Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Pop Goes Korea goes Kobo


Okay, I really took my time with this, but, at long last, Pop Goes Korea is available for Kobo eBook readers, too. Hurray. Signing up was a snap (in part because the formatting for Amazon worked just fine for this version, too). They didn’t ask for any difficult information, and everything was pretty fast.

This Kobo version should be just the same as the version over on Amazon, but if anyone finds anything wrong with the Kobo version, please let me know.  Still no ebook for Barnes & Noble, though. For whatever reason, B&N’s ebook store doesn’t allow self-publishing for Canadians. Weird.

Anyhow, it’s great to be online at another popular outlet. I hope you Kobo readers enjoy it.

My Top-3 K-pop Songs of 2017

A completely biased and arbitrary list, but here’s my selection of the top three K-pop songs for the year.

And what a year it was. K-pop definitely reached new heights in North America and there was no shortage of solid songwriting with great hooks. Much like the Korean movie industry, K-pop has lost some of the rough and unpredictable elements that once made it so charming; but, instead, now it boasts better than ever quality. Maybe the most dynamic and interesting musically since 2012? Ever?

It’s also a time of big changes for K-pop, as much of the last generation of superstars is fading away, whether because of breaking up or military service or just getting older. But while losing so many big names hurts, I think the new talent rising up more than makes up for it. Because pop music always needs new faces, new ideas and new sounds to stay fresh.

Anyhow, as for my top-3 list for 2017:

1. BTS “DNA”

I’m not a huge BTS fan, but there’s no denying that they’ve had one of the biggest years for any K-pop act ever. And “DNA” was a serious earworm. It sounds all right on headphones, but I think it’s qualities really shine in a club or other big, banging soundsystem.

2. Uhm Jung-hwa “Ending Credit”

Uhm Jung-hwa goes synthwave! Hard to believe Uhm Jung-hwa has been cranking out pop hits for 20 years now. And while I haven’t really listened to her much in a few years, this song was just amazing. Like something Giorgio Moroder might have cooked up.

3. Hyolyn “Blue Moon”

Okay, this is a bit of a random choice, but screw it, it’s my list and I really liked this song.

Talking to the awesome Robert Engman

Engman and work

By far the most impactful and memorable class I took in university was a figure drawing class I took freshman year. It was great spending  six hours a week trying to figure out the human form, but what was really amazing about the course was the professor, Robert Engman.

Robert was actually a sculptor, but apparently he was unhappy with some of the foundational abilities of his students, so set up a figure drawing class loosely modeled on how he had learned to draw at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t care if you were an MFA student, a BFA, or just a random undergraduate from any other school, he just liked mentoring and helping young people learn to see better (which is, after all, the true foundation of art).


In between drawing sessions, Robert would talk. And talk and talk and talk — about pretty much anything. Art, life, yoga, his military service in WWII, the New York art scene of the 1960s. He was one of the least pretentious and most accomplished people I’ve ever met. He could be incredibly demanding, but at the same time he was also always kind and thoughtful*.

Which is why I was so happy to discover that someone has posted an extended interview with Robert from his home studio just outside of Philadelphia. Robert is 89 years old now (and the interview was done a couple of years ago), but his soft voice and eclectic thoughts are just like I remember from when I studied with him, nearly 30 years ago.


In addition to Robert’s incredible range of brilliant insights about life, I also loved his approach to art. In particular, I love how his concept of what is important about art revolved around the artist, not the audience or the critic. He would say things like:

“When you go to a museum and you see an array of finished, so-called important works of art, that doesn’t have much to do with what they’re really about. But if you start to paint yourself, now you find out how closely you locate what painters ultimately come to when they start to invent things of their own.

“There’s a whole world of common human experiences, things we share together, and we can talk about it and have ideas. But there’s one thing that takes place in us that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that’s the connection those things have through us.

“I’ve made I-don’t-know-how-many pieces of art, but I’m the only one who knows what that is. You can show them the things, but that doesn’t tell them what that is.”


“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.”

