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We here at the K-Pendium like to write in the plural first person. We write in this way to acknowledge that more than one person’s time goes into the average K-Pendium entry. Five entries and some 25,000 words into our endeavor, we find ourselves also acknowledging that this won’t always work.

I –  the person writing these words – can still remember the day music first meant something to me. It was well over a decade ago, a few weeks after I turned thirteen. I was at a Rhode Island summer camp for arbitrarily highlighted sixth graders, and the tail end of a life-majority spent “hating music” for developmentally telling reasons. If on the first day of camp anyone asked me what kind of music I liked, I told them I didn’t like music. Music piracy and commercially affordable blank discs were relatively new phenomena, so between classes my roommates made a game of throwing CD-Rs at one other like frisbees out for blood. One day Kyle changed all of our lives when he picked up a stray tennis racket at the beginning of one such occasion, surprising even himself with the beautiful smithereen snowfall it produced upon impact with a high-flying burnt disc. It was the first time I ever wanted a CD.  Kyle changed my life again a few days later, when for some reason he mentioned the band Nirvana. The name intrigued me, though not as much as did his explanation that it was a group whose lead singer killed himself at the height of their world-dominant popularity. Somehow I knew this would be the first band I’d ever love: something about this one-sentence narrative was so compelling, something realer and bigger than anything I had previously considered. 1 My childhood, you might be able to tell, was a sort of something. It was the second time I ever wanted a CD. Just barely predating laptop and wi-fi ubiquity, we had to resort to his acoustic guitar and hands to revel in the opening bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but something about its energy and title seemed perfectly synced with that time in my life. A few weeks later camp ended, and I entered my first record store, where I found the Nirvana section and an intimidating spread of jewel-case spines. Only one of them – Bleach – wore a sticker that said, “This Is Nirvana’s First Album.” I bought it, and listened to it that night on a borrowed Discman in a step-cousin’s bedroom. I figured it was pretty weird, then went back to track one and tried it again. I decided it was brilliant.

The first time Koreans heard about a hit Korean record, it went something like that.

The birth of Korea’s music industry reeked of death. If 2008 marked the modernization of K-pop, and 1992 the “modernization” of Korean pop (now K-pop), then 1926 popularized to Koreans the very notion of their own popular music. And in a stroke of peculiar narrative convenience, this moment was born of a death-obsessed death so striking that it impressed upon the public a battery of expectations for the production, promotion, and proliferation of music that would become conventions that live to this day.

Korea, granted, was a very different place in 1926. For one thing, there weren’t two of them: Koreans were still more than a quarter-century removed from caring about the 38th parallel, or thinking about their estranged countrymen to the north or south. The social and cultural currents of the country were instead conducted by a separate set of forces – the very ones that brought this morbid epoch to bear.

Chief among these actors was that long-loathed neighbor to the east. Korea had been in largely content thrall to China and its Confucian values system for centuries when, in 1875, Japan decided to preempt bubbling European and American interests in the peninsula. After a swift display of military muscle, they succeeded in enforcing the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876, which began an imperial process that would escalate in 1905 with the assimilation of Korea as a protectorate, and peak in 1910 with outright annexation. Many amateur historians characterize what followed as an impatient and unsentimental demolition of Korean culture in favor of all Japanese everything (which would somewhat commence in 1938, when Japan grew pathetic in its attempt to convert whoever they could for their Chinese and soon global war efforts), but at first Japan seemed interested in a symbiotic (if non-consensual) exchange of culture. Japan would indeed recommend ethnic Koreans change their legal names to Japanese ones by 1939, but back in 1911 the Japanese actually made it illegal to do so (and forced all citizens who had already switched to revert to their Korean names), while in 1921 Japan made strong effort to promote Korean media and literature not only on the peninsula but in Japan as well, going as far as to create incentives for their own kind to learn the Korean language. 2 It should be noted, however, that that 1939 recommendation to change identities was at first promoted by ethnically Korean pro-Japanese proponents, in fact against the Japanese government’s resistance until they were persuaded. While it was voluntary to register – and costly, to boot – nearly 80% of Koreans had signed up almost immediately to renounce their names, in the widespread interest of fuller assimilation and reduced discrimination. There is no contesting that Japan ultimately ran the show, however, using tools like censorship and cultural prescription to impose upon Korea a modern Japanese perspective.

