Season 1

Episode 5: Seoul: Is K-pop the Soul of Seoul?

How did a tiny Asian country, with a history of war and dictatorship, become the brithplace of the world’s most exciting new music?

Fans of K-pop will tell you it’s more than music – it’s a movement.  What can this energetic, cotton-candy colored, pop-culture craze tell us about the city where it was born?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about K-pop by now. South Korea’s homegrown popular music is huge. Like, really huge – BTS, the world’s most popular K-pop band, are basically the new Beatles. And it’s not just Korean music that’s blowing up – this year a Korean movie won the most exclusive award in film – Best Picture at the Oscars. All this popular pop culture is drawing fans and curious onlookers to Seoul – South Korea’s hi-tech capital and Korean culture’s epicenter.

How did we get here? How did a little Asian country on a divided peninsula, which has been pummeled by centuries of war and dictatorship, manage to cultivate the world’s most exciting new music trend? And can the country’s pop music tell us anything about the soul of its biggest city?

This week we’re jetting off to Seoul to find out.

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

5 ways to have a true K-pop experiecnce in Seoul!

  1. GANGNAM
    Seoul’s glitziest K-pop neighborhood.
  2. SMTOWN
    Check into SMTown for a hologram K-pop show.
  3. SASAENG TAXI
    Spot (or stalk) your favorite K-pop idol in person.
  4. OSSU SEIROMUSHI
    Hungry? Try some traditional Seiro-mushi style meats and veggies at a BTS-owned eatery.
  5. NORAEBANG
    Head to Hongdae for the best in Korean karaoke.

CONNECT WITH US!

On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

CONNECT WITH OUR GUESTS!

Koki and EXP Edition 

Crystal Tai 

John Lie 

Paul Matthews

CREDITS

This episode of Passport was written, produced, and edited by Harry Stott.

Big big thanks to Paul Matthews, John Lie, Crystal Tai, Koki Tomlinson, Bora Kim, and everyone at IMABB Entertainment for giving us a taste of Seoul and enlightening us on the ins and outs of the Korean Wave.

You can buy John’s book from all good retailers and the same for Crystal’s when it comes out later this year. Keep on the lookout for more music from Koki and EXP Edition, and in the meantime, tune in to Paul on Seoul’s Ari-rang Radio on Monday and Wednesdays to stay in the loop with all things K-Pop.

Music for this episode comes from Nick Turner, EXP Edition, Psy, and Seo Taiji and Boys, with additional tracks from Thirst Follow, King Kerr, Gustav Van Kirschenov, Riverdeep Mountaindue, Apple Quests, Lt Fitzgibbons Men, The Custodian of Records, Brevyn, and Battery Operated Orchestra.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky executive produce the show, which is hosted by Neil Innes and Andres Bartos, who prefers G-Dragon.

This Episode Features Archival Audio From:

INTERNETARCHIVE.ORG

North Korea Annonuncer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAYRkeWJ2LY&t=25s

Press TV on NK vs US
https://archive.org/details/NorthKoreaUSThreatsMakeWarUnavoidable

Park Chung Hee
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puOaGl90YZU

Korean War
https://archive.org/details/33594recordsnowhitskoreavwr

Korea under japanese rule
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4fdhAz0VSw&t=38s

More Korean War
https://archive.org/details/20000000WWIIKoreanWarArchivesBETA

YOUTUBE

Parasite wins best picture
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg_Ql89fWy4

BTS Billboard awards
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgxetmJzJdg&t=34s

BTS at UN
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhJ-LAQ6e_Y

DKDKTV
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwL-sO9fdMU

FOMO Daily Reacts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NLXfqh6bms

KPopSeoul reaction
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3icM4y9ZeE

Bandit
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xw01NhNdQM

Asian Boss
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3tL8gawEm0

AriRang News
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIwoWyG7vyQ

Header image by Valery Rabchenyuk on Unsplash

EPISODE 5 – TRANSCRIPT

NEIL: Korea is a divided peninsula North and South. Communism versus capitalism. Cold war and the threat of total annihilation.

ANDRES: North Korea is ruled by a chubby chain smoking dictator that loves basketball and may or may not have gout. He’s also driving the entire country into abject poverty.

South Korea. Yeah. That is a different story. 

NEIL: South of the 38th parallel, you’ll find the vibrant LED lit, economic powerhouse, exciting, innovative, and fast paced. Korean BBQ, Samsung phones, world-leading cosmetics, and cars. South Korea exports everything and they’re really good at it. 

ANDRES: South Korean culture is flourishing worldwide and it has taken the spotlight off its relationship with its noisy Northern neighbors.