And I loved how comfortable he was with commercialism. He used to talk about how the “proper” size for an artwork was the minimum you needed to explore an idea. Big works which were big for no reason were basically pretentious nonsense. However, he was also aware that artists need to eat, so if you took your minimalist idea and blew it up huge to make some money, that was totally all right. As Robert used to say:

“Two-thirds art, one-third paying the rent is fine. One-third art and two-thirds paying the rent is fine, too. As long as it all isn’t just to pay the rent.”


Which is good advice, considering his “Triune” sculpture, near Philadelphia City Hall, is pretty frickin’ huge.

Anyhow, if you have the time, take a listen. I hope you’ll find him as fascinating, brilliant, and wonderful as I do.


*Note: This is 2017, when all our idols are revealed have feet of clay. So if Robert turns out to be a Balrog in human form or something similarly terrible, apologies in advance.


Changing life, culture in a subway station

Recently, new and improved card readers have been installed throughout the Seoul subway system. And I guess they’re better now, with a more sensitive scanner and a small screen so you can get messages when something goes wrong (instead of just a cryptic numeric message, like the old system).

But seeing the readers getting installed got me thinking about the Seoul subway system and how much it has changed since I first arrived in Korea. You can see it in a lot of the stations — like Sangil Station, at the very end of the No. 5 subway line.



Some stations have managed to hide their histories, but not Sangil. You can clearly see where the old ticket machines and ticket counters used to be. Back in the 1990s, Seoul’s public transit was ticket-based, with little paper tickets you needed for every trip. There were single-use tickets, 10-trip tickets and other passes.

Naturally, to accommodate millions of subway riders, you needed to have many, many places to buy all those tickets. But no matter how many machines and agents there were, you still had lines most of the time. God, waiting to buy a ticket as you could hear your subway approaching was one of the most stressful things.

I always find it fascinating how these little structural changes can have such big changes in our lives. The lines are gone. All those ticket agents are gone. Plus you can track all the subways and buses from your phone, so you always know how long you have. Now that the whole Seoul system is all electronic, though, it’s hard to remember what that used to be like.

(Well, maybe not that hard. You can always just go to Tokyo and take the subway there. ^^ )

Btw, Sangil isn’t going to be the desolate end of the line for much longer. The No. 5 line is getting extended all the way to Misari in Hanam City, and with the extension, Gangdong-gu is doing a major commercial buildup of everything from Godeok Station to Sangil Station. The neighborhood is going to be very, very different very soon.



Gangdong-gu Fun

Gangdong-gu isn’t the sexiest district in Seoul. When I first moved here, after years in the fun of Seodaemun, Mapo and Jongno, I was a bit appalled. But I have to admit, Gangdong has slowly started to grow on me.

Thursday I took a little walk and fun some random things that really amused me. For one, Gangdong has a lot of green space. Here’s a couple of pics from near the Han River, right across from the Walker Hill Hotel.





Green space, however, also means it has a surprising number of derelict buildings scattered throughout the district. Real Buffalo Bill places.




And then, while going past a sad little garage near Amsa Station, I saw this: a Ferrari getting some serious work done.



Oh, and here are a couple of photos of the Chuseok night moon. We had some great views of it in my part of town.



Classical Flame Wars (the first of many?)

Okay, I must admit, I have a bit of a strange hobby. I love reading the YouTube comments for great classicals recordings and discovering caustic insults and blistering flamewars. Not for some random amateur making a hash of a famous piece. I mean the great recordings, made by some of the most talented musicians of our era.

These days, the world is an angry place. And you might think the world of classical music might provide a respite from the rage. But, as it turns out, no. Apparently neither education nor refined subject matter can prevent people from being people.

(Warning: Plenty of naughty words)

Murray Perahia’s Goldberg Variations

My favorite comment:

no! he is shit. Bach does not come to him naturally. Listen to Sir Andras Schiff for fuck’s sake!!!

