreans longed to hear a localized take on these exciting western sounds, and that Korean musicians aspired to crack the code. A young boy named Jeong Heon-cheol was probably the one person most committed to this pursuit. Having played in numerous garage bands for several years prior, Jeong was recruited in 1989 to play bass guitar for the heavy metal band Sinawe (Shi-na-wi). The group was a burgeoning legend in Korea, and the invitation must have been a dream come true for a 17-year-old amateur: against heavy parental protest, Jeong dropped out of high school to take the gig and tether himself to music for the rest of his life (at the time a decision even less reconcilable with Korean social mores than the devil’s bargain it’s become today). To symbolize the clean break, he came up with the name Seo Taiji – the only one just about anybody’s called him since.
When Sinawe broke up just two years later, in 1991, Seo was quick to move on. Metal had been neither his only love nor his biggest; as he would recall more than two decades later, “I never cared about genres. Since I was young I loved ballads, pop, and all that.” (His was an unfashionable sentiment by the global, grunge-era standards of the time: Nirvana’s ’91 was nearly fifteen years before James Murphy would not-quite-jokingly brag about being “the first guy to play Daft Punk to the rock kids;” fifteen years before Girl Talk would make genre-omnivorousness trendy with 2006’s dawn of the mash-up fad, Night Ripper; and more than fifteen years before cool merchants like Diplo and Dirty Projectors would help guide cultural tastemakers like Pitchfork in using their clout to make it “okay,” and eventually fashionable, to love pop music openly – especially when combined with other, hipper referents.) Seo quickly discovered digital MIDI technology, which he used to compose his own material and experiment with genre. When he decided to draw inspiration largely from the contemporary black music of America, one of his rock friends sneered that he’d be making “charcoal” – the way some Koreans liked to demean such music at the time.
Of course, if Seo was going to make music like Michael Jackson’s or New Edition’s, he would need to learn how to dance. His best bet was Yang Hyunseok, a dancer in a standard idol pop group called Park Namjeong & Friends. Yang – the future founder and reigning CEO of YG Entertainment, home to current K-pop powerhouses like Big Bang and 2NE1 – offered him a deal to discount lessons in return for an upfront lump sum. Seo bought three months’ worth for a single payment of 1.5 million won 7 A bit over $2,000 USD, per 1991 exchange rates – especially expensive for the time. Yang’s business acumen was with him from the start. – only to discover Yang would suddenly enlist in the military just two weeks later, disappearing with the money and without a word.
Had the army claimed Yang for the standard 21 months, this website, our Korean visas, and many more important things would cease to be. Instead, he was fatefully discharged after just eight months, in November, for a heart condition that made him faint on occasion. “I became heartsick after I enlisted because I wasn’t able to dance,” he later explained. He also had some explaining to do to Seo, at least once Yang heard an early demo of “I Know” and realized his future depended on it. Having recovered quickly after taking medication perhaps unavailable in the military, he suffered through an awkward phone call to suggest they form a pop group.
It is probably a testament to the dearth of like-minded talent in Korea at the time that Seo Taiji started a band with one guy who’d just swindled him out of a small fortune and another who was five years his senior, 8 The humble Lee Juno, then one of the most renowned dancers in Korea and last seen wedding a woman half his age. both dancers but neither particularly musical. It is definitely a testament to the dearth of competition in the Korean pop field that they would make their debut performance (and music video) as ungracefully as they did, and it still managed to be Korea’s Elvis moment, Beatles moment, and MJ moment all at once. 9 Respectively: a pop sensation embodying youth and physical rebellion in a market until then dominated by and for adults, a pop sensation staged by handsome boys doing everything themselves (!), and a pop sensation motored by kinetic, dance-centric stagemanship. But come April 11, 1992, that’s exactly what would happen when Seo Taiji and his boys made their presence known on MBC’s Scoop! TV Entertainment program. 10 The full video has just now been headhunted on copyright grounds in an act of incisively spiteful timing; compliments to EBS’ legal team.
