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[Book × Music]

K-pop and the World!

K-pop Seen in Books and the Changing Trend of Korean Popular Music





By their very nature, books are vessels of knowledge encompassing all fields. Endless topics can be written about depending on the material and message. In the [Book × _____ ] series, experts recommend Korean books in their respective fields that you’ve been curious about but had trouble discovering more about. Now, let’s jump into the infinite world of books through the collaboration of books with various fields.



K-pop, which has almost settled as a common noun like English Pop music, is defined as “young popular music of Korea since the 2000s,” or “music with an international appeal or global popularity.” K-pop is the ultimate composite of terms like “teens,” “dance music,” “overseas expansion,” and “idols.” While we can see the influence of J-pop in vocabulary like “K-pop” and “idol” as it was introduced to the world ahead of K-pop, K-pop today has a much stronger global presence than J-pop, sweeping across Asia as well as Europe and North America.


K-pop seen through 100 songs: from Seotaiji and Boys to BTS


『케이팝의 역사, 100번의 웨이브』

The History of K-pop: 100 Waves



The History of K-pop: 100 Waves (Anon Books) is a book that looks at the vast leaps and bounds of K-pop’s short but epic history. The book features 100 famous K-pop songs selected by 24 officials from the music industry, including pop music critics, and the song “Dynamite” by BTS, released in 2020, marks the finale. As the book’s title includes the word “history,” you may wonder who and what songs marked the beginning of K-pop. As with any field, history cannot be made by focusing only on the phenomenon while ignoring the foundation or the beginning.
Then, what are the songs that began the history of K-pop? The book The History of K-pop: 100 Waves chose “Seotaiji and Boys,” who debuted in 1992, considering multiple aspects such as teens, dance music, the jump in hip-hop music, and the arrival of a new generation. It picked three songs: “I Know,” “Classroom Idea,” and “Come Back Home.” Seotaiji collaborating with BTS on eight songs at their 25th-anniversary concert is indirect evidence that the group has had a significant impact on the future of K-pop.
Following Seotaiji and Boys, “DEUX,” who sang “Turn Around and Look at Me” and “In Summer,” “Clon,” who sang “Kung Ddari Sha Bah Rah,” and “H.O.T.” that sang “Warrior’s Descendant” and “Candy” took over the baton in the history of K-pop. People say that the group H.O.T. marked the true beginning of K-pop in that it clearly set the musical and (singers’) physical identity of Hallyu (Korean Wave) and K-pop. In fact, before the word “K-pop” became widely used, Korean popular music was only part of Hallyu, along with Korean dramas and movies. However, as Korean popular music became a sensation among the younger generations in various countries due to its strong absorptive power, it was later separated from K-content as K-pop.


“TT”가 수록된 앨범 커버 이미지

“강남스타일”가 수록된 앨범 커버 이미지

“Dynamite”가 수록된 앨범 커버 이미지

Album covers of “TT,” “Gangnam Style,” and “Dynamite”



The History of K-pop: 100 Waves is a book for the intense learning of K-pop history, as it uses songs as examples to explain the 30-year history. The particularly impressive part was how the book connected each song with level-up moments of the K-pop genre. For example, the book introduces Wonder Girls’ song “Tell Me” with the phrase “The hit song that made the K-pop scene what it is today!” and 2NE1’s “I am the Best” with “Wearing swag and attitude, 2NE1 opened a new chapter in global K-pop!” Plus, Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby” was accompanied by the phrase “National favorite that introduced the charms of K-pop to the world, being its own unique genre!” and Twice’s “TT” was with the phrase “The song that turned K-pop into a cultural phenomenon in Japan in the 2010s!” Also, PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” which put K-pop on the global stage in 2012, was described as “Korea’s first global hit song: In the beginning, there was Gangnam Style.”
Then, how many songs from BTS, formed the following year in 2013, made it into the 100 songs chosen by the book? Five, including “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” “Spring Day,” “DNA,” “Boy With Luv,” which ranked 10th on the Billboard Single Chart, and “Dynamite,” ranked 1st on the Billboard and include the song that ends the book as mentioned earlier. The fact that they have more songs on the list than any other K-pop artist proves that they are a legend in the genre.


