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The Land of K-pop / A Metal Wasteland

by Baz Gar.Funk'el:

“I have a legitimate beef with K-pop.”

That was actually the first thought that came to mind when I was offered to write for Flapper Press.

Even if you haven’t read my first article “Corporate Slave by Day, Hard Rocking ************ by Night”, you can probably tell from the titles that I write and/or perform in some form of musical entity (four bands to be exact) while attempting to manage my career at some corporation (which happens to be a Korean conglomerate). As a Korean who is passionate about all types of music, I should be proud of K-pop putting my country on the global musical map; and I am . . . to a certain extent.

Of course, the “K” stands for Korean, and obviously it is not that I am not a fan of Korean (popular) music as a whole. When K-pop became a global phenomenon, most of it revolved around manufactured idol boy/girl dance groups. My beef is not because I dislike that particular style of music. (If there is something I am certainly not a fan of, it is being a so-called elitist of a certain genre.) Neither is my beef because I think K-pop sucks. (I mean, it kind of does, sometimes. . . . OK, most of the time). On top of that, I’m even semi-willing to give it a pass on how it can get so “genuinely fake,” enough to make any serious music lover cringe.

Remember the good old days when you had to make it big on the radio first to make it to television? The days when the music itself was front and center above all else? The days when Elvis first came on the radio with his Country-fied rendition of the Blues classic “It’s Alright” (some listeners actually thought he was black, so interviews had him mention which high school he went to just to clarify)? Ok, I don’t remember those days either because I was only born half a year before The King himself passed away. I just know this through some research I was doing for an article I was writing for Views magazine over here in Korea. But one can still dream, right?

Dream as we might, the current media format will never allow us to go back to those days. I am not disregarding the importance of visuals. Just that it hurts to see music taking a back seat sometimes. But that’s not the main reason behind my issue with K-pop either.

Back in the late 90’s, there was a resurgence in a second wave of Korean hard rock and heavy metal bands. I remember a particular event in 1997 featuring some established/some up-and-coming acts, mainly as an introduction to this type of music for people who were either craving it but had limited access by being in Korea, or just had no clue what Metal was. There I was, a Metal fan and yet-to-be-artist (my first band was in 1998), about to witness an event providing bands with much-needed exposure to metalheads and soon-to-be metalheads. The show was rather haphazardly put together, each band only given three songs per set, not enough time for proper sound checks in between set-ups and seriously lacking in good-quality engineers for this type of music. But none of that mattered. We were presented with a variety of live music ranging from rock, punk, and grunge to thrash metal, death metal, and black metal equipped with leather, spikes, corpse paint—the whole nine yards.

At that exact moment, around the late ‘90’s, the first K-pop movement as we know it was about to go corporate—and corporate it went. Granted, the initial K-pop artists and companies did not start off with a silver spoon up their rear ends. I acknowledge and totally respect how they fought their way to get where they are. It is just that every manufactured material that followed, while contributing to the growth of K-pop, ended up shutting down all channels for any other form of music. Obviously, it is not K-pop’s fault on its own, so I am referring to the movement as a whole, not the just the artists or companies. We were so close to creating a platform on which diverse live music may thrive only for K-pop to come kill the possibility of underground music seeing the light of day.

Among all the bands that performed at that show, to my knowledge, only two are still active. CRASH, who was at the forefront of the 2nd generation of Metal bands and was already an established act (people who are into the likes of Slayer, Sepultura, Machinehead, Fear Factory, etc.,—check ‘em out!). The other band, I won’t mention in name since I’m not about to say anything good—let’s just say that they stuck out at that show as the band with the least talent among the whole line-up. Besides these two, all the rest are gone, disbanded, disintegrated, kaput.


However, if K-pop had a hand in disintegrating the second wave of Korean underground music, what about the first generation of rock bands? Korea does have a number of quite popular domestic bands that are legends in their own right. Guess what happened? Most of the record companies took away the lead singers and repackaged them to sing cheesy love ballads. Bands that did remain intact maintained their cult status but seriously lacked mainstream recognition.

As such, the struggle of underground music is an ongoing process. K-pop just happened at the moment the scene was about to make a revival. These consequences are embodied in the expression that musicians and fans alike use when referring to our country in terms of music: a “Metal Wasteland”—a land in which heavy metal music is virtually non-existent.

To understand how all this came to be, it might help to take a look at Korea’s economic structure and growth. The Korean economy is spearheaded by a handful of family-run conglomerates focused on long-term growth rather than short-term financial performances (the vision that allowed us to quickly overcome the aftermath of the Korean War). Most of these companies are based on manufacturing, in which speed and efficiency is key. Naturally, a top-down culture was established. Unfortunately, after the global economic crises of the past few decades, many businesses, including conglomerates, went bankrupt, leaving mostly just the large corporations still standing. The employment rate for the younger population is at an all-time low, not due to a shortage of jobs, but because everyone wants to start off at a larger organization in hopes of a more stable future. This is understandable as the option of jumping from a small company to a big one has become virtually impossible.

This economic structure enabled Korea’s rapid growth, but has not been without its side-effects, one of them being the oppression of diversity. While diversity does exist, it doesn’t help that Korea’s population, currently at 51 million, is far from sufficient in order for each subculture to reach the critical mass that generates sustainability. (From this perspective, reunification with North Korea isn’t only about peace).

As a Korean citizen, I feel that it is natural to be both proud of my country and yet hope for positive change at the same time. Likewise, as a musician, I am genuinely happy that Korean popular music is gaining recognition globally. But I do lament how the world is only being exposed to one side of the big picture, while domestically, we continue to lose diversity as a mainstream form of art. And K-pop just happens to remind us of our country’s negative aspects that we are struggling so hard to overcome.

Regardless, struggling comes with the territory of being underground. Struggle is the fuel that feeds our fire. K-pop in itself may not to blame, and neither do they deserve it. But they sure make a worthy target.

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