Friday, March 30, 2012

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 19. Kim Wan-Seon

[Series Index]

19. Kim Wan-Seon [김완선]

Also romanized as:  Kim Wan Sun

Years of Activity: 1986-present? (Last regular album in 2005, a single released in 2011)


Korea:  Regular Albums
Kim Wan-Seon 1 [김완선 1집] (1986)
Kim Wan Sun 2 (1987)
88 Kim Wan-Seon: Too Lonely to Dance Alone [88 김완선: 나홀로 춤을 추긴 너무 외로워] (1988)
Kim Wan Sun Vol. 4 (1989)
Kim Wan-Seon 5 [김완선 5집] (1990)
Kim Wan-Seon 6 [김완선 6] (1992)
Talent [탤런트] (1996)
S & Remake (2002)
Return (2005)

The First Touch (1994)
Sayonara (1995)
迷迷糊糊 (1996)

Representative Song:  The Pierrot Laughs at Us [삐에로는 우릴 보고 웃지] from Kim Wan-Seon 5

삐에로는 우릴 보고 웃지
The Pierrot Laughs at Us

빨간 모자를 눌러 쓴
A red hat pushed down on my head
난 항상 웃음 간직한 삐에로
I am a Pierrot with a constant smile
파란 웃음 뒤에는
Behind the blue smile
아무도 모르는 눈물
A tear that no one knows
초라한 날 보며 웃어도
They may laugh at my sad little sight
난 내 모습이 너무 아름다워
But to me I am so beautiful
모두들 검은 넥타이
A black tie on everyone
아무 말도 못하는 걸
Unable to say anything

사람들은 모두 춤추며 웃지만
People all dance and laugh
나는 그런 웃음 싫어
But I don't like that kind of laugh
술 마시며 사랑 찾는 시간 속에
In the time spent drinking and finding love
우리는 진실을 잊고 살잖아
We live forgetting the truth

난 차라리 웃고 있는 삐에로가 좋아
I'd rather like the Pierrot, who is smiling
난 차라리 슬픔 아는 삐에로가 좋아
I'd rather like the Pierrot, who knows sorrow

Translation note:  난 차라리 웃고 있는 삐에로가 좋아 is deceptively difficult to translate. Not happy with the current version, but can't think of anything better. As always, suggestions are welcome.

In 15 words or less:  The developmental template for future mainstream K-pop artists.

Maybe she should be ranked higher because...  she totally owned the scene for five-plus years, a rarity for female artists.

Maybe she should be ranked lower because...  can it really be said that she influenced what came after her? Isn't it her producers who influenced that?

Why is this artist important?
Kim Wan-Seon is the only solo female pop artist who sold over a million copies of a single album in Korea. That number alone makes her very important in K-pop history. Like Lee Hyo-Ri after her, she completely owned the scene by redefining how women are to be presented in pop culture. When you watch the video above, look for the signs of suggestive sexuality, which may not be obvious to the contemporary eyes ruined by crass exposures of skin. (More examples here and here. In the first video, Kim -- then a 17-year-old -- sings a song called "Tonight", with the lyrics that say "Tonight, I am scared of the dark." It is about as blatant as a sexual advance can get from a woman in mid-1980s.) Kim's smooth and sinewy dance was nothing like Korea had ever seen at that point. Calling her "Korea's Madonna" (as her fans like to do) might be an overstatement, but like Madonna, Kim defined how female sexuality is to be packaged and sold through mass media for a good decade.

(Trivia question: without clicking the link, can you guess which female K-pop artist released the second best selling album? Hint -- she is already ranked on this list. Answer is below.)

But Kim's importance goes much farther beyond being a sexy pop star. Her career is a prototype of a mainstream K-pop star today. The process of training Kim, as well as the career paths that Kim took, served as a model for the K-pop stars that will go on to sweep the world.

Kim's maternal aunt was a woman named Han Baek-Hee, who sang  for the U.S. troops stationed in Korea during the 1960s. (America's influence over Korean pop culture is again evident here.) Han recognized Kim's talent early, and persuaded Kim's parents to have Kim live with her. Kim moved in with her aunt at age 14 -- thereafter, she would not be able to visit her parents for the next three years. Instead, she underwent a Spartan training of ballet and gymnastics at Han's dance studio. Han opened up her studio for any dancer to use for free, as long as the dancer taught his/her best move to Kim. Kim recalls that she was not allowed to sit down during her waking hours. She did not attend any more school, and had no friend.

In the meantime, Han used her connection in Korea's nascent entertainment industry to collect the best songs from the best composers available. The venerability of the composers for Kim's songs is shocking to those who regard Kim only as a vacuous dance musician. Her debut song "Tonight" was composed by Kim Chang-Hoon, member of Sanullim -- unquestionably one of the greatest rock bands in K-pop history. One of her greatest hits, "That Dance in the Rhythm," was composed by the legendary Shin Joong-Hyeon.

After Kim's debut, Han controlled every last aspect of Kim's career. Han chose everything for her niece -- not only the songs and the dances, but also clothes, shoes, hairdo and makeup. At the end of each performance, Han stood Kim in a corner and berated her errors regardless of who was around. (The scolding was so intense that many people around them were convinced that Han was not Kim's real aunt.Han even did Kim's interviews on her behalf. She also strictly forbade her niece from speaking with any fellow pop musician, men or women. In 1992, at the absolute height of Kim's popularity, she suddenly announced retirement -- again at the direction of her aunt and against her will. Kim then was shuttled to Taiwan and Hong Kong, releasing three albums there and enjoying a relatively successful career. (Here is a clip of Kim Wan-Seon appearing on Taiwanese television. Considering she must have learned Chinese in her late teens, her Chinese language skill is pretty ridiculous.)

