KPOP’s Glorious Antecedent

I was researching Korean Trot music yesterday—an older genre wholly unknown to outsiders, but probably very similar to music produced in China and Japan in the more innocent times of famine and colonization in the early 20th century—and discovered this gem, “My Boyfriend Is A Musician”, proving once and for all that professional musicians with real instruments can do no wrong (a fact unknown to the makers of KPOP), even if it does sound a lot like more famous western tunes from that era, including a paradigmatic moment in cinema, coming almost a decade before this pop song was recorded, when Charlie Chaplin opened his mouth.

There is another important fact here: for most of us foreigners, Trot, or tuh-lo-tuh, is another word for the weird ajoshi music we hear pulsating out of the stalls of tape deck vendors who can usually be found in the most crowded areas of Korea after the sun goes down. There were at least two I would run into if I happened to venture out into that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Sasang, in Busan—one outside the Homeplus, and another between the subway station and the train station, by the street lined with as many flashy singing rooms as can possibly be packed into a few hundred square feet—it was also the backup beat to a rather thrilling shoe-weaving contest at the Gupo Market, involving men dressed like medieval nobles—and when I heard this music, which seemed only one step removed from dancing along to a synthesized jackhammer, I dismissed it as quickly as possible as being yet another exhibit in the Korean Museum of the Bizarre, which is a feature of my upcoming novel.

One of the best lines I’ve ever read comes from a review of a new collection of William Gibson’s essays called Distrust That Particular Flavor, where the author may have written that “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” The same can just as easily be said of the past, even the ancient past, whose software has not yet been completely updated, and this trot music is an example of that. I don’t think there’s a single young Korean in Korea who would be caught dead listening to this stuff alone although singing it in groups at the nearest norae-bang is another matter, and even the medium (cassette tapes) is as antiquated as a gramophone, but the older generations don’t seem so into KPOP either, and if you hang around my Korean father-in-law for an hour or two you’ll hear him break out into lyrics that were written back when Korea was the first step the Japanese needed to take if they wanted to have China to themselves.

The younger generation doesn’t listen to this stuff, but everyone knows it, for one reason or another. I once found myself on a tour bus stuck in traffic for several hours on the new bridge to Geoje Island, which was jammed up, as a friendly gyopo from New York whom I dearly miss explained, because older Koreans were still proud of what their country had accomplished, and were not yet used to the sight of spectacular steel bridges spearing the mountains of gray rock that rise up from the sea in those parts—we, the teachers of the finest elementary school in all of Northwestern Busan, were stuck with nothing to do but sing, and so the bus swayed back and forth as one trot song after another poured out of the heart of each individual teacher, spilling into a tongue-lashed microphone, and then blasting our ears. “They’re all old songs,” my friend explained, confusion knotting her face, implying with her tone and her looks that there was a bit of old fashioned Confucianism going into the selection of each tune.

Imbued with the liberty of the West, I disappointed everyone by refusing approximately five times to partake in the festivities, but it’s more fun to sing some trot with my father-in-law, whose voice is good enough for professional work (in my opinion, though his bizarre Mokpo-Gyeongsang accent is so strong that it might as well be its own language), and before writing this post I fantasized about teaching My Boyfriend Is A Musician to my little son, and getting him to sing and dance (with modified lyrics…) to my guitar-playing, for all the eyes on youtube.

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