Pop ordered to clean up its act

Seoul has decided to protect its young people from harmful materials, reports Keith Howard

In July 1997, the state broadcasting company, KBS, announced tough rules for pop stars: no earrings, no dyed hair, no tattoos, no exposed navels. "Entertainers who wear outfits which may harm the sound emotional development of youth will be banned."

The country has recently begun to experience youth violence, something alien to older generations with memories of war and poverty. At Apkujong, south of the Han river in Seoul, prosperity means that the twentysomething "Orange People" cruise the streets, with designer clothes, jewellery, and mobile phones, spending huge sums of money on psychedelic drinks at up-market discos. The term "orange" goes back to the days when eating imported fruit was a luxury.

The hottest pop group in 1997 is a band appropriately called H.O.T, teen idols with a flair for dance, who liked to wear necklaces, rings, earrings, and bright jump-suits. No more: the government has decided to "counter the decline of morals by protecting the youth from harmful materials".

In Korea, mainstream pop music was - until the early Nineties - tied to what is known as "Asia pop", ballads known from Hong Kong to the Philippines and Japan. Everything relied on a simple melody, with different instrumental accompaniments for different occasions. Each song was designed for radio and television, with an intro (for fading in), two verses, a middle section, and a final verse, ending in a fade out. A few singers were household names, such as Patty Kim, who still plays to full houses of the over-forties, Cho Yong Pil, a megastar in Japan throughout the Eighties, and Lee Sun-hee, who after seven albums, in 1991 became a politician in the ruling party.

Asia pop was never particularly popular: indeed, in 1988, more than 85 per cent of records sold were of European and American pop and classical music. More reactionary alternative styles of music grew in the Seventies, during the period of military dictatorship, but these were confined largely to university circles.

As students began to demonstrate for democracy, poets wrote lyrics for what became known as tong guitar songs, "unplugged" music like Bob Dylan's. The two styles fused with the Hae Paragi (meaning Sunflower), two graduates, who, like all ballad singers, look like students - glasses are a must. Their songs are about love and separation.

Then came democracy. One thing remained banned, as it had been since the Forties: Japanese films or music. But pop groups could test other new freedoms. Seo Taiji arrived as Korea's first rap artist. A Korean-American brought up in the US, he dressed his group in dresses before resorting to baggy shorts. Thirty years on from The Beatles, Korea experienced teenagers screaming adulation.

Heavy metal was popularised by N.E.X.T (New Experimental Team); Abba was the inspiration for two groups, Zam and White (Remember Abba's costumes? Here, the name was We Have an Ideal Taste of Enjoyment).

What had begun to happen was appropriation: Koreans took different musical styles, but without any of the baggage, the group identity it was associated with. It was now Korean music - not black street music or acid house parties - and a single singer or group could create an amalgam of reggae, rap, hip-hop and everything in one song.

Roo'ra completed the picture. In 1996 they were in trouble: in "Love in Heaven" they illegally copied a Japanese tune. Their fans flocked to buy copies before a ban was slapped on it. Roo'ra split, only to come back in 1997, but with a new line-up including, for the first time, a black rap singer. And so, KBS has acted. To them, Korean youth have recklessly embraced vulgar Western culture. But there is irony here: H.O.T., the group that forced KBS to act, were put together by another Seoul university graduate, Lee Suman. He surveyed teenage girls before recruiting guys who most closely fitted what the girls said they wanted.

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