Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where is Korean Rock?

Dear Korean,

I know that you've touched a little bit on Korean rock music-- particularly in your "most influential" series-- but I was curious as to what the rock scene is really like in Korea today. Why is there so little Korean rock music? How are rockers treated today in Korea, considering the dominance of the K-pop idols?

Curious K-Rock fan

Let's address the first question first -- why is there so little Korean rock music?

Answer:  the premise of the question is wrong, because there are tons of Korean rock music. Tons. Let's put it this way: if we played a game where the Korean names two rock songs for every one idol group song, the Korean guarantees that he will win every time. In fact, this is one of the most frustrating things about discussion Korean pop music -- the idea that manufactured pretty boys and pretty girls comprise the entire universe of K-pop. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Nor is this guy the entirety of K-pop.
You had your fun, people. It's time to move on.
(source)
It is true that Korean rock is less visible to the international audience because Korean rock, unlike Korean idol groups, is not systematically pushed abroad by well-capitalized management companies. It is also true that Korean rock is less "mainstream," in a sense that Korean rock sells less number of albums, appear less on television and less frequently heard (if at all) in shopping malls in Korea.

But so what? Isn't being independent, underground and non-commercial more properly within the spirit of rock and roll? Do you know how many number one singles that the legendary rock band Radiohead has? Zero. How about other legends like Led Zeppelin or Depeche Mode? Also zero. Celine Dion has not one, but two, albums that outsold Nirvana's Nevermind, widely considered the greatest alternative rock album ever. Speaking of Nevermind, you would never hear Smells like Teen Spirit in your neighborhood mall. But does any of these factoids diminish the importance or influence of rock music? Of course not.

The lesson here is simple: people like mainstream pop more than rock music. That's why mainstream pop is mainstream. Korean pop music scene is not an exception -- that's why mainstream Korean pop established a beachhead in the international stage first. But that should not lead to the conclusion that rock music does not exist in Korea, or Korean people don't like rock music. In fact, rock music is one of the two pillars that hold up the foundation of Korean pop music, and it has a storied history in Korea. (The other pillar is -- don't laugh -- trot [트로트]. This will be explained in a future post.)

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.



The history of Korean rock music is not much shorter than the history of rock and roll itself because, fortuitously, Korea came to be under heavy American influence almost as soon as American musicians invented rock and roll in the early 1950s. But why was Korea so susceptible to American influence at that time?

Because of Korean War. By the time Elvis Presley recorded That's All Right Mama in July 1954, nearly 100,000 American soldiers were stationed in South Korea. In the wake of South Korea's total destruction, those American soldiers basically represented the only consumers of pop music in Korea -- and those soldiers liked rock and roll. This meant Korean musicians had to learn rock and roll, and quickly, in order to make a living.

Shin Joong-hyeon in 1970s
(source)
Once drawn into rock and roll, Korean musicians appreciated the beauty of the music, and began creating their own rock music. Most legends of early Korean rock cut their teeth playing for the U.S. troops in USO shows and clubs near USFK bases. (For example, the incomparable Shin Joong-hyeon -- dubbed the "Godfather of Rock" in Korea -- began his musical career playing for American soldiers at clubs.) Since then, rock has been a constant presence in Korean pop music, even as its overall influence waxed and waned. Korean rock enjoyed its golden age in the late 1980s, with the top rock bands of the time drawing as much popularity as any celebrity. 

Korean rock experienced a brutally lean period in the 10-year stretch between late 1990s to early 2000s, as East Asian Financial Crisis dramatically reduced the size of the economic pie allotted to pop musicians, while the manufactured idol groups began to dominate the scene. For a time, it seemed like idol groups were crowding the field to the extent that they were about to choke Korean rock out of existence. As it turns out, however, Korean rock had already taken a firm root. Rock music retreated to Korea's indie scene, survived, and continued to thrive in its own way.