Cradling a vinyl copy of their debut album between the sleeves of a pitifully oversized business suit, the staid TV host’s introduction marked the first time Korea heard the group’s name. For their English moniker (the one emphasized on the cover, of course), they settled on the grammatically unfortunate “Seo Taiji ’n Boys,” but the Korean is far more meaningful: 서태지와 아이들 (Seo Taeji wa Aideul), translating more accurately to something like “Seo Taiji and the Kids.” Aideul, which literally means “children,” is especially interesting – and not most of all because Seo made a point of calling his dancers, two and five years older than him, “children” (the beginning of another trend in Korea: if you can’t have youth, you best have the appearance of it). In Korean, the term for a professional singer is 가수 (kasu), but the term for a professional pop singer is 아이돌 (aidol). 11 Tellingly a loanword from English, as though the entire concept were one that needed to be imported; more on that in future entries. You may notice that in Korean the words “children” and “idol,” 아이들 and 아이돌, look and sound awfully similar – just one phoneme, or letter, apart. In exploiting this near-homophone, Seo concisely redefined the entire notion of what it meant to be a Korean pop star: modern in style and sound, able to dance like a professional, and, crucially, young. Like a child. 12 For better or worse, this moment also cemented a prejudice that stands in Korea to this day: idol pop is performed by and for kids, making it taboo to enjoy or take seriously past a certain age. It’s all too easy to meet Koreans who will laugh off a song like “Rum Pum Pum Pum” as though it were “What the Fox Says,” before stating their preference for deathly boring and derivative Korean performers who checkmark musically superficial boxes like “writes own songs” or “can sing well.”
Their debut performance was indeed a bit child-like, though probably not as intended. The choreography is all flash, with no apparent thought toward purpose or symmetry; Lee and Yang are clearly skilled, but all their motion leads nowhere, and Seo’s tendency to sit out the harder moves deadens any hope for momentum. His eyes lack conviction, and the sequence of poses he strikes – at one moment a b-boy stance, cutely enough – adds up to little more than nonsense. The whole fiasco is clearly lip-synced, and it seems Seo abandons the goal of convincing anybody once he gets a bit short on breath.
That’s all to say nothing of the music. We will be real: it is not so good. Seo Taiji is widely considered a genius, and he later produced music worthy of that mantle – but “I Know” is a really not so good song. And for that, we should be grateful. “I Know” is perhaps the most usefully not so good song in global music history.
Its core issue is coherence. As we know, Seo was a rare specimen in his time for loving all music without pretense – and with “I Know,” he made a brazen attempt to synthesize many genres one wouldn’t expect to work together. Nor after hearing the result: we can discern in its four minutes a laundry list of duct-taped influences and interpolations, including but not limited to Tangerine Dream at their cheesiest (in the opening synth string melodrama), a looped sample of an apparently east coast rapper shouting “east! coast!” (why not), clearly uncleared samples of Public Enemy’s most iconic taglines, 13 Flava Flav’s trademark “yeahhhhboy-ee” caterwaul and Chuck D’s “bass!” shout, both sampled from the classic “Bring the Noise.” an early Detroit techno synth syncopation, 14 Specifically, the moment Detroit techno began to take things a bit back towards house, as with this top ten U.K. hit from 1988. down-beat synth-blast punctuation like something out of “It’s Like That” by Seo’s beloved Run-D.M.C., new jack swing (including the rather New Edition keyboard line in the chorus, a nice touch), “Ice Ice Baby” (the dramatic “stop!” that introduces Yang’s curiously limp verse), and the type of metal riff Seo repped frequently during his time in Sinawe. Later auteurs of K-pop (including a grown-up Seo) might make the combination work, but in the hands of this giddy 20-year-old it proved a jumbled mess. As with the choreography, the music’s individual gestures feel wasteful, and there is little in the way of transition between them. From a production standpoint, the mix is cramped and muddy – even considering Seo’s primary inspiration here appears to be the Bomb Squad, for whom claustrophobia was at least half the point.
The song’s most redeeming charm is its vocal melody, which winds labyrinthine figures through the pre-chorus and chorus. Seo’s unusual feel for melody would develop into one of his greatest assets, but the topline of “I Know,” while intriguing, suffers from having little room to unfurl – too much space is zoned for rap verses and instrumental breaks. Seo’s obvious inexperience as a lead singer also interferes, especially in his tendency to hit flat notes in the chorus. One could say “I Know” is the sound of potential, but it’s in fact flawed enough that Seo’s later masterpieces come as quite the surprise.
Of course, these shortcomings did little to mitigate Taijimania. After the final dramatic chord that historic day on MBC, the flustered host misidentified them (“Seo Taiji and Friends”), and did his best to restore the broken format being broadcast to every third living room in the country. The formalwear judge panel on deck included a trad-pop songwriter, a lyricist who looked like she’d written for the president, an “entertainment critic,” and veteran singer Jeon Yeong-rok. Jeon was the only one who didn’t seem a decade older than he was. He nonetheless joined the others in giving “I Know” the lowest score of the day while Seo politely smiled, Yang and Lee looking nervous. The old guard was closing ranks, confused and maybe feeling the age they each looked. If any of them knew they had just seen the future, they didn’t like it.
