Honoring a legendLegendary pop singer Lee Mi-ja received the Eun-Gwan Order of Cultural Merit (Mugunghwa Medal) from President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday in recognition of her lifetime of achievements and the contributions she has made to the development of the arts and culture in this country.
The 68-year-old diva, who celebrates her 50th anniversary as a singer this year, became the first pop star to receive the nation’s second-highest cultural honor.
But Lee’s contribution is not limited to the realm of culture and the arts. The history of the nation is reflected in each one of Lee’s 2,100 songs. The lyrics and melodies portray the lives of ordinary Koreans and paint a picture of who we are and how far we have come.
Since her debut in 1959 with the smash hit “Naivete of Nineteen,” Lee has soothed struggling Koreans with a soulful voice that reaches out, wraps around and provides encouragement to all who are listening.
Perhaps Lee is able to evoke such emotion in us because of the hardships she herself has had to endure. Although Lee’s songs have sometimes been criticized as old-fashioned, Lee has not wavered from her strong individual style. When some of her songs were banned under Korea’s authoritarian regimes, Lee was able to overcome the devastating setbacks that ensued to rehabilitate her career.
In 1989, Lee became the second singer, after Patty Kim, to give a solo concert at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. The concert paved the way for aspiring young singers who would later perform in similar venues nationwide. Lee’s frank words of advice were to stick to the basics and play by the rules.
Lee was also a pioneer in that she encouraged entertainers to treat themselves like royalty. Her words are a stark reminder to all young performers in light of the recent scandal involving the late actress Jang Ja-yeon, who is believed to have been verbally, physically and sexually abused by powerful figures in the entertainment industry.
Lee is one of our most highly acclaimed singers, and her medal is much deserved, but the story should not end there. There is no place to archive Lee’s songs, and that is a shame.
Though we welcome the Ministry of Culture’s recent announcement that it will establish a center for popular music and culture, it is unfortunate that Korea does not have a museum or library for archiving popular music.
We hope that the award of Lee’s medal will serve as an impetus for the creation of such a venue, so that an important piece of the nation’s culture and history is not lost. That would be the best way to honor Lee.