‘Emperor of Korean pop’ meets his self-claimed wildest male fanMore than three decades have passed since “national singer” Cho Yong-pill, 56, first sang his hit song “Come Back to Busan Harbor.” But two things are still the same. The veteran still sings live on stage more often than he goes on television, and his female fans, now in their 40s and older, still scream wildly at the sight of their hero on stage, calling him “oppa” (a young girl’s elder male love) tearfully, just as they did in their teenage days.
The “Emperor of Korean pop” finished the last of his 17 concerts of 2006 last week in Gwangju. Welcoming him back to Seoul was Song Ho-keun, a Seoul National University professor, social critic and an ardent fan.
The 50-year-old professor unfolds the trenchant arguments on the iconic singer’s songs while also calling himself Cho’s wildest male fan alive. Mr. Song says Cho’s music is not simply songs but a symbol of “historical sentiments.” It was the summer of 1980 when he first heard Cho singing on the radio. The song was “Woman Outside the Window” and angrily asked, “Whoever said love was beautiful?” Cho might have been in anguish over love, but Mr. Song said he thought the song best reflected the turbulent times in Korea when there was “anger and hatred everywhere.” Although the two had never met face-to-face before, Mr. Song immediately addressed the singer as “seonbae,” meaning “older friend.”
Mr. Song was first to speak at their casual get-together last week in Seongbuk-dong, northeastern Seoul.
Song Ho-keun: To describe your songs, seonbae, they have sentiments that cure heartache, resistance, anger and despair. Although you frequently describe urbanites as poor vagabonds, you seem to have a special affection for them. I see power that leads city residents out of despair in your songs. I think that’s what mesmerizes people.
Cho Yong-pill: I think there’s some truth to that. I look like a person who sings about a provincial life but my songs are very municipal.
Song: You are modest though you are on top. Is there any moment in your life that you ever felt the big title [emperor of Korean pop] was too much to control?
Cho: I am not the type to be conscious over such things. What I think is most important is whether I sing good songs that people can remember, like the Beatles. Their songs are simple and comfortable to listen to. The Beatles themselves are comfortable to watch on stage. I want to sing songs like that.
Song: Your singing style has changed a lot. [From a higher scratchy tone, Cho’s voice is thicker and huskier these days.]
Cho: It has a lot to do with the trend of that time. Back then, I expressed sadness in my songs, but I don’t think I can do that now even if I wanted to. [Laugh] When I was younger, I made sure the vibrations in my voice were emphasized, but I like it better now clear. That suits me better. The song should naturally reflect sadness, but I tried too hard in the past to squeeze that out. Maybe the times have changed, or I have aged. Anyhow, it’s all about life.
Song: Being on top for a long time makes a person very powerful and authorative. But as soon as we know how to enjoy that power, we start to crumble and fall. It is almost a shabby sight to watch many clinging to power as they refuse the new challenges nearing them. That’s a big problem in Korea. In this sense, I respect your effort to be free-spirited. But as a person on top, isn’t there only downhill left for you?
Cho: Popularity expires fast. Mine has already gone down a lot. Maybe if I went out on TV and sung more often there, I could extend the life of my popularity. But I don’t care much about that. I think it was in 1978 that I was hospitalized once. I thought life was like a drifting cloud. That’s when I wrote the song, “I Am Like a Cloud.” It’s an unlovely sight to watch a person trying so hard to stay on top. End things neatly. That’s how a pro should be, and that’s the last gentlemanly thing to do for your audience.
Song: Artists are the kind of people who have the power to transform their loneliness into fine work. That moves people. But what do you think is your power to move the hearts of people from their 20s to 70s?
Cho: It’s probably my effort to concentrate on the character in the lyrics. I imagine that I am the person in the song. I forget myself. I try to dive into that character. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but I feel obliged to force myself to try.
Song: You made Korean pop history. The more than 200 songs you sang have different features and characteristics, which diversified the expressions to deliver sentiments of Korean society. You seemed to have introduced Western music but it was different. It was more independent, a characteristic of Korean pop in 1970s and 1980s.
Cho: Because Korea is not an English-speaking country, I thought I should reflect “Korean rhythms” in my music. To make such music, you have to spend a considerable amount of time listening to such music. But sometimes songs come up in three to five minutes on the guitar. My songs “Woman Outside the Window,” “Bobbed Hair” and “Red Dragonfly” were like that.
Song: It’s similar for scholars. They talk about the country they received their doctorate degrees in first. But later they realize that’s not how it is. There’s the Korean reality. And you start finding what’s yours. You have your own philosophy there.
Cho: So the 19th album coming up in September is going to be an epochal one. I have been working on a lot of changes. When I hear the songs on billboard charts I nod and think that I could be making songs that sound like that in the future. I try to make everything simpler. It’s difficult. But that’s my policy: In order to make songs for the audience to feel comfortable, it’s necessary for the singer to mourn and suffer. I have a question. How is Korean society these days? I want to consider that in my next songs.
Song: Everyone feels as if they are segmented. Everyone has turned cold and fierce. People are no longer poor as they were in the past, but they have become more vulnerable. People are wandering more, they have turned lonelier. I miss your songs these days. Your songs often touch a string in a person’s heart ― in the Cho Yong-pill way.
Since he made his debut in 1968, Cho Yong-pill has developed music in all genres including rock & roll, folk and even children’s songs.
At a time when Western pop dominated the Korean music scene, Cho went from being an unknown to being dubbed the “Emperor of Korean pop” and has continued to contribute to the development of Korean pop music.
He has been on a national tour since 2004 and last year held “Pill & Passion” concerts in 17 cities across the country. Tickets for his concerts always sell out fast. He believes a concert should only be about singing. He does not spend time chatting on stage nor does he invite other “guest” singers to join him while he takes a break. During a concert in Seoul on Dec.10 last year, he sang for two hours. The only time he didn’t sing was when he greeted his fans and when he introduced his band members. His concerts are also known to entice fans from all generations. His hit songs include “Woman Outside the Window (1980),” “Dream (1990),” “Let’s Go On a Trip (1985)”
Widely regarded as an anchor of Korea’s moderate liberals, Song Ho-keun studied sociology at Seoul National University and received his doctorate degree in sociology from Harvard University. He is currently a sociology professor and executive director of external relations at Seoul National University.
His admiration for Cho Yong-pill is well-known. When it’s his turn to grab the microphone at a noraebang, or singing room, his choice of songs, without exception, are written by Cho.
He believes each of Cho’s songs represent a specific time slot in society. When he heard “Woman Outside the Window,” released in 1980, Mr. Song instantly thought of the tragic Gwangju uprising which occurred in the same year.
He savors the richness of Cho’s musical world and particularly appreciates Cho’s references to wind.
“I came searching for the splendor of the city. But it was cold and cruel,” Cho sang on behalf of a young generation who roam the urban back streets in his hit song “Dream.”
As with “Dream,” Cho’s songs are like traveling companions to people living in an exhausting world, Mr. Song concludes.
by Jung Hyung-mo, Jung Hyun-mok