In this short essay, Korean novelist Sang Young Park defends the literary quality of K-pop lyrics.
If you know me, you know I love K-pop. You’d think a man in his midthirties would learn to step back from the front lines of popular culture, but I still check the Billboard 100 and K-pop charts every week (and get the thrill of my life when these two charts have the same No. 1). I also listen to almost every new release and have the latest hot music video on repeat in the background while I write—at the time of this writing, it’s “Lalisa” by Lisa from BLACKPINK.
In all my stories there are mentions of mainstream pop music, from the shimmering names of Mariah Carey, Kylie Minogue, and Jennifer Lopez to the first-generation Korean wave artists S.E.S (the TLC of Korea) and Fin.K.L, to 2NE1, Girls Generation, f(x), T-ara . . . In my field, which is literary fiction, pop music, especially K-pop, is looked down upon, but this music is such a part of my daily life that I naturally include it in my work. How did my life come to this, I find myself wondering, and I can only come up with one answer: genetics, or household tradition.
My father, who was something of a decadent man of leisure, would fill up our tiny house with fancy audio equipment and hoarded music like it was running out. Every day of my childhood, I’d wake up to the strains of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello or to Lee Dong-won, Park In-su, or Whitney Houston, which perhaps made it inevitable that I’d become obsessed with pop music. Ever since I was ten years old and bought my first albums—S.E.S’s debut and Mariah Carey’s Music Box—I always had a “favorite singer,” and even today, when I don’t have a means of playing CDs anymore, I still try to squeeze another new album into the crammed shelves of my own little apartment. And thus, the aficionado (or hoarder?) doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“The resultant strains of beauty sear the solitude of the city deep into the listener’s bones.”
My loud declarations of belonging to fandom culture got me a regular spot on MBC’s This Starry Night, a Korean radio program that’s been on since 1969. For the past couple of years, I’ve done the pop classics segment, where we examine lyrics from ’70s and ’80s K-pop, tracking their influence on contemporary songs. Not a difficult job considering my upbringing, and hardly a job at all considering how much I love doing it.
By the time I was six months into this gig, I’d accumulated what is surely the biggest collection of gem-like K-pop lyrics in the world. For example, I discovered that contemporary singer-songwriters Yozoh and Lee Sora have the most famous poetic lyrics of all Korean musicians; Yozoh’s song “We Lay Down Like Lines” seems on the superficial level like a love song, but going deeper, it reveals an existential layer as well as a metaphysical aspect regarding time and space. Lee Sora has her famous breakup anthems “The Wind Blows,” “Please,” and “Belief” as well as songs of aching self-realization and solitude like “I Am a Star” and “Track 9”—a true poet through and through. Indeed, these two artists topped a list of “Greatest Songwriters Picked by Poets” a year ago.
Aside from these famed singer-songwriters, I also hold a special place in my heart for Cho Yong-pil, an artist whose ability to capture urban life continues to amaze me. Even before the release of my novel Love in the Big City, about a young man navigating life in contemporary Seoul, the word “city” was very meaningful to me. I was born in a big city and then moved to another big city, where I live to this day; the ecology of cities has shaped every aspect of my thinking, writing, and way of living. And the first thing I think of when I hear the word “city” is always Cho Yong-pil’s 1991 song “Dream”:
Here I remain alone
Wandering through the buildings and shabby alleys
Eating hot tears
Do those stars know my heart, my dreams
When I’m sad I want to close my eyes
And listen for the fragrance of home
The speaker in “Dream” probably left their home deep in the country and now lives a life among concrete buildings, holding onto their dreams as they endure a meaningless daily grind. To “eat” one’s tears instead of letting them flow or swallowing them, to use the verb “listen” to shake up the familiar phrase “fragrance of home,” the skillful spatial imagery, the sounds one immediately imagines coming from one’s faraway home on a summer night, all these sentiments fuse with the yearning in Cho Yong-pil’s unique, slightly nasal voice, and the resultant strains of beauty sear the solitude of the city deep into the listener’s bones. Searching for a similar song, I came upon “Dear Moon” from 2018, written by IU and sung by the genius artist Jehwi:
Dear moon, my moon, you never get any nearer.
No matter how I run to you, you elude my grasp like the moon.
Oh moon, like [the] moon, why do you not disappear.
Even when I turn my back and run from you
You follow me like the moon.
This song looks simple at first glance, but in one line evokes the moon as seen from the city. The sky we look up at amidst our lonely and difficult lives, the moon floating there, the speaker projecting their emotions and situation onto it—this image is not so different from that of “Dream.” It’s fascinating to me that these two songs, written thirty years apart, are evoking two very similar emotions.
Cho Yong-pil is a singer-songwriter known as the “King of Songs,” but IU is less known for her songwriting prowess; she still lives in our minds as an adorable teen idol, even when she’s penned hits like “See You on Friday,” “23,” “Palette,” “Heart,” “Night Letter,” and “Dear Moon” for other artists.
I especially love her “Night Letter” and “Ait.” Jehwi was one of the composers of “Night Letter,” and judging from just the music, it’s more of a slow-tempo, soulful tune. IU added the words of someone writing to their lover or crush, creating a sad but sweet emotion, one you can’t quite define in so many words. Her new song “Ait,” on the other hand, is an up-tempo dance song that has the saddest and most desperate loss in its lyrics:
It’s hard to forget this one handspan of a memory
Just because someone tells you to move on
Time may keep passing but
That place keeps me trapped where I am
Under the orange sun we dance
Together, throwing no shadows
There’s no such thing as an inevitable goodbye
I’ll see you there in our beautiful memories
In life, our emotions can’t be simplified into words like sadness, joy, anger, or love. Sadness can make us laugh, and laughter can leave us empty. And IU happens to be a precise lyricist of these familiar yet obscured emotional dynamics.
Recently I went to my father’s house to look at his music collection. Among the usual classics, old pop, and popera, I found a recently purchased copy of IU’s Chat-Shire album. The thought that I wasn’t the only one who would discover in IU’s music the echoes of a thirty-year-old moment made me smile.
This publication was facilitated with the support of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.