'Alternative' Music Nurtured, PannedDespite Success at Hongtae, Some Sneer That Snob Appeal Drives the Beat
Korea may not be the ideal place for experimental musicians. In an industry exclusively devoted to an established mainstream circle consisting mostly of teenage dance groups, music producers are not willing to support experimental styles of music that don't have a commercial value.
As an example, it was only in the mid-90s that the term "alternative music" started to appear in Korean pop culture. It was also when alternative rock bands like "Deli-spice", "Crying Nuts" or "Sister's Barbers" released their first albums, and started to play in underground clubs near Hongik University - the area usually referred to as "Hongdae."
Known mostly for Hongik University's top-notch visual art program, Hongdae gradually established itself as a mecca of avant-garde sub culture in Korea. Music and performing arts were particularly active in the "university ghetto," with artists, bands and DJs following the latest trends from the West. "Rave," a scene often characterized by techno music, dance and ecstacy-of whatever kind-was introduced into the local subculture for the first time in Hongdae.
"It's quite amazing that one can actually reach the point of ecstasy with music alone. That's the power of techno though," says Lee Gun, the managing editor of the webzine "Cultizen." "What's interesting about techno is that its structure is very similar to that of Korean 'Samulnori' (percussive Korean traditional folk music). The beat is slow at first, and becomes faster and faster. The subtle tensions between the speeds and the hypnotic repetitions of techno are very close to the kinds of techniques used in Korean folk music," Lee says.
On the other hand, this imported culture has its critics. Dubbing it "aristocratic culture," some argue that the club cultures in Hongdae are concerned more with fashion and less with the quality of music, and differ little from hotel nightclubs apart from cheaper entrance fees.
"The word 'alternative' means the same kind of fashionable sub culture as it does in the States or in Europe," says Park Jun-heum, director of Club Baram located in Space Ssamzie, Hongdae. "Anything alternative is very trendy in the States - alternative culture may not be mainstream, but it certainly has a great influence on local cultures. In Korea, the term 'alternative' is also often used in the same context as 'underground.' For example, in terms of the music scene, artists who stay out of the institutional system, the so-called 'independent bands,' are not only alienated from the industry but also from the public. They are very marginalized from society."
The "marginalized" musicians who perform in Hongdae are also highly engaged in cultural activism. One example is "Munsadan", a Hongdae club musician. Criticizing the media hype surrounding Seo Tae-ji, a Korean pop star, Munsadan organized a public event called "Killing Seo Tae-ji" in Club Feedback near Hongdae last September. Through the event, these cultural activists-musicians alerted the public to the overall disruption of Korean music industry and the star-oriented system that smothers musical diversity.
"Deli-spice" is another example. One of the first alternative bands in Korea to earn public acclaim, Deli-spice's hit song "Chow-Chow; I Hear Your Voice" proved that Korean experimental music could also achieve commercial success. Consisting of several repetitions of the phrase "I hear your voice no matter how I try to wad my ears," "Chow-Chow," the song titled after a dog's barking sound, predicts a rather edgy critique of typical love songs.
The subject of "resistance" is not new to underground musicians. It appears frequently in songs performed by Hongdae club musicians. "Whether the artists are aware of it or not, what is setting them apart from mainstream music culture is the fact that they resist trading in their originality in order to fit into the public's taste," says Park. He says it is "the listeners' responsibility to choose the type of music they like to hear," and not the other way around.
Meanwhile, Hongdae clubgoers have invested new hope in Seo Tae-ji, who recently released a solo album called "Ultra-Mania." Here he introduces a new genre called "pimp rock," a hardcore rock that conveys extremely anti-social messages and powerful rhythms after punk rock. What used to be categorized as "underground", they hope, may soon become "overground."
I have my own way.
There may be critics or politicians
But I say things the way I want to say
They may sound like the words of the aliens
But a song that plays on a turntable never changes
"Trouble Maker" by Ann
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages