Korean Popular Music in Modern Times


A review of Embedded Voices In-Between Empires: The Cultural Formation of Korean Popular Music in Modern Times, by Yongwoo Lee.

Yongwoo Lee’s timely dissertation defines Korean popular music as a storage space for collective memories and mass trauma. By examining two successive colonial histories that placed Korea under respective Japanese and American military rule, Lee reinterprets the empowerment represented by western sonic technologies such as the gramophone, phonograph records, and radio as arms of a global process of cultural appropriation and transmission. Out of this emerges an ambivalent Korean identity, at once shaped and distorted through the consumption of modernity as a sonic and visual commodity. Popular music embodies the contradiction of fascination and revulsion to a tee, and Lee’s readers gain valuable insight into the workings of this contradiction at the subjective level. He asks (p. 140): Can the colonial subject sing? In the very asking of this question, he proves it moot, for the real concern is what voice the colonial subject uses when singing.

In Chapter 1 (“Undoing Archived Voices”), Lee traces a genealogy of colonial modernity, providing through it one possible answer to his Spivak-inflected question in an analysis nourished by disavowals of one-sided queries and terms. Keywords such as “modernity” become shaded and chameleonic, just as they do in lived experience. Like culture, he reminds us, modernity is a cluster concept of which nation and subject are but two of many often-indeterminable facets (p. 39). He emphasizes this methodological approach when discussing the Korean experience in popular song, through which Koreans embraced western modernity not wholesale but as a refracted and amorphous mindset, at once manufactured and shaped through individual response (pp. 20-21). On that note, Lee is interested in self-invested infrastructures as he sees them working in a specifically Korean colonial modernity.

The Japanese colonial period is the subject of Chapter 2 (“The Cultural Formation of Korean Popular Music in the Japanese Colonial Era”), a time during which westernization and Americanization were, for all intents and purposes, synonymous. The prevalence of this model led to a double-consciousness that rendered Koreans at once independent and inferior through their assimilation. So did the Japanese colonial regime instill an implicit—and not so implicit—desire to submit to the empire. With this came a willingness not only to aspire to, but also to embody, modernity (p. 65). This desire was built into the visual and sonic landscapes. In the latter vein, the phonograph, as a technological arm of the modern machine, suggested such desires through the shaping of leisure habits (p. 55). Because the purchasing of this technology was, during the phase of its introduction in the 1930s, somewhat untouchable even to the middle class, it became a coercive influence as the epitome of a “cultured” lifestyle. The mimicry of western musical archetypes further typified the sonic experience as a living experience. Make no mistake about it: the phonograph had become an object of colonial fetish (pp. 64-65). Not only was western/American modernity being sold to colonial Korea; it was being done so through a Japanese lens. With characteristic attention to detail, Lee is quick to point out that the resulting genres were not simply hybrids but also functions of interiorization of coloniality through consumption that went against the very cultural infiltrations which had provided colonized subjects with tools of resistance to begin with.

Moving on from the 1930s, Chapter 3 (“Two Phonographic Realities”) looks at the Total War era and the post-1945 United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), noting during this period a self-reflective shift in the popular lyric. Here we encounter a decidedly gendered soundscape, whereby the volunteer soldier came to represent the masculine while the home front came to be feminized through recurring laments of widowed wives and pining mothers (pp. 97-98). Lee also explores prevalent exoticization of Japan’s southern territories, which instilled in Korea a chain of dual interiorities: colonial vs. domestic, city vs. rural, barbarous vs. civilizable, body vs. sound (p. 121, passim). It is during this period that the gramophone became an “indispensable” leisure by which subjects could enjoy the privacy of domestic life. Popular song was now emerging as a memory archive through which Koreans invented their own faith in the imperial body.

The ghostly residue of this self-hypnosis by recapitulation of an unrequited past is another red thread of Lee’s research, which sees Americanization as a defining factor for the identity of postwar Koreans. The resulting plurality, if not confusion, of identities was a direct consequence of Korea’s “linear coloniality.” As Lee discusses in Chapter 4 (“Plural Post-Wars Within”), Post-liberation Korea could only be a site of ongoing trauma in this changing of hands, with no real liberation to speak of (the USAMGIK needed only to exploit the preexisting colonial infrastructure abandoned by the Japanese). Popular music between 1945 and 1950 mobilized consciousness through the shared experience of colonial trauma (p. 186). In this era, songs once used to mobilize the populace for Japanese militarism were now being redeployed to bolster Korean sentiment in the wake of conscription.

Continuing this legacy is the American military ghetto space, the nexus of Lee’s concluding chapter, “Audible Memories and Postcolonial Melancholia,” in which he concretizes the visceral nuances of his position in clearest terms. The ghetto was (and continues to be) a place where an imaginary modern gained psychological traction, and by which modes of western music associated with cabaret culture reclaimed high-class status among the Korean intelligentsia who solidified associations between said modes and liberalism. Again irony prevailed, for in song lyrics we see a desire for psychological release, even as its voices graft onto the very ideals from which release was needed.

No examination of colonial-era Korea can treat modernity as a mere agent of hostile outside forces without also revealing the ways in which identity formation on the ground plays out through visions of mass culture. Such ambiguity is of primary importance in Lee’s scholarship, for modernity would be nothing without it. In teasing out this ambiguity, he brokers a lapse in previous writings on Korean popular music, which have tended toward the chronological and the historical. Such analyses lack rhetorical interrogation of Korean coloniality and gloss over the discursive potential of music. Music allows for the illusion of the past’s “presentness” and, as an archive, surrogates the work of memory for those too traumatized to do the same. Popular songs communicate private experience as universal and may be elided as sites of academic inquiry. Lee has taken a much-needed step toward changing this. We may not so readily see it, but in this dissertation, and in the work it will undoubtedly inspire, we can hear it.

Tyran Grillo
Cornell University

Primary Sources

Songs, popular music, along with relevant secondary materials, drawing on critical theory and Korean and Japanese-language scholarship.

Dissertation Information

McGill University. 2010. 292 pp. Primary Advisor: Will Straw


Image: Nan In Soo 남인수 (1918-1962), Gayo Museum.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like