So forget politics, forget the DMZ. Forget the threat of nuclear war. Today South Korea is best known for its pop culture, film, TV, and of course, music.

NEIL: This week on Passport, we’re heading to Seoul. South Korea’s electrified, technofied, high rise capital, and its cultural beating heart. 

ANDRES: It’s the birthplace of K-pop, a very particular kind of music that has become a global phenomenon. 

NEIL: But just how did Korean culture get so big? And can K-pop tell us anything about the Seoul of Seoul?

Well, turns out it can teach us quite a lot.

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

NEIL: A destination isn’t always a place. 

ANDRES: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

NEIL: I’m Neil Innes 

ANDRES: And I’m Andres Bartos. 

NEIL: We both live in Barcelona, but we’re not really from here, we’re kind of from everywhere.  We’re friends, filmmakers and world-class ramblers. 

Passport is the show that will take you to the places you’ve never heard of, we’ll introduce you to the people who you would never have otherwise met, and we’ll tell you the kind of stories you only hear when you throw away the guidebook. 

From Frequency Machine.

This is Passport.

[END MAIN TITLE]

NEIL: To call K-pop a phenomenon doesn’t really begin to touch the impact it’s had on Seoul and South Korea and the world. For anything you could knock K-pop on, there’s one thing that’s clear when you watch a show or talk to a fan. That’s the pure hyped joy. K-pop is optimistic, bright, hopeful. It’s messages are normally of love, tenderness, survival and fun.

Given the history of pop music, they are themes which have always resonated with people. But this feels different. A veteran K-pop roadie told us the tours are the closest things he’s come to Beatlemania. BTS – K-pop’s most popular group right now, is estimated to have over 90 million fans. Those fans call themself Army.

They created an entire online ecosystem. They trade homemade art. They provide aid to other Army members in crisis or in need, and they raise massive amounts of money for charity, all in the name of the K-pop band they love.

Fans of K-pop feel like this isn’t just a genre of music. To them, K-pop is a revolution. 

We wanted to find out why, so we brought in producer and music nut, Harry Stott.

NEIL: The only thing I know about career is amazing barbecue

ANDRES: I know films 

HARRY: Well that’s pretty useful for this episode seeing as we’re covering the Korean wave. 

ANDRES: Yeah. What is the Korean wave Harry? 

HARRY: So the Korean wave, or they call it Hallyu in Korean, it basically describes the explosion of Korean music, K-pop, Korean cinema, and K dramas, which started in the 1990s and then has now swept over the world.

Why I think it’s so interesting is that, you know, why did it happen in Seoul? Why did it happen in South Korea? This place, I mean, you compare it with China or Japan – two massive economies, massive cultures, right next door who have a history of, you know – not the same history as South Korea, which is basically a history of war and dictatorship and colonialization for the past hundred years. 

Which is so close to the North, so close to this mad dictatorship where there’s, and there’s like a constant threat. And yet. It is South Korean pop culture now, which is the thing, the trendsetter in Asia. 

ANDRES: I mean it’s, it’s one of those things like North Korea is this weird washed out 20th century strong man dictatorship where you can imagine starving farmers and weird brutalist buildings with a lot of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-Un pictures everywhere.

And then the South, where they’re just like, they’re just on top of everything. Everything. It’s like they’re precise, they’re efficient, they know what they’re doing. You think of a place of works somehow. 

NEIL: There is kind of this feeling though that what happened there all of this time of dictatorship after dictatorship after dictatorship. It’s odd that it seems like the biggest influence on on music there was the Backstreet boys. We’ve been suppressed for so long. We just want to dance. 

ANDRES: All I want to do is dance. 

[Laughter]

ANDRES: Well, first Harry, take us. What was your experience of K-pop before you started on this episode? 

HARRY: Didn’t know much. Didn’t know much or two until recently. Basically, until. Like the explosion of BTS, you know, you see them on all the late night shows in the U S, you see them on like Ellen Degeneres. In LA, where that’s being filmed, and they’re going mad and just like, what? Who are these guys? Most of them don’t even speak English. Only one of them. RM, the main guy, speaks English, and yet they have this huge crazed following.

NEIL: I love how you know all their names now and all their stats and stuff like their measurements, like what they bench. 

[Laughter]

ANDRES: For the record, Harry. So you’re a K-pop originalist, you’re into OG K-pop. 

HARRY: I’m a purist. I always have been. And I’m a K-pop here as to, yeah, the early nineties that’s when it peaked. And then you know, it’s been a, it’s been a downward slope since then.

ANDRES: It’s like, since Tupac was shot, K-pop’s been shit. 

