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When we introduced the K-Pendium (with Girls’ Generation’s 2009 “Gee”), we identified Yun Shim-deok’s 1926 “Death Song” as the outer limit of what might be pertinent to a timeline-shaped discussion of K-pop. That was nearly nine months ago. Back then, we were reading a lot of websites. Now we’re reading a lot of books. Now we sleep within a football field of the world’s only official destination for “Gangnam Style” tourism. It’s twelve feet tall, and plays what it must whenever somebody presses a large button labeled ‘MUSIC’ while surrounded by a massive subway exit’s daily everybody. (We’ve never seen anyone try.)

As it turns out, the absolute earliest piece of music to presage that tourist trap’s construction is the Korean national anthem, dating back to 1896. Called “Aegukga,” it marked Korea’s first significant interface with Western music, setting precedents that would hold throughout the coming century and beyond. K-pop begins here because modern Korea begins here because K-pop begins here.

Before K-pop began at all, though, there was still plenty of music in Korea. It was different, of course. As Mark James Russell wrote in his book Pop Goes Korea:

Koreans have long been known as singers and lovers of music, as visiting envoys from China pointed out over 1500 years ago. There were several music traditions in the Joseon dynasty [of 1392 to 1897]. The most famous, the long song-story pansori…grew from the shaman culture of Korea’s southwest. In addition, farmers’ music, courtly music, and many other forms existed. The Joseon-period musicians also invented six different types of music notation; the first and most important, cheongganbo, was created in the mid-15th century.

Non-elite society lived in a world without notation, but even the court musicians – with their complicated sheet music and fancy, zither-like instruments – played almost entirely improvised music. Cheongganbo was distinct from Western notation in that its fundamental “keys,” cho, were more modular than simply scale-based, prescribing not only pitches and intervals but also melodic motifs, and even performance techniques. Traditional Korean court music was therefore a form founded upon both individual interpretation and rigorous rote learning. Russell reconciles this apparent paradox in saying these musicians “were expected to merge their teachers’ styles and come up with something new,” though the classical Western notion of “something new” would have seemed preposterous to the old masters and their apprentices in Joseon Korea. The goal was not to “innovate” or “express oneself,” but rather to execute an entertaining musical passage in a world defined by specific performative guidelines and contexts instead of composers and their compositions.

As the Korea scholar Jonathan Lie puts it:

The social organization of sound in Joseon Korea is incommensurable with that of European classical music. In contrast to the European Romantic conception of autonomous or absolute music, traditional Korean music, whether music for state rituals or nongak for agrarian festivals, was inextricably intertwined with its sociocultural contexts. The semisacred practice of listening to European classical music in silent contemplation, the performance of a musical composition without any accompanying narration or dance, the idea of autonomous music disembedded from context – all these practices and notions are alien to kugak.

We can’t help but note, for our purposes, that the importance of “accompanying narration [and] dance” may have faded from Korean music when Western and Japanese influences began to take hold in the early 20th century, but the past two decades have seen their profound resurgence. K-pop, with the meticulous and hugely expensive attention it pays to the aesthetic synergy between its songs and the dance choreographies, music videos, narrative underpinnings, and overarching “concepts” that animate them (and, in fact, often dictate the musical composition itself), is an unlikely but advanced logical extension of the many-art-formed “context” central to traditional Korean court music (in addition to its functionally social contexts, within which K-pop also operates). The Western Romantic ideal of the song as a standalone unit of expression has become deeply engrained in Korean music over the past century-plus, but some debt may be owed to the peninsula’s musical prehistory for the way in which such songs are now regularly used as single components of multimedia experiences, programmatic statement pieces, and commercial advertisements to an extent never before fathomed elsewhere. 1 Kugak court music’s dual, even duelling, expectations for a performer’s individual color and uniform dedication to craft likewise find their progeny in the K-pop trainee system. Lie says that “even the very concept of music, at least as it crystallized in modern Europe, poorly captures Joseon Korean sound culture;” we may just as well add that even the very concept of pop music, as it has developed out of post-Emancipation America, poorly captures K-pop at its multi-expressive best. 2 We can’t stop: just as how “traditional Korean music appears unstructured” to many people “trained in European classical music,” even the most exquisite examples of K-pop’s art form synthesis might scan as little more than “dumb pop songs” to the Westerner raised on little more than dumb pop songs. In both cases, some expert explanation and perceptual reconfiguration is required for those foreign to the form – the very rationale behind efforts good and bad.

