I don't know much about South Korea. I know the North far better -- that grotesque Stalinist nightmare, where the government is serious when it says, "Let's trim our hair according to Socialist lifestyle!" but as for the southern half, I'm pretty ill informed. I know that America fought a war there, and that our war effort was greatly aided by two wisecracking surgeons who weren't afraid to show their sensitive sides. I know that Koreans like to eat kimchi, and that their pugnacious, hard-drinking ways have earned them the designation as "the Irish of the East."
Not much, you see, and that ignorance offers a rare opportunity. Thanks to the International Channel, I could flip the tables on the millions of foreigners who learn all about America from MTV by watching the weekly Korean Music Countdown, which airs every Monday night at nine, and draw a few conclusions about a country I had never visited. (Sure, I could watch the Japanese pop shows later the same week on the same channel, but J-Pop and J-Punk are played. Let's move on to K-Pop, people.)
First up is "Winter Diary," by Jang Na Ra. Jang is a cute 'n' kooky lass, a singing Korean version of 1992-vintage Marisa Tomei. Ska-tinged pop plays and she sings along. She's wearing a leather aviator hat and goggles and driving an old-timey roadster that's pulling a long steel camper with a whirling satellite dish on top. The side of the camper reads "Na Ra Broadcasting" in English. She eases to a halt in a snowy waste and heads into the camper. She makes a pot of tea and looks out the window. Up in the clouds she sees a flying saucer. She climbs out and recalibrates the satellite dish. She picks up an old-timey mike and starts singing into it -- the scene looks lifted wholesale from the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?" video.
Message: Ditzy girls can save the world if only we heed their messages of love.
"Andante" by Lee Soo Young comes next. Somber piano, strings and Spanish guitar usher in a ballad of love gone bad. The willowy Lee leafs through her photo album and remembers her carefree college days and the guy who got away, who at this moment is sitting plastered on a street corner. He's disgusted with himself. He hurls a beer bottle in the gutter. Then there are flashbacks of the couple together -- they're happy on a ski trip, then they're yelling at each other. We return to the guy sitting on the sidewalk, drunk. The music swells as it shows the two of them snogging on the ski trip. And then the guy is alone at a place called Lover's Point. He sets up a camera at the edge of a cliff and takes a picture of himself clutching a bouquet. Did he jump? We'll never know.
Message: Young love sucks.
Hip-hop trio DJ Doc are in the house now, and they are the Korean Beastie Boys. A spy-movie music montage segues into a hip-hop track, and a very confusing video begins. (Scenes from a DJ Doc spy caper movie, perhaps.) A guy shakes a woman's hand and catches fire. The DJ Doc guys kick it with a humorous mentor-type old guy who drinks a lot of straight liquor. They play some sort of Korean card game that uses a deck that looks like nothing I've ever seen before. There are explosions and a random shot of a mother smacking her daughter across the face. The old guy stuffs a hard-boiled egg in his mouth. And then it ends.
Message: Drinking, gambling, tough old guys and explosions are cool.
I didn't catch the next singer's name, which is just as well because the song ("Just Like That Day") and video were simply horrible. The song sounded like an anguished Christopher Cross tune sung by a guy who thinks he can carry off notes a full octave out of his range, and the video consisted of nothing but a loooonnggg series of still photographs of a woman in different demure poses. This whole creepy thing could be called "The Mind of a Stalker."
Message: You should spend more than a hundred bucks on a video.
The ghost of Michael Jackson past haunts hip-hop/R&B crooner Se7en's "Crazy." He's chilling with a cadre of dancin' dandies in some kind of derelict factory/loft in hell. Eerie green light fills the air as Se7en struts his "Thriller"-like dance moves with his boys. There's a random shot of a bald, muscle-bound and tattooed Korean tough guy holding back a snarling Doberman on a leash. Some of the guys have scary face paint -- another nod to "Thriller." There's also a hoochie-mama on the premises, and unlike the bevy of chaste-looking women in all the other videos, she gazes at Se7en with frankly carnal desire.
Message: Guys like Se7en might dance too well to be tough guys, but you really shouldn't mess with them because they have meaner friends and hotter chicks than you'll ever have.
