Friday, December 22, 2017

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 4. Lee Mi-ja

[Series Index]

Here we are: Tier 1. The four greatest. The Mount Rushmore of Korean pop music history. For this section, there is no second guesses about whether they should be ranked higher or lower. Their names are now etched in greatness; the precise ranking no longer matters.

We enter the Tier with an old time legend.

4.  Lee Mi-ja [이미자]

Years of Activity: 1959-present. (Last studio album in 1989.)

[Note: because Lee Mi-ja was active during the time when copyright was virtually unknown in Korea, her discography is an insane mess of unauthorized compilations, re-releases and double albums with other artists. Here, I only included albums in which Lee was the only artist.]

Jeongdongdaegam Original Soundtrack [영화주제가 정동대감] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Masterpiece Second [이미자 걸작 2집] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Homecoming Special [이미자 귀국특집] (1965)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs Third [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 3집] (1967)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Go Bong-san [이미자 - 고봉산 작곡집] (1968)
Stereo Hit Songs Second, Movie Soundtracks by Lee Mi-ja [스테레오 힛트쏭 2집: 영화주제가 by 이미자] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Fifth [이미자 스테레오 힛트 5집] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja Hit Major Selections Sixth [이미자 힛트주제가선 6집] (1968)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Park Chun-seok [이미자 - 박춘석 작곡집] (1969)
Latest Hit Selections Tenth by Lee Mi-ja [최신 히트선곡 제10집 by 이미자] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Solo Eleventh [이미자 독집 제11집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja, Composed by Park Chun-seok [이미자 - 박춘석 작곡집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Solo Eighth [이미자 스테레오 독집 제8집] (1970)
Lady Ihwa [이화부인] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Selections Twelveth [이미자 스테레오 히트선곡 제12집] (1970)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Solo [이미자 스테레오 독집] (1971)
Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs First [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 제1집] (1972)
'89 Lee Mi-ja ['89 이미자] (1989)

Representative Song:  Lady Camellia [동백아가씨] from 1964. (Recorded in Lee Mi-ja Stereo Hit Songs First [이미자 스테레오 힛트송 제1집] (1972))

Lady Camellia

헤일 수 없이 수많은 밤을
The numerous nights, impossible to be counted
내 가슴 도려내는 아픔에 겨워
Suffering through the pain that cuts through the heart
얼마나 울었던가 동백아가씨
Lady Camellia, how she has cried
그리움에 지쳐서 울다 지쳐서
Tired from longing, tired from crying
꽃잎은 빨갛게 멍이 들었오
The petal bruised in red

동백꽃잎에 새겨진 사연
The story etched onto the camellia petals
말못할 그 사연을 가슴에 안고
Holding in the heart the tale that cannot be told
오늘도 기다리는 동백아가씨
Lady Camellia, she is still waiting today
가신 님은 그 언제 그 어느날에
When will, on what day will the departed beloved
외로운 동백꽃 찾아 오려나
Would come visit the lonely camellia flower

In 15 words or less:  The greatest trot singer in K-pop history.

Why is this artist important?
I know what you're thinking, but stay with me here. You have to first understand how important of a genre trot has been in the history of Korean pop music--then you will understand how Lee Mi-ja, the greatest name in Korean trot history, belongs to the K-pop Mount Rushmore.

Trot is the only genre in the 80-year history of Korean pop music that completed the entire life cycle of a musical genre: birth - peak - decline - modern revival - elevation to the classics. Originating in the 1930s, trot was the very first pop music of Korea, and for decades, the only pop music of Korea. In fact, the word yuhaengga--literally, "popular music"--in the 1930s exclusively meant trot songs.

Trot was dominant until the late 1960s, when American pop music began entering the Korean pop music scene. But improbably, trot kept coming back each time by reinventing itself, incorporating elements from the new wave. Even today, as trot as a standalone genre is unmistakably fading out of the K-pop mainstream, trot is leaving its musical DNA into the latest generation of Korean pop music. For example, listen to I Love You by 2NE1. Take away the pretty faces and the modern music video, and it's a trot song with a faster beat. Trot is an indispensable part of the history of Korean pop music, and its influence today is everywhere.

So of course, the greatest figure in Korean trot history must join the top tier. And there is little dispute who is the greatest. Lee Mi-ja has been a towering figure for three decades, singing more than 2,000 songs during her career. (The precise number is 2,070, a record in Korean pop music.) She is the first female Korean singer to sell more than 10 million copies of her album.

Yet Lee's time was hardly when trot was the only game in town. The end of Korean War meat a huge number of US soldiers stationed in Seoul, which meant a steady stream of the latest American pop music. Suddenly, trot was old and busted, backwards music for the backwards times.

Lee Mi-ja reversed the trend by modernizing trot. Compared to the trot singers of the previous decades, Lee sings clearly and straightforwardly, eschewing the tremor that characterized the earlier singers. Yet she projected a strictly conservative and traditional image of a woman, preferring hanbok and singing about a female figure consigned to a helpless lot. It is not quite the wokeness we would have liked in the present day, but her combination of progressive singing and traditional image resonated strongly with the Koreans of the 1960s and 70s, who were propelling their country into first world status at a breakneck pace. This would be the template for all female trot singers who would follow her.

Interesting trivia:  Lee Mi-ja's popularity transcended the DMZ, as she is one of the few South Korean pop singers who had a solo concert in Pyongyang. She held a concert there in 2002 after having been invited by North Korea.

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


  1. I've always had a sneaking affection for trot. it's odd, but it reminds me of English florid song of the 18th century. All that ornamentation! Lee Mi-ja is certainly an improvement on some of the excesses one hears. And look - lots of albums on Google Play! Thanks, this is a fun addition to my listening.

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