Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: December 2012

The Year in Korean Music

Obviously this has been a big year for Korean music, thanks to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” becoming the biggest song ever on Youtube and surpassing 1 billion views. And like any uber-popular sensation, people’s enjoyment of the song moved inversely with its ubiquity.

But even without Psy, it would have been a pretty notable year for K-pop, as YG, SM, and JYP and pushed harder (and, arguably, more successfully) than ever into the United States and the West. SNSD appeared on Letterman. Big Bang sold out shows (and won critical praise) in the US, Peru, Britain, and all over Asia. G-Dragon’s “Crayon” got plenty of notice by pop critics (one New York Times critic named it a top song of the year … and the song won Pop Dust’s Song of the Year poll). Choe Sang-hun and I had a 1,500-word feature on K-pop in the New York Times back in March, long before Psy’s hit had dropped, and since then there have been oodles of stories in all your major media.

Despite the endless ink spilled (and pixels illuminated) over K-pop, I think most of the media still has not really wrapped their collective heads around “what it all means”. One common bit of idiocy has been the idea that K-pop has somehow “failed” because no one was able to follow up Psy’s “Gangnam Style” with another chart-topper.  Talk about missing the point — as if this musical age is all about Billboard and chart rankings.

If you want a symbol for the year in music, it may well have been Grimes, the 24-year-old Canadian electronic artist. “Oblivion” was widely regarded as one of the top songs of the year, even though it never spent much time on any charts and has only 4 million Youtube hits. Grimes has been quite clear, though, about the influence K-pop and J-pop have had on her music. As she wrote in NME recently:

 It’s the insane art direction in K-pop music videos that got me addicted to it. I like the misguided appropriation of western pop tropes in the videos – because they’ve got it wrong, it’s kind of better.

I mean, check out her video to “Genesis” — aside from the budget, it could be the latest 2NE1 video:

And then just to make things really scrambled, Dan Deacon mashed up “Oblivion” and “Gangnam Style” to create “Gangrimes Style.” Quite catchy, too:

Anyhow, the point is to ask what people mean when they talk about K-pop (or any music genre) succeeding. K-pop draws plenty of fans to its shows. It sells in its niches. It draws on pop influences from around the world and influences the world in turn  (here’s a story on K-pop in Chile). That’s really not terribly different than dubstep or EDM in general. That’s the world of music today, full of cross-references and cross-fertilization, without any one act dominating the way U2 or Coldplay or Janet Jackson once did.

Could K-pop go mainstream in 2013? Anything is possible, but I would argue that it doesn’t need mainstream success to be considered successful. Would anyone argue that Korean movies have not been successful over the past 15 years? And yet no Korean movie has made significant money at the US box office — save D-War (with about $11 million), the “Gangnam Style” of Korean movies.

Aside from K-pop, it has been a good year for Korean music in general. It seems like there are ever more electronic-based indie bands, pumping out catchy, fun music (Love X Stereo, Glen Check, Telepathy, Neon Bunny), postrock (Apollo 18, Bulssazo), twee rock, folk, hard rock, traditional-modern hybrids (Surisuri Mahasuri, Jambinai), just plain weird (EE, Mukimukimanmansu), and more. Apollo 18 had two successful tours of North America. Galaxy Express was the first band pictured on this year’s New York Times feature on SXSW. If there is a fertile area in which Korean music could really grow in 2013, I suspect these non-pop genres have more potential.

Anyhow, it should be a fun year. That’s so much to look forward to.

Not-So-Fast but Definitely Furious: Pyongyang Racer Game

Did not see this one coming — the fun folks at Koryo Tours have teamed up with North Korean game developers to make a free flash game for the Internet: Pyongyang Racer.

Okay, it’s not the most exciting flash game ever put on the Internet (maybe for PR2 they can add US soldier zombies to run over). But it is still kind of fun to get a street view of Pyongyang, along with all its iconic buildings and landmarks. And getting admonished by a North Korean traffic policewoman is pretty amusing.

I wonder if the South Korean authorities will allow the game into the country or if they will ban the URL. SK authorities so rarely have a sense of humor about these things.