HARRY: Exactly. 

[Laughter]

NEIL: Where do we go first Harry? Where’s the first step on the trip. 

HARRY: Yeah. So the way I wanted to go into this was what are the two big things in 2020 that have put Korean culture on the map. Number one, Parasite, which obviously won best picture at the Oscars this year.

And number two, the rise of BTS. 

So their album Map Of The Soul Seven became the second quickest selling album of all time. 

So 2020 really feels like the year when 

ANDRES: K-pop blew up.

HARRY: Exactly. But the other interesting thing is they are so different too.  BTS is like those videos – it’s super sweet, sickly sweet.

Whereas Parasite is this gritty, dark, very funny film, which you immediately, you can tell it says a lot about Seoul and about Korean society.  But why are they so different? 

Also, if you went to Seoul could you find both of those sides to the city? Could you find the super shiny BTS side and could you find the dark gritty Parasite side?

…..

NEIL: And don’t forget, at the end of this episode, we’re going to give you our saved pins. These are the places we found that you won’t want to miss on your K-pop fueled trip to Seoul.

…..

HARRY: Seoul is a vast, sprawling city. It’s cut through with mountains and rivers, a coast to the West and the DMZ line a stone’s throw to the North. It’s home to some 10 million people. In Korea they call it the special city and for good reason, so’s importance within the country is outsized. It’s more pivotal to South Korea than DC is in the U S, Paris is in France, or Beijing is in China.

It’s the national Capitol, the financial center, the home of the finest universities, restaurants, and it’s where Hallyu, that massive eruption of Korean culture worldwide, was born. 

Seoul is where all young Koreans with dreams of success come to live out their showbiz fantasies, or get spat out by the machine trying.

But if you were to walk through the city today, could you feel the Korean wave’s impact? Could you see it? Could you hear it? 

I needed to find someone who knows the city and understands the Hallyu phenomenon to compare it with pop culture in the West. Someone who was in Seoul when the Korean wave first began to break.

PAUL: I first came here back in 2000 in May when Kim Jong IL and a president Kim de Jong met in Pyongyang. That’s my biggest first memory of Seoul is being in an orange tent, eating fish and drinking soju and seeing these two world leaders meet in North Korea. 

HARRY: Paul Matthews is a solo based actor, director, writer, and broadcaster.

He’s a big fan of Hallyu. He even had his own show about it on Seoul’s Ari-Rang radio. One of the biggest English language stations in the country. Paul moved from the UK to South Korea for an acting gig at the turn of the millennium, but he loved the place. He fell in love with a local girl and has stuck around ever since.

PAUL: So I think I’ve had a pretty good experience in terms of seeing the city change over the last 20 years, and it has changed a hell of a lot. 

HARRY: Back when Paul arrived, Seoul was not the cosmopolitan high tech place it is today, but as Hallyu took off. So did the city. Seoul is now one of the most technologically advanced places in the world.

They’ve got the fastest internet speeds, and they own the most smartphones per person in any country. 

K-pop too is woven into the fabric of Seoul you’ll hear it blaring out of bars and taxis and hip district’s like Hongdae, and booming out of venues like SM Town, a six floor museum come mall, come K-pop theme park in the city center.

But if you really want the real K-pop experience, there’s only one place to go. 

PAUL: You’ve heard of Gangnam, for example, Gangnam Style 

HARRY: I sure have, and so have you. You remember South Korean singer Psy and his mega hit with the horse riding dance, the bizarre, slightly insane music video.

Before BTS, Gangnam Style was the first Korean pop song to really cut through in the West. It was actually the first video on YouTube to reach 1 billion views. It wasn’t Kanye, Katy Perry. Charlie Bit My Finger or even that video about leaving Brittany alone that breached YouTube’s 1 billion mark. It was a song in Korean about a neighborhood in Seoul.

And Gangnam Style is a song all about Seoul. Gangnam is a neighborhood.

It’s pretty much the upper East side. The Chelsea, the Beverly Hills of South Korea. 

PAUL Gangnam redeveloped itself as a, as a K-pop area. There’s a, there’s a huge statue of Psy’s hands from kingdom style. There’s actually a Gangnam Style monument at the, at the crossroads, that kingdom station. They have hologram K-pop concerts.

I’ve been a couple of times and I’ve seen, I’ve seen Psy live as a hologram. 

HARRY: Hologram concerts are a big deal, Tupac at Coachella eat your heart out. 

PAUL: Korea. Korea is a beautiful country, but people don’t come here to look at the buildings or to go to the parks. It’s not been a tourist hotspot.

