Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can't Get An Happy End?

The grammatical error in the title is deliberate. You'll see why.

Late in the 1990s a Korean friend and I went to Chicago together, and as usual we went to a Korean bookstore on North Lincoln that also sold cosmetics, CDs and DVDs. My friend found a new CD by Seo Taiji and Boys, a farewell / greatest hits album, and bought it excitedly. I was just beginning to explore Korean pop at the time, so I had no idea why this album was an event. My friend explained that Seo Taiji had singlehandedly changed the face of Korean popular music by introducing rap, alternative, and metal elements that had never been used so well before -- and now, at the age of 24, he had disbanded the group and announced his retirement. We played the CD in the car as we drove around the city, and I was amazed by it. I believe we went back to the store before we left Chicago so I could buy a copy of my own.

Seo Taiji's retirement, like that of many stars, turned out to be exaggerated. Within a year or two he'd begun releasing music again as a solo artist, and a few years later he was performing. The Boys were even resurrected. I bought a few of his solo CDs, which were masterful but limited in range, and lost interest in Taiji for awhile, in favor of more accessible acts. Until I began looking for his videos on Youtube, that is.

Here's an amazing clip of his first performance on TV with the Boys, in 1992. The program was a showcase for new talent, and the mostly older, more sedate judges couldn't appreciate what he was doing. The song, "Nan Arayo" (my Korean is minimal, but I believe it means "I know"), became a huge hit. Taiji was 19 or 20 at the time (depending on which birth date I've seen is correct, and on whether you reckon age Korean or American style), and had been performing for several years already, but the authority of this performance, the tight and skillful dancing, knocks me out. (They're lipsynching of course.) In all the closeups, though, he seems detached from what he's doing; that could just be me misreading his concentration, but I don't think so. It's certainly a mark of his confidence that he didn't feel the need to put on a stage smile.

(There's a live version, made years later in a different style, here, and as a mark of what an institution Seo Taiji has become, here's a clip of three new Korean pop stars performing the song on TV.)

This song, "Hayoga," is another lipsynched TV performance from a year later:

My friend told me, the day he instroduced me to Taiji's music, about the song "Please Come Home," which implores runaway Korean kids to return to their parents, assuring them of a welcome. Yes, even (or especially?) in traditional Confucian cultures, kids run away from home. This music video seems less optimistic than that. Notice Taiji's new look.

Finally, here's a recent song, "Heffy End." There's no 'f' sound in Korean, so the same letter in hangul, the Korean alphabet, does double duty for English "p" and English "f"; so, the title is an ironic, even sneering "Happy End." (There's also a famous Korean film, released in 1999, with the same English title, and it's just as double-edged.) It's a pretentious video, with a long introduction; the music doesn't start for about 2 minutes. You can see an excellent live version of the song itself here, performed in Vladivostok.) The final line of the song is, in English, "I can't get an happy end."

The more I listen to this song, the less impressed I am by it. Taiji seems to be running out of musical ideas. Ever heard the proverb that the immature artist borrows, the mature artist steals? Seo Taiji has always stolen musical ideas and melodic bits -- there's a song on the Goodbye CD that I'd swear is an entire American alt/metal song sung in Korean (by Nirvana, maybe?). But "Heffy End" sounds like the kind of stuff Hollywood puts on the soundtracks of its current "youth" movies. It also sounds too much like Seo Taiji's earliest solo work, which was so uninventive that I stopped listening to him.

The video also seems creepily cynical in its invocation of horror/slasher films. I think it's mildly (or not so mildly) misogynistic, with the Lecter-like killer guarded and served by a pretty young girl, whose prisoner he may or may not be. Watching it, I was reminded at how many young men I've known seem to see themselves as warped at the core. (And young women too -- the problem doesn't have a gender, but young women express it differently, by hurting themselves with cutting and burning.) This video and so many others pander to, and perhaps encourage that feeling. There are plenty of facile social-science explanations of why this might be so, and I'm wary of accepting any of them. But it must be painful to live with that feeling. I don't think it's just generational, but I think it has become more widespread, and taken for granted, since I was a teenager. This is something I want to think about some more.

Meanwhile, you can hear more of Seo Taiji's recent music at this unofficial MySpace page. The song "Moai" is gorgeous; maybe he hasn't run out of ideas after all. He's definitely talented, and worth looking into.