[Outlook]A singer, beautiful and true

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[Outlook]A singer, beautiful and true

Patti Kim is an iconic figure within the annals of Korean popular music. Last Saturday I went to a concert held at the LG Arts Center in southern Seoul. It was an impressive experience to meet a living legend. Her hit songs touched the hearts of the audience with their beautiful lyrics and melodies. Everybody in the concert hall sang along with “Farewell,” one of her big hits. Recalling love or youth lost forever, some members of the audience had tears in their eyes.
The soul that has never been hurt does not exist. The concert was a festival of warm consolation and catharsis for those damaged souls
Ms. Kim’s songs are categorized as standard pop. Basically they are western-style pop songs but they also have Asian sentiments. This must have something to do with her early career. As a high school student, she sang a whole volume of “The Story of Shimcheong,” one of Korea’s traditional narrative songs, in pansori style. Around the same time she won first prize at a traditional music contest.
The singer was born in 1938. She is one of the oldest Korean vocalists still performing. She made her debut in March, 1959 before the U.S. 8th Army in Korea and has been singing for 48 years. Her explosive yet refined vocals, unchanged beauty and charisma dominate the stage and have overcome the cruelty of time.
It is a kind of miracle that the singer has stayed at the top for nearly half a century in the harsh reality of the pop music industry where singers have a hit number or two and disappear for good. Tony Bennett, the king of American pop standards, released a duet album to mark his 80th birthday. But even he cannot overshadow the glory of this Korean woman singer.
The legend of Ms. Kim is even more valuable because it endures. Her goal is to keep working through next year and the year after that when she will celebrate the 50th anniversary of her singing career.
As a veteran singer, she is critical of the current trend in the Korean music industry. She is discontented with the young singers who think light of “the ability to sing.” In the middle of her show, she said that singers must be good at singing before they worry about being good looking.
The reality of Korea’s music industry is gloomy. As people download songs through the Internet, the copyrights of Korean singers are not protected. They cannot secure stable incomes with album sales. Even if they become famous as singers, they are desperate to appear in movies, talk shows and commercials. Talent agencies have the same attitude because they need to profit from their investment. As a result, the ability to sing is less important, and thus there are many singers who use playback.
The successful Korean movie “S-Line” was about a girl who sings behind the stage for playback singers. The film exposed the shameful reality of the music industry.
Ms. Kim’s criticism may sound harsh but few can refute that argument because she has lived an exemplary, disciplined life.
At the peak of her career, she was once offered a large amount of money on the condition that she would sing in commercial clubs. But she refused the proposal. Sons of jaebeol families asked her to go out with them but she refused. Instead, she chose a poor saxophonist, Gil Ok-yun, as her husband, because she wanted to be committed to music.
To live for music and die for music is her philosophy. She says she only thought about music even when she went out with Mr. Gil. She thinks of the stage as a sacred place to meet her audience, so she always does her best.
During the recent show, she confessed that even though she has been singing all her life, she still gets so nervous that she trembles before taking the stage.
She reaffirmed the saying of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca that something achieved by accident is not art.
People get sick and tired of phony singers who are famous but do not sing well. We want to hear songs by true singers who want to live and die for music. Such songs will make the world more beautiful, like stars in the night sky.
The journey through life of Ms. Kim, a singer in the truest sense, might have been lonely and tough, but that’s why it is even more beautiful.

*The writer is the head of the culture and sports desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-gyeong
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