Modern Japan, however, wasn’t all so Japanese: it was “preponderantly Western in [cultural] form and content,” as the Korean scholar Jonathan Lie notes. Even before Japan fully flexed its grip on the peninsula, Korea had availed itself of Western influences – Christian missionaries and their music had arrived no later than 1885, and by 1900 the Korean government had hired a German composer to form their military band and write their national anthem. But Japanese rule only accelerated the westernization process. Both countries had already adopted Western music as a top-down implement of social discipline and technological progress (more on that another time), but far more immediately influential was the Japanese upperclass’ avowed affinity for Western music. Naturally, as Japanese interests entrenched themselves and assimilation became increasingly practical, high society Koreans – of the historic yangban caste – came to embrace what their Japanese counterparts embraced. 3 As Lie underscores, Korea arguably took it even further. Though well-heeled Japanese to this day encourage their daughters to take up their own traditional instruments, like the koto, rare has been the Korean family to foist anything other than the violin or piano upon their child – at least until recently.

So what was that? By the 1930s, it would be trot, the duple-meter, vocally melismatic, melodramatic and largely balladic favorite of colonial Korea 4 Dating back to at least the 1980s, there has been mainstream debate in Korea and Japan – as with most things popular in both countries during the first half of the 20th century, and a couple of barren ocean crags – concerning to which country trot truly belongs. The equivalent Japanese genre enka emerged around the same time, its Seo Taiji fountainhead having been one Koga Masao, about whom Japanese lit professor Michael K. Bourdaghs writes in his book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: “Koga’s music is said to provide a paradigm of Japaneseness in music, but Koga himself was raised in colonial Korea and acknowledged that he developed his style around the songs he heard laborers sing there.” His signature “Koga melody” technique owes much to “such Korean elements as the use of three beats,” Lie’s book might interject here, were you to place the two of them next to one another. Daniel Tudor, author of the definitive modern South Korea text Korea: The Impossible Country, simply calls trot “a style of music derived from the Japanese enka tradition,” while in K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, a book written with support from the South Korean government, Kim Chang Nam says trot “mainly featur[es] Japanese scales.” The question of trot/enka primacy is a warzone we won’t approach ourselves until a later entry, though it’s worth noting that both genres owe a fundamental debt to Western influence, “trot” itself being an abbreviation of the loanword “foxtrot” (the common time cousin of the waltz that remains synonymous with the dance popularized by American vaudeville actor Harry Fox in 1914.) that most people think of when forced to consider K-pop’s predecessor. Leading up to the birth of the recorded music market in 1926, however, the popular soundtrack of uppercrust colonial Korea was changga, a primarily choral cocktail of disparate forms, including “American hymns, European anthems, Western folk tunes, and Japanese choral music,” as Lie summarizes. He makes the point that changga is probably best understood as a “composite genre,” highlighting how “whereas most Americans would distinguish folk tunes from choral songs, ‘My Darling Clementine’ was an extremely popular example of changga in Korea.” We will add, for our purposes, that this inadvertent eclecticism makes changga the earliest and truest predecessor of K-pop, itself understood by the modern Korean mainstream to be a single homogeneous “genre” despite containing multitudes broad enough to cover the likes of ’30s big band swing, ‘80s freestyle, and relentlessly reinventive collage experiments. 5 A leitmotif of the K-Pendium project will be the assertion that K-pop has never been a genre, but more of a marketing term.

Changga’s most profound legacy, however, probably owes to its ironic use as resistance music against the very Japanese whose rulership and preferences imposed it. As Lie neatly puts it:

The Korean elite’s embrace of changga transformed it, paradoxically, into resistance music. Changga was the music of the educated, but it was [that] same demographic that led the independence movement in early colonial Korea, and the association between anti-Japanese, pro-independence politics and changga remained an enduring motif in modern Korea. Already by the 1900s, the very idea of political or movement music (undongga) was inextricable from changga. Sentiments critical of Japanese rule were often articulated in changga, not in Korean folk (perhaps not surprisingly, since educated Koreans were likely to denigrate peasant music).

