Note: I’ve made a (substantial) couple of edits and additions to this post since it first went up. Those resulting from comments — changes — are clearly marked as updates, but those that are additions of information or observation aren’t, since it reduces readability to have a bunch of EDIT marks throughout. Anyway, apologies to anyone who suddenly notices a bunch of context that wasn’t there before!
Here’s a very odd video that I’d like to briefly unpack for y’all, as an example of very neat, strange, and utterly Korean cross-fertilization of pop culture that goes on here, and especially as an example of Korean pop culture as a product of imported and “remixed” genres, materials, content, and more, a subjet of increasing interest to me because it seems that Korean pop culture is, currently, in a state of, well… pardon the kimchi reference, but it’s in a state of ferment. That is, when I look at pop culture here, from the weirdest to the most tame, what I find is that a great deal of it still consists of derivative creativity.
I want to be clear by saying what I mean by “derivative,” because music and art critics and creative people in general use that word in a pejorative way a lot of the time. We call music like, say, Britney Spears’ music “derivative” in a negative sense, meaning it adds nothing to pop music, but simply repackages what’s already out there to generate more money from the same content. Doubtless, we could also say the same of a lot of Korean pop acts, including those accused of stealing from the derivative work of Americans.
But that kind of discussion is much less interesting than looking at how derivative creation here can be seen as a positive. I’m even more leery, after having seen some older Korean films at PiFan last week, to make pronouncements about the history of pop culture in Korea, but I will say that certain things — like the Korean Western I’ll be mentioning below — seem “new” to the young people I know here. New, not because Koreans have never seen Westerns, mind you, but because Koreans have not seen many (or maybe any) Westerns with Korean characters in them.
Which makes sense, when you consider that Westerns are a kind of American mythology. But if Italians could make it their own — and if Hong Kong could do it — why not Koreans, too? For all the snideness with which some people might criticize this as Koreans copying Western entertainment genres, I see copying as the first step in mastering a creative form. Writers, when they start out, often write stories based on the books or movies they’ve seen. Composers and songwriters start out by imitating the songs they like most. Yes, a point comes when people move beyond that. I suspect it will take a while here; as many old-timers have said to me, all kinds of interesting, unique pop culture stuff was simply killed off after the financial (aka IMF) crisis here. (Though according to author Ch’oe Yun, the worst affected was literature.)
Bits and pieces of foreign culture have been flowing into Korea for hundreds of years, of course… a book on my shelf, titled A Korean Storyteller’s Miscellany, translated by Peter H. Lee, is essentially a literary collection of bits and scraps collected from all kinds of sources, many of them recounting stories set in China. Buddhism, (Neo-)Confucianism, Taoist, and Shamanic beliefs — if you’re talking about the form they have taken in Korea, you’re talking about remixes there, too. The Korean language has been remixed, too, with vast amounts of foreign (Chinese) words injected into it. They remixed themselves an alphabet.
I’m not sure if this is especially characteristic of “crossroads societies” — societies which exist in crossroads points between different, bigger cultures that meet and mingle in their lands — but I can say that, in terms of creative development, ripping off foreign creativity is a well-entrenched stage in the development of a pop culture.
On top of that, whatever the rate influx of foreign pop culture was thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, the realistic thing to consider is that, the internet’s influence on all this probably amounted to little more than a trickle influencing the cutting-edge few back in 1994 or 1995, but by around 1999 or 2000 (according to the people I’ve talked to, including many college-aged students who tell me that’s when they first went online), the trickle had turned into a full-on gush — a sloshing firehose of foreign pop culture and content that people could access with almost as much ease as any domestic pop culture. (Almost, except for the language barrier.)
The implications were profound for fashion, for youth identity, gender politics, the demands made of the domestic entertainment industry (and the offers made by it), and much more. And I think it would be remarkable if we didn’t see a massive increase in derivative creative works in the Korean entertainment industry — all that raw material to be remixed into a Korean form! All that stuff just waiting to be explored, now that both poltical and infrastructural barriers to accessing everything in the rest of the world’s pop culture are gone.
(Sort of. I’m still waiting for Korea to figure out how neat Bollywood musicals are, and start producing the Korean equivalent.)
