SM Seoul

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Owen Maxwell
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From K-pop to indie music, to hip-hop, we're looking at all the colorful tones that make Seoul South Korea's musical engine. Together with the scenes in Busan and Daegu, Seoul helps drive the industry forward. With K-pop starting to climb up the charts in the West, it's more important than ever to see why Seoul is shaping contemporary genres.

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For big bands and even bigger crowds, Seoul is the place. Welcome to SoundMojo, and today we’re exploring the musical side of Seoul.

From K-pop, to indie music, to hip-hop, we’re looking at all the colorful tones that make Seoul South Korea’s musical engine. Together with the scenes in Busan and Daegu, Seoul helps drive the industry forward. With K-pop starting to climb up the charts in the West, it’s more important than ever to see why Seoul is shaping contemporary genres. Let’s take a listen.

From Tradition to Now

Long before the division of Korea into North and South, various genres of traditional music existed throughout the country, known together as gugak. Gugak includes instrumental court music such as Hyang-ak, as well as boisterous folk music like Pungmul, which would incorporate singing and dancing. You could also hear entire stories in the lyrics and drum beats of Pansori, while Sanjo would take one song idea and keep speeding it up. The continuous influence of Western and Japanese music would ultimately lead to widely popular sounds that melded genres together.

By 1920 styles like Trot saw a new middle ground between crooner pop and traditional performance techniques. Songs like “Tears of Mokpo” discussed the history behind the genre, which emerged during Japanese colonial rule, while “Camellia Lady” was banned for a time for sounding TOO Japanese. This rise of more commercial music facilitated the creation of labels and studios in Seoul, and helped it cement itself as the industrial centre for music in the nation. Music venues in Itaewon and Gangnam furthered the musical culture and growth of popular music in the city. Rock, hip hop, and modern folk all got a Seoul twist to them. Much of this musical history is available at the Hyundai Card Music Library in Seoul, to influence new generations. After all these phases of music however, the city’s biggest success story has been K-pop.

How We Got to K-pop

Mixing the singer-driven style of Trot and some of the theatrics of Seoul’s rock scene, modern K-pop grew into its own by the 1990s. Similar to Japanese pop and boy bands of the era, the music was largely fast-paced dance music with a group of singers. The videos and concerts would mix in a lot of choreography, while the lyrics often involved love and cheeky English phrases. Slowly, hip hop would influence the sound and look of K-pop too, with many groups including dedicated rappers in their ranks. Seo Taiji & the Boys were one of the earliest groups to represent this contemporary style of K-pop, as well as incorporate hip hop into songs like “Come Back Home.” Much like Seoul though, K-pop has shone because it blends so much music into one distinct energy.

Fashion has also been at the forefront of the scene, with men going from the baggy mix of clothes in early days, to more formal and punk influenced gear. Women’s wear started out looking similar to that of early Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child, but has grown more intense stylistically and risqué to match the times.

With such a range of talents and a strong visual component, the rise of idol culture has been a unique focus of K-pop. Whether simply highlighted, or manufactured, aspects of band members' personalities, clothes, and performances are set apart to turn them into celebrities. Idol culture has kept the fan-base around the genre excitable and hungry, which is likely why it’s amassed hundreds of thousands of fans in recent years.

Even the government in South Korea promotes K-pop, given its commercialization, and ability to unite people around music. It’s worth noting that this is also partly related to the lack of political edge in much of the music, as it’s mostly a carefree genre. Despite this, the music has reportedly been blasted from speakers pointed toward the North Korean border as part of ongoing hostilities.

The modern shape of K-pop has involved everyone from Vixx, DJ DOC, Baby Vox, Big Bang, 2NE1, S.E.S., F(x), T-ara and more. It gained a lot of traction in the West however, with the release of Seoul’s own “Gangnam Style” by PSY, named after a local neighborhood. The catchy song, bonkers video, and a simple dance that anyone could learn catapulted the song into the mainstream in 2012. The massive star Hyuna appeared in the video as well, having already struck gold with Wonder Girls, 4Minute, and as a solo artist herself. Acts like Shinee and Girls’ Generation have had a strong presence themselves, though neither has matched the late 2010s heights of BTS. Also known as the Bangtan Boys, the group popped up in the wake of PSY’s explosion, and took all of the best parts of K-pop to their apex. With songs like “Mic Drop” BTS quickly became the first K-pop artists with a record atop Billboards album charts, as well as many first achievements for non-English acts in the US.

Not Just Gangnam Style, But Every Style

K-pop isn’t the whole picture however!

As we mentioned, Trot has also played a key role in the music scene - blending singer-pop styles with elements of disco, rock, classical, and traditional Korean elements. It’s continued on in various forms since the early twentieth century, featuring voices like Lee Mi-ja, Bae Ho, Na Hoon-a, and Cho Yong Pil. Though it dwindled following the 1970s, it’s begun to get its own retro revival.

Similarly to Busan, Seoul has had a boom of indie rock acts, ranging from the punk-rock fun of Crying Nut, or the quirky guitar pop of Pippi Band. Broccoli, You Too?, 9 and the Numbers, and Kiha & the Faces all took on more blues and jazz styles of soft-rock, though The Faces would later add more electronic synth elements too. OOHYO has stood out by tapping into the lo-fi indie-pop sphere found on a lot of Western Bandcamp artists. Jambinai have taken traditional instruments into aggressive rock with experimental sounds, for intense music reflective of decades of different Seoul acoustics. For all out stadium rockers, No Brain brought a punk edge and heavy metal theatrics when many artists were softening their sound. Seo Taiji interestingly brought his own spin to metal before moving onto rap and K-pop.

Artists like Seo Taiji and Hyun Jin-young helped the hip hop scene in Seoul flourish right into the new millennium. Though rapping giants like Rain would help boost the genre from outside Seoul, the group influenced a new set of performers. Seoul natives Keith Ape, DinDin and Ravi developed the local hip hop sound further as K-pop took on more of its elements.

Seoul shines best however as a place where genres merge. Just listen to the smooth psych-rock and orchestral blends of Shin Jung-Hyeon. The rock-pop scene saw Deulgukhwa blend a lot of Western influences, into what was commonly known as Korea’s answer to the Beatles. Having said that, you’d also likely hear Seoul’s Add4 hailed as the overall first rock band of South Korea. Sanulrim forged a similarly influential path through Seoul thanks to their technical prowess, and a distinct lack of fear to get weird in their sound. American doo-wop has also gotten a comeback from the Barberettes, who mix in covers with their own take on vintage pop. Philadelphia’s own Michelle Zauner aka Japanese Breakfast also came from Seoul, before moving Stateside.

Between Ssamzi Sound Festival, Dream, ETP FEST, Dream Concert and Ultra Korea, you can hear a lot of the tunes that Seoul has to offer, and feel the broader range from the country as a whole. Plus this is just a taste of the overall offerings at larger shows.

Korean music is only getting bigger right now, and Seoul is helping show us more of it every day.

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