We can hardly say enough about how consequential this fact would prove. 6 We also spent an inordinate amount of time pondering whether this feature of colonial Korean resistance was really all that unusual. Of course, pulling from the massive, many-flavored crayola box of oppression humans have contrived for one another, it’s difficult to find any two shades close enough for fair comparison. But it’s perhaps worth mentioning how Russian youth, beneath the big brotherly gaze of the Communist Party, congregated in rebel circles around smuggled bootlegs of the Beatles, while their counterparts in Czechoslovakia turned to the music of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa for inspiration and rhetoric. Granted, in either case their oppressors were their pinko redcoat co-nationals, so foregoing their musical roots in favor of the hot rock sounds of freedom made perfect symbolic sense. Meanwhile, in Blues People, Amiri Baraka’s classic ethnomusicological treatise on the black origins of American music, he traces the remarkable retention of performative, compositional, lyrical and cultural Africanisms across early slave songs, black Baptist church music, the blues, and all eras of jazz, despite centuries of eradicative efforts on behalf of their oppressors. The closest comparison for Korea’s situation would naturally be Japan’s contemporaneous occupation of Taiwan, the resistance music of which continues to elude us – please get in touch via comment or tweet if you can guide. (In the meantime, we will note that Taiwanese covers of Japanese hits were commonplace, as well they were in colonial Korea, and that broadly speaking the Taiwanese of today look back upon the period of their occupation with almost as much fondness as the Koreans do upon theirs with disdain.) In a moment when the most influential segment of Korean society might have turned to their national musical roots, they instead found the voice of their identity in an alien music that had been thrust upon them by foreign powers, particularly those of the very oppressors whom they used this music to oppose. Furthermore, given the stylistic DNA of changga as a whole, it was a music in part composed by and culturally characteristic of the Japanese people. It should also be noted that by the time Korea received a functional recording industry, Japanese media censorship was in full effect, so this changga protest music was almost exclusively aired in private among those Koreans who were surest and proudest of their national lineage (the yangban aristocracy), making the use of Western and Japanese styles all the more remarkable. The reasons for such a consequential shift are no doubt complex, though as Lie parenthesizes, it has much to do with this moment’s coincidence with the upperclass’ new desire to appear “modern” (which, as the English loanword modeun, was itself being received and glorified as a uniquely Western concept) at any cost, both for its burgeoning value among fellow Koreans and as a mode of pragmatic integration – again, ironically for composers and appreciators of resistance music – into the Japanese colonial power structure. In any event, it marked a turning point in the contemporary Korean ethos, one that runs to this day on an ever accelerant drive for trend-chasing modernity, in both pop music and the rest of the sociocultural firmament – the two being much more intertwined in 21st century Korea, as we will gradually come to comprehend, than in any other society in history.

As the young decade churned towards the big bang moment of 1926, popular tastes continued to evolve. Most significantly, choral changga streamlined into the solo vocalist arrangements of kagok, the Western vocal music more broadly known as lieder. This productive simplification in turn led to the 1924 innovation of tongyo, a genre of children’s music that remains prominent in the Korean soundscape to this day. “Kagok and tongyo, like changga, remained primarily the province of educated urbanites with pro-independence politics, and these genres persisted in the post-Liberation period as part of the culture of the college educated,” Lie writes, further driving home the point that “it is therefore ironic that almost all the composers who pioneered kagok, tongyo, and allied new music had been trained in Japan in European art music, and that they adopted musical conventions then prevalent in Japan.”