Good News Brewing in Korea?

I don’t drink much beer these days, but I used to consume my share, and even helped brew it way back in the day. But even if I do not drink it much now, I do still appreciate a good beer, and I appreciate a culture that can make good beer. Which is why I was so heartened to read that beer culture in Korea appears to be on the upswing.

Matt over at the great blog Gusts of Popular Feelings has a good overview of the current beer situation, particularly the appearance of 7 Bräu, a new brewer in Korea, the first to get a new bottling license since 1933 apparently. 7 Bräu apparently has an IPA (link shows an English story at the Korea JoongAng Daily) which is available in Home Plus stores around Korea. Nicely done!

Korean beer has long been pretty terrible—maybe not Michelob terrible, but still pretty bad, as I blogged about a few years ago. The Economist slammed Korean beer a couple of weeks ago; although, strangely, it did not mention 7 Brau or anything about the history of brewpubs in Korea. Still, the article upset many in Korea and inspired this retort in the Donga Ilbo—which was highly, uh, factually challenged (Koreans prefer lager while European prefer ale?) and completely missed the point.

Anyhow, great to see progress slowly being made. When brewpubs appeared in Korea about a decade ago, I had high hopes they might change Korea’s beer culture. Not that beer is so important, but variety and choice is an important part of life, and I’m happy that Korea is increasing its beverage choices.

Brubeck, Gould, and Me

Like many, I was saddened to read about the passing of jazz great Dave Brubeck a few days ago. Although, to be honest, I was not an expert in the man’s works — I owned Take Five, of course, but not a lot more.

But for me, when I think I Brubeck, one of my thoughts is of Glenn Gould. It’s from the liner notes of the 1992 remaster of Gould’s Goldberg Variations, where Michael Stegemann talked about how huge the album’s sales were when it first appeared in 1955 — quoting Norman Snider:

Indeed, if a college girl had one record of serious music among the Dave Brubecks and Kingston Trios, it was likely to be the Goldberg Variations.

Wonderfully sexist and condescending stuff, isn’t it? But, aside from that, I love the layers of meaning in that quote:

  1. Glenn Gould’s classical record was a No. 1 hit.
  2. The epitome of shallow, empty pop was Dave Brubeck.

It is almost trippy to me to think of Brubeck being so dismissed, thought of the way people today think of Lady Gaga or Sarah Brightman — or maybe Snider was just a huge snob.

Anyhow, sad to lose Brubeck. Maybe I’ll download a couple of his albums and listen to him before going to bed …


View From a Seoul Window

So, Andrew Sullivan put a Seoul VFYW up on his blog a couple of hours ago — a very pretty view of the city streets covered in snow (although it appears not to be a view from a window, but a street view from a pedestrian bridge).

I feel like I should know that stretch of road, but for the life is me, I cannot figure out where it is. Does anyone out there in Internet-land have any idea where this pic was taken?

Catalonia Tourism Without Tourists

Barcelona — like much of Catalonia and Spain — is a great place to live and explore. There is so much wonderful architecture, nature, food, and other good stuff, it can be a real embarrassment of riches. However, that great stuff does attract a lot of tourists, and the most popular locations can be crazy busy. Park Guell, Montserrat, Tibidabo, the beaches, the old city center of Barcelona are all wonderful, but they can get a little overwhelming.

Which is why it is so much fun to discover wonderful locations that are not on the usual tourist map. Yesterday I made a trip out to the medieval Catalan village of Rupit, and really enjoyed it. High recommend, if you are coming to Spain and are looking for places to go.

Rupit is located in a hidden river valley about 100 km north of Barcelona, not far from Vic, another lovely town in Catalonia. It has roots over 1,000 years old, was built up more in the 12th century, but most of the buildings there now are from the 17th century. The buildings are all stone, like something out of Lord of the Rings. The river is gorgeous, and there are plenty of great walks in the area.

The food is pretty much all Catalan (lots of Catalan Butifara sausages), but quite good, and most of the restaurants have amazing views of the river and gorge. This is a pic of the restaurant where I had lunch, from the other side of the river.

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