The rock band Jaurim follows with something called "The Ha Ha Ha Song," and despite the title it is mind-blowingly good. In the intro, there's more Spanish guitar, this time verging on straight-up flamenco, and then the band joins in as we are taken to a shot of the group. It's a quartet, all in Catholic school uniforms, and they're playing in a boxing ring surrounded by a mosh pit. The front woman combines Britney Spears's jailbait look with Gwen Stefani's dance moves and Edith Piaf's voice, and the band plays something I could only brand as "Parisian cafe punk." Word to all you J-Punk aficionados -- get this K-Punk band stateside pronto.
Message: In every Top 20, no matter the country of origin, there is one song to rule them all. Also, the appeal of naughty Catholic schoolgirls is universal.
"Please Forget Me" by Gumi whisks us back to sappy balladeering. Gumi is a delicate lady in love with a tough guy. She takes a shot of liquor and they make out. He teaches her to play baseball. There's a shot of their wedding, and then her disrobing, offering up her virgin body. Then there's shots of people crying, and then kissing. The guy cries and cries and cries some more as a full-blown Celine Dion orchestra with choir swells and roils. More shots of the lovers crying and gazing wistfully out windows. Lovers run through the rain holding hands. And then they cry again, and the song is over, and I'm crying too, only out of physical pain.
Message: Don't fall in love with a tough guy -- in the end, two hearts will be broken and a maudlin video will be made.
In the song "Catch," Oak Jue Hyun presents herself as a sort of Mary J. Blige of Korea, a (sorry, can't resist) "Queen of Hip-Hop Seoul." She's in a red dress, drinking a red drink, and positively bling-encrusted as she sits at a table in a penthouse suite singing along to a funky beat. Some Britneyese creeps into the chorus: "Come and shake your body one more time." She gets up and boogaloos with a troupe of male dancers, who are all wearing acid-washed jeans and white belts.
Message: Life at the top is a nonstop dance party. Also, white belts are really over.
Vocal pop/R&B duo Gravity are next with the song "Fly to the Sky." Both are foppish -- all leather jackets and scarves and Italian suits -- but one is clean-cut, the other a bad boy. The video is shot in Moscow. They sing amid tsarist splendor in Kremlin palaces and on a tour boat in the Moscow River. Every time the rough guy sings, the clean-cut one looks on with an interest that seems to be a little more than friendly, if you get my drift. Both guys are intensely hammy -- there's much clasping of hearts, grabbing of the air, eye-rolling and other such time-honored boy-band overemoting. It seems like a Saturday Night Live skit -- sort of Siegfried and Roy meets 'N Sync, Korean-style.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Message: Korean teenage girls like guys who look and act gay, too.
The video for MC the Max's "Don't Be Happy" is a gritty little flick set to a rock beat. A young guy snatches a purse and is caught and beaten by the police. He bails out and heads home, where his aging father sits on the floor eating a bowl of rice. His father yells at him. Then the young guy is on a bus rolling through Seoul. He spots his ex-girlfriend and gets out. They lapse in and out of English as he gives her the "Stay away from me -- I'm bad news" speech. She perseveres. Then we get a shot of Dad -- he's looking at a photo album, a picture of him in his army uniform in his younger days with his wife, who seems to have died, and his now-rotten son. He weeps and almost lights a cigarette, but snaps it in half instead. Meanwhile his son is across town, ruing the day he was born. He too puts a cigarette in his mouth and the girl takes it out and throws it away. Then they see a gang mugging an old guy. The hero stomps them all, all except the one guy he didn't see, who stabs him in the back and takes off. He slumps to the ground, apparently mortally wounded. Only he's not! The knife only penetrated his clothes! He and the girl hug and weep together, but at the end of the video, they are still not reconciled.
Message: You can quit smoking with or without the help of your ex-girlfriend.
Other lessons learned: I found out that American influence has positively swamped Korean music, and that Korean singers are called "gasoos." I also learned that many Koreans view blood type as a personality predictor in much the same way we use the zodiac. And love is a bitch everywhere you go.