That said, it may seem contradictory that what distinguishes K-pop from all other pop music owes so much to Western influence. 3 Lie’s passage about this influence writ large is quite interesting: “If the post-World War II generation of East Asia scholars exaggerated the impact of the West, by seeing modern East Asian history as a series of responses to Western challenges, that generation’s intellectual descendants in the early 21st century may well be underplaying the West’s impact. The shock of the new rattled the very foundations of the East Asian polities, leaving few stones unturned, or at least untouched. It was not just a matter of Western technology but also of the Western way of life, from political-economic institutions and vocabularies to sartorial modes and spiritual molds. The apotheosis of this trend can now be seen across East Asia: whatever the accents of local idiosyncrasy may be, who would deny that the lingua franca is English, that vestments are European, and that the usual style of accoutrement, whether in bags or in phones, is Western in inspiration if not in production? When East Asian business people gather, they speak English, wear European suits, carry Western tools (laptops and phones, not abacuses and brushes), and drink Western beverages. And I should add that they almost always listen to Western or Western-inspired music: what used to be the strange European soundscape, at once seductive and repulsive, has become natural, obvious, and inescapable.” By the time of the present century, this truth has become so pronounced that, as Lie points out, “the South Korean term for ‘music,’ eumak, is basically synonymous with the term yangak, ‘Western music.’” As is the case with Millennial definitions of classical music owing much to the movie soundtracks of composers like Hans Zimmer, Western pop forms have become so dominant in Korea that older, “purely Korean” genres like kugak need to be adapted if their performers want any semblance of currency in the contemporary soundscape. And as mentioned last time, elite Japanese families have encouraged their children to learn traditional instruments like the koto, whereas Korean families have almost uniformly adopted the Western piano and violin in the endeavour to appear sophisticated.

So how did we get here?

As Russell puts it, Western art music (what we now call “classical”) spread across Korea in the late 19th century: Lie specifies that “certainly by the time of the 1885 US Protestant mission, Christian music” – hymns – “had definitively arrived on the Korean peninsula.” Over the coming decades these sounds would become more widely and deeply appreciated for their aesthetic value, but at this earlier point, in Korea (as in pre-modern West Africa, with the griots and their historic-narrative praise songs), music still only made sense in terms of its social, organizational purposes. Hence, in the understanding of their Asian adopters, Western technology and culture – so separate and distinct in the societies of their origins – appeared to be a single functional implement. Western music, as alien or ugly as its rigid tempos and diatonic pitch systems may have sounded, had massive appeal for its usefulness as a tool of social discipline and reformation. In other words, it was not the music’s aesthetic properties that made it attractive, but rather its perceived relationship to Western innovations like trains, telegraphs, fashion, and modern warfare. In Lie’s words:

Music, especially Western military and ceremonial music, was perceived as part and parcel of Western military and technological might. That is, the Japanese and Korean elites considered music of belonging more to cultural technology 4 “Cultural technology” is the very term that leading K-pop house SM Entertainment uses for their unique approach to musical composition, their innovation of a multimedia pop art form, and this all-embracing artwork’s promotion abroad. We will see, in time, the extent to which this is no coincidence. than to traditional culture. Already by the 1870s, Japanese educational bureaucrats had introduced Western music education into the Japanese Archipelago. Western choral music was not only a marker modernization – useful for catching up with and, ultimately, overtaking the West – but also a means of shaping ethical, loyal subjects. …In brief, Korean and Japanese elites were united in embracing the music of the West – that technologically and (in a more ambivalent sense) socially superior power – and in doing so they neglected, even castigated, their [own] music[s].

Per governmental encouragement, Korea’s school systems, from the elementary level up, quickly made organ lessons and choral song central to their curriculum. In 1900, Korean royalty commissioned the German composer Franz Eckert to form Korea’s first Imperial Military Band, which was up and running in Seoul by the very next year – even earlier than such brass bands would air in Tokyo. Japan’s grip on Korea would tighten in 1905, with the latter’s official resignation to the Rising Sun’s purview as a protectorate, and then again in 1910, when the peninsula became annexed Japanese soil. At that point, Japan’s increasingly overbearing cultural influence would help accelerate the adoption of Western music in Korean culture (in turn fostering Korea’s first pop culture, first pop hit, et cetera).

But the most telling harbinger of change was one of the earliest.

“Aegukga” was – and remains – the (now South) Korean national anthem. But from the very start, there have been multiple “Aegukga,” and the official tune’s messy emergence tells a story that says a whole lot of something about modern Korea, modern Korean culture, and K-pop.