In any event, these developments dovetailed with the nation’s budding pop culture. Theaters, cinemas, and “the types of cafés that appeared in Japan some two decades earlier” (Lie, of course) became the happening haunts of young Koreans, and this proto-popular music was central to the patron’s experience of all of these spaces. The terms yuhaengga (“fashionable songs,” translated from the Japanese concept of ryukouka) and shin kayo (“new songs”) became the catchall umbrellas under which these tunes entered the urban conversation. With influence from the Japanese occupation’s infrastructural support and cultural hegemony, colonial Koreans began to achieve a critical mass in both the desire for entertainment and the ability to afford it.

Seizing on the opportunity, six Japanese record companies would soon establish Korean subsidiaries (Columbia, Victor, Polydor, Teichiku/Okeh, Taihei/Taepyeong, and Chieron), still doing the bulk of their recording and all of their manufacturing in Japan, as the scholar Keith Howard notes. (Vinyl, or soripan (“sound discs”), as Koreans initially referred to them, surfaced in 1907 as a fringe fetish for the feverishly rich – Japanese emigrants, mostly.) As with the Korean adoption of changga as resistance music, the appearance of this young industry in the late 1920s would set many dominant precedents for 21st century Korea, and K-pop in particular.

First, as Lie describes it, yuhaengga/shin kayo “was not a spontaneous cultural irruption; rather, it was a business or industry,” as deliberately masterminded and incepted into the public consciousness as the insidious campus song contests of the 1980s, or, especially, the modern K-pop machine as it would be designed by Lee Soo-man and his attendants at SM Entertainment in the late ‘90s. The record companies’ Japanese executives adopted the same model that had already served them well in their domestic market, operating as a logical extension of Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley – home of the original pop song assembly line, not to mention the original pop song – with comprehensive in-house teams of lyricists, composers, musicians, and vocalists. In other words, they closely prefigured the all-in-one agencies that make up the Korean industry today, like SM, YG, JYP, and dozens more. In the first couple years of operation, these Japanese companies in the Korean market even pieced together “musical troupes, or opera troupes…to promote [the company’s] music,” writes Korean pop historian Mark James Russell, “dispatching [them] on concert tours along with singers,” just as K-pop agencies nowadays build elaborate live experiences around their most popular boy bands’ and girl groups’ global tours (also often as label-centric package deals, like SM’s SMTown and JYP’s One Mic). That nearly every fundamental of the K-pop industrial complex was in place before the year 1930 – two decades and change before the very idea of a South Korea, even – is an odd thing to ponder from within one of these companies’ Seoul headquarters today.

But we mustn’t forget the sleazy, most ambivalent-feeling precedent of all. Howard notes how, generally speaking, Korean entrepreneurship first came into existence in the colonial era “with a corpus of fixers,” who in this case connected Japanese record svengalis to Korean artists and consumers. But that wasn’t the only fixing, or paid piper piping, to be done in the “new songs” economy. Here again speaks Lie, whom in the wake of the Gaye Estate v. Robin Thicke we may soon be owing some money:

A new breed of entrepreneurs sprang up, one that rubbed elbows with the illicit and the disreputable. Ethnic Japanese yakuza (gangsters and racketeers), working in concert with their ethnic Korean counterparts, ran a significant segment of the entertainment industry. This entanglement of semilegitimate businesspeople with the popular culture industry was far from unique to colonial Korea, since itinerant musicians had often moonlighted as sex workers, both before and during the Japanese occupation. The common association of popular music with (paying for) sex, (dealing) drugs, and even (hanging out with) mobsters and thugs was not necessarily a figment of overprotective parents’ imaginations. In any case, popular music remained a pecuniary pursuit of lower status, less educated people.

As has been intimated plenty elsewhere (these words from contemporary melody man Andrew Choi, for instance), pretty much every aspect of this grim paragraph perpetuates in at best semantically altered form today. Perhaps, somewhere in the infinity of essays that stretch before us, we will find occasion to face that particular side of the music, and of the colonial record industry’s long shadow.