What is the state of rock music in Korea now? Obviously, Korean rock is not as huge as Korea's idol-driven mainstream pop, which now forms a major strand in worldwide pop culture. However, overall health of Korea's rock scene is quite sound, especially compared to a decade ago. In fact, Korean rock could be entering into a renaissance of sorts since last year. Koreans in their 50s and 60s -- i.e. those who spent their youths in 1970s and 80s -- are reminiscing fondly about classic Korean rock. New indie rock bands like Busker Busker and Guckkasten enjoy a lot of TV time and album sales. And of course, the club rock scenes -- headlined by the legendary Club Drug in Hongdae area, which is considered the birthplace of Korean indie music -- are as lively as ever, featuring ever greater number of bands featuring sophisticated and diverse sounds. Obviously, not every one of them is a celebrity, or even makes a decent living. But that, too, is the rock and roll spirit.

How can an international aficionado of Korean pop music be introduced to Korean rock? This list of nominees for Korean Music Awards 2013 is a good start. KMA is the most authoritative pop music award in Korea, presented by a committee of more than 70 critics and journalists. (In other words, none of the vote-rigging shenanigans committed by the deluded members of idol fan clubs.) You might notice that the list of nominees hardly contains any boy/girl bands. Out of the nearly 50 musicians nominated, only four represents the "idol" field -- G-Dragon, whose One of a Kind is nominated for Song of the Year; f(x) and Sistar for the Best Dance & Electronic Song and; Ga-in is nominated for Best Pop Song.

Other nominees represent jazz, R&B, hip hop and, yes, rock, including modern rock, alternative rock and heavy metal. The Korean would highly recommend clicking through each artist's nomination page, as each page (for the most part) contains a sample video of the artist's music. Once you find the band you like, search the band's name on Youtube, and off you go. (Personally, out of the list, the Korean recommends Third Line Butterfly [3호선 버터플라이], Busker Busker [버스커 버스커] and Jeong Cha-shik [정차식].)

What about television? If you are somehow able to regularly watch Korean television shows over the Internet or local cable television, look for either Yoo Hee-yeol's Sketchbook [유희열의 스케치북], or EBS Space Gonggam [EBS Space 공감]. Both programs place an emphasis on featuring a diverse group of pop musicians (including leading indie groups,) and insist upon good live performances. Here is a sample -- Guckkasten's Mirror [거울], on EBS Space Gonggam:


For interviews and reviews in English language, www.koreanindie.com is an excellent resource. Korean rock bands with decent international following make periodic international tours as well. (Crying Nut, Galaxy Express and Third Line Butterfly toured the U.S. last March/April, although the results were hilariously sad. Read the report of their tour if you can read Korean.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

29 comments:

  1. http://youtu.be/quaeAqoCC_U

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  2. Love this post. People often look at me sideways when I tell them that I love Korean rock and, in the same breath, hate Korean pop. They can't fathom the difference. This goes for both Korean and non-Koreans. I wish it were more mainstream (playing in coffee shops). By the way, smells like teen spirit was everywhere when Nirvana became popular, including the mall and some really wonderful elevator muzak :-)

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  3. This (http://youtu.be/V-6R-LSO5Co) is friggin awesome.

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    1. Huckleberry Finn. Anyone a fan of Huckleberry Finn?

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  4. This is timely - I wanted to ask you what you thought of Nell(넬)? Are they regarded as Indie or K-pop? I discovered them a week or two ago and I'm in love with the new release, Holding on to Gravity,and was listening to Speechless when I saw this post.

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    1. Regarded by whom? At any rate, Nell is amazing. One of my favorite bands.

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    2. I'm crazy about "The Day Before." Nell is so amazing. I need to check out all of their stuff and stop being lazy.

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  5. Korea had a very vibrant "Big Hair '80s" heavy metal scene happening in the mid to late '80s. I used to go to Dae-Hak-No where several bands would set up and play on the side of the street.

    The three most prominent bands to emerge from that era were Baekdusan (백두산), Bu-Hwal (부활), and Sinawe (시나위).

    None of these bands ever achieved major fame in Korea, but all had very dedicated followings. Sinawe has probably done the best out of them. Sinawe's guitarist Shin Dae-Chul (신대철) is in my opinion the best rock guitarist in Korea - and is the son of Shin Joong-hyeon (whom the Korean pictured above).

    Other really good heavy metal bands to emerge during that era are Black Hole (블랙홀) and Foreign Legion (외인부대). Actually, I don't know the exact English name for 외인부대, "Foreign Legion" is my translation.

    If you are interested in some of those early heavy metal band albums, here are their earliest (and my opinion best) releases:

    Baekdusan (백두산)
    1집 Too Fast! Too Loud! Too Heavy! (1986)
    2집 King Of Rock 'n' Roll (1987)

    Bu-Hwal (부활)
    1986년 - Rock Will Never Die

    Sinawe (시나위)
    1집 Heavy Metal Sinawe (1986)
    2집 Down And Up (1987)

    Here is a nice, modern day clip featuring a jam session with the guitarists from Baekdusan (Kim Do-Gyun 김도균), Bu-Hwal (Kim Tae-Won 김태원), and Sinawe (Shin Dae-Chul 신대철):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2-XwFRqZSA

    The Korean mentioned the tv show "EBS Space Gonggam" (EBS Space 공감). You can attend the EBS Space Gonggam shows for free, however, you have to request to attend and be (lucky enough to be) selected. The seating is fairly limited. I saw Sinawe perform there. Of course, the audio in the broadcast sounded just fine, however, at the concert itself - it sounded terrible. An archive all of performances on EBS Space Gonggam is available at EBS Space Gonggam's website. You can watch them in low-bit or hi-res streaming video. You have to register at the site in order to attend the shows or watch the streaming video - and sadly, you can't register without a Korean ID number (주민등록번호). I got in by using my wife's ID number. When I went to the Sinawe show and they saw that I obviously didn't look anything like a female, let alone a Korean female, they were very cool about it after I explained that the only way I could register was by using my wife's ID.

    Attending rock concerts in Korea has come a long way in the last several years. These days, several big name western acts perform here. For example, I've seen Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Eric Clapton, Sting, Elton John, Bob Dylan -- just to name a few.

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    1. Good comment, but one small friendly amendment -- 부활 actually enjoyed pretty significant success. In terms of popular acceptance, it certainly did better than 시나위. 부활's Never Ending Story was a chart-topper. Also, 부활's lead singer 이승철 became one of the all-time greats as a solo singer, which counts somewhat.

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    2. Actually, I should have explained that a little better. I didn't mean it so much in terms of popular success - I meant it more in terms of how the band developed musically. Sinawe actually rolled with times and progressed from head bangin' heavy metal in the '80s, to a very grungy Seattle sound in the '90s, to a very mature rock sound by the 2000s. And in their most recent release 2006's Reason Of Dead Bugs (where the fu$k did that album title come from?), lyrically, it is quite deep and delves into some interesting social issues.

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  6. One point I forgot to mention was that these bands were fairly heavily scrutinized by the Chun and Roh governments back then. They had to be very careful with their lyrics and each album release had to include a patriotic song (not performed by the band - just some random, very sappy patriot song).

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  7. It only takes a couple of google searches to get at a list or two of Korean rock bands. Wikipedia even has a list that would get you started, everything from Punk to Thrash Metal. Then you can find much of it on YouTube, Daily Motion and download sites like iTunes. I've seen a documentary about Korean indie rock that had English subs, I think it was at Drama Fever. Usually I pretty much agree with everything The Korean has to say about everything. (I know forgive me for sucking up.) I have to disagree with the statement that "people like mainstream pop more than rock music. That's why mainstream pop is mainstream". Pop music in America is just as overproduced and bland as pop music in Korea. What we listen to on "mainstream" radio is "selected" for us by the companies that control the music industry just like in Korea. Even "classic rock" stations in the U.S. don't actually play the "best" of the classics. They have the same few hits cycling on an endless loop. How many more times do we have to listen to Boston's "More Than A Feeling" or Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", till your ears bleed? College radio and word of mouth in the U.S is how indie music goes mainstream and the breakthroughs are still few and far between. I would probably wreck the car if I turned on the local rock station one morning commute and heard "Maggot Brain" instead of "Black Water" or Clutch instead of Nickelback.

