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South Korea's Music Culture: On the Claw of a Revolution

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 2

Click here to read 'South Korea’s Music Revolution: Psy and LeeSsang are Leading the Way'.

There are a lot of great musicians and even more good singers but there are only a handful of pivotal artists, those that change how music is perceived, created and accepted.

Music's Holy Trinity

Internationally, there is Elvis, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson. Elvis was the first one who rebelled against manufactured singers (singers that were trained and packaged by management companies to be sold for their image over their song). He came out of the 50s swinging his hips and singing in a grumbled voice holding a guitar. He wore a pair of worn out jeans and even more worn out shirts in his performances. He was a truck driver during the day. He was good looking, yes, but he never used it to package himself. In fact, he would always perform undone.

The world was shocked and largely unprepared for his coming but there was a small minority who applauded him for refusing to  wear those suits, having his makeup done and acting all prim and proper. That small minority spread like a virus and soon enough, musicians started entering the door he opened. With no label support and no training, armed with nothing but the music they wrote themselves, a new batch of musicians started getting noticed.

That included John, Paul, George and Ringo who were all more than 3,600 miles away from Elvis. They heard Elvis’ music and knew, in Paul's words, the messiah has come. They worked their butt off for gigs and when they were finally given a break by their manager, they refused to sing songs written by other people.

They were told their music wouldn’t reach number one the chart. It didn’t but they didn’t care. They continued writing their own songs and soon enough, they got what they wanted, the whole world listening to their music. They ushered in the era of bands and introduced the importance of evolving one’s sound.

Then came Michael Jackson, the guy who proved that pop doesn’t have to be thrash. With his dance moves, unconventional song topics and insane mix of visual art with music, he turned the music world upside down.

There are probably two or three more you can include on that list but those three are most likely the ones you can’t even argue.

South Korea’s Infant Music Industry

South Korea, unlike most countries with an active entertainment scene, is still in its infancy. Although the division of North and South Korea happened in 1948, it wasn’t until the 90s that South experienced cultural liberation ushered in by the entrance of Western Influence.

It is, by all accounts, following the trajectory of the entertainment industry of countries like the U.S. and other European countries. The U.S. also started with the dominance of management companies and labels. These companies and labels also looked for singers that looked good. They were given clothes to wear, people to put make them up, trained to behave a certain way and given songs to sing.

It is all glamor. Singers had to be larger than life and objects that were to be desired, much like the idols in Korea. For those who don’t know, “idol” is the generic term they used to refer to singers that were trained by management companies.

The Power of Management Companies in South Korea

Although some of these idols co-write and co-produce their own songs, they were trained to write and produce songs that are “pop” or meant to be liked by the general public. They are trained to subconsciously follow a formula, one that produces hits after hits after hits. When I say trained, I didn’t mean formal music education. These idols are required to go through specialized training that shapes them to become an idol. They go through singing lessons, songwriting lessons, fashion lessons, image building lessons and other kinds of lessons deemed necessary by these management company to hone them into becoming matinee idols.

Often, these singers also go through the knife. Aside from keeping a certain weight, they also go through surgeries to make their physical features softer. There are very few management companies that have dominance in the Korean market, YG and SM Entertainment are two of them.

Decisions are made for the idols, from their clothes to the shows they will appear in. Unfortunately, these idols are tied to their toes to their management companies with provisions that virtually make it impossible to break free until they become too old to be an idol. Rumors has it that management companies even forbid their the talents from making their relationships known lest they suffer the anger of the fans who have earnest beliefs they stand a chance with the singers for as long as the singers are single.

These idols normally dominate charts and very few critics have the guts to objectively review their songs in the fear of being mobbed by idol fans. For the record, idol fans are beyond devoted. Say one thing about someone they like and they will attack you like a pack of wolves in a vegetarian diet. They are ruthless and they are powerful. They can make you lose your career and destroy your reputation in a way not even the compounded power of Oprah, Reuters and BBC can.

They are to be feared, Hitler has nothing on them. It is why KPop in its current form is bound to stay for a while.

Then There’s the Ugly Ones

In the midst of this mismatched fashion, predictable sound and dazzling makeup rise Psy and LeeSsang.

Psy is the singer and writer of the international sensation, Gangnam Style. LeeSsang is a Hip Hop duo composed of Kang Gary (rapper) and Gil Seong-joon (vocalist). They go by Gary and Gil

Neither went through “training” required to become singers and neither are good looking in the standards of South Korean pop music. For the record, they ARE good looking. They just simply don’t follow the popular notion of good looks. They don’t have soft jawlines and small bodies. They look like Korean men.  

LeeSsang does not have the backing of a big management company or label. That means their influence on Korean TV and Korean media is limited. They don’t have media people in their payroll and the marketing team they have is minimal.

Yet, for two years in a row, LeeSsang managed to sweep the Korean charts. When I say sweep, I mean occupy positions 1 to 10. All the songs in their last two albums entered the charts and stayed there for days. It is as if no other singer had a song out in the first several weeks from their album release.

For once, people are singing to tunes that didn’t contain MTVs with singers that dance with so much sexual subtlety. For once, people are singing to the songs of artists and not idols. For once, people are singing songs of people who are, by their standards, not good looking.

For once, it is about the song and not the singer.


Click here to read read 'South Korea’s Music Revolution: Psy and LeeSsang are Leading the Way'.


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Mar 19, 2013 12:56am
i'm not too well versed on south korean music, but the few bands i know have been better than expected. very good, informative article.
Mar 19, 2013 5:42am
thank you. go check LeeSsang, you won't regret it
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