Wonder Girls release new single – 2 different tears/ the history of K-pop
I like K-pop. The term K-pop means Korean Pop Music. In Korean, they call it gayo (가요) most of the time, but the terms can be used interchangeably. If you were to simply say “pop music” in Korean, that usually refers to English language pop-music from America or Great Britain.
I’m writing this because I think that this is the first time I’ve heard a song written in English and sung by a Korean pop group that sounds natural and not a forced. 2 Different tears is a song about a woman who is reflecting upon her long term relationship. Her lover has loved her, and hurt her, so she loves him and hates him at the same time. It’s a complex battle of emotions that pop-stars who haven’t had time to do anything other than train for their eventual debut since their pre-teen days probably know nothing about. But even so, it is delivered in such a way that the emotion is believable. Ye-Eun’s cries of “So I hate you… So I love you…” sound so powerful, that if I close my eyes and listen to them, I’d think they were coming from Whitney Houston. In short, this song is good.
The Wonder Girls came out with 3 hit singles in Korea from 2007-2008, “Tell Me”, “So Hot”, and “Nobody”. In Korean, these songs were great. In 2009, the Wonder Girls made their U.S. debut. In the U.S., they naturally had to sing in English, so they took their song Nobody and changed it into English. They were moderately successful, being the first Asian artist to appear on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. However, I didn’t really like the English version of “Nobody”. It’s just obvious that it was originally written in Korean, and parts of it just don’t fit in the established rhythm, and some of the girls need to work on their English pronunciation. Basically, it’s a better song in Korean.
“2 Different Tears” is nothing like that. In fact, I have to argue that the English version is slightly better than the Korean one. Below is a music video, take a look for yourself!
(Americans viewing the video may notice that Korean-American comedian Bobby Lee has a central role in the video.)
K-Pop has a long and fascinating history. You can read my interpretation of that history after the jump.
Like I said above, K-pop has a long and fascinating history that I can’t totally explain here, but I’ll give you the rough rough rough version as far as I know. Keep in mind that I grew up in the U.S. and didn’t really discover K-pop until high school.
A long time ago, (well, for some of us), there was a time called the 1980’s, where no K-pop existed, (but gayo did).
Wait a second, Seoul Searcher, you said “K-pop” and “gayo” could be used interchangeably.
Well they can now, but they couldn’t then. See, “gayo” basically means songs, but it doesn’t mean only songs, because there is another word for that (actually two, 곡, and 노래). I guess it means then contemporary songs. And in the 1980’s there were contemporary songs, but there wasn’t K-pop yet, so gayo at the time was not K-pop. The state of the music industry in Korea, from what I gather is as follows (Keep in mind, I wasn’t listening to Korean music at all, and I was more interested in collecting toy robots and playing video games at the time). The state of Korean music up until K-pop became the standard was in my opinion, without real direction. American music was popular in Korea, and Japanese music (though illegal at the time) was also popular in Korea. So, generally all homegrown Korean acts seemed to be imitations of American acts. Those who weren’t seemed to be copies of Japanese acts (many of which were themselves copies of American acts). To be quite frank, there was zero possibility that Korean music could catch on in another country.
What happened next then?
In 1992, Seo Taiji debuted with his group Seo Taiji and the Boys. When people talk about Korean music, they talk about the pre-Seo Taiji and post-Seo Taiji eras. Seo Taiji revolutionized Korean music. That’s an understatement. He’s been compared to Michael Jackson in terms of importance. Michael Jackson may be the best entertainer that ever lived, but I have to say that the analogy isn’t quite right. Sure Michael influenced the American music industry, but the degree that he changed American music isn’t even close to how Seo Taiji changed Korean music. The analogy would be perfect if “Thriller” had been released in the 1930’s. I think a better analogy would be like, Seo Taiji is to K-pop what Jesus Christ is to Christianity.
How did Seo Taiji change Korean Music?