Another major enabler of any recorded pop market is the promotional apparatus of a mainstream media, which in Korea began with the modern daily newspapers of the late 1800s. Like everything stirring in this story, though, it all came together in the 1920s, when private owners began publishing papers of their own, alongside a diverse spread of magazines. Koreans got into the habit of reading about the news, as well as new things to buy, see, and hear. Popular radio broadcasts began to sweep the nation in 1927, immediately following the onset of Korea’s widespread appetite for pop records. “It was most likely around this time,” Lie bets, “that urbanites began to hum and sing popular songs.”

So what were they humming? What were they reading about?

To understand Korean pop’s death-obsessed birth, we must first talk about a resurrection. After all, everything in the new Korean pop culture had a precedent, and as we have seen, most of those precedents came from Japan. If yuhaengga, the new Korean pop music, was a hand-me-down of the Japanese colonists and their own ryukouka (also, literally, “fashionable songs”), then where does ryukouka come from?

On this point, Lie simply writes, “Its proximate source was the 1916 Japanese song ‘Kachyusha no Uta’ (Kachyusa’s Song), from the shingeki play Fukkatsu (Resurrection).” He does not pause to appreciate the strange story behind this fateful tune, or the surreal cosmic joke it tells when placed in the context of the Korean music industry it would later beget. (We hope you like dark humor.)

He also fudges the year. “Kachyusa no Uta” actually dates back to 1914, and Fukkatsu, the shingeki (i.e., Western-styled) play that occasioned it, was in fact a Japanese theatrical adaptation of the legendary Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s final book, Resurrection. (Funnily enough, it was staged as a political satire in response to the government’s domestic censorship laws – we guess Koreans weren’t the only ones fed up with Japanese rule at the time.) “Kachyusa” was the lead female character Katusha, played by the young actress Matsui Sumako. Her lover, the director Shimamura Hogetsu, changed the game in Japan with this production by making it the first to add singing roles. He worked with the composer Nakayama Shimpei to write “Kachyusa no Uta” for Matsui’s character, which became such a sensation in the film version 7 The film’s screenings were silent, but the song’s lyrics were projected and often performed by a female singer in the theater. that the Orient Record Company in Kyoto put out a recording of the song the following year. Per the success of the play and film that had popularized it, “Kachyusa no Uta” was also marketed under the title of “Resurrection Song.”

It’s a haunting and mesmeric a cappella, Matsui’s obvious inexperience as a vocalist blending with the poor audio fidelity of early recording technology to create a phantasmal effect. 8 Essential to the song’s beauty, as it would turn out: later versions, even when backed by the mighty god Ryuichi Sakamoto on piano, are uniformly dreck. The Japanese public fell spellbound, and the country’s first hit record was so ordained, ushering in the ryukouka era while it sold over 10,000 copies in 1915 alone. Its refrain, “Kachyusa, you’re so lovely / How sad that we must part,” became a popular catchphrase nationwide. Matsui and Shimamura’s individual fame, already considerable, twinned and skyrocketed, the public following tabloid reports of their deepening love affair with rabid interest. The narrative would reach its conclusion just a few years later, in 1919, when Shimamura suddenly died at the hands of a flu epidemic. Matsui, healthy and alone, suffered just two months before deciding to try to follow him.

There is a sad and riddlesome irony in a hit called “Resurrection Song” birthing a music industry while foreshadowing its singer’s suicide. Consider what that hit sounds like and it begins to feel eerie. Consider how that hit’s legacy would come to bear in Korea and it becomes simply unbelievable.

As we already know, it didn’t take long for ryukouka, by way of the colonial pollens, to take root as yuhaengga in Korea. By the mid-1920s, Koreans were enjoying popular songs in plays, films, and cafés much as the Japanese had in the years leading to the “Resurrection Song” moment. Again, it would take a remarkable young woman to make the conversion: in this case, the famed soprano Yun Shim-deok. Yun was born and raised in Pyongyang (making her North Korean, by today’s boundaries), graduating from girls’ school in Seoul to become a children’s teacher in 1914. A year later, she moved to Tokyo to attend a women’s junior college after becoming the first Korean to win a scholarship from the Governor-General of Korea (in other words, the reigning number one: Terauchi Masatake, soon to become Prime Minister of Japan; in other other words, Yun was the first Korean the Japanese paid to study in Japan). After completing the program, she moved on to pursue vocal music at the Tokyo Music School, likewise becoming the first Korean student they ever admitted.

