‘It’s like oxygen – it’s all over the place!’ Why Korea is scorching for trot, the cheesiest pop conceivable

As the newest Covid restrictions elevate, music is within the air once more in Seoul. However in 2022, it’s not simply K-pop and western hits offering the soundtrack to South Korea’s capital. There’s one other sound lurking round virtually each nook.

It’s blaring from retailers’ transportable stereos at fruit and vegetable markets, and it’s sung at noraebang (karaoke) cubicles in Nagwon-dong. I hear it within the secondhand music shops of Euljiro, the place it’s piled from ground to ceiling in bumper-sized CD and cassette packages. Once I swap on the TV, it’s there once more – carried out on selection reveals and glitzy expertise competitions. The style’s stars mild up backstreets and skyscrapers on torn posters and digital billboards. “It’s like oxygen,” says the dance producer 250 of the pounding rhythms, low cost keyboard sounds and emotive vocal performances I hear wherever I’m going. “It’s all over the place.”

That is ppongjjak a revitalisation of a century-old Korean pop style in any other case generally known as trot. Till just lately, it was common solely amongst senior residents, who take heed to it on mountain hikes and through intercity bus excursions (as depicted within the final scene of 2009’s Mom, by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho). Now it’s discovering a spot once more within the underground and the mainstream. This surprising resurgence is outwardly complicated for lots of the locals: one bar patron makes use of the phrase “embarrassing” to explain the style’s absurd mix of melancholy ballads and ecstatic, eurodance-style beats. However younger artists are integrating these questionable sounds into their tracks, and the revival is now threatening to interrupt Korea’s borders.

Fans of South Korean trot singer Lim Young-woong
The in-crowd … Followers of South Korean trot singer Lim Younger-woong. {Photograph}: Reuters/Alamy

The identify comes from a easy rhythm that underpins the music: ppongjjak is an onomatopoeic time period that imitates the repetitive one-two beat, with the primary syllable signifying a bassy thump, the second a whipping snare. It’s dressed with easy melodies that make it simple to sing and dance to, with larger vocal tones delivered in a method generally known as kkeokk-ki (which suggests to flex, or break, the voice). The sentimental lyrics and happy-sad melodies, in the meantime, embody the emotion of hana time period describing a sense of shared sorrow or lamentation. An area music video producer, Kim Kyuseo of Spire manufacturing company, casts the respective qualities of trot and present-day ppongjjak in Shakespearean phrases: “It’s like tragedy and comedy,” he says, emphasising the emotive vocal performances extra attribute of the previous, and the lunatic beats of the latter. “They dance their ache away.”

Neither consultants nor amateurs can agree on whether or not they’re, in reality, the identical factor or merely totally different strands of 1 style – however both method, the roots of ppongjjak will be traced to the early twentieth century, when an undivided Korea was occupied by Japan. Trot was derived from the foxtrot, says Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor of cultural research at Kyung Hee College. The 2-beat dancing model was launched to Korea by Japan as a part of “a cultural phenomenon influenced by the jazz age in America” within the Nineteen Twenties. Because the ruling class opened giant dance halls throughout the nation (partly impressed by these present in Blackpool and different UK cities, says Lee), the native Koreans mixed it with the normal music of the working individuals – and trot was born.

The style has navigated a convoluted historical past ever since. It was accountable for Korea’s first pop idols, together with Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a, throughout the style’s heyday within the Seventies. A well-known trot singer, Sim Soo-bong, was even current on the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979; she had sung for the army dictator on the banquet held that night. However it has additionally been condemned on a number of events for the reason that late Nineteen Sixties, as varied governments tried to eradicate Japanese influences from society. Debate endures over whether or not trot’s sorrow – typified within the themes of well-known songs akin to Yi Hae-yeon’s Heartbreaking Miari Hill and Nam In-su’s Busan Station of Farewell – makes it inherently Korean, or whether or not the model is spinoff of the Japanese enka (a style maybe most recognisable to westerners from its use within the Kill Bill soundtrack).

By the Nineteen Nineties, younger Koreans have been feeling more and more optimistic and there was little place for the melancholy music related to the older technology. The recent sound of K-pop – influenced by dance, R&B and hip-hop from abroad – pierced the zeitgeist. However trot by no means went away, and within the late 2010s an surprising revival was catalysed by the debut of an X Issue-style tv expertise present during which contenders carry out within the conventional, sentimental model – certainly one of its episodes was watched by greater than one-third of the overall Korean TV viewers.

