A brief history of Kpop

Today’s bright bubblegum Kpop actually stems from one of the darkest chapters in history! It’s a 50 year tale of censorship, hardship and evolution. How one country went from near destruction to world pop culture domination in half a century.

Right now Kpop is taking over the world. It’s practically inescapable; with catchy ear worms, insane dance routines and the constant presence of BTS at every talk show/award’s do going. But Kpop isn’t new! In fact this isn’t even the first international Korean music invasion.

Believe me when I say, the history behind this dazzlingly bright pop is fascinating; stemming from one of the darkest chapters in Korea’s history and revolving around censorship, cultural evolution and hybridisation. Mostly it’s a story of people and whether you love Kpop or haven’t ever heard it, it’s really bloody interesting.

So then what (I hear you ask) is the historic starting point for Kpop? 

….The Korean War. 

Yes, I swear there is a link between this and war, just bear with me

Once part of the Japanese empire, Korea fell into the lap of the allies after WW2. The country was divided, literally. A split was drawn down its peninsula (dubbed, the 38th parallel) with South Korea handed to America and North Korea going to the Soviet Union.

Now as a rule, splitting countries in half and sharing them between two powers with huge ideological differences never goes well. And -surprise- it didn’t go well.

By the 1950s both sides had formed their own rulings, the South under an anti-communist government and the North under the communist dictator, Kim Il Sung.

Obviously neither side were happy just having power in their designated area. They wanted all of Korea.

That right there is a recipe for disaster! Add into this the little fact that the world was in the midst of The Cold War and you’re set for some grade A clusterfuckery.

And so in June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea.

It was the first military invasion of The Cold War and it had happened on what was essentially US turf. America was both angry and petrified that if the South fell, it could only be a matter of time before communism went global.

This powder keg of ideology, policy and fear exploded into one of the most brutal and bloody wars in living memory.

A child in the rubble during America’s fight to win Incheon back from North Korea in 1953

Peace negotiations were sporadic but by 1953 a stalemate was reached… and 5 million people were dead. Half of those were civilians.

Within the space of three years, 10% of the population were dead and millions of families were separated through the North South divide. Not to mention that South Korea’s economy was heading to ruin and the country was depending heavily on foreign aid.

South Korea was a country crippled.

Still, the Americans stuck around South Korea after the war and with their ongoing presence came a sudden boom in western ideals.

Throughout the 1950s, there was rapid urbanisation, fights for women’s rights, a complete overall from extended to nuclear family and more importantly (Where this piece is concerned) an influx of American culture.

The likes of Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong performed at GI camps, bringing homesick soldiers a slice of Americana. But Marilyn couldn’t always be on speed dial; other acts were needed.

So South Korean entertainers stepped up. And in this uncertain economy, they were more than happy to try out something new for a paid gig.

Enter The Kim Sisters!

The hair, the sheer enthusiasm, the xylophone, its everything

The Kim Sisters were a heady mix of The Andrew Sisters and The Supremes and were an immediate hit with American soldiers. So much so that in the 1960s they became a break out hit in America!

The sisters were the first South Korean act to release music in the US (reaching no7 on Billboard) were a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show, all in addition to performing across the US.

South Korea also fell for The Kim sisters and with them came an increase in Americanised groups and the Korea/USA infused rock genre ‘Trot’.

As the 1960s continued, this new type of music boomed, along with the rapid rise in westernisation.

American influences were seeping more and more into the everyday. Helping to further set South Korea apart from the North.

BUT this was an enormous change happening in a startlingly short time span.

Suddenly two very different cultures were being melded together. Capitalism and commercialism were being placed alongside traditional Korean values and the still over arcing influence on the country of Confucianism.

It was a huge cultural shift and one that was being explored by this new hybridised music.

Artists reflected their own experiences in their work e.g The Pearl Sisters sang about going to coffee shops and wore short skirts, whilst Korean rock band, Add4 acted as South Korea’s answer to Beatlemania. These groups were mixing tradition and western influence and in doing so defining an era that would become looked to as one South Korea’s golden ages for music.

The Pearl Sisters

But then the new culture wave crashed.

In 1963 Park Chung -Hee was elected president of South Korea. A former military leader, two years earlier he had ousted the previous government (known as The Second Republic) in a military coup. Now president (of the The Third Republic) he oversaw massive economic growth (hooray!), but a huge human cost (yeah, not so great)

Park Chung-Hee was a military man through and through, and this guy and some serious concerns about the sudden shift in South Korea’s culture.

Now, Park Chung-Hee was technically running a democracy, but he did so with an iron fist. His opponents were dealt with harshly, he enforced rapid modernisation of rural areas (so they’d seem less ‘backwards’) and rounded up South Korea’s homeless, putting them in camps for free labour. So it’s unsurprising that Park Chung-Hee planned to deal with the new culture in the same brute force way.

And so in a bid to promote Korean traditionalism, Park Chung-Hee vowed to stamp out new culture, honing in on this new type of hybridised music as a key area to be quashed.

Park Chung-Hee, bringing all the fun

In 1975 he dealt musical freedom of speech a huge blow with the the enactment of Emergency Measure Number 9, which included the horrifically named ‘The Purification of Popular Music Measures.’

Hundreds of songs were banned, dubbed as ‘unhealthy’ to the populace. ‘Decadent’ foreign music by the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Black Sabbath we’re out, but worryingly so were hundreds of songs by South Korean artists.