One thing that has driven people to visit has been K drama, K film and K-pop. So people don’t come here to visit a famous building. They come here to visit the famous location where that video was shot or where that movie takes place. 

HARRY: K-pop is more than just music. It’s part of the city and it’s driving tourism.

But fans flying in from across the world on a pilgrimage to their favorite Hallyu locations are only likely to see one side of the city – the pristine shining K-pop side. The Gangnam side. 

PAUL: If you live in Gangnam, um, and you live in one of the apartments in Canon, you are very, very rich. The elite of Korea, I think. I think that is the stereotype. 

HARRY: But there’s another face to Seoul, one much less traveled by outsiders.

PAUL: I still see on a regular basis, um, elderly people on the streets collecting cards or collecting cans with big carts that they push along by themselves. There is poverty out there. It’s not necessarily discussed. It’s certainly not seen in mainstream popular culture so much. 

HARRY: One piece of popular culture that did take on Seoul’s social inequality was Parasite. Korean cinema is the other leading light of Hallyu, and in many ways, Parasite’s Oscar win owes a lot to K-pop success. K-pop has been on the world’s radar for at least a decade, and that opened people up to the culture and language of South Korea

Parasite was able to walk through that door, but this is where the similarities end. Parasite takes all that we’ve learned about Seoul through K-pop and flips it on its head. If K-pop represents Gangnam and the elite of Seoul, Parasite represents the underbelly. 

…..

NEIL: Parasite runs that line so well because it’s super amazing to look at.

It’s beautiful. That maybe reeks of like fuck-you-ness. 

ANDRES: And Parasite does something that K-pop also does incredibly well, which is to make something that is really universal, that you can completely tap into no matter where you are in the world. But that doesn’t lose that Korean core. There’s no other movie like it. 

NEIL: It’s like Hitchcock making upstairs downstairs. 

ANDRES: I like that you made sure to watch the movie before we were going to record this episode to avoid a Game of Thrones situation. 

NEIL: The amount of grief I’ve gotten from friends and family around the world from that first episode has been insane.

ANDRES: You are, you’re like traumatized. It’s very funny. 

[Laughter]

HARRY: Well, actually then Neil, I guess to redeem yourself, can you give us the plot in a couple of sentences? 

NEIL: So Parasite focuses on two very different families in Seoul. One family, is it the Kims? Who are lower class, scraping to get by, and this incredibly wealthy family, The Parks. And the young, the son of the Kims kind of infiltrates that family by posing as an English teacher and then through a bizarre farcical recommendation sequence, which is brilliant, in the film, they ended up hiring the whole family. But at about an hour in, it turns into something else completely.

HARRY: The emblems basically of the two houses is one of the most important things – the Kims live in this like squalid semi underground apartment, which they call in Korean, it’s called a Banjiha. And they actually exist in Seoul. I mean, not all of them are that kind of horrible. 

NEIL: The opening of Parasite is the kids trying to get Wifi connection in, in their house, and they work out the only way, the only place they can get it is right by the toilet.

ANDRES: It’s like on a shelf on a shelf. That detail, that detail was fantastic because it says so much about the relationship to technology, the relationship to your phones, but also what it means to live in a banjiha.

Yeah. It’s the kind of Seoul you never think about. 

HARRY: Yeah. So Paul, who we just heard from, he actually lives in a banjiha. Yeah. I mean, and he explained to me it’s a pretty normal thing to do and it’s a pretty cheap way of living in a big, very expensive city. So when we were talking about it before, we were saying, Oh, what’s Seoul like – it’s LED lit, it’s high rise, and the banjihas feel like the perfect emblem of the other side of Seoul. 

PAUL: So, first of all, the word banjiha literally means half basement or sub basement. So it’s not quite fully basement. Um, your windows will probably be just about on ground level. 

HARRY: Banjihas give off a serious bunker vibe.

That’s what they were originally made to be. A place for people in Seoul to hide from North Korean attack, they’re the perfect visual representation of Seoul’s underground. 

PAUL: They’ve been quite depressing and sometimes dangerous. The first one I lived in, um, there were big, heavy rains in the monsoon season. We had some kind of pipe burst or some kind of overflow, and at one point during the monsoon season, like in the movie, we were bailing water. 

I think one thing they did get right was the smell. One big plot point in the movie is that Mr. Kim, the father of the family has this, this banjiha smell, this smell of mold. And um, mustiness and a lot of those banjihas do have that. It doesn’t mean you necessarily carry it with you, but you get used to living in this sort of, half damp, moldy atmosphere. I could smell that in my nostrils when he said that line.