I’ll get into that in later installments on this series — which I’ll get to once I’ve dug away at some of the stuff I want to write about in other series, and once i’ve had more of a chance to research the history of the Net and net culture here — but for the moment, I’ll get back to unpacking that strange little video I mentioned earlier. First, have a look:
Now, if you’ve just watched the video, depending on whether you live in Korea, some of that might make sense. There are a few things mixed in there, some of which I don’t know about, but I’ll unpack the three that are explicable.
The first is the references to the film The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, a recently-released Korean film; indeed, a “kimchi” Western (tribute to spaghetti Westerns, apparently) that sets its tale of three Korean outlaws in the wild west in the lawless Manchuria of the 1930s.
This is where the Korean cowboy footage in the video comes from, along with the “놈놈놈” part of the formula: the word 놈 (nom) is roughly equivalent to “bastard” or “jerk” in English, though slightly more fluid in its range, I think — it can be much less negative than bastard, or somewhat stronger, too — and the title of the movie in Korean — 좋은놈나쁜놈이상한놈 — refers to the Good, the Bad, and the Weird (the three main characters) using this word. Thus the 놈놈놈 (nom-nom-nom) reference. Indeed, the movie’s website is 3nom.co.kr. Anyway, that’s what the very pulp-ish Latin guitar music is supposed to evoke — though as far as I know, [EDIT: a version of — see the comments section for more.] that song is part of the Kill Bill soundtrack; I don’t know whether
it the same version appears in the Korean film at all, but it suits the cowboy imagery very well anyway.
(EDIT: And it’s worth noting that the film itself being a “kimchi Western” makes it a remix of a remix (the “spaghetti Western”) of a genre that was, in itself, very much a remix of older kinds of stories. Perhaps all the good cowboys have daddy issues because the genre has daddy issues: in every Lone Ranger, there’s a Robin Hood, and in every Billy the Kid there’s a pirate or rebel.)
The second source of content — the drum beat at the beginning where the rapper is saying something about “I’m gonna make ya move… I’m gonna make ya cool… I’m gonna make you dance… I’m gonna make ya move…” or whatever that is, is take from a video by a rapper/DJ named DJ Koo, who
apparently is a member of the Japanese group TRF a Korean DJ. (With the same name as several other DJs around the world, frustratingly. But the track used in this remix is called 왜 (Wae) and it’s among the tracks offered up for download here, though I’m not sure which mix the sample comes from — or how different the various mixes of that track are…)
The third, and most interesting, snippet is one that the file’s original maker — and many Koreans old enough to remember it from childhood — found to match very well with the Latin guitar music, especially because of the rhythm in the first half of the voice riff. It’s from a really old commercial for a kids’ popsicle called a 빠삐코 (Papico, which sounds like a Japanese pronunciation of “popsicle” and guess what, it’s apparently a Japanese product), which is documented extensively here, and is also pictured in this ad:
Or in this ad, which features a little (black? or blackfaced?) kid making the same goofy faces as a Japanese woman:
Here’s a more recent Papico ad:
… and a somewhat older one, also from Japan:
…and, hell, here’s one where the previously only mildly suggestive fact that the thing looks like a phallus consumed by sucking on it is shoved right into your face:
(The phallus thing is funny. I remember when I first saw discarded Papico containers on the ground, I thought what I was seeing was discarded condoms, like one occasionally saw in one park near my home in Montréal. One of the people who’d been in Korea longer pointed it out and explained they were from popsicles.)
But anyway, since those ads are all Japanese, they have the Japanese advertising tune. The Korea one is rather different — to my ear, more garish, with much stranger visuals. The following video file includes two versions of the song used in the 빠삐놈 remix, plus a couple of more recent-looking ads — though, still weird and garish!
(EDIT: And note, right from the start, that they are a Korean treatment of how to advertise the same product advertised above in a very different way to a Japanese audience… and though most of the Japanese ads are, I think, more recent, even more recent 빠삐코 ads in the series are radically different from contemporaneous Japanese ones.)
