Against my better judgment, I descended into the heart of Hongdae last Saturday evening. I mean, I like the Hongik University area a lot, but Saturday night the center of that neighborhood can get a bit out of control.
But Saturday, the Sangsang Madang arts space was holding a screening of the short films by Namkoong Sun, a talented young filmmaker, so I decided to check it out. You might know her music videos for Byul.org (“Pacific” and “Secret Stories Told by a Girl in an Opium Den”), as well as Neon Bunny and others. The screening was good fun, and several actors from her shorts showed up.
The after party was evidently going to go a lot later than I had the energy for, so I excused myself around 11 and took a walk through Hongdae, just to check out the neighborhood and see what it is like these days. No surprise, things were pretty crazy. Can you believe that, way back in the late 1990s, you could hit most of the Hongdae bars in an evening (well, at least the good ones)? But somehow the neighborhood keeps growing.
The park was, as usual, full of people and music. Perhaps this sign is as good a metaphor for Hongdae as anything:
It reads, “So not to inconvenience local residents, please no more live music in the park after sunset.” This photo was taken about 11:30pm, as yet another band started a set.
Anyhow, what I was there, a group called Monster People were playing. They are quite good — kind of an Interpol-like modern rock sound — so if you have the chance to catch them, I quite recommend it. Here’s some of their music over on Soundcloud:
The vibes were all pretty good that evening, at least while I was there. People were pretty blitzed, but I guess drunks don’t get belligerent and start fights until after midnight.
Looking at all the changes to Hongdae, the explosion of restaurants and cool things, I think I might start blogging about the neighborhood with some regularity. Every time I walk down an alley, I’m amazed by what I’m finding (in a good way, mostly). It’s fun to be back.
I was just checking out the lineup of musicians and acts playing at this year’s SXSW in Texas and was really amazed by the Korea presence this year — 10 Korean artists, not including Korean-American musicians. In 2010, I think there was just one.
There is also Far East Movement, with the Korean-American quotient. And, of course, there are plenty of other Asian acts, from Japan and around the continent.
The important thing, imho, is how Korean groups are increasingly getting out of Korea and playing around the world. That sort of exposure — exposing the bands to new audience and exposing new audiences and acts to the bands — is so important to developing the Korea scene. That sort of thing is a big part of what made Korean movies so good, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s great to see music doing the same.
Anyhow, Galaxy Express played at SXSW last year, too, when they scores a pretty cool mention in the New York Times. And once again, they will be going on a tour after the festival, hitting 25 shows in a dozen states (or so says their Facebook page). I’ll post the full schedule once I hear about it.
Last year was a great one for Korean pop music, but it was also excellent for indie music and other non-pop stuff in Korea. I only spent a couple of weeks in Korea this year, but it was clear from the shows I went to and people I talked with how vibrant the scene is these days (not to mention the music I downloaded and listened to). Back in 2008, when I started the Korea Gig Guide, I had this feeling that the indie scene was growing and getting stronger, like it was in the late 1990s. These days it is stronger still, continuing to grow bigger and more interesting.
Sadly, though, I don’t have a big list of my favorite new releases. For yet another year, I focused my energies in older Korean music, thanks to a huge batch of old records a friend digitized for me. I’m pretty proud of my collection of Korean rock, folk, and pop from the 1960s and ’70s now (thanks mysterious friend!). A related highlight of my year was meeting the great singer Kim Choo-ja. She and her husband nicely opened their home to me, and so I was able to absorb several hours of stories and good stuff.
As for new releases, the best of the year was probably Jambinai’s first full-length release, Différance (iTunes, Amazon). While not a fan of their more hardcore-tinged experiments with electric guitar, their core sound — driving postrock played on Korean traditional instruments — was as great as ever.
There was plenty of fun electro-based music last year, such as Glen Check (I particularly liked the single “84″) and Neon Bunny (her new EP Happy End was all quite fun). Love X Stereo is pretty good, too.
I am not a huge Telepathy fan, but their new version of “Flying White Pillow,” recorded for Fred Perry, was really intriguing, showing signs of growing into something more (a live show I saw of theirs in May backed up that impression).
And there were new released by 3rd Line Butterfly, Galaxy Express, and other big names.
But, as I said, I spent more time listening to old music, so I’m sure I missed a lot.
One of the coolest stories in 2012 was definitely Busker Busker, the Cheonan trio that appeared on an American Idol-esque TV music contest and somehow overcame all the producers’ preconceived notions of how the program was supposed to run, becoming perhaps the most popular group of the year. Yes, K-pop still dominates Korea, but the success of Busker Busker — a real band, playing real music — was one of the brightest rays of sunlight to shine through the bubblegum clouds in a long time.
(Not that there is anything wrong with bubblegum … I just value diversity).