Korean popular music layed out the foundation for K-pop


Thanks to the rapid growth of K-pop and its soft power, the British magazine Monocle ranked Korea as the second most attractive country in the world in 2020. The global success and acceptance of K-pop and K-content come as a surprise to the older generation, who have only witnessed the development of uniqueness and creativity under the influence of foreign music. Korean adults born in the 1950s and 1960s are still dumbfounded that the “pali-pali (meaning hurry in Korean)” lifestyle has made Korea a “fast track” country (a positive term for early achievement).
So what should we make of the relationship between 30-year-old K-pop and 100-year-old Korean popular music? At first glance, K-pop, with its powerful performances and delicate arrangements, may seem disconnected from earlier forms of popular music, especially the sorrowful trot music (a type of Korean music influenced by Korean folk songs) during the pre-Baby Boomer generation, and later rock and roll as well as folk songs. Then, should K-pop be separated into its own history, as written in the book The History of K-pop: 100 Waves?


K-pop and K-content have successfully taken the world stage.


The book Introduction to the History of Korean Popular Music (Sungandang), written by pop music researcher Jang Yoo-Jung and pop music journalist Seo Byung-Ki, says, “No.” In the preface, Jang wrote, “May the history of popular music expand you, me, and our musical tastes, and may we become more critical listeners of popular music as we seek out, listen to, and study the origins of today’s music.” The book begins by examining the definitions and concepts of popular music. Then it analyzes the growth of Korean popular music in eight parts, from its origins in the 1920s and 1930s to the rise of the K-pop genre in the 2000s.
The book covers the history of trot music and jazz songs during the gramophone era (the time when Korea was colonized by Japan), new folk songs (Korean folk-like pop music created after the Japanese occupation), the golden age of musical opera, musical pieces during the Korean War, and the pop music during the time when the 8 ground forces of the US military was stationed in Korea after the war.
The book also traces the history of Korean music from the 1960s, when the heyday of trot music began with Lee Mi-Ja’s songs, through the 1970s, when the military dictatorship and the acoustic guitar-based folk song era took hold, to the 1980s, when Cho Yong-Pil’s solo career took off, to the 1990s, when Seotaiji and dance music took center stage, and finally to the rise of idol K-pop and its international expansion. In doing so, the book demonstrates that today’s K-pop is not a mutant that has suddenly sprung up out of nowhere, but has been building up its potential under a long tradition and is ready for expansion.


『한국 대중음악사 개론』

Introduction to the History of Korean Popular Music



The most important factor is “openness,” as the writers proclaim throughout the book. K-pop has come to embody our creativity amid an almost unstoppable flow of imported and processed music from around the world, including Japan, the US, Europe, and Latin America. If you follow the steps outlined in the book, you’ll see that Korean popular music has filtered many cultural behaviors through its own standards and has moved away from indiscriminate imitation of these cultures. Like K-pop today, it was the fruit of a long-term effort by Korean popular music to move beyond the purism of content and form.
Journalist Seo Byung-Ki, co-writer of the book, wrote about Seotaiji as follows: “His musical achievements did not come from something new – they came from their efforts to transform the mainstream of Korean pop music with minor-genre songs like gangster rap, new metal, and hip hop. The reason why Seotaiji is labeled as a “genre importer” is because the minor genres of music are not new, but came from the West. But that doesn’t mean his accomplishments should be underestimated. Even if he brought in a foreign genre, the fact that he was able to make it relevant to our sensibilities is creative enough.”
From the music made during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the gramophone era to the music during the 8 US military forces’ station in Korea, Shin Jung-Hyeon’s Rock’n Roll, Kim Min-Ki’s folk songs, and songs by Cho Yong-Pil, as well as songs by Seotaiji, which marked the highlights in the history of Korean pop music, was there a piece that was completely independent of the influence of Western music? Researcher Jang Yoo-Jung concludes that trot music is “a representative branch of Korean music that was formed under the influence of Japanese popular music, but is the representative case of foreign music successfully localized in Korea.”
In addition to openness, perhaps an equally important factor in its success is the persistence of a challenging spirit of localization among musicians, rather than uncritical acceptance of foreign music. This is seen in the description of the Korean diva “Insooni.” “Insooni tries to cater to all ages (of listeners), from teenagers to people in their 60s, so she doesn’t have a genre. She tried a variety of music, including soul, dance, trot, rock, and ballads, and even tried to combine jazz with Korean music. So what Insooni said on TV a few years ago should be relevant to middle-aged singers. ‘You have to destroy what you are in order to create something new!’”


