The Roots of Modern K-pop
The Influence of the US Military and Underground Clubs
Amidst the 25 sprawling districts of Seoul lies a colourful neighbourhood called Itaewon and it is the country’s crossroads for all things foreign. The roots of K-pop are here. Accordingly, the area is home to most of Korea’s foreign population of 20,000 plus ex-patriots in addition to housing the Yongsan Garrison of some 20,000 American troops and affiliates. The main Itaewon strip holds a long history of cultural commerce catering to the foreign population, rampant tourists, US military personnel, and of course, native Koreans.
A stretch of street carts and elderly hustlers swindle vulnerable tourists for counterfeit Gucci bags and LV wallets. Nestled behind the strip and atop a small hill, dodgy bars and gay clubs entice super camp crowds. Quaint Korean couples in matching outfits wait in lines for hours for what is over-priced ‘American-style brunch.’ Herds of Chinese tourists take over entire restaurants for what is ‘authentically Korean BBQ’. And ofcourse the roots of K-pop.
From the roots of K-pop to Hallyu
Hooker Hill seats transgenders on corners making cat calls to foreign businessmen with hungry eyes. In narrow alleys, Africans and Middle Easterners slang used cell phones and international calling cards next to stalls of steaming Korean street foods. As if it’s very own borough in Yongsan District, Itaewon thrives on the constant clashing of all these cultural, social and political forces. It survives on the coming and going of different people from different places- on the transience of hybrid culture.
Influence of Itaewon.
Fluid and unconventional, this hybrid culture underlines the inimitable influence of Itaewon on Korean mass culture- more specifically for this feature, Korean popular music culture. Yeah, the root of K-pop is here. By examining Itaewon’s historic practice of music circa the Cold War to the present, we can begin to understand how K-pop music came to sound the way it sounds and even look the way it looks. Even more, we can make sense of how a lesser-known Hanguk rapper was able to bring a mob to SXSW 2015 with just one song on YouTube.
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This is how fifty years of minority music and club scene established what is K-Pop today.
Bounded by high cement walls with barbed wire, the Yongsan Garrison, or ‘the base,’ dominates a major part of the Itaewon area. Serving still today as the headquarters for the United States arms since 1957. The garrison was actually built in 1910 and occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. For more than 100 years, this political pocket claims the presence of foreign power. Likewise, lifestyle and economic enterprises servicing this foreign presence have been since compulsory.
After the Liberation of August 15, 1945.
Korean popular culture was emancipated from Japan’s seizure. It then become circumscribed with the entrance of the USA Occupational Forces. The liberation process overtly positioned American culture as a mainstream element in Korean daily lives. This is strongly apparent in the intense establishment of radio broadcasting by the American Occupational Forces. While the Nipponese used the radio for organizational purposes, the American soldierly infiltrated broadcasting as part of their enculturation coals. As the chief resource to reach the most Koreans, the radio became an important means of American policy and cultural promotion. By 1957, the American Forces Korea Network (AFKN) launched and sonically penetrated Korean homes with American pop music.
Korean Nat King Cole.
Complementing this aural acquisition, a new standard of Korean pop music emerged. Throughout the 1960s, Korean entertainers became to identify mimics of American pop artists for US military entertainment. Heejoon Choi aka Nat King Cole; Patti Kim aka Patty Page; and the Kim Sisters, Korea’s first girl group to tour the US, were featured on the 8th Division Stage — a musical showcase made solely to amuse the Yongsan Garrison.
American radio in Korean homes.
As these 8th Division Stage musicians gained exposure through the radio, they became the vanguard of modern Korean music mainstream. The songs exuded promising sounds of American standard pop, jazz, and blues combined with popular rhythms from slow rock, swing and waltz. In general, the 8th Division entertainers conveyed a very “American” middle-class lifestyle that effectively resonated into Korean homes.
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