Pop Goes the Syntax

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Pop Goes the Syntax

Do you know what "Fine Killing Liberty" means? If so, you're in tune with Korean pop music. If you don't know, it's probably not the end of the world, since the answer is "nothing." It's just a nonsense name for one of Korea's hottest girl groups, and is actually written Fin.K.L (pronounced "pinkle" by most of the fans). Fin.K.L (caution: no period at the end) has a lengthy list of hits and a fan club with more than 20,000 devoted members. The girls sing many of their songs in English, though their syntax wouldn't please the Queen, and all of their albums are English-titled.

One of the band's more popular songs, "Now," has lines that would likely make Wordsworth turn over in his grave: "Came in to my life. Make me fly again. Always be with you are the one for me." The one common thread in those sentences is the conspicuous lack of a subject. Ardent fans, though, simply don't care. They even try to study English by learning the lyrics, which surely must send chills through English teachers. If Korean pop icons sing some English, or the equivalent, it's become a sign of well, hipness.

The singing-in-English-is-cool phenomenon is not confined to Fin.K.L. On the latest Korean pop music chart, eight of the top 10 albums are English-titled. One is "Alone" by Moon Hee-jun, formerly of the boy band H.O.T, which stood for - here it comes - "Hi-five Of Teenagers." That boy band, incidentally, also complied with the curious no-concluding-period rule. In his ambitious solo debut album, Moon sings, "Nothing gonna changing world I'm waiting in my heart. I want a changing world." Some of his rap takeoffs include "We wish shot" from the song "Red and White," "Kill! Mind the shock kill! Win the light ahh! Right," from "Aria of the Will" and "We are, scream. Don't say, give it up!" from "Persia Black Hole." Persia Black Hole? Don't ask.

If you're lounging in a coffee shop or working out at a gym, and hear Englishisms like "Yeah," "I love you" and "Don't say good-bye," interspersed with Korean, it's not a fad. A quick check of the top10 albums from late October of last year reveals five with English titles, such as "Ultraman" by Seo Tai-ji, perhaps one of Korea's most recognizable pop icons.

The songwriter Yoon Sarah, who recently released a debut solo album, is one insider with a finger on the pulse of the English beat. Yoon, whose writing talents are much sought-after by many of Korea's big pop stars, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that sprinkling English into Korean pop songs is "unavoidable." At times, Yoon adds English to her works, as heard in her 1999 song "Eojecheoroem" ("Like Yesterday"), recorded by the rhythm and blues singer J, which turned out to be a big hit. "Korean pop music takes after American styles like hip-hop, rock and R&B," Yoon says. "So Korean songwriters sometimes feel more comfortable having some English lyrics to make their songs sound more authentic and natural."

Yoon, whose very name is a sprinkling of Korean and English, says she never tries to confuse her listeners with English lyrics, for she believes that songs should be easy to grasp. But that principle is often compromised, she acknowledges.

She has two reasons to include English lyrics: to "estrange" listeners from the songs, and to make songs more stylish and cool. By "estrange," Yoon explains that listeners would have more trouble learning the lyrics by heart if those lyrics were in English, and that makes the song seem fresher longer. "Plus, you can do some things in English you can't in Korean," she says. "A sentence like 'I can't live without you, so I won't leave you,' scans nicely in English, but is really dry in Korean."

To her credit, Yoon remembers to put a subject in her lyrics. She can't say that of other Korean songwriters, however. The songwriters she collaborates with often urge her, and even threaten her, to include some English lyrics, she says. "And some English lyrics are meaningless, used like cliches due to the laziness of the songwriter." Indeed, lines such as "Never don't go" and "Cuz you callin me," repeated six times each in the song "Wild Eyes" by the boy band Shinhwa, might be categorized as "butchered sloth."

In fact, Yoon once wrote an English line for Fin.K.L, in a song called "Blind Love," which ended abruptly with this plea in English: "I don't wanna feel the pain of losing you." The grammar is fine but the line has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the song. "The songwriter inserted those words right before recording it without letting me know," Yoon says. "That annoyed me so much that I didn't even listen to the song after it came out." Yoon says that she sometimes feels embarrassed by the misuse of English in Korean pop songs, and adds this disclaimer: "I believe English is being mangled by many people, but that's just my personal opinion."

Maybe the English-lyric fad can also be explained by the move to globalize everything. Indeed, Korean pop singers have achieved considerable popularity in other parts of Asia, such as China and Hong Kong. But still, the flubbed-up English lyrics are even more of an embarrassment when they're exposed to listeners worldwide.

Most Korean songwriters are aware that music fans are unlikely to fully comprehend the English injected into Korean songs. And the truth of the matter is, even the native English speakers are baffled. But who can blame the young student who's tired of English books full of tedious grammar and phonics rules, particularly when he compares it to the English he hears in Korean pop songs?

So don't be surprised when a Korean high schooler, especially one who identifies himself as a big fan of Fin.K.L, sings, "Saw your last night. Makes me feeling good." Who really needs a subject when you're feeling that good?


Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)