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  8. I actually read the question, differently even if all this information on K-Rock is helpful. Why don't more South Korean men and women get together on their own and form quartets? I'm not an authority but I have seen this rare animal in expat bars, either jamming with expats or in an all-Korean band. Many had talent, but that's not the point of rock. Is this urge to rock missing in South Korea? Or, did the conglomerates run that urge out of the country?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Keep in mind, most bands form in urban areas. And finding a place to practice playing loud rock music in a place like Seoul is pretty hard to do.

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  9. @humesbastard: I'm not sure I follow you. Are you saying that people here don't get together on their own to form quartets? As in the post, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. I've seen literally over a hundred shows in S. Korea over the years and I think that they've had some of the best live rock performers in the world (I'm thinking especially of Crying Nut in their energetic prime in the late '90s and RUX)....and re the chaebol running it out of people: hardly. Seo Kiseok, the leader of the Geeks, Korea's top youthcrew band, actually holds down a high-powered managerial position in a multinational corporation here, and there are even people who retire early and form bands (직장인 bands, they're called...)

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    1. This catalog of corporate cacophony is all very fine, as far as that goes. But, I just don't think I'll find New Orleans in South Korea.

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    2. Um, RUX and the Geeks hardly count as corporate cacophony despite Kiseok's job. New Orleans, maybe not, but at times it has done a good job of reproducing the East Bay punk scene ca. the early '90s.

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  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW0C8RujDHI

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  11. One thing I never understood is that (it seems to me) Rock music is much more popular in Japan than Korea. Both countries had significant US troop presence after WWII and the Korean War, and so I can understand that Rock music in these countries modeled itself after American rock music. I also realize that there definitely were many Korean rock musicians from the 50s until now. However, rock music today seems to be much more mainstream in Japan than Korea. This leads me to think it's something to do with the culture. But I never quite understood how things ended up this way.

    For example, bands like L'arc en Ciel, Gackt, are still hugely popular in Japan, to the point where they can take the Number 1 spot in album sales, go on tours, etc, and they've been doing it for the last 20 years. I can't think of any Korean musician/band that can do this now. Japan certainly has its idols too but they also seem to have a lot of (very good) Rock bands. I wonder how things got this way.

    What do you guys think?

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  12. Reading this post a little bit, and experiencing Korean culture on my skin, I find it ironic I've discovered Korea through Korean punk bands. And you know what? I'm kinda proud of it.

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  13. Can anyone recommend an online radio station or one that can be accessed from a phone app? All I can find is kpop, rock is lost in the noise (or perhaps not represented??).

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  14. Why "don't laugh" in front of trot? I can understand that you prefer rock, the same way my dad prefers pop. However, the trot genre in general, and especially in Korea, is nothing to scoff at. There are awesome musicians in trot even people in my age group (late teens~early twenties) would appreciate. Trot,especially semi-trot, is one of my favourite genres, along with Jazz and techno.

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  15. as good as rammstein

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARB80ftqUPs&hl=en-GB&gl=SG

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  17. I love rock music. I think it was the first genre that I ever truly fell in love with. From heavy metal to alternative rock to basically any kind of rock just blew me away. My first CDs were rock CDs and I ever rocked out to Ozzy and Marilyn with my mom who loves them as well.

    While I adore Kpop, I wish the Korean music scene would place emphasis on unearthing indie rock bands, so that they can find a bigger following. So many complaints against idols, yet they keep being churned out like products from an assembly line.

    I hope in the future, the government or a label tries to gives us more rock music, different pop music, and just different kinds of Korean music. Variety is the spice of life and we can only take so many idol groups basically singing the different versions of the same song.

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    1. I agree with what you say, but there is a common mentallity on the Korean indie scene. They have their own philosophy of why they don't want to go mainstream. There are a few indie bands who made it to the mainstream scene, such as Busker Busker, and it was a topic to debate, seriously.

      It's not up to the governments or labels, it's about the artist's choice.

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  18. Check out Arirang TV's series "Rock On Korea" which includes 10+ episodes that discuss various forms of Korean rock, K-rock history and includes performances and interviews. Interesting stuff.

    http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbf-dHbvCRqaRAauJeu5UlNVw0XA5z8c3

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