The pre-Seo Taiji era of music was a lot of ballad singers singing about how they still loved their lovers who didn’t love them anymore, or singing about their first love in their school days even though both had since married other people and grown old. In addition, there were a few attempts by Korean artists to create disco music long after disco had become decidedly uncool in other parts of the world. So, with Seo-Taiji’s first album came the birth of K-pop
Seo Taiji released his first album in 1992. This album was so good that if it had it been sung in English would have seemed new and fresh even in the U.S. While it was decidedly influenced by American hip-hop, it wasn’t a blatant copy of anything. It was a home grown world class musical talent. Later releases by Seo would delve into the areas of gangster rap and grunge, yet without copying anything already in existence. Seo would add his own touches to the music. For once, hip Koreans who were forced to go to foreign music to get their fix could enjoy a Korean artist that wasn’t simply an imitation.
Needless to say, Seo Taiji did very well.
After Seo, debuted, the Korean music industry shifted to capitalize on world trends. And so the early era of K-pop music began. From 1993-1998, Korea was in what I like to call it’s techno phase. Electronic music was all the rage in Europe (a natural extension of 80’s pop music). In the U.S. branched off, as Hip-Hop, Gangster Rap, and post-grunge “Alternative” were hitting the airwaves (though I never really understood what “alternative” was the alternative to, because at this point it was main stream rock n’ roll. Hard rock was the more fringe of the two genres.) Korean music started to go the way of Europe. Most Korean artists from this era had to have at least one “techno” track in each album. Some even had whole techno albums. In addition to the techno, the general feel of K-pop music in this era is happy golucky, with the majority of songs being about falling in love for the first time. This is the era that I came to know K-pop, but it is a chore for me to listen to almost all of the music from this era now. Probably the best “techno” track at the time is Kim Gunmo’s “Wrongful Meeting”, which you can listen to below. I guess I like Kim Gunmo because he wasn’t a one trick dog. Even though this techno song was extremely popular, his other work is still quite good.
It is in this era that I myself began to listen to K-pop. A lot of Korean people are surprised to find out that I know a lot about Korean music in this era considering that I was in the U.S. and in high school at the time. The reason why is because in high school, it seemed to me like there were only two kinds of music that one was allowed to like. The first was “white music” and the second was “black music”. At least that’s what the high school kids called it. White music was rock n’ roll and grunge. Black music was gangster rap and hip-hop. You weren’t allowed to like both, you had to like one or the other. I felt as if liking “black music” would get you ostracized by the “white music” crowd, and liking “white music” would get you ostracized by the “black music crowd”. At the time anything resembling pop music (such as the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync) was scorned by all. I, being more or less an Asian-American opted at first to get in with the “white music” crowd. But I think I noticed the effect that the polarization of music was having on high school kids. They couldn’t think for themselves. They consumed and followed trends as dictated by the entertainment industry. I can’t honestly say that anyone bought a Counting Crows album because they liked Counting Crows. They bought it because they went home and watched MTV and saw the video for Mr. Jones 6 times every day for a month. That is, they didn’t know what else was out there. This is also the time when the whole East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry happened. I think that both sides weren’t actually enemies, they had engineered the whole thing together to boost sales. (As for the deaths of Tupak Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G, that could also have been engineered to boost sales of both artists, but I won’t go into that speculation here.) I had become totally disillusioned with all American music at this point, and discovered K-pop when one of my Korean-American friends lent me a mix tape featuring Seo Taiji, Kim Gunmo, Deuce, and others. This new sound was different than anything I could have gotten in the U.S., and thereby made me unique for choosing to listen to something that almost nobody else in my high school was listening to. And so, my love affair with K-pop began here.