HARRY: Parasite stands out as a piece of South Korean popular culture, which talks about reality. It’s something you won’t hear anything about in K-pop, which prefers crayons and rainbows. But why?  Music and art always been linked with protest. And that used to be true in Korea too. Music played a big part when the country became a democracy in the late eighties with singers like Kim Kwang-seok leading the student protests from the front.

So what happened in the meantime? There must be something about South Korea that explains why it’s the most popular form of artistic expression, music, lost its protesting streak and evolved into the cultural equivalent of bubblegum. 

JOHN: K-pop represents what South Koreans think is the coolest, the best, the most attractive part of themselves. South Korean culture. 

HARRY: That’s John Lie, a Korean American, who is a professor of social theory at Berkeley. Now, that might not sound like the most obvious profession for a K-pop fanboy, but trust me, he knows what he’s talking about. I chatted to him over the phone while he was in Tokyo, about his book on Korean culture’s meteoric rise. It’s basically a Hallyu Bible. We’ll link it to you in the show notes. 

JOHN: I mean, to give you a sense of how proud South Koreans are, when President Moon of South Korea greeted Donald Trump when he came to visit South Korea, the person they trotted out that Moon administration, to greet Trump and his wife was not what you might expect.

You know, a Confucian scholar. A traditional music, but a Kpop group. But the irony of course, is that there’s nothing very Korean about them. 

HARRY: John says that Korean culture is in a kind of crisis, that there’s an emptiness about what it means to be Korean. That it’s people confuse what the country used to be with what it is now. But what did South Korea used to be? There were decades of poverty under the dictator Park Chung-hee, until he got assassinated in 1979.

And before that there was the Korean war in the fifties which partitioned the North and South.

And before that, there was 40 years of brutal Japanese colonial rule and the carnage of World War Two.

And before that, hundreds of years of Chinese influence. Now that’s a lot of turbulence.

Korea spent so much time being rude by someone else, it never had a chance to fully develop its own identity. So all of a sudden, in the early nineties when the country became a democracy, there was basically a clean slate on which the country was able to construct a brand new culture. The culture they chose was distinctly American.

JOHN: You know, one of the conditions that made K-pop possible is precisely that you were able to effectively erase all that happened in Korea or South Korea until 1980s. 

HARRY: Everything in Korea changed in the nineties. The country fully embraced the West. It was a fresh start.

And for young Koreans, the soundtrack was American hip hop and R&B. The song you’re listening to right now is by the first artist to put a Korean spin on those genres. His name is Seo Taiji, and he started a youth culture revolution in Seoul, which evolved into the K-pop craze. He sounds like a Korean Vanilla Ice.

This is his breakout track. I know.

[song playing]

But that came out in 1992. Things would soon change at a rapid pace. 

The South Korean government saw how popular this kind of music was becoming in the nineties and so they jumped on board the K-pop gravy train to help shore up their own finances and improve their global image. 

They pumped bucket loads of cash into the industry and the K-poppers did not waste a penny.

Over the next few years, the industry meticulously came up with a winning musical blueprint that all the groups followed. It was highly manufactured, designed to mimic the red hot trends of the U S and Japan. John calls it the K-pop formula.

JOHN: The current kind of permutation of Kpop really began in mid to late 1990s. I mean, that’s when the leading entertainment agencies who produced them, were essentially copycat groups of U S and Japanese idol boy groups and the girl groups. But that’s when they begin to formulate a very successful formula.

HARRY: The K-pop formula is like the Backstreet Boys on steroids – massive groups, all of the same gender, six packs for the fellows, long legs for the ladies, and blemish free skin all round. 

Once this was perfected, which John reckons was about 2008, the industry saw no reason to change it. Pop groups in the West, now a relic of the nineties, remain the dominant style in Korea today.

Yes, it was originally a youth revolution, but K-pop is all about business and like in the rest of the country, exporting is vital because the entire Korean economic model is basically export or die. The government even put Korea-unique standards on anything and everything coming into the country. So whether it’s cars or mobile phones, Koreans will always go Korean.

These standards are also the key to K-pop perfection, and they are set by the three biggest entertainment agencies. YG, JYP and SM. These guys pull the strings and crack the whips of K-pop. 

JOHN: I mean, you know, so they’re very authoritarian in some ways, many ways. I mean, they really truly micromanage the star’s lives. Part of the formula is the two you undergo training for at least five years, sometimes as many as 10.

HARRY: K-pop is the cool side of Korean society, but it’s an odd, different kind of cool. In America, pop stars have an effortless aura. Most of the time they look like they don’t give a shit, but in K-pop, things look purposefully engineered. The music, the singing, the dancing, it’s all flawless, but only because the industry is run with an iron fist.