Books that give you a deeper glimpse into Korean pop music


『흥남부두의 금순이는 어디로 갔을까?』

『레전드 100 아티스트』

『오랜 시간 멋진 유행가 365』

Where Did Geumsun of Heungnam Wharf Go?, Legend 100 Artist, and 365 Old Popular Songs



The book Introduction to the History of Korean Popular Music is a perfect book for people that equate K-pop with Korean popular music, enlightening the historical context. Also, if you read Where Did Geumsun of Heungnam Wharf Go? (Goldenbough) written by music critic Lee Young-Mi published in 2002 before the term “K-pop” began to spread wide, it will help find the connection between Korean popular music and K-pop. It attempts to tell the story of the times through popular songs ranging from Yoon Shim-Duk’s “Hymn of Death” released in 1926, to H.O.T’s “Warrior’s Descendant,” released in 1996. Although the book is written from a first-person perspective, the analysis of the times and interpretation of the singers through their lyrics is acute. For example, he commented about singer Kim Choo-Ja’s song “That’s a Lie! That’s a Lie!” as, “If you are a young reader who doesn’t know her voice, then buy her album and listen to it. The song begins with the lyric ‘That’s a lie’ repeated five times. But each of the repetitions is sung distinctively and poignantly.”
Also, for those who want to approach the entire flow of Korean popular music as a “history seen through singers” or “history seen through songs” rather than as a syntactic description, I recommend reading Legend 100 Artist (Hanbook) and 365 Old Popular Songs (Taerim Score). After all, popular music is a genre led by singers and songs, so there are always moments when it’s beneficial to have an overview as well as a detailed analysis.


Korean pop music in the life of a maestro


『내 기타는 잠들지 않는다』

『문학으로 읽는 조용필』

My Guitar Never Sleeps and Reading Cho Yong-Pil



Although a biography of an artist’s life is the story of a single person, it is meaningful in that the effort to penetrate the point of view in life is a reflection of and confrontation with the times. For those who want to have a different kind of experience with Korean popular music, I emphasize that they must study Shin Jung-Hyeon and Choi Soo-Pil, two giants who changed the landscape of Korean popular music. Shin Jung-Hyeon’s autobiography, My Guitar Never Sleeps (Haeto), originally published in a newspaper series, has a special value in that it calls for quiet reflection on the current music scene. He argues that the music circle today tries to be all fancy on the outside only with the basic format, and most importantly, it is taking away artists’ spirits. Also, through the stories about himself and other top singers confessed by Shin Jung-Hyeon, who has cultivated so many popular singers and even earned the nickname “Team Shin Jung-Hyeon,” you might be able to appreciate Korean rock music. It is not for nothing that we say, “Listen to Shin Jung-Hyeon to know the identity of Korean popular music!”
For Cho Yong-Pil, revered by junior K-pop singers as much as Shin Jung-Hyeon, I recommend Reading Cho Yong-Pil (Jakka) by literary critic Yoo Sung-Ho. In it, he describes Cho as a ‘poet.’ This is an effort to explain that the final author of Cho’s songs, whether written by others or himself, was Cho himself, who interpreted and communicated them. “By placing his iconic songs at the forefront of the various historical events of our time, he took care of and guided his own life to be characterized as a giant of his time. This is an aesthetic intention of his that we must embrace!”


K-pop, the crystal of Korean artists’ artistic blood, sweat, and tears, is a proud culture.


K-pop has burst into the global cultural scene and shaken up the order of things. This is something to be proud of because it is a reversal of the Korean culture, which has always admired and embraced Western culture. It is also the result of the realization of abundant creativity to overcome the limitations of reality, as well as the product of artistic blood, sweat, and tears to transform Western influences into our own. All the books mentioned in this article remind us of this. At the same time, there is a belief that our creative energy and dynamism remain, and a concern that it will not be extinguished by K-pop. K-pop needs to be constantly reinvigorated.



Written by Lim Jin-Mo (Music critic)



Lim Jin-Mo (Music critic)

#Music#K-pop#Popular Music#Idol#Lim Jin-Mo
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