Where is Korean Rock?

Dear Korean,

I know that you've touched a little bit on Korean rock music-- particularly in your "most influential" series-- but I was curious as to what the rock scene is really like in Korea today. Why is there so little Korean rock music? How are rockers treated today in Korea, considering the dominance of the K-pop idols?

Curious K-Rock fan

Let's address the first question first -- why is there so little Korean rock music?

Answer:  the premise of the question is wrong, because there are tons of Korean rock music. Tons. Let's put it this way: if we played a game where the Korean names two rock songs for every one idol group song, the Korean guarantees that he will win every time. In fact, this is one of the most frustrating things about discussion Korean pop music -- the idea that manufactured pretty boys and pretty girls comprise the entire universe of K-pop. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Nor is this guy the entirety of K-pop.
You had your fun, people. It's time to move on.
It is true that Korean rock is less visible to the international audience because Korean rock, unlike Korean idol groups, is not systematically pushed abroad by well-capitalized management companies. It is also true that Korean rock is less "mainstream," in a sense that Korean rock sells less number of albums, appear less on television and less frequently heard (if at all) in shopping malls in Korea.

But so what? Isn't being independent, underground and non-commercial more properly within the spirit of rock and roll? Do you know how many number one singles that the legendary rock band Radiohead has? Zero. How about other legends like Led Zeppelin or Depeche Mode? Also zero. Celine Dion has not one, but two, albums that outsold Nirvana's Nevermind, widely considered the greatest alternative rock album ever. Speaking of Nevermind, you would never hear Smells like Teen Spirit in your neighborhood mall. But does any of these factoids diminish the importance or influence of rock music? Of course not.

The lesson here is simple: people like mainstream pop more than rock music. That's why mainstream pop is mainstream. Korean pop music scene is not an exception -- that's why mainstream Korean pop established a beachhead in the international stage first. But that should not lead to the conclusion that rock music does not exist in Korea, or Korean people don't like rock music. In fact, rock music is one of the two pillars that hold up the foundation of Korean pop music, and it has a storied history in Korea. (The other pillar is -- don't laugh -- trot [트로트]. This will be explained in a future post.)

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

The history of Korean rock music is not much shorter than the history of rock and roll itself because, fortuitously, Korea came to be under heavy American influence almost as soon as American musicians invented rock and roll in the early 1950s. But why was Korea so susceptible to American influence at that time?

Because of Korean War. By the time Elvis Presley recorded That's All Right Mama in July 1954, nearly 100,000 American soldiers were stationed in South Korea. In the wake of South Korea's total destruction, those American soldiers basically represented the only consumers of pop music in Korea -- and those soldiers liked rock and roll. This meant Korean musicians had to learn rock and roll, and quickly, in order to make a living.

Shin Joong-hyeon in 1970s
Once drawn into rock and roll, Korean musicians appreciated the beauty of the music, and began creating their own rock music. Most legends of early Korean rock cut their teeth playing for the U.S. troops in USO shows and clubs near USFK bases. (For example, the incomparable Shin Joong-hyeon -- dubbed the "Godfather of Rock" in Korea -- began his musical career playing for American soldiers at clubs.) Since then, rock has been a constant presence in Korean pop music, even as its overall influence waxed and waned. Korean rock enjoyed its golden age in the late 1980s, with the top rock bands of the time drawing as much popularity as any celebrity. 

Korean rock experienced a brutally lean period in the 10-year stretch between late 1990s to early 2000s, as East Asian Financial Crisis dramatically reduced the size of the economic pie allotted to pop musicians, while the manufactured idol groups began to dominate the scene. For a time, it seemed like idol groups were crowding the field to the extent that they were about to choke Korean rock out of existence. As it turns out, however, Korean rock had already taken a firm root. Rock music retreated to Korea's indie scene, survived, and continued to thrive in its own way.

What is the state of rock music in Korea now? Obviously, Korean rock is not as huge as Korea's idol-driven mainstream pop, which now forms a major strand in worldwide pop culture. However, overall health of Korea's rock scene is quite sound, especially compared to a decade ago. In fact, Korean rock could be entering into a renaissance of sorts since last year. Koreans in their 50s and 60s -- i.e. those who spent their youths in 1970s and 80s -- are reminiscing fondly about classic Korean rock. New indie rock bands like Busker Busker and Guckkasten enjoy a lot of TV time and album sales. And of course, the club rock scenes -- headlined by the legendary Club Drug in Hongdae area, which is considered the birthplace of Korean indie music -- are as lively as ever, featuring ever greater number of bands featuring sophisticated and diverse sounds. Obviously, not every one of them is a celebrity, or even makes a decent living. But that, too, is the rock and roll spirit.

How can an international aficionado of Korean pop music be introduced to Korean rock? This list of nominees for Korean Music Awards 2013 is a good start. KMA is the most authoritative pop music award in Korea, presented by a committee of more than 70 critics and journalists. (In other words, none of the vote-rigging shenanigans committed by the deluded members of idol fan clubs.) You might notice that the list of nominees hardly contains any boy/girl bands. Out of the nearly 50 musicians nominated, only four represents the "idol" field -- G-Dragon, whose One of a Kind is nominated for Song of the Year; f(x) and Sistar for the Best Dance & Electronic Song and; Ga-in is nominated for Best Pop Song.

Other nominees represent jazz, R&B, hip hop and, yes, rock, including modern rock, alternative rock and heavy metal. The Korean would highly recommend clicking through each artist's nomination page, as each page (for the most part) contains a sample video of the artist's music. Once you find the band you like, search the band's name on Youtube, and off you go. (Personally, out of the list, the Korean recommends Third Line Butterfly [3호선 버터플라이], Busker Busker [버스커 버스커] and Jeong Cha-shik [정차식].)

What about television? If you are somehow able to regularly watch Korean television shows over the Internet or local cable television, look for either Yoo Hee-yeol's Sketchbook [유희열의 스케치북], or EBS Space Gonggam [EBS Space 공감]. Both programs place an emphasis on featuring a diverse group of pop musicians (including leading indie groups,) and insist upon good live performances. Here is a sample -- Guckkasten's Mirror [거울], on EBS Space Gonggam:

For interviews and reviews in English language, www.koreanindie.com is an excellent resource. Korean rock bands with decent international following make periodic international tours as well. (Crying Nut, Galaxy Express and Third Line Butterfly toured the U.S. last March/April, although the results were hilariously sad. Read the report of their tour if you can read Korean.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.