13. Nah Hun-ah [나훈아]
Years of Activity: 1966-present (last album in 2006)
(Because Nah Hun-ah's discography so extensive and not organized by albums, but by prominent individual songs, the discography is not presented here.)
Representative Song: Hometown Station [고향역] from 1972.
코스모스 피어있는 정든 고향역
My dear hometown station where cosmos flowers bloom
이뿐이 곱뿐이 모두 나와 반겨주겠지
All the pretty girls will come out to welcome me
달려라 고향열차 설레는 가슴 안고
Run, the homeward train, clutching the expectant heart
눈감아도 떠오르는 그리운 나의 고향역
I see it even when my eyes are closed, my hometown station that I long for
코스모스 반겨주는 정든 고향역
My dear hometown station where cosmos flowers greet me
다정히 손잡고 고개 마루 넘어서 갈 때
When we tenderly hold hands and walk over the hill
흰머리 날리면서 달려온 어머님을
My mother who came running, with her white hair in the wind
얼싸안고 바라보았네 멀어진 나의 고향역
I embraced her and gazed, my hometown station far away
Translation notes: If you can somehow translate 이뿐이 곱뿐이 in a satisfactory manner, you are a better translated than the Korean.
In 15 words or less: Founder of modern trot music.
Maybe he should be ranked higher because... FIFTY years of top-of-the-line popularity. Only one K-pop artist can conceivably match this level of high performance and consistency.
Maybe he should be ranked lower because... Did not compose his own music.
Why is this artist important?
Trot, as a genre, does not get a fair shake in the narrative surrounding Korean pop music. The screaming fanboys and fangirls shun the music for being old-fashioned. The too-serious purveyors of Korean rock and hip hop look down on it for being banal. Often, trot singers are treated more like a clown than an artist--entertainers without a consciously directed purpose. A typical discography for trot singers is an unnavigable mess, because they release an incredible number of songs (that are far too similar to one another) without organizing them into thematic albums. It does not help that the genre is an artifact of the terrible era of Imperial Japan's colonization of Korea, during which Korea was forced to take in Western culture--including Western-style music--through the filter called Japan.
But this attitude is mistaken, because trot is extremely important in the history of K-pop. Indeed, it is the first genre of music that may be properly called "popular music" in Korea--that is, the first K-pop. Having been introduced in the early 1920s, it is the longest surviving genre of pop music in Korea. With its history now approaching a century, trot is the genre that is the mostly fully localized to Korean aesthetics. Trot may have begun as a foreign genre (and which K-pop genre did not?), but today, it is the most Korean K-pop.
Nah Hun-ah is important because he was primarily responsible for the final stage of trot's localization to Korea. As hard as it is to imagine, trot as a genre began as music for the urban elite, appealing to the small group of city-bound bourgeoisie that formed during the Japanese occupation. Gradually, especially after the end of the occupation, trot began to spread into the rest of Korea, more closely reflecting the national aesthetics. Trot's lyrics, once urbane and sophisticated, slowly became more rustic and pastoral. Although it originated from elsewhere, over time, trot came to evoke hometown and old times in the minds of Korean people.
During his prime in the 1970s, Nah Hun-ah was often referred to his rival Nam Jin [남진], another trot superstar who did have a slight edge in popularity compared to Nah. But a generation later, there is no contest between the two artists as to who left a lasting impact in Korean pop culture: Nah Hun-ah remains relevant in Korean pop culture today, while Nam Jin has faded into history. As it turns out, Nam Jin and Nah Hun-ah were moving toward opposite trends within trot music. Nam Jin was the last wave of trot singers who treated the genre as if it was for the urban elites, and Nah Hun-ah was the flag-bearer of the new direction of trot music.
Hometown Station is the pinnacle of such re-orientation. The song is about hometown, where the unassuming cosmos flowers and the old mother greet the singer. The song is the logical ending place for a genre that has become Korea's own, and Nah Hun-ah was one of the artists who brought the genre home.
Interesting trivia: Nah Hun-ah is also a participant in one of the greatest Korean pop culture scandals of all time. In 1976, it was revealed that Nah was dating Kim Ji-mi, the most popular actress of the time. In addition to the fact that Nah and Kim were respectively the top superstars of their fields, Kim was seven years older than Nah, and both were married when they began dating. Nah and Kim eventually married, but divorced after seven years. Nah would later marry a singer who was 14 years younger than he was. After 23 years of marriage, Nah's third wife recently filed for divorce.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.