KOREAN MUSIC: My Blog Cited in the Atlantic Article




Max Fisher, an associate editor at The Atlantic, cited my blog in his recent article on Psy's "Gangnam Style." I think it's worth the read although I don't entirely agree with the article, especially some quotes from Adrian Hong - he's absolutely wrong about Korean satire, for example.  Contrary to his belief, Korea has a looooooooooong history of nuanced satire, from Hyangga poetry of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) to Pansori which was formed in the early 18th century at the very latest or Madangnori, traditional outdoor performances (and/or theatrical version of Pansori), and to the songs by the Taiji Boys, to name a few.

I'll give you the link:  Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea's Music Video Sensation.

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I want to share with you the following comments my blog readers left on this post:

(Judith Mopalia) I am not Korean and don't speak Korean, but I've immersed myself in Korean culture for the last year, and it does seem to me that Adrian Hong knows a different Korea than the one I fell in love with. One of the first things that attracted me was the rich sense of irony that comes through in so much of the Shilla and Koryo poetry. And many of the k-pop idols that he is so dismissive of do, in fact, write their own songs. He has made the mistake of writing about things he knows little about and assuming that his pre-conceived prejudices are facts.

The main thing I have learned from my obsession with Korea is that there is probably not another country in the world so consistently misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented as Korea - especially by people who purport to know about Korea. I hope I don't become one of those.  Your blog is a treasure, and the Gangnam style article was one of the best. Thank you.
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(Anonymous)  I wanted to put my two cents in this Gangnam Style phenomenon.

On Korean satire. Although Korea has a really long history, and has a written history of feudal dynasty that covers two millennia, the power group basically remained unchanged. There were kingdoms after kingdoms from Three Kingdoms, Unified Silla, Gorye Kingdom and Joseon Kingdom, but there never was a grassroots overthrow of present kingdom by ordinary folks. It was always coup-de-tat type of political and military maneuver by inside power elite that brought the downfall of one kingdom and beginning of another. In due course, the ordinary folks who suffered mostly were unable to record their sentiments because most of them were illiterate. Those old Hyangga we know were written by literate and well educated elites. These type of satire written by elite group are gentle and hideously nuanced because the composers and writers feared retaliation by powerfuls.

On the other hand, satiric activities including the songs and dance these illiterate folks enjoyed were transmitted by oral traditions. Korean oral tradition has a long history, and the one of element one can find in these type of ordinary folks' satire is "humor". Korea has long been ruled by a "Shame Morality" system, and one has to accept his or her own fate no matter how harsh the life is. Unable to let out their general frustration and sad sentiments (so-called 'Han'), these ordinary folks turend their talents and aspirations to create music and dance of self-mockery and self-reflection. Pansori is a musical translation of these oral tradition.  Knowing this Korean tradition, Psy showed his remarkable talent to combine all the elements he learned and knew instinctively.

On horse ride dance. If you listen or watch carefully to most of Western music and dance, you will notice that they are basically composed of high and low pitches and movements. These pitches and movements are  basically resembling that of man on a horse back. Western people were mostly nomads (hunters)-converted-to-settlers. They loved to roam and live freely around small villages they formed throughout the great plain area of northern Europe. This pattern changed ever since the pierce Mongolian attack led by Khans, and they started to form bigger castles to defend themselves better. Anyway, these Western music and dance probably started as leisure to resemble the daily lives of these nomadic people.  And it is no wonder the Western music and dance resembles the movement of horse and human heart beat, high and low. They danced in the night after hard working day with cheerful music.

In Eastern Asia, it is fully grown barley riding the wind the music and dance resembles basically, long and short pitches without much regard to high and low. I am sure there are different type of music and dance in different part of the world, resembling the unique nature of their own. For example, in central Africa, the key probably is man on a foot. In northern Europe or Bahamas, the elements of sea waves may make important part of music's rhythm.

Psy's music beat and horse  dance probably have awaken the nostalgia of Western people buried deeper within. And these Western people who have been stressed by bad economy for a long time may needed some cheerful music with foreign  lyrics, so that they can just enjoy the beat. Also, Psy's music has some  exotic elements not founded in the Western music, so the people may be more inclined to hear the music.

On Gangnam. Korea is a mountaineous country. Because there so many mountains and hills, Korean people built their castles around the mountains for their defense. Old Seoul (Gangbuk) was built using small mountians as corner-stones (or walls). That is why Gangnam was not included from its inception. Also, Gangnam is a relatively flat land located on the lower part of the river. So this part of Gangnam is susceptible to flood in the summer. This part of Gangnam land still suffers from flood even in these modern days. So even some 40 years ago, Gangnam was not a part of Seoul. There were farmers living there. And they had land.  And as the urbanization began to expand, these farmers made fortunes by selling their land and became over-night riches. They became 졸부 (jol-bu), a Korean term referring to an over-night rich who is not culturally refined or morally sophisticated.

And here is a serious part. As a nation, Korea is suffering from tension in three level, South-North conflict, Regionalism, and Social Class conflict. Although there are some highly-educated Liberals living out there in Gangnam area, many of Gangnam residents are rich and hardline conservatives from certain region of Korea. These typical Gangnam residents epitomize the greater tensions felt in Korea. Because they usually use all these personal advantages like wealth, status, information and connections for betterment of family only, like skipping out of military duties, luxury life style and advantage over education, they are becoming easy target for mass jeering and mockery from the folks who are not Gangnam style, as Korean economy began to suffer.

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