Lim Young-woong performing in January
Ubiquitous … Lim Younger-woong. {Photograph}: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Photographs

Listening to mega-hit single My Starry Love by Mr Trot winner Lim Younger-woong, I can’t assist however be reminded of Gareth Gates’s tackle Unchained Melody from the primary collection of Pop Idol. However Lim’s recognition is simple: he has greater than 1.3m subscribers on his YouTube channel, his face at the moment occupies a 10-storey video billboard within the thriving college district of Hongdae, and he’s as ubiquitous as BTS within the memento stalls of the market district Insa-dong.

Some corners of the press see this revival of trot curiosity as merely a part of the “newtro” (a portmanteau of the phrases “new” and “retro”) development: a youth tradition phenomenon characterised by classic style, throwback graphic and inside designs, and the recognition of interval Ok-dramas akin to Mr Sunshine. However the trot trade has additionally turn into engaging for singers and musicians harbouring massive profession ambitions.

Lee explains that the “idol” trade of mainstream Ok-pop stars is “very restrictive. You have to have a pleasant look, be good at dancing, and it’s important to attend to the viewers and to advertising – it’s like being a supermodel or a goddess.” Alternatively, the extra area of interest trot or ppongjjak market (Lee makes use of the phrases interchangeably) “is a spot the place individuals who simply need to be an excellent singer or an excellent musician can give attention to the artistry”. It’s a degree emphasised by Korean stars akin to Lizzy, previously of Ok-pop woman group After Faculty. She launched a trot tune, Not an Easy Girl, as her debut solo single in 2015, telling MBN Star that yr: “Idol music is short-lived … I believed trot music would keep longer within the music market.”

It’s not solely reality-TV stars and mainstream artists who’re in on the revival. I come throughout the face of 90s “techno-trot” pioneer Epaksa, also referred to as Dr Lee, blown up on the facet of a wall within the buzzing district of Euljiro – a former manufacturing mecca now house to late-night bars serving beer and fried hen to patrons sitting on plastic chairs. He’s certainly one of a number of elder statesmen who’ve benefited from the ppongjjak resurgence, with new reveals and an album within the pipeline; I hear a monitor that sounds suspiciously just like his Monkey Magic blaring from a conveyable stereo that very same day.

Epaksa has additionally simply featured as a visitor on an album by one of many nation’s most enjoyable younger dance producers. Seoul-based 250 is finest recognized for creating beats for BTS, and producing Korean hip-hop icon E Sens. However on his debut solo album, Ppong (which playfully pastiches the stereotypical poses discovered on trot CD covers), he has created a forward-thinking hybrid of ppongjjak that embodies the inherent sorrow or disappointment of the style whereas additionally incorporating components of recent dance music.

Ppongjjak music is commonly actually quick, virtually like drum’n’bass,” he says, likening the untethered dance kinds of Nineteen Nineties ravers to these of the ppongjjak connoisseurs. He namechecks Italian canzone and French chanson as kin to the style by their melancholic and nostalgic sounds. It shares themes with American nation music: “They’re lacking their house city.” And in its tacky basslines and “low cost and cheesy” sounds, it affords parallels to 70s and 80s Italo disco: “Giorgio Moroder’s Chase,” says 250, “is simply straight ppongjjak.” He’s proper: the pulsing duple rhythm, the emotive melodies, the dated synth sounds – they’re all there.

May a Korean cultural oddity akin to ppongjjak ever transplant within the west? It already has, albeit in small methods. Epaksa’s ridiculous music video for the 2000 monitor Space Fantasy noticed him posing in entrance of Massive Ben, Trafalgar Sq. and even the pyramids of Giza. And the Korea Tourism Group’s spectacular Feel the Rhythm spot – which performed on repeat at London East Asia movie competition in 2021, and has racked up practically 50m views on YouTube – highlights a musical efficiency by Korean band Leenalchi. The tune fuses alt-rock and conventional Korean pansori (folks) singing with an unmistakable cut-price ppongjjak beat.

However in 2022, maybe it’s 250 who has the best alternative – some may say hazard – in taking the style worldwide. Largely instrumental, Ppong sounds as if it have been designed to be a backing for a flexing trot singer of any language to carry out over, and whereas the hyper-powered one-two beats sometimes recall the messed-up sounds of joyful hardcore, the wealthy, vibrant melodies on tracks akin to Bang Bus and Rear Window can’t assist however remind me of a discount bin Todd Terje, British indie-electro stars Metronomy, or Japanese digital music titans Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Two months on from the album’s launch, 250 has simply debuted his first present on esteemed London broadcasting station NTS Radio – and it’s packed to the rafters with trot and ppongjjak sounds, together with cuts from Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a. With Korean popular culture exhibiting no signal of slowing, who’s to say that ppongjjak – or, at the very least, some new bonkers hybridisation of it – gained’t be Korea’s subsequent nice exported development? In London, the karaoke cubicles are ready.

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