Monday, December 06, 2010

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 41. Yoo Seung-Joon

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[Series Index]

41. Yoo Seung-Joon [유승준]

Years of Activity:  1997-2002 (Active in China from 2002-present)

West Side (1997)
For Sale 1998 V2 (1998)
Now or Never (1999)
Over and Over (1999)
Summit Revival (2000)
Infinity (2001)
Permission: Promise of Jun [승낙 - Promise of Jun] (2006)
Rebirth of YSJ (2007)

Representative Song:  Nanana from For Sale 1998 V2


기억하고 있니 어릴 적 예쁜 꿈들을
Do you remember those pretty dreams when you were young
모두 다 이룰 수 있을 것 같던 시간들
The times when everything seemed possible
소망을 꿈꾸며 주문을 외었지
We dreamed hope and recited a spell

시간이 지나고 세상에 지쳐 갈때쯤
As the time passed and by the time I got tired from the world
꿈은 그저 꿈일 뿐인걸 알게 됐지만
I learned that dream is just a dream
어릴적 주문을 아직 노래 하네
But I still sing the spell from my childhood

언제나 힘들고 지칠 때 날 일으켜 주던 꿈이 가득한 이 노랠 했어
I sang this song full of dreams that picked me up whenever I was in pain and fatigue
나나나나 나나나나 나나나나 나나나나
Nananana nananana nananana nananana
어두워진 가리워진 나의 길을 밝혀주는 이 노래를 함께 해봐
Sing this song with me that illuminates my darkened hidden way

난 그냥 되는 되는데로 살았었지
I just lived as the life took me
간섭받기 싫어 그냥 피했던 거지
Didn't want to be told what to do, just avoided everything
내일의 두려움도 필요없어
Didn't need to fear tomorrow either
그런 막막함이 내 시간만 좀먹었었어
Being at a loss like that ate away my time
그러다 내 어릴적 꿈을 보았었지
Then I saw the dream from my childhood
거친 바람속 내 어릴 적 노랠 들었지
In the roaring wind, heard my childhood song
그래 이건 아니었어 용서할 수 없어
That's right, this isn't it, this is unforgivable
다시 나를 살린 이 노래를 불렀었지
Sang this song that made me live again

어느샌가 내게 찾아온 사랑을 위해
For the love that came to me without even me noticing
그렇게도 나를 애태운 그대를 위해
For you who worried so much for me like that
영원을 꿈꾸며 주문을 외웠지
I recited the spell dreaming of eternity

피해갈 수 없는 현실에 지쳐갈 때쯤
As I got tired from the inevitable reality
무거워져 가는 걸음에 힘겨울 때면
When I feel pain from the steps that become heavier
어릴 적 주문을 노래하곤 했지
I would sing the spell from when I was young

언제나 힘들고 지칠 때 날 일으켜 주던 꿈이 가득한 이 노랠 했어
I sang this song full of dreams that picked me up whenever I was in pain and fatigue
나나나나 나나나나 나나나나 나나나나
Nananana nananana nananana nananana
어두워진 가리워진 나의 길을 밝혀주는 이 노래를 함께 해봐
Sing this song with me that illuminates my darkened hidden way

자꾸만 어긋나 버리고 퇴색해 버리는 내 꿈을 지키고 싶었어 이루고 싶었어
I wanted to protect my dream, achieve my dream that was going the wrong way, fading away
누구도 가식의 가면을 버리지 않으리 끝끝내 발버둥 칠때에 또 감추려 할때에
Nobody will take off their mask of hypocrisy as they struggle and hide to the bitter end
하늘에 새긴 내 어린 꿈들이 내 귓가에 들려준 이 노래 내 순수의 노래
This song that my childhood dreams in the sky sang into my ears, the song of my innocence
키 작은 아이의 함성과 내 사랑이 내게 들려준 이 노래 지켜갈 이 노래
This song that a shout from short kid and my love sang into me, the song that I will protect

언제나 힘들고 지칠 때 날 일으켜 주던 꿈이 가득한 이 노랠 했어
I sang this song full of dreams that picked me up whenever I was in pain and fatigue
나나나나 나나나나 나나나나 나나나나
Nananana nananana nananana nananana
초라하게 변해버린 나의 꿈을 밝혀주는 이 노래를 함께 해봐
Sing this song with me that illuminates my shriveled dream

Translation Note:  Some lines ended up being very inelegant, although the underlying song is not particularly elegant at any rate. As always, suggestions are welcome.