One of the interesting changes is that in the most recent ad, there’s no music at all. Something makes me think that the fashionability of using old-fashioned 뽕짝 music in advertising — as in the first 빠삐코 ads — died out, but that it hasn’t quite been replaced by anything else. What’s left is a vague detritus of music, usually just a tiny hook at the end of ads, usually containing only five of six notes, a single measure with an upward leap at the final pitch, an end-hook so common and stylized that at this point, it is used to end ads for fridges, food products, and loan companies alike. One wonders to what degree the usability of 뽕짝 in advertising and the use of English language catchphrases dovetailed, so that as the latter began to rise in prominence, the former began to fade out. But in any case, the 뽕짝 version must still have been on air by the mid-80s, if people Lime’s age remember it.
Well, it turns out there’s a grand tradition of making mashups with this song, in fact. Here are a couple involving Tom Jones and Asian pop group I’ve never seen before, but which looks Japanese to me:
Anyway, there’s the majority of the content in the 파피놈 mashup. (But I still don’t know who the guy talking at the end is! Sorry!) It’s a single tiny example, but it’s part of the very odd UCC storm that’s still spreading through the Korean internet even now — a storm in which copyrighted and non-copyrighted materials, foreign and local media, are all mashed together to create something rather like Korea itself has become: a hodgepodge of the garlic-scented old days and the media-saturated tomorrowland alike. And yet a great deal of what’s in there is a direct result of Koreans interacting with imported content, goods, genres, ideas, and so on — since even the now out-of-fashion 뽕짝 seems to owe much to older Japanese “enka” and pop music (which in turn owes much Western music of some kind or other, though I don’t know the trajectory there.)
This track has really caught on, too; it gained popularity when it was posted at DCInside, a website I’ll be posting about sooner or later, as it’s very important to the early formation of the Korean internet and yet so many foreigners here have never heard of it. Anyway, if you search 빠삐놈 you can find the video or track crossposted to a number of blogs, myspace, and of course several times to Youtube. In fact, I believe the video up above is a later creation of someone other than the person who remixed the tune on a lark, apparently in just a couple of hours.
And it’s just one example of remixing “kid stuff” and “grownup stuff” I’ve noticed over the years. One of my students, as a remixing assignment, did an arrangement of the Teuli theme song, from this cartoon:
… as a passionate R&B piece, and had everyone (except me and the foreign students) in utter stitches. (She somehow didn’t realize that she was supposed to remix something in English, but ah well…) And then there’s the infamous Starcraft Pansori I posted about here (there’s a downloadable clip there, too), though I’ve since located a video of a performance, here:
The remixing is this crazy, nutty, and fascinating process. James mentioned in a recent post how this is also being used consciously by advertisers, and it seems to be on the rise in the fine arts too (this paper mentions new pansori on modern themes, including the same Tuli cartoon I mentioned above), but I’m more interested in how and why non-professionals are doing it.
(UPDATE: As for 빠삐놈, I think someone’s already re-remixed the remix, throwing in some Lee Hyori (among other things, though I can’t make the file play in Linux, and Windows won’t even boot up anymore. (Gah! I think I need a new hard drive, too…) Go see for yourself, and report back, if you feel so inclined…)
Right, that’s as much of the story of 빠삐놈 as I care to dig up for you tonight.
And now for the bonus round!The same J-pop singer from the Papico ads, now singing a (very) vaguely Latin song: This has got to be the most disturbing advertisement I’ve ever seen:
Last but not least (slightly less relevant since Koo is actually Korean, not Japanese as I originally though, but still true; this song could be played at any club in the world and people wouldn’t miss much):
Ever notice how Noncommunicative English Slang and Hummable Riffs have essentially intersected to form a single universal language of intercultural dross-based cooperation? That’s what made songs like “I’m Too Sexy” and “Barbie Girl” possible, and actually, ABBA, too. Which is not to be too critical — better we cooperate on dross than on blowing one another up, right? Anyway, the following video, by the aforementioned DJ Koo and some Korean singer who goes by Hana, directly references at least one early 90s track — by C&C Music Factory, of all things — and has other riffs that just barely invoke other songs — I hear that little signature mixolydian riff from Madonna’s “Material Girl” in the tune, as well — and I’d wager someone more knowledgeable than me could probably reference a number of the dance moves and especially Hana’s so-familiar slow-walk prance routine directly to some 1980s or 1990s performer, American or otherwise.