Most incredibly, Han never paid a penny to Kim for 13 years, until the two finally had a falling-out in 1998. (Reportedly, Han used nearly all of that money into a failed business venture.) Freed from her aunt, Kim moved alone to Hawaii to study design at University of Hawaii. In 2002, Kim returned to Korea to resume her musical career on her own, in a world that now holds hundreds of other beautiful, talented young girls who were trained just like her.

As arguably the first manufactured "idol" of Korean pop music, Kim's career foreshadowed both the best and the worst of what was to come in Korean pop music industry. Kim Wan-Seon would dominate the public consciousness through the sheer force of looks, sexiness and dancing, backed by catchy tunes composed by talented musicians. As early as 1994, Kim took her career outside of Korea and found success. Considering that the first outbreak of "Korean Wave" began in Taiwan -- indeed, the word "hallyu" was first coined by Taiwanese media -- Kim's successful foray into Taiwan is doubly significant. Yet, like other "idols" that would follow her footsteps, Kim hardly saw the fruit of her labor and essentially worked as an indentured servant. This pattern would repeat itself in Korean pop music industry, long after Kim faded out of the scene.

Trivia answer:  Lee Sora.

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


  1. how about this for a translation: a smiling Pierrot, is rather what i adore. / a sadness knowing Pier...

    ha! now i know why i don't do translations.

  2. Yeah, I can absolutely see why you ranked Kim where you did. I had no idea about her insane backstory though. Thanks for digging into it for us!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. That's really sad... Her parents didn't do anything about it? That's even more sad. That's my thought reading this post.

  5. Just picking up on a side comment of said her "Chinese language ability was pretty ridiculous." As in ridiculously good, or ridiculously bad? It seems like her passive knowledge is okay but her speaking is pretty mediocre. I wonder how this compares to current K-pop idols who are active in Taiwan, China and Japan (in terms of language ability)?

  6. Thanks for another insightful post. Your posts are always thorough and insightful, while still interesting and elegantly written. The time you must spent on researching the material for every post on this blog gives me awe and inspiration.

    As for translation suggestion... how about "I'd rather BE a smiling Pierrot / I'd rather be a Pierrot who understands sorrow"? Since she says "I am a Pierrot" at the beginning, I thought a loose translation could also work here.

  7. Tricky. Not satisfied with it, but here's my attempt.

    빨간 모자를 눌러 쓴
    Red hat pushed down on my head,
    난 항상 웃음 간직한 삐에로
    I am the Pierrot, always smiling,
    파란 웃음 뒤에는
    Behind my blue smile,
    아무도 모르는 눈물
    A tear no one sees.
    초라한 날 보며 웃어도
    The sight of one so shabby may make them laugh,
    난 내 모습이 너무 아름다워
    But to me I am so beautiful.
    모두들 검은 넥타이
    All those people in black ties,
    아무 말도 못하는 걸
    Unable to say anything.

    사람들은 모두 춤추며 웃지만
    All the people dance and laugh,
    나는 그런 웃음 싫어
    But I don't like that kind of laugh,
    술 마시며 사랑 찾는 시간 속에
    In the time we spend drinking, looking for love,
    우리는 진실을 잊고 살잖아
    We live, forgetting the truth.

    난 차라리 웃고 있는 삐에로가
    Rather, I choose to like the Pierrot, who smiles,
    난 차라리 슬픔 아는 삐에로가 좋아
    Rather, I like the Pierrot, who knows sorrow.

  8. I'm loving this serial, it has introduced me to some great artists. And I'm glad they are all not mainstream ones with all the oppa oppa fans commenting, that gets annoying. This series feels more detailed, wholesome and legit and it's really the only rational one I've found within the K-blogosphere, although if you could point me to other "series" on Korean music that would be great too.

    Btw, your series index needs a little updating, it's still stuck on 21.

    Are you going to update more frequently now and just finish the last 20 soon? No pressure of course but I was just wondering since your first post was in 2010 and now we've only headed into the second to last category two years later haha. I was hoping I didn't have to wait a month or two before a next post comes out.

    I read your other posts on here and they are all great btw. Very informative and enjoyable to read!

  9. Ah, Ms. Kim! She holds a special place in my heart as she gave me my first taste of K-Pop in 1991. One of the aspects of Kim Wan-Seon I find interesting is she seems to be one of the few Korean musical artists with strong cross-generational popularity. A few years ago I saw her on TV performing at a small outdoor concert. In the crowd you could see old men who probably thought most music produced after "Arirang" was worthless and teenage girls who likely believe pop music (let alone K-pop) began with the formation of SNSD dancing and singing along.

  10. I met her last summer. The owner of the bar we both happened to be at brought me into her karaoke room after seeing me rap, and he had me rap 싸군 and 슈퍼맨 for her. Afterwards she stood up, came up to me, and told me that I should keep doing what I'm doing. Something about the way she said it with her hand on my shoulder made me feel like she was being sincere and not just encouraging. Then she poured me a whiskey bomb.


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