The future, unsympathetic, arrived the very next day. “I Know” lodged itself at the number one spot on the program for what would become a record-breaking 17 weeks, and their debut album went on its way to becoming Korea’s fastest selling record in a decade. Granted, the rest of that album had some tracks even more derivative and less accomplished – the harmonically challenged “환상 속의 그대” is a clear plagiarism of MC Hammer’s ridiculous “2 Legit 2 Quit,” and both versions of “Rock’n Roll Dance” grift sections from “Back in Black” wholesale 15 Less egregiously and perhaps more endearingly, “Yo! Taiji” is obviously inspired by both Vanilla Ice’s “Yo Vanilla” and Yo! MTV Raps. – which, once detected by the media, commenced the career-long criticism that Seo is a mere “suitcase merchant” of stolen western sounds. But there was plenty for the shinsedae generation to appreciate, beyond the simple relief of finally having Korean pop with a modern sensibility. Seo was the country’s first mainstream rebel: on this debut he approached the familiar themes of love and heartbreak from a newly relatable perspective, and he would later sing candidly about the burdens of the Confucian age hierarchy, the failings of the national education system, and even a longing for a reunified Korea (many instances of which were not just taboo, but illegal). Most importantly, he was a nonconformist from day one, asserting autonomy over the entertainment industry’s power structure (and later the government’s) by designing all his own choreography, playing with his own band, writing nearly all of the songs he’s ever performed, styling himself, avoiding the celebrity ratrace of Korea’s daytime variety shows, and never trading his creative freedom for a record deal or easy check. In a society where kids were told there was only one way to succeed, they finally had a role model for an alternative.
Seo even succeeded in persuading some of those kids’ parents. As the scholar Doobo Shim wrote in 2007,
The fact that Seo Taiji was a high school dropout but managed to earn social respect and succeed financially influenced parents’ ideas about stardom. In a country where the average family viewed university entrance examinations for children as being of the utmost importance, stardom came to be considered a new option for success. It was reported that some parents even constructed spaces in their homes for their children to practice dancing, which exemplified a shift in the Confucian values of society.
In short, Seo not only introduced the sound that would come to be called K-pop, but also proved there was a massive, fast-paced market for it, and furthermore helped shift social attitudes to ensure a flood of young performers in the years to come. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in the span of just one song, he minted an industry now nearly a quarter century strong.
Which is where that song’s not-so-goodness becomes useful. With “I Know,” Seo made something remarkable in its overreach: it attempts to pull together a diaspora of genres, and, as though struggling with its own ambition, falls into disorder and dissonance. Yet thanks to the grace of time and place, it was this eccentric mess that became the origin of all Korean idol pop to follow. It demonstrated to bored musicians and cutthroat businessmen the existence of a goldmine, yes – but most significantly, it showed that one could claim these riches by way of some very odd music. Execs and songwriters were free to experiment with the knowledge that even if they made some mistakes, huge success was still possible. These circumstances encouraged a musical adventurousness that was rare by any mainstream pop standard worldwide, and one that, after painstaking years of refinement, would in fact become historically unique in its integration of technical virtuosity and compositional brilliance (specifically, within a 21st century aesthetic that elsewhere in the world has been applied almost exclusively to far flatter and simpler songs).
This shift effectively reprogrammed Korean listeners’ ears to be more accepting of – in fact, inclined towards – such musical aberrations. A similar thing happened in the way Jamaican emcees (“deejays”) spoke and sung over popular records at dance parties in the late ‘50s and onwards. Performed by non-musicians, these “toasts” were often out of tune and time, and their abundance throughout the dub reggae heyday of the ‘70s – during which time deejays like U-Roy and I-Roy released their toasts on studio albums – permanently weirded up Jamaicans’ entire tonal framework. As the pivotal dub engineer Bunny “Striker” Lee once put it, “Dem ting just start by accident: a man sing off key, an when you a reach a dat you drop out everything an leave the drum, an lick in the bass, an cause a confusion an people like it.” Dub reggae’s deconstructive structure and harmonic friction – once a popular “confusion” – soon became intrinsic to local sensibilities, a foundation taken for granted. That bedrock remains fundamental for much Jamaican pop to this day, as is the case in Korea with the multicultural whirlwind, relentless attention deficit, and harmonic overload that is “I Know.” 16 For more on the Jamrock side of this fascinating phenomenon, consult (absolutely fucking brilliant) ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s Dub, among the very best musical texts we’ve enjoyed to date. (The similarity seems significant, given Jamaica and South Korea are in a small company of small countries with outsize influence on the global musical firmament. Sweden, too, though their output trends more traditional and safe: K-pop without the weird, more or less.)
