They’re singing, but not for anyone’s supper

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They’re singing, but not for anyone’s supper

Ajumma, Korea’s middle-aged married women, do not have the finest reputation on the peninsula. Stereotyped as aggressive, noisy and nosy (not to mention a standard short-perm hairdo), the ajumma is, for most, a person to be avoided.
Come to think of it, however, no one is born an ajumma. In their younger days, they were agassi, or young girls, whose highest priority was themselves, not their family members.
But in “Dojeon Jubu Gayo Star” (Challenge Housewife Singing Star), ajumma can go back to their good old days, don their nicest outfits and sing on the stage.
Airing at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on KBS2-TV, “Challenge Housewife Singing Star was launched in 1992, making it one of the longest-running programs in Korea. Kind of a Korean version of “Star Search” dedicated to housewives only, the program features a singing contest each week, with seven or more ajumma on stage.
Last Saturday’s show marked the 400th episode, where former awardees and masters of ceremony came to celebrate. But a typical show features commonplace housewives, just grabbing the chance to be on stage. The favorite songs they sing are far from the latest or hippest numbers ― no Christina Aguilera here. They rather belong to a special genre called troteu (trot), 4-4 time with a karaoke beat well-liked by the middle-aged but ignored by the young.
A recent show kicked off with a performance by the famous trot singer Song Dae-gwan chanting his latest hit ― although I’ve never heard it before ― titled “Yuhaengga” (Pop Songs). Then the emcees cry out: “Come out and sing, ladies, show your talent. The door to a challenge is always wide open.”
The show’s seven contestants, seated on small round tables right next to the stage, came out to perform songs with titles like “Sad Confession,” “Million Blossoms of Roses” and “A Woman.” The masters of ceremony cooked up the perfect atmosphere, saying that to win the contest is for the glory of the family. Glorious indeed, for a mother-in-law of a recent contestant who won a grand prize, and threw a lavish party in her village.
To the KBS Orchestra’s refined accompaniment, the ajumma contestants relish their chance to be on stage. Nine out of 10 participants are indeed good singers. But it’s not easy to win the competition, for it takes more than a singing talent ― it takes “star potential,” that is the right gesture or a special move.
After all the performances came severe criticism from the jury, who said things like “know what you sing” and “grow more star potential to be a more beautiful woman.” But the contestants’ faces never darkened, as they all had their minds on the prizes. If you win the first time, you get a 29-inch television set. Win a second week, you get a five-day, four-night package tour to Hawaii. The latest laptop computer goes for a third win. And for four wins, a package tour to Europe for four family members. These prizes are one of the secrets to the longevity of the program.
After a guest performance by a professional singer, who rendered “Texas Rhumba,” the awards ceremony followed. That Saturday, it was the ajumma who sang “Sad Confession.” With her husband on the stage, she burst into tears, saying “I’m so happy for my mother, who’s having her 70th birthday soon.” When the emcee asked the husband what the couple would be doing that night, he answered, “Anything she wants.”
With such a winning formula, as long as there are ajumma in Korea, this program will thrive.

by Chun Su-jin
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