Seo Taiji: The Godfather of Korean bubblegum pop
The simple answer is that K-pop is popular Korean music. The more complicated answer, however, is actually a deeper question: just what is popular in Korea?
American audiences may consider K-pop to be pretty boys and girls who move really well to dance music. After all, doesn’t that describe the Wonder Girls, Se7en, or BoA? Certainly, the bubblegum groups are a big part of K-pop music, and if you visit Korea, it is impossible to walk a few feet without seeing some idol group’s attractive faces plastered on an advertisement. It’s also the same with television, where music programs predominantly feature the bubblegum pop that Perez Hilton seems so enthusiastic about.
The roots of Korean bubblegum or dance pop can be found in a single man: Seo Taiji. With his incredibly influential band, Seo Taiji and Boys, he released his first album, Vol. 1, Nan Arayo (I Know), in 1992. Its New Jack Swing-inspired beats, catchy rap lyrics and memorable choruses took Korean audiences by storm, and K-pop music would never be the same. Just take a listen to the dance songs of modern K-pop and every time you hear what seems like the requisite rap refrain either preceded or followed by an ultra-catchy chorus line, you’ll know whom to thank for making the mold. Seo Taiji’s influence can still be heard in the songs produced by the big music companies, including SM, JYP, and YG Entertainment. The latter, incidentally, was started by a former Seo Taiji and Boys band member, Yang Hyun-suk, a.k.a. Yang Goon.
But Seo Taiji was more than just about dance music. Before the internet era came into existence, Seo Taiji was a great importer and adapter of popular Western music in Korea, and his subsequent albums covered a wide range of musical genres, including industrial, hardcore, and even gangster rap.
While American audiences may dismiss his music as rip-offs of Cypress Hill, Rage Against the Machine, and dance-pop, documentary producer, writer, and Korean pop culture expert Mark Russell says doing so would diminish another reason Seo Taiji struck a chord with young people: his lyrics reflected the social change of the time. As Russell writes in his extremely useful guide to Korean popular culture, Pop Goes to Korea, “[Seo Taiji’s] comments about the failings of the school system and society were exactly what many people believed but seldom heard anyone in popular entertainment mention.”
Of course, there’s other reason not to insult Seo Taiji — his fans. I told one such
admirer that Seo Taiji was, to put it diplomatically, “a few steps removed from genius.” Her response? “How many [expletive deleted] hit songs have you written?”