It is first important to understand the difference between (the) “Aegukga” and (an) aegukga, both of which loosely translate to “nationalistic song.” The lowercased aegukga is simply the Korean term for any song that honors any nation at all. The capitalized, quotationally marked “Aegukga” is a specific song – the official Korean national anthem – but this “Aegukga” took half a century to settle into the single piece of music it is today.

The earliest known iteration owes its existence to Korea’s first significant interface with Westerners. Western culture initially reached  Korea through Chinese mediation way back in 1603, when a Korean diplomat returned from Beijing with translated Jesuit texts, and the Joseon government executed French missionaries on Korean soil as early as 1866, but it wasn’t until 1885 that Western missionaries (specifically American Protestants) and their cultural-technological stature intrigued the Korean powers that be. By the 1890s, the at last tangibly appreciable concept of a great wide world beyond Korea’s immediate neighbors inspired in Koreans a new kind of nationalism, and a new kind of national song.

This development took shape in surprisingly literal, large-scale form – namely, that of an independence monument. As had proven true throughout Korea’s history, and would soon prove itself again and again, this independence and its monument were occasioned not by Korea’s own volition, but rather those of larger world powers. On April 17, 1895, Japan’s victory over China in the first Sino-Japanese War brought ink to paper with the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki. Korea for many centuries had been a vassal state of China (not a colony), and Chinese dominance over Korea had become pronounced in the preceding decade after a failed (pro-Japanese) coup, but in this agreement Japan stipulated that China recognize Korea’s full and total sovereignty, ceasing all tributary and military exchange with them. Granted, Japan’s interest in doing so was not at all charitable, as their own imperial advances into Korea would soon demonstrate, and a great many Koreans had been quite happy with their Chinese connections – after all, it had been the Korean government’s request for Chinese military assistance in dealing with an internal peasant revolt that had occasioned the Sino-Japanese War from the start. But Koreans now embraced their inadvertent independence as reason to celebrate, and in 1896 the Joseon government endeavored to build an “Independence Gate” in Seoul.

Announcing his monument, the Korean journalist, political firebrand, and sudden architect Seo Jaepil (a.k.a. Soh Jaipil) wrote on July 4 in the inaugural issue of his (groundbreakingly all-Hangeul!) newspaper, The Independent:

Thanks to the will of God, Korea, after many years of serving as a vassal state of the Qing Dynasty, has become a fully independent nation. Now, the monarch of Korea is on equal footing with the world’s leaders, and the Korean people are free. Because of the significance of this auspicious event, this symbol [the Independence Gate] will serve as a reminder to the world and to future Korean generations of Korea’s everlasting independence as well as be a place where the Korean public can exercise and enjoy the fresh air, quiet, and scenery.

This is an infinitely strange paragraph. For one, writing in such terms about Korea’s “new” “independence” entailed a wilful distortion of Korea’s longstanding effective independence from and symbiotic relationship with China, applying dramatic historical revisionism to history barely two months old. Seo even credits this change to a Western deity that had been introduced to Koreans by foreigners (initially through Chinese translation and import), effectively attributing the end of one foreign civilization’s influence to the beginning of another’s. He does so in the very first issue of a newspaper he called The Independent, published on the American Independence Day, in anticipation of a monument that bore the exact same inspiration – immediately marking this new Korean notion of independence from foreign powers as a notion heavily indebted to foreign powers. Not to mention there was nary a Korean less qualified to be espousing such nationalistic pretensions in this historically influential moment: the previous decade’s worth of relatively overbearing Chinese presence could be traced directly to the 1884 Gapsin Coup, a failed pro-Japanese coup d’etat which Seo himself had helped lead against the Korean government with direct Japanese support – the Japanese, of course, being the very agents of Korean independence’s short life and imminent end. To top it all off, Seo had just finished a period of refuge in the United States, where he became Korea’s first American citizen and adopted the name he would keep until death, Philip Jaisohn. 5 While we’re close-reading, we can’t help but underscore the comical irony in Seo/Jaisohn’s hope that this Western-influenced independence and monument would help Koreans “enjoy the fresh air, quiet, and scenery:” the rapid modernization that ensued would gradually push Koreans further away from those three amenities than anyone in 1896 could have ever imagined.