Towards the middle of the techno phase was the birth of Korean hip-hop. This is the first time we can observe Korean-American artists looking to make it in Korea. The vast majority of these came from the Los Angeles area, and used that fact to give themselves legitimacy (as that was the breeding ground of American “west coast” rap). The most influential Korean-American hip-hop group to emerge in Korea was Uptown, and to this day, they probably have had the largest impact. I never really got into hip-hop in the U.S., and I only passively knew about Uptown, so I don’t actually remember any of their songs. I don’t know if the one I chose here is representative of their work, but have a listen if you wish…
The next era in K-pop music, from about 1998 to 2004 is what I like to call the dark age. Certainly there were new and original acts coming out, but this is the era of the corporate music industry taking over the music. This is the era where the majority of the artists started to get more and more handsome and beautiful, yet less and less talented. This is also the era of the boybands/girl groups. At the top of the list for boybands was SM Entertainment’s H.O.T. (High Five of Teenagers). The top girl spot was held by SM Entertainment’s S.E.S (Sea Eugene and Shoo) or Daesung Entertainment’s Fin K.L. (Fine Killing Liberty). Notice now that I am using the record label before naming the act. This is because in this era, the label that the group was under increased in importance to the point that the members of the group itself mattered little, they were merely products to be built up, promoted, then discarded by the now factory like music industry.
Some would argue that this era never ended, as the most popular musical acts these days are still run by three major companies, SM, YG, and JYP. Anyone who wishes to be a musician in Korea must be handpicked as teenagers (or even earlier) and to be intensively trained by one of these three labels. Break-ins are still possible, but increasingly difficult. In some ways, I agree, but K-pop from 1998-2004 in my opinion sounded and looked very generic. There was an explosion of new artists, and a dilution of quality music. The business plan at this point became, write a catchy song. Find some poor young sucker to sign a terrible contract advantageous to the company. Have young sucker sing your catchy song. Collect money. Offer just a little bit to the singer. If he protests, drop him from the label and find another new act that can easily be exploited. Unfortunately I have to agree that the music industry is still like this. However, I can’t call the current era the dark age for one reason.
What reason is that?
The Korean Wave. In 2002, Korea jointly hosted the world cup with Japan. Because of that, Korea’s profile in Japan had increased immensely. Korean dramas soon became just as popular as Japanese ones. Korean celebrities started to have huge followings in Japan, sometimes to the point that the majority of their fanbase was Japanese. There were even cases of Korean musicians who had failed in Korea going to Japan only to find success. Their popularity in Japan in turn made them successful in Korea. Anyway, Korean pop culture started to be tested outside of Korea, and the time was ripe for the emergence of an Asian Music Superstar.
Rain was at the time signed with JYP Entertainment, which is Park Jin Young’s company. Park Jin Young, himself a talented musician who made it in Korea through his own toil and sweat, had a decent career that had started in the post-Seo Taiji era, but found his real talent in writing music and promoting his homegrown artists. A shining light in the dark age, the all male group G.O.D. was totally his creation. Anyway, JYP made Rain so ridiculously popular both within Korea and outside of Korea. Rain rode the Korean wave to China, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and (GASP!) the U.S.! Rain, now a superstar, left his mentor and started his own company. He has since acted in Hollywood films and has started growing his own groups.
With the Korean wave in full effect, it is now common for Korean musicians to tour Asian countries outside of Korea. Although it is true that JYP made Rain, it could also be argued that Rain put JYP at the top of Korean music companies. And this is where the Wonder Girls come in. They debuted in 2007, and their hit single “Tell Me” took Korea by storm.
In 2009, JYP decided it was time to take the Wonder Girls to the U.S. There they toured with the Jonas Brothers and made history as the first Asian artists to crack the Billboard top 100 rankings. They are now an international and multilingual sensation, as the single 2 different tears has been released in Korean, English, and Mandarin Chinese.
So in short, the story of K-Pop begins with Seo Taiji and is a story of corporate control and maturation into an international phenomenon. I hope that some of the readers will be able to know about K-pop music, and if you disagree with anything I said, I’ll be happy to have any kind of discussion about this in the comment section.
For all the latest goings on in K-pop, I reccomend the excellent website allkpop. In addition, a blog that I read frequently called Ask a Korean is doing a series of articles on the top 50 K-pop artists. I realize that this history of K-pop is basically a whirlwind tour. So I’ll do a series of articles on the history of K-pop (and my relation with it). Should be fun!