New artists remake old songs, and old politicsMusicians used to be a formidable voice of dissent in Korea, raging against the evils of the country and even the world.
Some still are, but times have changed since the great protest-for-democracy era of the late 1970s and ’80s. Musicians can now lampoon politicians and go into convulsions of anger about anything without risking being arrested for “profaning the government.”
But ask a band to do protest songs from the days when their rights were won, and the tone changes quickly.
That was the lesson learned by Ji Geum-jong, a leading member of the civic group Cultural Action. Mr. Ji wanted to produce an album of modern bands doing old protest songs, but many of the young bands refused to participate in the project.
Some said the music was too passe, others said doing protest songs would hurt their image. Some even feared being criticized for doing a bad version of a classic song.
“I thought the times had changed enough [for us to sing songs freely], but the songs were still considered biased and wrong,” Mr. Ji said. “But I understand the hostile image these political songs have, and what non-activists might think of them.”
It was true the songs he wanted to have remade are not exactly easy listening. The musical genre is known as minjung gayo, literally “people’s song,” which were popularly sung among activists and the working-class during the dictatorships. Although some of the songs are outdated ― some lyrics describe the hardship of a blue-collar worker in the city, even though sweatshops have long since disappeared ― many are still sung by students during protests.
Mr. Ji asked 80 bands to join his cause; only 15 groups or solo artists took him up on the offer. The album, titled “Agami” (meaning “gills”), was released earlier this month, after two years of planning. The album features 13 songs that had once been popular but politically sensitive due to their lyics being vaguely threatening to the government.
One of the songs, “The Miserable Soul,” from 1973, was banned by the government at the time, citing its “wickedness.”
“It was just a sad song, written by a poor disabled high school student who lived with his uncle,” said Hwang Deok-sin, the co-producer of the album.
In the lyrics, the writer talks about his terrible situation and how he has nowhere to go. It might not sound dangerous, but like most other songs that were blacklisted at that time, the lyrics often used metaphors to criticize the government. Despite being banned, the song eventually became popular, as many folk singers sang the song after revising a few “sensitive” words. But the original was never played on the radio.
“If that song could be remade and young people nowadays are willing to sing it, I won’t mind whether it’s sung in a rap or in a rock ’n’ roll version,” said Kim Eui-cheol, the writer of the song. Mr. Kim said he didn’t intend to start out writing anti-government songs ― he merely wrote songs about living in misery, such as “The Outcry of the Multitude” or “The Parting Song.” Sensing that the government was unhappy about his lyrics and wanting to continue working as a songwriter, he left Korea; once he did, his songs became far more direct in their criticism of the government.
Lee Jeok, the former singer for the pop duo Panic, sang the new version of “The Unfortunate Soul.” The lyrics were the same, but instead of the original four-beat classical guitar-based melody, he changed it to a three-beat song with a string quartet to make the song into a rock ballad.
“I turned off all the lights in the studio and tried to imagine what the original writer must have felt when he was singing this song,” Lee said.
Sweet Sorrow, an a cappella group, did a remake of “Love Song,” in a jazzy blues tone. Butterfly Effect, a rock group, sang the remake of “Tiger Moth,” and Hareem, a rhythm and blues singer, did a remake of “The Procession of those Honored.”
“I don’t think this is a throwback to the times when we were poor and sad,” Mr. Ji said. “Nor was I trying to revive the old minjung gayo boom with this album.” By introducing young people to these songs in versions that they like, he said, he hoped to show them there could be diversity in the world of Korean pop.
He said there are many beautiful songs nowadays, but they’re not as meaningful as minjung gayo songs, because they don’t reflect the desperation and honesty of love, freedom or revolution.
“Won’t it be nice to hear people singing in karaoke rooms about something more serious and sincere?” he asked.
Some of the young people buying the album seem to agree.
Hong Jeong-eun, a college student, said she did not know the songs were originally minjung gayo. She bought the album because it had a song by one of her favorite groups, Windy City.
“I hummed along and I wasn’t aware of the lyrics at all,” Ms. Hong said. “But now that I listen to it carefully, they are pretty good, I think. Not as frivolous as the conventional love songs.”
But some say minjung gayo should keep its identity and not be forced to fit the conventions of another genre.
“It’s a nice try,” said Ahn Hong-deok, 27, a political science graduate who frequently participates in political rallies with activists. “But the point of singing and listening to minjung gayo is not because it sounds beautiful, but how effective it is for espousing populism. If I wanted to buy an album to dance to, I would go for a conventional pop album.”
The Miserable Soul
Originally written by Kim Eui-cheol 1970
Like a wandering casual laborer, looking for something clear and blue
I wail looking up at the stars here, where no friend can visit me.
I wander from street to street. Where should I rest tonight?
Depending on a sole walking cane, I limp and hobble about.
I long to see my family and friends, but I cannot go to them.
My life is destined to be forgotten. My heart burns.
My life is destined to be forgotten.
Original writer is unknown, but was popularly sung among textile workers in 1975.
Like a tiger moth seeking a light every night,
We walk straight forward.
Pulling a wagon full of white flowers, we are tiger moths that long for liberty.
The toils and the sufferings of today, we try to forget with a sigh and a smile.
We look up at the sky like a sunflower.
We are tiger moths.
Oh liberty! Oh equality!
My heart is like an active volcano about to burst.
My pulse is beating and my blood is hot. They are both going to burst.
Let us go and go. To find liberty. Fortunately we are still young.
We will continue to go even if the road ahead is a thorny path.
by Lee Min-a