NES Chamber Orchestra’s Goldberg Variations (for string ensemble)

Favorite comment:

This version is at best a curiosity and baroque background music. It is nothing more than a student exercise and should be looked upon as such. It is wrong on many levels. First the recording is awful. There is too much reverb and by the nature of a string instrument sustaining notes it should have been recorded with a closer, more direct microphone set up. There are way too many instruments which muddy the sound. It is vital to give importance to every note in a work like this. The interpretation is entirely mundane and without artistic merit. There is a reason for this not being transcribed in the past…

And it goes on …

Glenn Gould, Beethoven Emperor Concerto Nº5 E

There’s a great conversation in here:

what the fuck does he do at the beginning!?? Does he really think Beethoven meant this groupings literally?!

Beethoven meant everything literally.

no fool if you think that yiur just a robot and not a musician

You should stick to jazz or Beyonce and not concern yourself with german music.

you idiot. I’d rather stick to great music like beethoven. Read more about beethoven and you’ll find out the truth about his markings

“The truth about his marking”Lol.Let me guess:”It´s all like some halfwit music professor after the war said it is”Give me a break.

And they continue for quite some time.

Then again, professional music critics can be just as snotty and randomly biases (even if they happen to swear less). Andrew Clark in the FT a couple of years ago called Gould’s famous 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations “too wilful and eccentric to rank as anything more than a curiosity.” Seriously? I mean, everyone has different tastes … But to utterly dismiss one of the great recordings? What a random bit of jerkiness.


At last — Pop Goes Korea is back!


Okay, so this took a few months longer than I expected last fall. But at least, Pop Goes Korea (2nd Edition) is out and for sale.

The new version is 10,000 or so words longer than the old one, with all sorts of updates throughout. In addition to updates to each chapter, I’ve also added essays about Korean indie music, another about classic rock, a followup Q&A with Sean Yang (founder of Soribada) and a new Q&A with Dami Lee, the web cartoonist.

Best of all, the 2nd edition is also a lot cheaper, for $4.99 on the US Amazon site.

Oh, but all the photos are gone. Sorry, but I didn’t want the hassle of dealing with all those photo rights all over again. And, besides, this is the internet age, so I assumed people could just search and find all the photos they wanted for any subject.

For now, it is only available as an ebook at Amazon, but I am planning to upload it to all the major ebook sites soon enough.

Okay, it is a bit of an old book for such a high-turnover, constantly changing topic. But I think it holds up fairly well (and there really is nothing else that covers the same territory in English). And for the occasional student of pop culture, hallyu or modern Korea, I thought it would be useful to have my book easily available.

Thanks to all who read the original edition, and to those who are interested in the new one. I really appreciate your time, and I hope you find the new version interesting and useful.



Pedro Pelo Marco (Me!) — Brazil Comes to Seoul

Here is a fun project I participated in last year, but it only recently hit the airwaves—one of Brazil’s most popular travel programs, Pedro Pelo Mundo (Pedro Around the World).

Pedro Korea

Host Pedro Andrade and his wonderful team came to Korea last summer, where they met with a whole bunch of experts in food, fashion, tattoos, and more, to talk about what makes Korea so fascinating. And they were nice enough to ask me to be one of their guests, too.

Pedro Mark Hongdae

So we walked around Hongdae and talked about music (K-pop and other genres), and plenty of other things about Korea. It was a lot of fun.

Mark Pedro 2

Unfortunately, the full show is not online, so you can’t enjoy it all. But you can get a taste of it here, with a segment on the Cheonggyecheon.

Comics (and scifi?) come of age in 2017


Okay, superheroes and science-fiction media franchises have been big business for around a decade now. So many superhero movies are getting released all the time, I know we’re getting sick of it all. But having just finished watching the Legion TV series, I think it’s safe to say the genre has really taken a major step forward, at least in terms in TV and the movies — at last, superhero media are becoming templates for telling all types of stories, light, serious, mainstream, and weird, like the comic books that inspired them.

When it comes to TV and movies, so much of superhero storytelling has long seemed, well, just bad. Even as a 7-year-old, watching the original Superman movie, the concept of spinning the planet Earth backwards to reverse time seemed pretty sketchy. Hollywood’s approach to superheroes, like scifi or fantasy in general, wasn’t very smart or respectful of the genre … and certainly not very good as scifi or fantasy.