The symbolically gnarliest lump on this new Korean independence, however, would have to be the Independence Gate itself. Seo, in his best effort to articulate the newly liberated Korean identity he had so fervently championed, himself designed the edifice…to be a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. So was the plan when construction began on November 21, and so was the Gate when it stood complete for all to behold just 364 days later. Now relocated some 70 meters from its original position, in a place called Independence Park, it remains a massive, granite jumble of semiotic nonsense: instead of attempting to commemorate Korean liberation with something that could be deemed at least vaguely Korean, Seo and the late Joseon government went for a coarse simulacrum of a profoundly foreign, meaningful symbol of the French people and their wholly separate history. The Independence Gate meant to be a clean break from Korea’s Chinese-tributary past, ironically through obeisance to a new national other, but for whatever reason Seo kept intact two pillar-trunks of the demolished Yeongeunmun structure this new one replaced. The Yeongeunmun, or Welcoming Gate for Obligation, had been a long-standing symbol of Korea’s relationship with China – which, left in dialectic with the recreated French triumph that superseded it, made for odd compound symbolism indeed.

But that’s not all. The inauguration of the Gate’s construction included a cornerstone-laying ceremony that aired the first known performance of “Aegukga.” Its lyrics were perhaps written by the politician Yun Chiho (or An Changho – or Choi Byunghun, Kim Inshik, Min Yeonghwan, or some combination of these people). 6 Per modern Korea’s typical indifference toward its own (even immediate) past, it wasn’t until 1955 that anyone seriously investigated the authorship of these lyrics – and that was at the behest of the US government. Of course, by that point in time, The Committee To Search For the Composer of “Aegukga” could only conclude that whatever paper trail once existed was long gone. Like the architectural facsimile it accompanied, the music itself was not composed, rather adapted: the choral scholars of the Pajae school who performed that day sang the melody of the traditional Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne.”

Robert Burns, the poet-Scotsman who discovered and helped immortalize “Syne,” called it an “old song, of olden times” (historical research shows that it dates back to 1711 at the latest), and even then it was a romantic ode to long-aged Western notions of nostalgia and social tradition. As with France’s Arc, the Korean appropriation of this European source code seems indifferent to its original meaning – its appeal is purely functional. To wit, many have speculated that “Syne” was selected simply for its pentatonic (five-note) melody, which was closer to the harmonic wheelhouse of traditional Northeast Asian music than most typically diatonic (seven-note) Western music. The spectacle of the earliest modern Koreans singing a Scottish tune to quite literally christen a French edifice in celebration of the directly American ideal of Korea’s independence – from China, as brought to bear by the same Japanese forces who would soon assert a much tighter grip on Korea than the Qing ever had – might seem irredeemably absurd were it not for the realization that they were adopting these symbols for a completely distinct resonance from the one your average Westerner might imagine.

Further “Aegukga” would only add to the mess. For example, in 1898, the Korean Military Academy would sing another such national anthem, this time to the tune of Britain’s: “God Save the Queen” (perhaps the oddest interpolation of the many in play). Then came the “Korean Empire Aegukga,” which introduced several new variables to the equation.

The notion of a “Korean Empire,” for one, may today seem incongruous: in the past millennium, Korea has had to contend with a wide variety of imperial forces, but has never once invaded another nation themselves. But beginning in 1897 and until Japanese colonization in 1910, the Greater Korean Empire ruled the land (if, for some of that time, only in name), and the emperor commissioned an official “Aegukga” – written by the German composer Franz Eckert, who was then director of the Korean Empire’s military band. Eckert had previously worked closely with Japanese composers, who had come up with a Western-influenced melody rooted in Japanese traditional music and set it to a waka poem written roughly a thousand years prior, to come up with a Western harmony for Japan’s “Kimigayo” (their anthem to this day), but in Korea’s case he wrote a plainly Western dirge and submitted it on July 1, 1902. Strangely published in five languages in Germany (including Chinese and French), the Korean Empire’s “Aegukga” was first performed on the emperor’s birthday a couple of months later, and implemented into schools nationwide in 1904. It is fitting that it is remembered as perhaps the single most depressing national anthem ever adopted: Korea had declared itself an empire largely to vow continued independence from Japan, but in their anthem – which begins and ends with the line, “God, help our country” – it’s hard not to hear a deeper resignation. 7 As the scholar Jonathan Lie writes about Eckert’s involvement here, “It may seem curious that the Japanese and Korean elite, in the absence of explicit external pressure, would independently capitulate on an ostensibly cultural matter, and this is especially the case for Korean royalty, who remained resistant to non-Chinese influences.” Lie is wrong on the details, both in equating the Japanese and Korean approaches on this matter (as we can see, the Japanese anthem is a carefully considered balance of traditional and Western inputs, which is about as smart and true to modern Japan’s situation as one could have hoped) and in claiming Korean royalty were still consciously pro-Chinese and against any other foreign influence at this time (as we have seen with The Independent, the Independence Gate, the prior “Aegukga,” et cetera), but broadly correct in that the reason for both East Asian countries’ “capitulation” to Western expression even in the musical articulation of their own national identities has to do with the shared idea that this cultural material was first and foremost a technological tool, and a means to a modern end. Though we ought to add that it is nonetheless rhetorically bizarre that Korea, in seeking to articulate an identity squarely against Japan and their imperial interests, sought the hand of the exact same Westerner who had just written the Japanese national anthem – and that they would readily adopt something as defeatist as the “Aegukga” he wrote for his commission.