In 15 Words or Less:  Pioneering rapper whose career ended up in the monstrous bowels of Korean society.

Maybe he should have been ranked higher because...  Serving as Exhibit A of the sickness of Korean society might be more influential than one might think.

Maybe he should have been ranked lower because...  The flash he demonstrated early in his career was already getting old by 2002.

Why is this artist important?
Yoo Seung-Joon -- also known as his American name, Steve Yoo -- is in many ways a pioneering figure in Korean pop culture. Like Solid, Yoo was a Korean American artist who brought in elements of American pop culture -- in his case, rap. And not just any rap; the aggressive, authority-defying, "thug life" kind of rap prevalent in American rap at the time. His first hit song was about liking older women (horror of horrors!) The music video for Nanana took it a step further, displaying Yoo in all possible variations of thug-life style power play in Korea -- best fighter in class, romantic liaison with a female teacher, etc. Of course, by the standards of today (both in U.S. and in Korea,) Yoo's attempt at defiance of authority is at best cute, at worst laughable. But heck, the first airplane by the Wright Brothers was also pretty laughable in isolation. What matters is that the attempt happened, paving the way for others.

But those who are well-versed in K-pop history would know that his music is not the thing for which Yoo is remembered in Korea. Yoo's high-flying career met a fiery death in 2002 in a manner he probably never expected.

Until that point, Yoo was arguably the biggest star in K-pop. Yoo's brand of brash rap was as big a hit as it was back in U.S. His good looks and unthreatening exoticism from being a Korean American acted as a magnet for screaming fan girls, arguably the engine of K-pop. In a way, Yoo was LeBron James of his day -- his dominance was that strong. But Yoo's fall, whose cause was also essentially a public relations mistake, was far deeper and irredeemable than James'.

In 2002, as Korean American pop artists increasingly appeared in K-pop scene, the question of mandatory draft reared its head. If a Korean American (loosely defined) is a Korean citizen with American permanent residency, he is eligible for draft if he earns money from Korea. There were some cases in which small-fry Korean American pop artists did certain things to avoid being drafted, which raised suspicion on Korean American artists generally.

Yoo was already raising suspicion before 2002. Although on stage he would engage in rigorous choreography, he managed to get a Level 4 in his draft physical with a stated cause of herniated disk, which would assign him to administrative duties for his military service. But at least he was going, people thought -- and Yoo publicly stated that he would serve his "holy duty of national defense." He was scheduled to report for duty in April 2002.

Until he didn't. In January 2002, the news that Yoo acquired U.S. citizenship and would not serve his military duty as a result broke -- and Korean society roiled into rage in a scale that no one (and certainly not Yoo himself) could have anticipated. What Yoo, who grew up in Southern California since age 13, never quite grasped was how seriously Korean men took their years of service. Truth is, few men in Korea want to serve the duty for 2.5 years, pissing away their precious youth. Few ever enjoy the military, alternately filled with bullshit and boredom. But they nonetheless report for duty, because they have to. They grit their teeth and tolerate the bullshit, because they have to. And when they see someone who is not pulling his weight? Then all hell breaks loose.

Yoo bore the full brunt of that hell. This was early days of high-speed Internet in Korea, where news spread fast and reactions were instantaneous. The keyboard warriors went to work, screaming and howling about Yoo's betrayal. The powers that be at the time did not yet have the ability to discern what was legitimate public opinion and what was malicious trolling -- which might not have mattered in Yoo's case after all, since they likely would have been pissed off all the same. Yoo lied about serving in the military. All other concerns were secondary.

Korea's Ministry of Justice considered him to be a draft-dodger, a criminal. As a criminal, Ministry of Justice declared, Yoo would not be able to enter Korea ever again. Yoo tried to explain somehow, blaming that it was his management company that made the decision. But at the end of the day, there was no way to escape the fact that he acquired U.S. citizenship to evade his military duty. He was allowed into Korea only once since then -- in 2003, to attend his father-in-law's funeral. Since then, Yoo has been active in China.