But then in 2000 came the first X-Man movie, and its relative quality was a big surprise, followed by X-Men 2 and the first Spider-Man movies. Nevertheless, in terms of sophistication, tone, etc., most comics book movies and sci-fi movies were decades behind the mainstream culture (let alone the cutting edge) in writing and drawing.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were a big step forward and got all sorts of praise; but, really, they were mostly just updating the superhero movie to about the point of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns miniseries (which came out in 1986!). Yes, they were progress, but still 25 years or so behind the comics (and then the Superman V. Batman movie went right back to that same well for more ideas).

Batman Superman

And even Nolan’s “serious” movies like Inception and Interstellar were pretty sketchy in terms of sci-fi — “the power of love” helping the hero cut through space-time to save the day? In 2014? Really?

Anyhow, so Marvel begins to kick butt once they took over their own production with the first Iron Man movie. People were generally pretty impressed and the film got lots of great reviews, peaking with the Avengers, but people soon grew tired with the noisy, meaninglessness of it all.

But it looks like Marvel was keeping an eye out on popular opinion, and took steps to stay ahead of the curve. And rather than doing so by emphasizing special effects and bombast, they’ve instead chosen to focus more on finding interesting voices to tell those stories. Choosing oddballs like James Gunn (who came from Troma Studios) and Scott Derrickson (who did a Hellraiser movie) was a sign of a new set of priorities.

This year, that approach to superheroes really got a lot more interesting, with the much-praised Logan movie, and now with the Legion TV series.

I really loved Legion in particular  because I so vividly remember reading those Chris Claremont-Bill Sienkiewicz issues of New Mutants that inspired the TV show. Back in the mid-1980s, coming across art like Sienkiewicz in mainstream comics was really mind-blowing. Collages, mixed media, and furious scribbles of jagged ink defined Sienkiewicz’s art, and I went crazy for it.


Combining those classic comics with Noah Hawley (Fargo) was a masterstroke. As Bill Simmons said of the 30 For 30 documentary series he devised for ESPN: If you hire brilliant people, get out of the way and let them be brilliant.


To be honest, I was a bit ambivalent after the opening episode of Legion. I thought it was a bit precious, like it was trying too hard. I was worried that once the story got going, it was going to revert into something more traditionally superhero-y, with cheap, TV-level special effects. Was I ever wrong. Throughout the first season of Legion, the storytelling remained vibrant and creative, based on the characters rather than mindless action.

Factor in other good examples, like Arrival (a decent, if flawed, attempt to bringing Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” to the big screen) and perhaps Blade Runner 2049, and it is looking like this is a very good time to be a fan of scifi movies.


Of course, there will still be plenty of dumb scifi and superheroes coming our way. 95% of everything is junk, as the saying goes. But it is nice to think that the best stuff is getting better, really pushing the boundaries of TV and film — even if it took a generation for those media to catch up to the comics.

Getting closer…

Sorry for the extended radio silence. A new job and the usual life stuff makes it harder to find the time to say much worthwhile. However, that could be changing soon.

First up: Pop Goes Korea update. Yes, I’m actually making progress. In fact, there’s just one more chapter to update – unfortunately, it’s the music chapter, which definitely is going to require the biggest update. But that’s okay. It’s all pretty fun stuff to write about. Oh, and I’m hoping to add a couple of Q&As, just to add some other people’s thoughts and experiences to my overview of the Korean entertainment and media scene.

Of course, even when the writing and editing is done, I’m going to have to figure out e-book publishing on all those online stores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). That might take a bit of figuring out. But hopefully it won’t take too much longer.

In other writing news, my publisher tells me that my new novel is supposed to be ready and in the world in June. So that’s pretty exciting, too. I was lucky enough to meet the cover artist, Eric Belisle, in Tokyo a few weeks ago, and in addition to being a fun and fascinating guy, Eric also came up with a couple of fun changes to the cover based on our chat. I’ve seen an early version and I’m pretty happy with it.

So, it looks like the next few months could be fun and productive for me. I hope you enjoy the results!

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