In 1923, Yun returned home, where to her collection of firsts she added the distinction of being Korea’s original professional soprano. She soon became the best recognized singer in the nation after a series of recitals in Seoul, but even then had a hard time securing enough income to cover the basic costs of living – another portent for the K-pop economy to come. Likewise, the financial realities of her life in opera brought her to the conclusion that the only way she could turn a profit was to become both a pop singer and an actress (predicting the SM approach to Korean pop celebrity, which would swiftly redefine that of the entire South Korean music industry around the turn of the century). The Nitto Record company in Japan heard she was willing to play ball, and invited her to Osaka for some sessions in the July of 1926. There were still no record companies in Korea at all by this point, and she was quick to accept.

Yun recorded nearly three dozen different songs for them: some operatic arias, a couple parlor tunes by “father of American music” Stephen Foster, and, true to her faith, a handful of Christian hymns. Legend has it that when her scheduled sessions finished on August 1st, she asked the head of the company if she could record just one more song: “Sa-ui Chanmi,” a title that has been variously translated as “In Praise of Death,” “Hymn to Death,” and “Death Song.” As with Japan’s first hit, the song owed some creative debt to an Eastern European: its “morbid theme,” as Lie calls it, hailed from the Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici’s 1880 waltz “Waves of the Danube.” The Korean lyrics were never officially attributed, though scholars believe they were either her invention, or – in another echo of “Resurrection Song” – those of her lover, a wealthy playwright named Kim Woojin. She sang them in slow, agonized tones over a simple piano part played by her sister, stretching each syllable like she was trying to torture it. In some five minutes’ time, they added up:

A life of running in vast, wild fields
Where are you headed?
This lonely world of rough confessions
What are you looking for?

This world made of tears
Will it end if I die?
Those lives seeking happiness
It is emptiness that you seek

Those smiling flowers and crying birds
Their lives are all the same
The poor life indulged in living
You are the one dancing on the edge of a knife

The dancing life, slave to vanity
Do you know that you are deceived?
Everything in the world is futile to you
Nothing exists after you die

They weren’t kidding. Racked by guilt and dread — Kim had a wife and children back home – the hopeless couple jumped off of a passenger ship back to Korea just three days later, drowning together in the ocean. It was a story that sold itself: the Korean press retroactively reported on Yun and Kim’s doomed affair with all the fervor that had attended Matsui and Shimamura’s in Japan, and soon the entire country was hooked. Nitto Record hastily released a copy of the macabre swan song to capitalize on the wave of publicity, to astounding effect: lowball estimates put sales figures at 50,000, while others tally more than double that. Before this moment, there were no record labels in Korea at all per doubts of an industry’s viability there, but suddenly the major players in Japan were scrambling to establish domestic operations on the peninsula. By the end of the decade, the six aforementioned companies were in place; terrestrial radio, previously without reason to exist, was up and running by the very next year, in 1927. 9 The 100,000-unit sales figure can be found in this article by the Korean Broadcasting System, the national broadcaster of South Korea, which was this very radio station that introduced broadcasting to the country.