In Korea’s case, Seo’s influence was wide-reaching and cross-generational. Once SM Entertainment enshrined his songwriting style as one of their leading song template formulae in the ’90s, with the more avant-garde material of H.O.T. and S.E.S., Korea’s debt to “Nan Arayo” began to stretch past music and into culture as a whole. Even outside of forward-thinking cities like Seoul and Busan, (great) films like Secretly Greatly and Snowpiercer – the latter of which Guardian critic Andrew Pulver called a “sum of extremely disparate parts that adds up to cinematic excellence” – become record-breaking blockbusters not despite but because of their virtuosically schizoid structures and multi-genre storylines. We recently chatted with the (great) young actress and Snowpiercer star Ko Ah-sung at a Gangnam cafe near K-Pendium global headquarters, where she sipped a late-night latte and kindly agreed with this theory via an interpreter. “Maybe that’s why Korean movies attract interest around the world,” she nodded. (She sure is nice.)
Even then, these weren’t the only nation-changing precedents Seo Taiji set with “I Know.” The rest are no less significant and at least paragraph-sized:
Perfectionism in entertainment. As we will hear, Korean pop artists were often able to achieve memorable results prior to the ‘90s, but recording techniques and performance standards typically fell beneath western or Japanese par. As a production, Seo’s album remains an artifact of that achievement (and resource) gap, but legend has it he re-recorded the entire thing to replace the original on store shelves before the end of the year. To our ears, the update sounds much more like a modest remix than total redo of the version televised in ’92, but we’ve yet to find a copy of the initial pressing for full comparison. In any event, this claim quickly became part of the growing Seo Taiji lore in Korea, and it augured the remarkable standards ahead for work ethic and product refinement in the Korean music industry.
De-Japanization. Korean pop composition had been heavily reliant upon the Japanese pentatonic scale since well before the end of the occupation period in 1945, but as the sociologist John Lie notes, “after the explosive impact of Seo Taiji and Boys, use of the pentatonic scale would steadily decline.” Lie’s conclusion that “Japan’s deep influence on Korean popular music was coming to a close” is a bit of an overstatement – inspiration from and plagiarism of Japanese pop would remain persistent, as we shall hear 17 Other Lie-highlighted shifts in Korean music, like the vocal style changing “from legato to staccato, from melismatic to syllabic, from crooning to spitting,” in fact mirrored changes in the Japanese mainstream observable via groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra as early as the late ‘70s. – but it’s true that this pentatonic renunciation was creatively and psychologically crucial to Korea’s development of a pop expression all its own.
Beauty standards. Lie also notes how Seo’s debut on MBC imposed a fascinating change in national body image: “the agrarian ideal of a moon-shaped face and a stocky, robust body was supplanted by the androgynous, urban look of a longer, pretty face and a tall, thin frame. …girls and young women found Seo Taiji dashing, to the bafflement of their male counterparts and their elders.” And so we witness in “I Know” not just the dawn of a new Korean sound, but of a new Korean man – equally essential to the K-pop, and South Korea, we see and hear today.
Western ambitions. Perhaps the strangest feature of Seo Taiji’s first album is the inclusion of a blundering English version of “I Know,” retitled “Blind Love” – not as a bonus recording, but actually sequenced as track 8 (of 10). It’s not clear why Seo thought English-speaking audiences might prefer a sample of “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” to the Flava Flav one it replaced, or if the idea of promoting this version abroad was ever seriously considered. But its placement on the album marked the first time a major artist had seriously contended Korean pop culture’s western potential in decades. 18 Specifically, since the Kim Sisters’ mind-boggling twenty-five appearances on Ed Sullivan in the early ’60s. It’s a notion that has both inspired and haunted Korean companies and stars, big and small, ever since.
It is dumb luck that Seo Taiji should be the one to redefine so much in a single, unassuming afternoon. Artists like Elvis, the Beatles, Jacko, and Nirvana may have been lucky, but both a survey of the field in its day and the widened perspective of hindsight would indicate they were each artists uniquely equipped, in skill and image, to enact the televised, one-song revolutions they did. Meanwhile, the many shortcomings of “I Know” suggest that its revolution was one the public willed themselves. In Korea’s grand pop watershed sweepstakes, the winner could have been any slender boy with a dance beat and a b-boy break. And had Seo felt like working a little longer on his album, it may well have been someone else. The song that changed it all could’ve been something better. We owe everything to the fact that it wasn’t.