Come 1910, the Empire’s “Aegukga” perished with the Empire, and with Japanese rule came the Japanese anthem. Shortly following the infamous March 1st Movement and massacre of 1919, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea established itself in Shanghai, adopting the “Aegukga”  of 1896 as their official anthem. For decades, the musical symbol of Korea’s self-determinist spirit was “Auld Lang Syne.”

The Japanese Empire disassembled in 1945, and with the official division of Korea in 1948, the newly ordained Republic of (South) Korea decided that a Scottish folk tune has no place in Korea’s national identity. They wound up choosing a piece the composer An Iktae (a.k.a. Ahn Eak-tai) had written out of that very same conviction in 1935, a Western-style symphony called Symphonic Fantasy Korea (specifically its finale). But that piece’s semiotics are hardly less tangled, as Iktae: was born in Pyongyang, the capital of what had just become North Korea; spent his teens and early adult life in Japan, where like Yun Shim-deok he learned all he knew about (Western) music (during the Occupation, we might add); wrote the future Korean anthem itself in the American city of Philadelphia, where his friendly neighbors the Peables paid his rent; and debuted the piece with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, flabbergasting the audience when he – a novice conductor – blamed the orchestra for his inability to control them, throwing down the baton and aborting the performance altogether. An’s “Aegukga” may have become the official anthem of South Korea in 1948, but he himself did not elect to return to the peninsula until 1955. He moved two years later to Majorca and lived the last couple decades of his life in Spain, frequently traveling to play concerts in Japan (including one at the 1964 Summer Olympics). In 2008, for entirely separate reasons, Korean historians added Iktae to a significant list of pro-Japanese collaborators. His anthem – set in 1948 to the original lyrics sung at the Independence Gate ceremony half a century prior – remains the official “Aegukga” to this day.


Strange stories beget epilogues in kind. Though An’s “Aegukga” became the South Korean national anthem from the day the nation was founded, he and his estate retained the music’s copyright, and in 2003 two South Korean professional soccer clubs were sued for…playing the South Korean national anthem. A little over a year later, An’s widow Lolita relinquished all rights to the government, and for the past decade Koreans have sung their anthem without fear of legal retribution – though this particular dreg of the “Aegukga” tale is a salient symptom of the murky copyright status of most 20th century Korean music, including much of early K-pop and its antecedents.

Of course, that’s not the only legacy of the “Aegukga” saga. As Lie notes, that early Scottish “Aegukga” is what began a long and influential history of setting Korean lyrics to an appropriated Western (or simply non-Korean) melody. It also set the stage for Koreans to compose new pieces using Western harmony and song forms, something Franz Eckert pioneered with his Korean Empire “Aegukga,”  and that Koreans themselves would start doing in 1905, following the example of the musician Kim Inshik.

In purely K-pop terms, we might say that the greatest lesson of post-Shimonoseki Korean independence, The Independent, the Independence Gate, (even) the (notion of a) Korean Empire, and the first “Aegukga” is that in Korean music, there is always a reference track. (Like virtually all contemporary pop. (Or all music ever, less explicitly.)) Point being that K-pop’s great musical innovation is the reimagination of the reference track toward a kind of structural, bricolage originality, one altogether separate from piss-thin Western analogues like pastiche, mashups, et cetera. The Independence Gate’s juxtaposition of imitative French architecture, Chinese-Korean architecture, Scottish folk melody, and culturally Western albeit Korean-language lyrics on that day in 1896 was the first example of this modern Korean creativity’s central logic – and while many early K-pop songs were just as ragtag and inscrutable as Seo’s gate design, independence rhetoric, and integration of these forms with other ones, K-pop at its best would become the ultimate expression of this creative impulse after its century-long refinement.

Camera 360

Further Materials
• K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, by Jonathan Lie, University of California Press, 10/2014
• Pop Goes Korea, by Mark James Russell, Stone Bridge Press, 1/1/2009

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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