Granted, the posthumous success of a singer who in life couldn’t afford rice only proves that before her these record execs and would-be broadcasters’ doubts were well-founded, and circumstance only proves that it was death and not music that brought the Korean music industry to life. Yun, the single most famous singer in Korea for years, had recorded an additional 15 singles’ worth of songs for Nitto in her last weeks alive; once they had finished counting their “Death” money, they issued all 15 in the months between October 1926 and February 1927. Not one sold more than a failure. 10 Remarkably, almost no known copies of any of these records survive to this day. There are two safe, playable copies of “Death” in the hands of private collectors, and one copy of another single, “The First Nowell” backed by “Sea of Galilee,” sits in the collection of a crusty curmudgeon who won’t deign to play it for anyone. Such is their scarcity, and such is the legend of “Death Song,” that another private collector just weeks ago paid $42,000 for one of these two copies – the highest price ever publicly paid for a 78rpm wax slab to date, Korean or otherwise. Writing about “Death,” Korean crate-digger and music historian Jihoon Suk recently remarked, “It seems Yun’s musical training – three years or so – was not sufficient to give her steady notes, and her voice, overall, is very nervous.” 11 I will add that, compared to the poetic simplicity and bona fide hook of “Resurrection Song,” Yun’s recording is a laborious bore. His appraisal underscores how the massive delta between “Death’s” industry-begetting success and the “dismal sales” of its many follow-ups (or those of its predecessors, by other artists) does not have anything to do with the hit song having some kind of special musical value. But its story was tragedy perfected, and it gave Koreans their first taste of what was essentially the K-drama of its day. They had no use for recordings of Yun Shim-deok singing hymns and arias: they weren’t a part of the story. 12 Likewise, there are many today for whom K-pop is not music so much as fuel for the Korean internet’s robust gossip economy, and here we see how that’s a continuum dating back to the industry’s origins.

The parallels between “Resurrection” and “Death” are obvious. In each case, Eastern European source material provided inspiration for songs written and performed by lovers on borrowed time. In each case, it was that creative process’ fateful alignment with social and technological developments that would make their overwhelming success possible. And in each case, it was a struggle against oppressive societal forces – the Japanese government; moral strictures of the day – that occasioned the art in the first place. And they are linked by cause and effect in that had “Resurrection” not made the Japanese music industry, there would have been none to help Korea – and “Death” – make theirs. 13 Keen eyes will also note that “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” an Easter hymn, takes up the famous Korean single’s b-side. With Yun’s death and ode to death, Korean music rose on the backs of both a “Resurrection” and the Resurrection: if this were literature, the term paper would write itself.

The differences are just as numerous, and united by a crucial theme. Most immediately striking is how Korea, a country with well under half the population of Japan, bought somewhere between five and ten times as many of their first hit single as Japan did of their own, and at a point in time 1926 – when Korean society’s purchasing power would have been at best the same as Japan’s was in 1914. Both stories involve two deaths apiece, but only in one were they deliberate and simultaneous. “Resurrection” has the soothing, pop quality of light music, whereas “Death” is chest-achingly painful to bear, like an untempered strain of that infamous Korean affliction han. And while “Resurrection Song’s” sad end took five years to arrive, and could have been avoided had Shimamura kept his health (or even, plausibly, had Matsui been better consoled during her two months a widow), the lyrics to “Death Song” and Yun’s  special request to record it can read only like the suicide note they were. The Korean industry would continue well into the next century to lift liberally and decisively from their neighbor nation’s notebook, but from day one the clear distinction has remained the same: Korea takes it to the extreme.

Almost cruelly, the other hit the “Danube” melody would inspire is called “The Anniversary Song,” written by a couple of Americans. It’s been sung by Frank Sinatra, and makes frequent appearances on wedding band setlists to this day.

Further Materials
• K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, by Jonathan Lie, University of California Press, 10/2014
• K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, by Kim Chang Nam, Hollym International Corporation, 7/2/2012
• Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor, Tuttle Publishing, 11/10/2012
• Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Global Prehistory of J-Pop, by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Columbia University Press, 2/21/2012
• Pop Goes Korea, by Mark James Russell, Stone Bridge Press, 1/1/2009
Yogaku: Japanese Music in the 20th Century, by Luciana Galliano, Scarecrow Press, 1998
• “Mapping K-Pop Past and Present: Shifting Modes of Exchange,” by Keith Howard, Korea Observer Vol. 25 Issue 3, Fall 2014
• “Yun Sim-deok, Korea’s First Professional Soprano,” by KBS World Radio, 8/23/2012
• Korean record collector Jihoon Suk’s account of a recent “Death Song” auction sale

Written by Jakob Dorof. To support this project, please follow, follow/reblog, or use one of the share links below. You may now also vote for your favorite artist for an upcoming K-Pendium entry here.

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