Anything that could be deemed counter culture, risqué or clearly influenced by the West was under severe scrutiny.

Radio stations saw their allotted time for foreign and hybrid music drastically cut. And the penalty for defying the ban was to be stripped of your entertainment career.

The golden age of hybridised Korean and western music was over.

Park Chunghee said of this cultural cull:

‘Good influences we must retain, but bad ones we must reject, and reject at their very inception,”

With most of this new music banned, Park Chung-Hee double downed; arresting young people who sported Americanised long hair; having their heads shaved on the spot.

Then to fill the void of ‘subversive’ ‘unhealthy’ sound, Park Chunghee came up with ‘healthy music’.

If you couldn’t guess by it’s name. Healthy music sucked.

Several ‘healthy’ songs were written by Park Chung Hee himself, focusing on the glory of South Korea and just how bloody amazing his government was. And what they lacked in musicality they made up for in snappy titles, like ‘My Homeland’ and of course, who could forget everyone’s favourite, ‘New Village Song’.

These songs were everywhere. Seriously you couldn’t move for the government approved ‘New Village Song’ being blasted at you.

But then in late 1979 everything changed when Park Chung Hee was shot and killed by his friend (and director of his intelligence agency) Kim Jae-Gyu.

It’s unlikely that the assassination was pre-planned and it left the country in mass upheaval.

But one good thing came out of all this political turmoil, nobody was watching the purification of popular music measure and it sort of disappeared….

And so as 1980 dawned it looked like South Korean culturally infused musical golden age was now free once more to repeat itself.

Except it didn’t

Park Chung-Hee had (no matter else he’d done) totally turned around the countries economy and global standing, his absence left a massive hole.

And as such the 1980s provided yet anouther huge period of governmental upheaval, which in turn led to the continuation of Korean pop music being censored.

But it wasn’t all bad.As South Korea started to settle into what would prove to be a lasting democracy, mass media was born.

Suddenly radio and TV weren’t regionalised but rolled out on a national scale. Music was becoming liberalised once more and Korean ballad and trot singers enjoyed immense popularity.

Then came colour TV and with it music programming. Something the entire nation could watch all together. This soon became the main way for South Koreans to consume music. Not so much video killed the radio star, as video starting life as the mass medium!

By the 1990s the stage was set for something entirely new.

Enter Seo Taiji and Boys

Awww it’s like the 90’s had a baby with itself

The trio of rappers, dancers and singers *phew!* performed their self penned song Nan Arayo” (난 알아요, I Know) on South Korea’s leading talent show in 1992.

Not only did they break the TV produced talent mould by writing and choreographing their performance, they were one of the first acts in years to once more combine westernised music with South Korean styles.

It was like The Kim Sisters all over again, but half a decade later and with baggy pants.

Sadly the shows jury didn’t get it… and Seo Taiji and Boys were awarded the lowest score possible.

BUT the South Korean public didn’t care about the jury’s votes. 

People loved Seo Taiji and Boys. They were new and exciting and soon they blew up in a big way.

With their increased fame, the group continued playing with culture and genre, their later songs fusing Korean folk music with metal, creating a South Korean take on Gangsta rap and even using rock to discuss the idea of north south unification.

Off the back of this success, music agencies started to pop up all over Seoul (including YG Entertainment founded by Seo Taiji and Boys member, Yang HyanSuk) looking to create their own fortune making cultural phenomena.

Polished dance and hip hop groups dominated the charts. Each creating its own almost hysterically obsessed fandom. From rappers 1TYM to the fantastically 90s bubble gum boy group, H.O.T.

Business was so good that by 1998 the South Korean government wanted in and formed a team that sat within its Ministry of Culture and Tourism department. Solely dedicated to this new fangeled Kpop trend.

Promo pic of H.O.T working Sesame Street ski wear

Around the same time as the Kpop government team was set up, Asia underwent a financial crisis. To survive the South Korean kpop industry would need to look beyond it’s boarders.

So in 1997 H.O.T released their first Chinese album to a fantastic reception. And music agencies started to train their artists to not only sing in other languages but to speak them too.

With SM Entertainment going so far as to hire Japanese vocal trainers and instructors to make their young female singer, BoA appear native to both countries.

By the turn of the millennium the tide of South Korean culture breaking into markets across Asia was dubbed ‘The Korean Wave’ or ‘Hallyu’.

But Kpop had become a lot more important than just selling records. There was a reason it had a governmental team!

Kpop was to be key in how South Korea would re position themselves on the global stage.

Using it was a way to consolidate their ‘soft power’. What is soft power you ask? Well much like America had once used glossy Hollywood pictures, Coca-Cola and jeans to attract international attention to it’s policy and alliance. That’s what South Korea were about to do with Kpop.

It’s the circle of cultural politics!

And that brings us up to today. South Korea have officially ridden that Hallyu wave all the way to the top. Positioning themselves as a global leader in the exportation of pop culture.

From a country that 66 years ago was on its knees to one whose unique hybridised culture is EVERYWHERE.

It’s not to shabby a leap and a huge part of that success is from the sparkly, happy clappy but always overcoming music of kpop.

Further Reading: You can learn more about the in depth history of Korea’s musical evolution in Made in Korea: Studies in popular music. For the economically minded, check out here for a fascinating deep dive into its post war economy. And click here for a great paper on South Korea’s cultural identity.

More great stuff likes this

%d bloggers like this: