Inside the Noraebang: Power Ballads and Neoliberal Capitalist South Korea

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South Koreans aspire to be the best. ‘Challenge’ and ‘fighting’ are imperative verbs plastered across billboards. From English-learning to b-boying, society is suffused with the message that if you practice for hours daily, for years at a time, you can succeed. For example, consider ballerina Kang Sue-jin, a master of her field. She is a principal dancer at Stuttgart Ballet and is widely admired for her strength, agility and beauty.

Source: lunacharsky
Source: lunacharsky

But in South Korea, the most popular photo of Kang is not of her dancing; it’s of her feet.

Source: lunacharsky
Source: lunacharsky

This image is disturbing, but it’s not a deformity; in South Korea, it represents how hard Kang worked to be the best. Success is worth personal disfigurement.

I was reminded of this when I discovered the ongoing popularity of “She’s Gone”, a paint-by-numbers 1990 power ballad by Steelheart. They’re a minor hair metal group with a power ballad identical to that of any other band of the era, churned out according to the dictates of record company executives (as Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder explains). This kind of formulaic projectile emoting enjoyed its heyday in the late 1980s, and then was put out of its misery by alternative rock and grunge music…in the West. In South Korea, however, Steelheart was a 90s staple, still touring regularly and inspiring thousands of karaoke singers. (In fact, they remain popular across East Asia — as Youtube covers from Vietnam, Indonesia and China will attest — and even gave a concert here in Seoul just one year ago.) Why? Two reasons: First, “She’s Gone” represents the combination of technical prowess and effort celebrated in South Korea; and second, it taps into the deep pain and longing at the heart of contemporary South Korean society.

The Korean Dream

If grunge hadn’t killed hair metal in the U.S., something else would’ve. The spandexed, sneering corpse of late-80s corporate rock was dead by the early 90s and just didn’t know it yet. Bombast and melodrama only made sense in the 80s environment of corporate greed and aspirational individualism. Then the following sequence of events took place: the end of the USSR and its suggestion that history itself might have ended, the early 90s recession, and the sense that right here, right now was not the best place to be after all. Pop music suddenly needed to channel new authenticity. Grunge was thus born, despairing and cynical in the way only someone who’d had their heart broken by their own expectations could appreciate.

But grunge, with its absence of aspiration, was ill-suited to the dominant ethos of South Korea prior to the 1997 IMF crisis: “Working hard brings results” — if not for oneself, then for one’s children. Sure, there was plenty to be cynical about, not least the super-exploitation of the South Korean working class and the government’s brutal dictatorship. But upward mobility seemed possible: Just like the American Dream, South Koreans had the Korean Dream. Music reflecting this new era could express sadness for all the sacrifices, but it also had to express prowess, and “She’s Gone” demands that. It’s a great power ballad, and singer Miljenko Matijevic is proficient at hitting the high notes. It’s not creative, but that quality isn’t prized in South Korean business, either in the tech or music industry. He’s excellent at what he does, and that’s enough.

Jeong-Han: Feeling to the Point of Hurting

Yet as anyone who’s spent any time in a South Korean bar district can tell you, there’s plenty of feeling to go around, and public shouting and fights are common. Koreans have a name for this: han, an intense feeling of powerlessness and suffering. Less well-known is jeong, an intense need for sharing and mutual acknowledgement. It’s what makes Koreans hold hands in the street, lend money to family members freely (while knowing they might get ripped off) and be so hospitable to guests.

In lieu of explicit cynicism embodied in American grunge music, all that feeling was channeled into music named minjung (“people”) for its association with grassroots political movements and resonance among demonstrators fighting the authoritarian regimes. One example was “Morning Dews” — sung here by Yang Hee-eun — which was eventually banned by the Yushin regime for its vague connotation of democratisation. Some of this is still around now, although it is mostly consumed as part of an exercise in nostalgia.

More mainstream expressions of feeling are “She’s Gone” and its clones, and the K-pop charts are filled with ballads. So far, so obvious: Expressive culture begets expressive music. However, purely culturalist explanations for Korean tastes miss a lot. One, these analyses are circular: Koreans love ballads because their national character is rich with feeling. Two, they’re orientalist: The special nature of Koreans is inscrutable because they’re Asian and tied to culture, nation and land (much more than we ‘rational’, ‘objective’ westerners are.) The heightened emotions of Korean cultural expression are real, but there’s another explanation.

Yo-han Ka, Professor of Counseling Psychology at Handong Global University, has coined the term jeong-han: a deep suffering from a lack of jeong, or intimacy. In psychological terms, it amounts to sorrow and rage from narcissistic wounding: the emotional knowledge that your parent is absent or inconsistent, expressed in adulthood as approval-seeking and intense fear of humiliation on the one hand, and grandiose self-absorption on the other.

These arise from trauma: damage so intense that can’t be processed as a memory and instead is stored as present information. This easily applies to a nation like South Korea, occupied by foreign powers, and then taken over by war and dictatorship. But han does not come only from war and occupation – not for the current generation anyway. It can equally arise from a lack of opportunity, the deep sense of frustration that the deck is stacked against you. This is usually turned inward, into guilt or shame, or expressed outwards as competitive aggression. Rage and shame co-exist.

South Korea is not unique in experiencing this psychology: Narcissistic wounding is endemic to every family, and alienation and its subsequent frustrations define life in capitalism. To truly understand the mechanics of jeong-han — the South Korean sensibility du jour — we need politics.

Trauma as Identity

Frantz Fanon, describing the effects of French colonialism on native Algerians, says that the coloniser inscribes the superiority of his nation on the colonised: “To be ‘The Other’ is to feel that one is always in a shaky position, to be always on guard, ready to be rejected…. It would be impossible to overestimate the intensity of the suffering that accompanies such desertion states”. Han has a real background. The loss of identity, and resulting anger and sorrow, may serve as a personal vacuum, but it exists in a solid context: U.S. colonial capitalism.

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What fills the vacuum? Fanon thought it was violence, which counter-acts the mental destruction of colonialism, and recent Korean history has no shortage of violence. But what if the neurosis sinks deeper than that? What if your generation struggled with all its might against the system and ended up with neoliberal capitalism, a struggle to survive in a competitive system? Fanon said that before the liberation struggle, the colonised are consumed by dreams of mastery and escape. Trauma turns into a social neurosis, the intense desire to compete and succeed that makes Kang Sue-Jin’s callouses so appealing and, I’d argue, the jeong-han expressed by “She’s Gone”.

Listen to the song one more time. Matijevic is deeply wounded. ‘She’ is a lover, but she doesn’t have to be. She could be a parent, a job, or even a dream of liberation. I’d argue this is why “She’s Gone” displays something real about the South Korean psyche. It’s technically proficient, expressing the will to succeed which is, at the same time, an internalisation of narcissistic wounds. It simultaneously embodies effort and loss.

But it’s also a triumph. Asia has a long history of deliberately absorbing culture and technology from the West in order to master and better it. By covering “She’s Gone”, the colonised master the language of the coloniser – not just English, but English multi-octave singing – and, in so doing, erase the stigma of colonisation. ‘We are more than equal to the West’, the Asian minstrels of “She’s Gone” are singing.

“She’s Gone” succeeded because, for all its apparent simplicity, it captures the complex interplay between prowess and pain. Yet that level of tension is unbearable in the long run, particularly when, as the age of austerity settles in, there’s no pay off. The disillusionment of pop culture will come to South Korea, and I think there’s a clue as to what it might look like. In September, the song “11” by the composer Hitchhiker was released.

It reduces the blandness and insincere highs of K-pop to nonsense syllables over 90s sirens and graphics. It celebrates a breakdown of meaning. We’ve seen this before, in Dada, the artists of WW1 who said that when humanity is destroying itself, the only rational response is irrationality.

Hitchhiker does not belong to an underground art movement: He is contracted to SM Entertainment, the biggest entertainment management firm in South Korea. Pop music in South Korea is produced with the same harsh labour discipline found in a factory, and it’s ironic that a purveyor of objectification and hyper-capitalism could sell an expression of the pain “She’s Gone” speaks of. However, regardless of the no-doubt cynical intentions behind the release, “11” shows there’s a receptive audience for new ideas. Maybe South Korea isn’t ready for a Rage Against The Machine (who, after all, signed with Sony), but I have an inkling that “She’s” not truly gone; she may be returning soon to neoliberal capitalist South Korea. This time with a vengeance.

Dr. Daniel Serge is a political theorist and cultural commentator based in Seoul.

  • Andrew Mills

    This is my favourite article on the site. Great analysis and examples. When plasticine pop is pushed to it’s limits there’s hope for a gritty insurgence of the real.