K-pop is really a kind of facade, a perfect picture of an Americanized Korean society. In a way, Parasite was the response to K-pop, washing away that perfection in a flood of reality. 

…..

HARRY: Ooh, get in deep on the Kpop there yeah. 

ANDRES: The thing about it that kind of sticks out is. How high the standard is at all levels.

Everything is so precisely tailored. I think actually more than comparing it to pop in the West, I would compare it more to like athletes – that have a very short window of time where they can perform. And you just milk them for what they’re worth, right. 

[Laughter]

NEIL: Pop breaks us all and the many are strong at the broken places.

That’s a bit of me in a bit of a Hemingway.

ANDRES: Now I’m having another, a very funny parallel, which is Tiger King. You know, tiger cub farms where it’s just like you make all your money on the tiger cubs, and then once they’re out of being cubs, you know – 

HARRY: You have to shoot them in the back of the head??

[Laughter]

ANDRES: I feel like the K-pop stars are like the tiger cubs. 

[Laughter]

NEIL: It’s weird, isn’t it? Like the machine is, is the same, you know, the American pop machine or the British pop machine certainly does the same thing. You know, casting, you can’t sing – don’t worry, we’ll get somebody who can 

No I get it.

And they’ve obviously got it because it’s, you know, it’s working,

HARRY:  Making a crazy amount of money. And making a lot of people super happy. I mean, you look at some of the fan groups for, for BTS, like the BTS Army. Hear so many stories of so many fans who, especially in the U S, who really found that sanctuary and K-pop.

NEIL: I know, you mean it’s like, I’m looking at it like the athletics comparison is like so true, but I think for the fans it’s sort of stopped becoming music and it’s become like cos-play. It’s almost like musical cosplay, you know? It’s got that same kind of draw. 

HARRY: It’s becoming mainstream. Like, you know, Black Pink, one of the biggest girl bands, are on the new Lady Gaga record.

You like BTS doing songs with Steve Aoki. Nicki Minaj. In the pop world, people are saying there is something kind of cool about BTS, about Black Pink, about EXO, about all these big K-pop bands. It’s that weird kind of, you know, ephemeral thing. Cool. How do you define it? But K-pop now has it, which is something pretty new and pretty different.

…..

HARRY: Things have come on a lot and K-pop since, so Taji they’ve even changed beyond recognition since Gangnam Style. BTS are literally the world’s biggest boy band right now. They’re even doing speeches at the UN.

The K-pop is are K-popping their way to big collabs with Western artists and something else is happening to young musicians from the US and Europe and are flocking to Seoul to get in on the act. 

In 2014 the world was introduced to the first ever all-American non-Asian K-pop boy band. E X P edition.

[Song playing]

Sounds like pretty standard K-pop, right? Well, it’s actually by four guys from the U S who didn’t speak a word of Korean, but went to Seoul to make it big. For the first time ever, pop stars aren’t leaving Seoul for Hollywood. They’re leaving Hollywood for Seoul. 

But this trend still didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me.

So I called up one of EXP Edition’s members, Koki Tomlinson.

KOKI: Hey man, how’s it going? 

HARRY: Koki is from Texas, the son, the Japanese and German parents, but he’s chatting to me from LA, where he lives now. 

KOKI: K-pop has always sought to expand beyond the borders of Korea, and there has been a rise in non-Asian foreigners in Kpop in the past couple of years.

HARRY:  When the EXP Edition guys first came together in 2014 that definitely wasn’t the case.

BTS were just getting going. Black Pink weren’t even a thing, and other than an underground fan base, the rest of the world hardly knew anything about K-pop. Neither did Koki, but he saw a K-pop theme casting in New York called, “I’m making a boy band” and decided to go for it.  But this wasn’t your average audition.

EXP Edition actually began their life as a thesis project at Columbia university. Grad student Bora Kim, wanted to put together a K-pop boy band to examine, amongst other things the roles of masculinity in the U S versus Asia. 

KOKI: One of the first times we ever got together, they, uh, we walked into the studio space and on the floor they had laid out this like, lush, um, sheepskin type rug, just like all over the floor.

And they just like, dress us up in these outfits and like, we’re like, okay, you’re going to do a photo shoot now. And like hug each other and roll around and like, it was like the most, it was the most bizarre experience for all of us because we had no idea what to expect going into the project. And then also it was something none of us had ever really done before.

HARRY: After the cuteness workshops and posing sessions that Bora had laid out for them, EXP EDITION started performing at art installations and studios in New York. That was until their story got picked up online and things became a little less academic.

