I’ve Got You Under My Korean-English Dictionary

A lot of Westerners I know balk at the way Korean high schools regulate all kinds of things in their students’ lives — hairstyle and coloring, an absence of piercings, and so on are all required at most high schools. Kids with hair that is too long risk having their hair cut on the spot by some teachers, and even corporal punishment.

That’s right, a boy can get a whupping, because his hair is too long. A girl can if she’s suspected of dyeing it. (Heaven help those who are born with brown hair.)

But what kills me is when governments micromanage their societies in the same way. For example, the controversy over this song, “Mirotic” by TVXQ. Here’s a snippet from the article in the Korea Times:

Asian pop sensation TVXQ’s song “Mirotic” is under scrutiny once again as regulators are set to determine whether the phrase “I got you under my skin” is lewd.

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Now, the controversy is not over whether the song is crap, surprisingly. (That much is obvious, I imagine.) It’s not over whether some of those dudes are just a little too femme, and the effect they’ll have on people… no, no, the controversy is over whether the phrase “I’ve got you under my skin” is lewd.


Thank goodness Frank Sinatra never lived to see this day. If that song is lewd, I imagine that old Frank was basically a scumbag secretly polluting the airwaves of America for years! After all:

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I could just go on to mock the government, whose English is notoriously bad. The webpage on which the government’s proposed almost-all-English-curriculum was presented was, by all accounts and unsurprisingly, rife with screwed-up English. The idea that a censor who cannot speak English well enough to understand the nuances of what’s being said is interesting.

But then again, there’s also the nuances of what’s being heard. After all, I can say, “Ha, that censor doesn’t know enough English to know that it means, “I’ve got you on my mind,” or, “You’ve affected me emotionally in such a way that I cannot shake this effect you have on me.” But the censor’s grasp of English is…

Well, there’s the question. The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs certainly doesn’t seem to know what the phrase means in English — though it’s well-documented, is present in popular culture, and absolutely innocuous in an English speaking context. (Even the stuff about “… deep down in the heart of me, so deep inside, that you’re really a part of me…” is tame enough to have been on mainstream TV back when sexual content was not broadcast in the States.)

But is the government’s grasp on English any worse than the “children” it claims to be protecting? I can say that the undergraduates I teach all knew what the phrase means in English, and laughed their butts off as they told me about the case. A few people were quite annoyed by the fact that their media was being censored by someone who couldn’t even understand it. I don’t know whether kids would be any more likely to interpret it correctly, and to be honest, it could be that even TVXQ thinks the phrase has an erotic meaning, or that it could be interpreted that way.

(It’s understandable that a bunch of people who don’t speak English together would perhaps get the idea that this phrase would mean something sexual, though, oddly, it’s a bunch of girly-men singing it. Mens’ body parts being outies, it’d make more sense if it was a girl group lewdly singing, “I’ve got you under my skin,” but hey, this is government censorship and pop songs: I don’t imagine logic is the biggest force at work.)

None of which is to support censorship, mind. (Generally speaking, and with certain limits, I abhor it.) I even think it’s a profound negative on the creativity of a culture. Of course snuff films and underaged actors in pornography are abhorrent, but I don’t get why our pop music and TV should be wholly devoid of lewdness. I’ve never yet seen an intelligent, clearly argued defense of that position that didn’t rely on assumptions about how media somehow magically rewires human nature — you know, that delicate system that developed over millions and millions of years of evolution, all the way back to the origins of life?

But more I just think it’s an interesting example of the weirdness of what happens with a global auxiliary language when it threads its way into popular culture the way English has in South Korean pop culture.

For if and when the original article disappears, the remainder is under the cut. But for now, click over to the KT if you want to read it.

I’ll unhide the remainder of the article if and when the original becomes unavailable. Follow the link above, and feel free to let me know when the link goes dead.

04-09-2009 18:23
Government Appeals to Define TVXQ’s Song ‘Lewd’

By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

Asian pop sensation TVXQ’s song “Mirotic” is under scrutiny once again as regulators are set to determine whether the phrase “I got you under my skin” is lewd.

The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs said Thursday that it will appeal to a high court against a local court’s scrapping the song from “harmful material for youth list.” The Youth Protection Committee, under the ministry, held an emergency meeting the same day and confirmed that the lyrics were inappropriate for teenagers to listen to.

The decision comes after the Seoul Administrative Court ruled the committee had to rescind its order to the group to change some of the lyrics when singing on stage and put stickers on CDs indicating the album was banned from sale to those under 19.

The committee said last November that the song was harmful to the young since its lyrics, “You want me, you give yourself up to me, you’re mad at me” and “I got you under my skin,” may imply sexual acts.

7 thoughts on “I’ve Got You Under My Korean-English Dictionary

  1. Strikes me that a certain government agency is making things up in oder to look like they’re earning their paychecks. For much the same reason Immigration changes their rules every two years.

  2. Ask anyone over 35 about how the government used to ban and censor foreign music during the 60s-80s. It would be really amusing, if it wasn’t so sad.

    Among some examples:
    “When I Kissed the Teacher” …Abba (Can’t have those girls fantasize about the teachers)
    “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” …Pink Floyd (Do we really need that education? Really?)
    “Renegade” by Styx, “Ride Like the Wind”…Christopher Cross (!! Anybody remember him?), “Bohemian Rhapsody” …Queen (Can’t have those nasty criminals escape and be on the run…)
    “Another One Bites the Dust” …Queen (Can’t have those unruly kids shoot people with machine guns)
    “Revolution Rock”…The Clash, “Closer to the Borderline”…Billy Joel, “Too Much Time On My Hand”…Styx, “Revolution” …The Beatles (Can’t have them start a revolution when they’re bored…)
    “Goodnight Saigon” …Billy Joel (anti-Viet Nam War).
    “Back in the USSR” …The Beatles (Who would want to go to a communist country?)
    “Cecelia” …Simon and Garfunkel (Since no Korean woman would fool around … right?)

    I remember my brother buying the Rolling Stones “Emotional Rescue” album (it wasn’t even a good Stones album), and only four out of nine or ten songs passed censorship.

    Of course, any “cool” high school and middle school kids all had illegal copies of Queen and Pink Floyd songs anyway.

    On the other hand, Olivia Newton John (remember her?)’s “Physical” was never banned. (Read the lyrics). I guess everyone on the censorship board were fooled by the exercise-based music video.

    One of these days somebody should put together an album of all the formerly-banned rock songs. It would probably would make a damn good album.

  3. Oh, and I forgot the icing on the cake of the banned songs…

    “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who…

    Which IMO is still the only thing you need to understand how Korean politics work.

  4. William,

    Oh, yes. Well, it is, above all things, a bureaucracy, innit?


    Good grief. Well, now at least I know why “Bohemian Rhapsody” was so big here a few years ago… people weren’t yet as tired of it as we were in the West. :)

    That is an amazingly goofy list. And yeah, “Physical” — it got used in a recent body makeup commercial and I mentioned the song in passing. Amusingly, it’s in the part of the ad when Jeon Ji Hyun is being “cute” rather than the part when she’s being “sexy”.

    And I think that “Banned Songs” compilation would be a GREAT album. Hell, making one with songs banned now would be a great way to flip the bird at the silly censors, too.

    As for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” being banned… burn! Perfect comment.

  5. One of the biggest kicks I get from that list is that for Korea, Abba, Styx and Christopher Cross are “dangerous.”

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