Yoo's musical contribution in K-pop was significant, but the social impact growing out of his disastrous mistake ended up overshadowing everything. Because of Yoo, Koreans began to have a national conversation on topics that were not discussed before. What was the value of military service? How is the precise relation between Koreans and Korean Americans? Considering that one of the major themes of the 2002 presidential election of Korea was that the losing candidate's son suspiciously did not serve his military duty, a case can be made that Yoo Seung-Joon's influence may have been greater than anyone else on this list -- a meaningless consolation to a truly talented musician whose life was broken by his own country.

Interesting Trivia:  Yoo's style, like the style of American rappers that he emulated, elicited a lot of hostility from other rappers. In 1998, a prominent rapper Kim Jin-Pyo rapped, obviously aiming at Yoo: 
혹시 그거 아냐? 여기는 미국 아냐
You know something? This isn't America.
얼어죽을 East Side, West Side  외치지만 말고
Stop saying freakin' "East Side, West Side"
제대로 좀 해봐 몇 년 후에 깡통 매봐
And do something real. Or wear a can a few years later. [="go bankrupt and become a beggar."]
그럼 두고두고 땅을 치고 후회할 테니 그럴 테니 하하하하
Then you will regret it for the rest of your life, that's right, hahahaha.
These lines may as well be the most prescient lines ever written in K-pop history.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Calvin!

    Anyway, I thought Yoo Seung-Joon was SUPER cute and even went to a concert when I lived in Korea (during my adult-ish years). haha.. good to be reminded, I totally forgot about him.

  2. I miss Yoo Seung-Joon. When I heard about what went down though, I was totally against him. I didn't actually know he lived in the U.S. since he was 13. I thought he simply hit it big, moved his family to the U.S. and became a citizen to avoid the draft.

    The reason I was so against him is because my cousin had to spend 3 years in jail because his religious beliefs prevented him from going to military service, and for him to basically exploit the f-4 visa in such a way to avoid the military was in my mind, despicable.

    But we all know, that in reality, if Steve Yoo wasn't famous, nobody would have cared.

    I also now don't think he was trying to exploit anything, as his whole family had left Korea when he was 13, and his whole family were in the process of naturalizing.

    I find it somewhat hypocritical that there always seems to be so much excitement generated from Koreans over the successes of Korean-Americans in sports or in other areas. These people didn't serve in the Korean military. Why don't we ban them from coming to Korea too?

    No, instead we give Hines Ward the key to the city and honorary Korean citizenship. (all the while ignoring the problems of multiracial kids in Korea... but that's an unrelated story, I know.)

    Anyway, if anything, I am glad that most Korean people can at least conceptualize what a Korean-American is now.

  3. Oh! No! I am draft dodger! I am so glad my father declared me as a American citizen when I was born in Korea.

  4. The reason Yoo is different is because unlike other Korean Americans, he was effusive in saying how much he wanted to serve in the military. This was before his naturalization. So, of course, Koreans and the Korean government got angry at him because he was a hypocrite while pretending to be a role model for young Koreans. Other Korean Americans don't brag about how much they want to serve. THAT is the difference.

  5. 유승준 is a punk. He was in a nice part of Orange County trying to act all gangsta, getting into trouble, and then came back to Korea and depicted himself as some sort of "I had to become a gangsta 'cuz the White boys were picking on me."

    The Korean wrote:
    This was early days of high-speed Internet in Korea, where news spread fast and reactions were instantaneous.

    Um... in which Korea? High-speed Internet was becoming the norm in Korea three or four years earlier.

    "Steve" Yoo was skewered by Netizens who saw themselves having to go in this punk's place, but that was not the "new" netizens or anything.

  6. Wow, your commenters can be mean. Sorry dude.

  7. Oh man, I used to have huge fangirl crush on him! I remember when he was a huge star, my brother followed his hairstyle and I thought he looked ridiculous.

    I saw him live in Orange County (that's where I live) after he was booted out, he was all buffed up. Damn.

    I agree with The Seoul Searcher.


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