KOKI: We started to realize that what we were doing was more serious than we initially thought like the first time we went viral. I think we had just a handful of images on our Instagram and no music out, just a handful of images and just the concept of us blew up on, I think like K-pop, Twitter or Instagram, and that kind of snowballed into this crazy viral sensation.

All that hype before they’d even recorded any music, the boys got straight in the studio and made some tracks, like this uplifting banger Feel Like This.

[song playing]

HARRY: They grew and grew, and before they knew it EXP Edition were leaving New York and off to Seoul.

KOKI: I think we only sort of fully realized that we’re moving to Korea when we were actually like moving to Korea. 

HARRY: And what did your friends think about the whole thing? Did they, did they know much about K-pop or Korea before you left? 

KOKI: No, absolutely not. No. So many people had no idea about K-pop.

[Laughing]

And we actually ended up introducing a lot of our friends to it through what we were doing. And we actually had one guy who was a mentor to us, who when we were going, he was telling us to pack like energy bars and “we don’t know what kind of food they have there”. It’s like Korea is, it’s not like it’s not a third world country or even a developing country.

[Laughing] 

Like it was just kind of amusing that that sort of perception of Korea still existed.

HARRY: When EXP Edition went viral, it wasn’t just for their tunes and their non-Asian look, they found themselves caught up in the middle of a controversy on two continents. They were accused of cultural appropriation in America…

And they were considered a gimmick in parts of Korea too. Luckily for Kochi, not everyone in Seoul was so harsh. 

KOKI: In Korea, they used this word [sounds like: shinjihada], which means to be like new and refreshing and, and a lot of people thought what we were doing was fascinating and interesting because it was so different.

Nobody had done what we were doing.

HARRY: In order to be successful in K-pop, Kochi had to work and work really hard. EXP Edition were putting in grueling 12 to 15 hour days training in the studio, and when they got home, it was Korean language lessons and singing lessons all evening. And the consequences of this relentless work ethic and the constant scrutiny that goes along with it can be truly shocking.

[Audio from Korean News]

But all of this goes way beyond K-pop. The issues within the music industry just shine a light on issues in Korean society. Work and study culture in much of Asia is nonstop – 24 seven. In Korea specifically, kids grow up with the pressure of passing a never ending succession of exams and tests and the tough. 

CRYSTAL: I think there’s more of an emphasis on the amount of time that you put into your work as opposed to productivity, perhaps. You are expected to kind of stick around and work at your desk until at least your boss goes home, which, um, can sometimes feel like never.

HARRY: That’s Crystal Tai. She’s a Chinese Canadian journalist who lived in Seoul for years, writing about lifestyle trends in the city. 

Despite the stress it causes careers drive for achievement is the reason why it’s such a success story. South Korea was Bloomberg’s most innovative economy for six years straight and being ranked the EEOC’s third hardest working country is a big part of what put them there. But with the global economy as it is today, there is a new generation of Koreans who are working as hard as their parents, if not harder, but with lower salaries and worse jobs, and for some young Koreans, this is all becoming too much.

They are now starting to push back against the pressure to be perfect. It’s become a movement and it’s called Honjok.

CRYSTAL: So Honjok as a term, it basically means tribe of one in, in Korean. Honjok is like a solo lifestyle movement where people live alone and they enjoy going out, um, or staying home and participating in one person or single person activities. 

HARRY: Young Koreans have decided to go it alone. They’re choosing to live life for themselves and by themselves. Crystal’s writing a book about it, released later this year. 

CRYSTAL: I think that people sometimes use it tongue in cheek to describe the activities that they’re engaging in. Like, Oh, I’m going to see a movie tonight alone. I’m Honjok. But then there’s also the very like actual people who live like alone and yeah, those people do tend to be judged by society.

HARRY: Korea is generally considered to be a pretty collectivist society, which means that very traditional family structures and societal rows have maintained into the modern day. Honjok is a real break with this norm. 

CRYSTAL: In Korea, it’s actually really hard to dine out alone. I had a friend who came to South Korea three years ago and she went to like this famous seafood slash barbecue restaurant to have dinner alone. And she was just sitting there enjoying her crab stew and like the table next to her, I think they tapped her on the shoulder and they were like, what are you doing? You know, you look so weird eating by herself right now. People are taking pictures of you. You shouldn’t do that next time. And she was like, what the hell? 

HARRY: More and more these days Honjok is going mainstream. There are now a bunch of places in Seoul which welcome you to Hon-bap, which means eat alone. And other joint, you can drown your sorrows and Honsul – drink alone. Honjok is a new chapter in the story of Seoul, it’s one that sees young Koreans put the middle finger up at a society which demands constant perfection. 