Much more authoritative than my opinions, though, are the smart folks at Weiv, Korea’s longtime online music publication. They have put together another solid (and eclectic) list of the year’s top Korean music:
Best of all, my publisher allowed me to make one small but important change to the e-book edition. At last we have the dollar-won exchange rate specified in the text. When I wrote the book, it was at the unusually strong 800 won/dollar level, which made some of the numbers seem a bit odd (soon after, it fell to 1,200 won/dollar, and today is still less than 1,100 won/dollar).
Big thanks to everyone who has already bought a copy. And thanks to all who read my articles and blogs — I really appreciate the support and I hope to keep you interested.
I see by the time stamp on my last post that I am overdue for my annual Korea Pop Wars update. Or Pop Goes Korea update. Or something.
Anyhow, the good news is that, at long last, it is looking increasingly likely that Pop Goes Korea will be getting an e-book edition soon. Stone Bridge Press is even letting make a couple of small changes, to things that have long bothered me about the original book — not a full-fledged update or anything so grand, but small things that matter to me.
It’s been a fairly eventful year, since my last post here. K-pop has really started making a lot of noise in the West, in ways I never would have guessed a few years ago — there were even concerts in Barcelona, Paris, Germany, and South America in the past year. In addition, I helped start the Korean Indie website (before leaving it recently). And so far, 2012 is shaping up to be the most successful years commercially for Korean movies since 2006, and could conceivably become the best year ever.
As usual, if you want to read more about Korean pop culture, my writing, or other random subjects, it is best to check out my personal blog, as I don’t really update this site much anymore.
Having just seen Prometheus, it’s become clear to me that a lot of people just have no sense at all when it comes to naming their starships. Isn’t naming a space ship “Prometheus” just asking for something bad to happen? Like saying “This ship is unsinkable.” With that in mind, here’s a list of names I would never use on a space ship:
Icarus (from Event Horizon)
Eumenides (or Furies, Fates, etc.)
Death Star (cool name, but way too much baggage)
Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong
On the other hand, “Oh No, Oh No, We’re All Going to Die” would probably be fine.
Was it Douglas Adams who said “The universe isn’t smaller than you imagine; it’s smaller than you can imagine”? Here are my three biggest examples:
1) Sophomore year of university, first day of class, in a political science class waiting for the professor to arrive and begin the lecture. Bored, I turn to the guy beside me and start making small talk. “Where are you from?”, I ask creatively. Turns out he is from Canada. “Oh, me, too,” I respond. He asks where and I tell him near Toronto, from a small town he likely has not heard of. But he is apparently from a small town near Toronto, too, so we keep delving and asking questions. Turns out, not only is he from the same small town as me, his dad took out my appendix when I was 13.
2) Korea, late 1990s. I was in a smallish town, a couple of hours from Seoul, and bored. So I ask around and find a bar where westerners have been known to hang out. I go there and indeed some sort of party is going on, consisting of mostly English teachers. We begin chatting and the usual. While talking to this one red-headed woman who is around my age, I again ask “Where are you from?” She says “Canada.” I say “Me, too, but from a small town you’ve never heard of” and the dance begins again. Turns out, not only was she from the same town, she sat beside me in high school for a couple of years.
3) Italy, last week. I was at a conference (sponsored by the wonderful folks at the Legatum Institute). During dinner one night, I end up yakking with one of the lecturers. I knew that she went to the same university as I did, so I start asking about classes she took, professors, etc. We’re not getting much overlap, but something about her answers is scratching at my subconscious. I thought she was four years younger than me or so, but now I am not sure, so I ask when she graduates; she says just one year after I did. So I ask if she lived at 42nd street, in one of the row houses. She looks at me, confused. I asked if Mxxxx and Bxxxxx were her roommates then. She looks more confused. And then it all comes together.
Turns out, this is woman lived with some friends of mine and was there on one of the stranger, booze-fueled nights of my early 20s. We ended up on the roof of the oldest building on campus around 3am, just hanging out in the light rain and watching helicopters come and go from the roof of the nearby university hospital. It wasn’t a revolutionary evening, but it was quite nice and I repeatedly pillaged the scene in my early attempts at short story writing.
There have been plenty of other odd events over the years — bumping into old friends in European museums, meeting my university advisor at a party in Seoul 15 years after graduating. Sometimes I fear that online networking risks making those surprising bursts of coincidence obsolete, as we drag behind us all the random encounters from out lifetimes. Probably not, at least not entirely. But, nonetheless, that is one reason why I try to stay off Facebook and Google Plus and the rest. If, as Joni Mitchell tells us, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, sometimes you need to get rid of things (people, connections) to appreciate them again.
K-Pop Now! takes a fun look at Korea’s high-energy pop music, and is written for its growing legions of fans. It features all the famous groups and singers, and takes an insider’s look at how they have made it to the top.
Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture is the only English-language book to examine the whole of Korea's entertainment industry and how it became such a powerhouse over the past 15 years. With profiles of many of Korea's top stars (including Lee Byung-hun and Rain), Pop Goes Korea features chapters on movies, music, television, comic books, the Internet, and more.
To buy your own copy of Pop Goes Korea, you can check out these websites: