With my rusty and unsophisticated use of Vietnamese (well, not saying that I have completely lost touch with it), I decided to waste more time writing about one of my ongoing fads: Korean music. How did a person who was once obsessed with Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” come to listen to music in a language she barely understands?
If you don’t listen to this genre of music, the only thing you associate with the phrase “Korean music” might just be Gangnam Style and PSY, the funny Asian guy who got famous on Youtube; and that is a very narrow, but not entirely inaccurate, description of this specific kind of music. Simply put, Korean music is just music mainly sung in the Korean language.
I came to know Korean music back in 2009, when the Hallyu wave with Korean soap dramas and boy bands swept through the entire Asia. Everyone was crazy about it, to the point I was rather forced into listening to those Korean songs. One that stood out the most was “Ring Ding Dong” by a boy group called “SHINee”.
“we wanna go rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rock
go rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rock
fantastic, fantastic, fantastic, fantastic
elastic, elastic, elastic, elastic”
It was a concoction of repetitive melodies and mainly Korean words sprinkled with a tinge of random English phrases. I hated it so much that I came to love it somehow. And that leads me to the first point.
1. I can’t understand 99% of the song:
Unlike Vietnamese and English songs, none of the words make sense to me and it gives Korean songs a unique charm, or rather a convenient point. Say no more to those cliches, awkwardly phrased words that no single person would use in real life. Goodbye to splitting my brain, trying to focus on the music while processing the lyrics. Words are now rhythmic figures that add tonality and variation to the already-great background instrumental. The songs come to me naturally and I don’t need to rationalize to decide whether I like them or not. It is similar to how I enjoy listening to classical and instrumental music. Korean music is the more mainstream, profane equivalent to that. Honestly, if I were able to understand what that damned song “Ring Ding Dong” meant, I might have banned myself from listening to it.
Though I can’t understand Korean, I can still know what the song is about from its music video.
2. I can understand the song through music videos
Before I start rambling, this point doesn’t apply to all Korean songs. Korean music videos are not your ordinary music videos in which singers stand in random places and open their mouths, lip-syncing to their songs. No. These are like artworks which add depth and meaning to the songs. Take for example the song “Haru Haru” by Big Bang. The song itself is great. It is about a girl saying sorry to a guy after breaking up with her. But then the music video elevates the song to another level. Now we have a background story explaining why the girl was made to break up with the guy, because she could’t stand hurting him after she passed away (classic Korean soap drama). The plot twist adds an extra zing to the, otherwise, catchy but pretty common love song.
A classic example of how the music video was orchestrated to outshine the song is “Please Don’t” by K.Will. This is my favorite music video/song to show to any of my friends and watching their reactions is completely delightful. I urge that you spend 3 minutes watching the video COMPLETELY from beginning to end.
Another instance in which the music video successfully lay the ground for the song to flourish in is “Melted” by Akdong Musician.
I can’t stress more on the importance of having a meaningful music video here. Without it, the song might have been left into oblivion because of how average-sounding it was when I first heard it. Watching the video and listening to the crystal-like voice of the singer truly made me weep (just a bit).
I used to think that instead of producing all of these fanciful ornaments, artists should focus just on their songs. However, now I concede that if they can perfect everything, why shouldn’t they?
3. I know more about the artists than just their ability to sing
This is, I think, completely unique to Korean music. Where in the world can you have a gazillion of variety shows on TV that are dedicated to making you learn more about the artists? When you listen to songs, a good voice remains a voice. However, when you get to know about who produces that good voice, his character and his life-story, you humanize that voice. And somehow when you listen to his song, it’s no longer about how melodious-sounding it is, but about how hard he has worked to produce a piece of music that you enjoy.
I would like to digress at this point and address an opinion that is often made against Korean music. People say it is too manufactured and fake. They prefer bands and singers to be the way it usually is: a bunch of talented friends get together and produce music because they love to. I understand where the concerns come from. Artists coming from Korean groups do not have much saying over what they sing and their songs sound forced and manufactured. Natural talents should obviously be appreciated, and we should do the same to artists who are trained in these entertainment companies. These people also have talents, but without additional training and support, they cannot grow to their full potential.
An example of how necessary having a company back you up is the case with Leessang, a producer/rapper duo who took like 10 years to be recognized by the public. The stigma against underground rappers asides, their lack of support prevented their music from reaching a larger base of audience. Not everyone can persist through 10 years painstakingly to pursue a dream thought to be hefty by most.
Enough with the digression, come back to the point of how knowing an artist more helps me to appreciate his work. I know Leessang through the TV shows Running Man and Infinity Challenge first as entertainers and later as artists. The completely different aura they exude in their works from their usual silly characters on TV gives insights into their personality. Their music, rich with raw emotions and stories, has kept engaged me since Day 1.
4. There is no reason not to listen and appreciate such arts
There are a few Korean singers whose vocals truly transcend language, to the point I don’t really care if what they sing make sense or not haha. The prime example must be So Hyang, a female Soprano who has been compared to vocal powerhouses in the world like Whitney Houston for her amazing voice, tonality, and skills. Quoted from a vocal analyst, she is able to do vocal feats like Crescendo and Decrescendo with ease and complete resonance, able to stay in the upper fifth octave with ease and resonance no strain no pain. Dynamics are not a problem for her even in her upper extremes. In short, she can blabber nonsense and still amaze me.
These are just one among many reasons why I listen to Korean music. Unlike other fads that come and go, this one, I think, is here to stay.