• Seo Taiji ‘n Boys album, Bando Records, 3/23/1992 [Korean version]
• Seo Taiji ‘n Boys album, Bando Records, 3/23/1992 [English version, as “Blind Love”]
• Seo Taiji ‘n Boys “re-recorded” album, Bando Records, late 1992 (?) [updated Korean version]
• Seo Taiji ‘n Boys “re-recorded” album, Bando Records, late 1992 (?) [updated English version, as “Blind Love”]
• 3 Ninjas Kick Back soundtrack, 5/6/1994 [updated Korean version]
• Seo Taiji 15th Anniversary box set, 2007 [“’04 Zero Live” version; it’s…nu-metal]
• Happy Together, 10/30/2014 episode, a rare and revealing interview
• Pop Goes Korea, by Mark James Russell, Stone Bridge Press, 1/1/2009
• K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, by Kim Chang Nam, Hollym International Corporation, 7/2/2012
• K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, by John Lie, University of California Press, 10/31/2014
• “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia,” by Doobo Shim, 2007
• “Mapping K-Pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange,” by Keith Howard, 2014
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||As an artist – only ever as an artist.|
|2.||↑||However, the liberalization of study abroad for the wealthy in the authoritarian early ’80s also bears mention, as well as the growing number of diasporic South Koreans around the world, some of whom would repatriate with favorite mementos and memories of their time in cultural elsewheres.|
|3.||↑||“Munhwa” literally meaning “Culture;” they understood their power, and wanted the kids at home to understand, too.|
|4.||↑||Some, bearing concerns about sales figure manipulation, would say it still does.|
|5.||↑||Two in-house bands were responsible for performing every promoted song in Korea!|
|6.||↑||To quote rock philosopher Joe Carducci in his seminal tome Rock and the Pop Narcotic, such circumstances precluded any possibility of a popular Korean group presenting a “unique band voice” – in other words, a fresh idea.|
|7.||↑||A bit over $2,000 USD, per 1991 exchange rates – especially expensive for the time. Yang’s business acumen was with him from the start.|
|8.||↑||The humble Lee Juno, then one of the most renowned dancers in Korea and last seen wedding a woman half his age.|
|9.||↑||Respectively: a pop sensation embodying youth and physical rebellion in a market until then dominated by and for adults, a pop sensation staged by handsome boys doing everything themselves (!), and a pop sensation motored by kinetic, dance-centric stagemanship.|
|10.||↑||The full video has just now been headhunted on copyright grounds in an act of incisively spiteful timing; compliments to EBS’ legal team.|
|11.||↑||Tellingly a loanword from English, as though the entire concept were one that needed to be imported; more on that in future entries.|
|12.||↑||For better or worse, this moment also cemented a prejudice that stands in Korea to this day: idol pop is performed by and for kids, making it taboo to enjoy or take seriously past a certain age. It’s all too easy to meet Koreans who will laugh off a song like “Rum Pum Pum Pum” as though it were “What the Fox Says,” before stating their preference for deathly boring and derivative Korean performers who checkmark musically superficial boxes like “writes own songs” or “can sing well.”|
|13.||↑||Flava Flav’s trademark “yeahhhhboy-ee” caterwaul and Chuck D’s “bass!” shout, both sampled from the classic “Bring the Noise.”|
|14.||↑||Specifically, the moment Detroit techno began to take things a bit back towards house, as with this top ten U.K. hit from 1988.|
|15.||↑||Less egregiously and perhaps more endearingly, “Yo! Taiji” is obviously inspired by both Vanilla Ice’s “Yo Vanilla” and Yo! MTV Raps.|
|16.||↑||For more on the Jamrock side of this fascinating phenomenon, consult (absolutely fucking brilliant) ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s Dub, among the very best musical texts we’ve enjoyed to date.|
|17.||↑||Other Lie-highlighted shifts in Korean music, like the vocal style changing “from legato to staccato, from melismatic to syllabic, from crooning to spitting,” in fact mirrored changes in the Japanese mainstream observable via groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra as early as the late ‘70s.|
|18.||↑||Specifically, since the Kim Sisters’ mind-boggling twenty-five appearances on Ed Sullivan in the early ’60s.|