CRYSTAL: There has been a bit of backlash against the beauty standards and the behavioral norms that like some people feel that K-pop has set upon like young women in Korean society. As for Honjok, I think it’s more reactionary against like the lack of economic opportunity or job opportunities and social mobility within South Korean society. Yeah, it’s, it’s impossible to be perfect in every single way.

…..

NEIL: This idea I thought it was really amazing of them being this kind of very collective, very. peer-obsessed culture that it was, it was a bad thing to go and have dinner by yourself or, you know, I love, I love a good Honjok. I just thought it was, it was, I thought it was a really nice way to kind of tie up, almost like a revolution of individualism.

HARRY: And I think like Parasite, it feels so opposed to the kind of ideals that are, that K-pop puts forward. So Kpop’s big groups. It’s perfect. It’s amazing production value. And then something like Honjok is so opposite as young Koreans, you know, reveling in this idea that you don’t have to be perfect. You can go and do things by yourself, which would normally mean that most of Korean society kind of looks down on you.

But it’s a movement, which is saying, no, we can do what we want, which I thought was pretty interesting and powerful. 

NEIL: It’s great. You can dance by yourself. Just ask Andres. 

ANDRES: As I do often now. I mean, the coolest thing that. I think you managed to do, Harry, was to draw this line between Parasite and BTS.

Like that’s a very cool way to look at a place. 

HARRY: You know, when Korea became a modern country in the nineties K-pop immediately became, it’s like standard bearer. It represents the good sides, but also the bad sides. Like the success and amazing innovation and high standards in Seoul, but then also the stuff which comes alongside that –

ANDRES: And we’re definitely at some sort of crossroads now where K-pop has to evolve or continue to evolve, if it’s going to survive and there’s going to have to be a kind of reckoning with this darkness.

NEIL: It needs a, it needs like a [singing] Cry Me A River. 

[Laughter]

ANDRES: Precisely Neil. That’s exactly what K-pop needs.

…..

NEIL: This week’s pins are your guide to the real K-pop experience in Seoul.

ANDRES: Number one is Gangnam, Seoul’s glitziest K-pop neighborhood. Take a selfie doing the pony dance in front of the Psy hand statue or visit the Gangnam style monument. That’s a monument. Near Gangnam station. 

NEIL: Number two. So you’re in Seoul and Psy’s not playing. No problem. Head down the road to Gangnam, to a K-pop hologram concert at SM Town and pretend that you’re seeing the real thing.

Boom. 

ANDRES: Number three, live like a hardcore sasaeng fan, and if you’re patient, you can loiter outside one of the big entertainment agencies, buildings and stalk K-pop idols, or you can get proper cuckoo and higher sasaeng taxi to sock your idol around all day as they go about their business. Yes, these are real things and know they’re probably not a hundred percent legal, so you know, do it at your own risk.

NEIL: Stalking your idol can make you hungry. So when to get some Korean barbecue by yourself, honjok style and why not make it Ossu Seiromushi, owned by BTS’s very own Jin. Swoon. They serve traditional seiro-mushi style steamed meats and vegetables, but the octopus is the dish to go for and now I’m very hungry.

ANDRES: Number five. You can’t leave Seoul without doing K-pop karaoke. I mean, come on. So visit Hongdae, Seoul’s hippest of neighborhoods, filled with students clubs and bars for night at the Norabaengs, Koreans favorite karaoke rooms, where you can soulfully destroy the K-pop songs you love. 

NEIL: Thanks for listening to Passport guys.

Next week we are off to Scotland, kind of. Join us for our very first MisInfoNation. You want to find out what that is? We’ll see you on Tuesday.

Bye.

Episodes

Episode 38: Australia – Part 2: Asteroids and the Outback

For every Celestial Emu there’s a planet-killing space rock on an inevitable path towards earth. In our season 1 finale, Passport producers Jennifer Carr and Andrés Bartos head back Down Under to talk about asteroids, the scars they leave, and the stories they’ve created.

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Episode 32: India: Love on the Rails

This week, Passport is taking a journey on the Indian Railway. These train cars are a moving microcosm of India, and the inspiration behind some of the country’s greatest love stories – on the Bollywood screen and in real life.

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Episode 29: Passport Goes to the Polls

As the US goes to the polls, Passport goes there too. But not to America. Take a break from the anxiety and divisiveness of the US election with two stories that show the true, positive, power of democracy across the globe.

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1 Comment

  1. Connie Meeks

    Such an interesting podcast. I love all of the back stories. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s podcast!

    Reply

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.