By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Founder and Editor-in-chief
With most genres, it is hard to tack down an exact date, time, or place where the music originated. The music genres that we listen to today have intricate and complex roots, geographically diverse points of origin, and developed over a history of decades, if not centuries. Kpop is unique in this manner, because we know exactly where, when, why, and how Kpop began: it was on April 11th, 1992 at the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation weekend music show, when Seo Taiji and the Boys performed live on national television for the very first time. Before we get to that beginning point though, it is important to consider the historical conditions that led up to it in order to truly understand how and why Kpop became Kpop.
When Seo Taiji and the Boys burst onto every television screen in Korea, there wasn’t such a thing as “Kpop.” Before they came around, Korean popular music mainly consisted of highly censored, inoffensive ballads and trot music. This was because until the late ‘80s, Korea was ruled by a strict, authoritarian government that censored or banned anything that was considered to be too immoral or provocative, followed too closely with foreign trends, or was thought to be a national security threat – so pretty much everything that most pop stars like to sing about. These sorts of censorships are still evident in Korean entertainment today, which is why you will often see articles reporting that a Kpop group’s choreography or lyrics have been deemed “unfit for broadcast” by certain TV stations.
After a period of political instability following the Korean War, a general named Park Chung Hee took control over South Korea, becoming the nation’s first post-war leader and holding his position as dictator from 1961-1979 (fun fact: his daughter, Park Geun Hye, currently serves as South Korea’s 11th president and first ever female president). Park was adamant about enforcing cultural conservatism – so adamant, in fact, that he had police patrol the streets with rulers, performing snap inspections on Korean citizens to ensure that men’s hair wasn’t too long and that women’s skirts weren’t too short, as seen below.
Image courtesy of The Grand Narrative
In 1975, Park established the Korean Arts and Culture Ethics Council in order to give the government the power to oversee the censorship of all broadcasts, performances, and film and audio recordings. Today, it is that same organization that requires idols to cover their tattoos on broadcasts and determines whether or not lyrics or choreography is appropriate for weekend music shows.
After Park’s dictatorship ended with his assassination in 1979, Korea came under the rule of a new dictator, Chun Doo Hwan. Chun went a step further than Park and brought the Korean media under complete government control. He closed all of the commercial television stations and licensed only two state channels: the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). The new purpose of these stations was not to entertain the people, but to inform them, and to do so as the government demanded.
When South Korea was finally democratized in 1987, Korean popular music remained rigidly conservative. The music industry, although no longer controlled by the government via broadcast control, continued to produce content that encouraged morality and innocence rather than licentiousness and rebellion in order to maintain good relationships with the media, who after years of complying to government-required censorship, were too scared to air anything controversial. Broadcast companies continued to tread lightly throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, fearful that they might anger the still-traditional government or offend the conservative Korean people by airing something unwholesome.
It is through this brief historical summary of modern Korean entertainment that we can really see just how deeply censorship and conservatism are entrenched in the Korean music industry. The fact that producers and musicians continued to create suppressed, conservative content even after Korea was democratized is a testament to just how deep the cuts go. Even today, idols are singing about their first love, shy glances, hugs, and being nervous around members of the opposite sex. While it is becoming less rare to find a mainstream K-pop song that explicitly mentions sex, drinking, partying, drugs, or violence, it is nonetheless uncommon. Meanwhile, in the United States, it is rare to find a song that doesn’t include at least three of these subjects in the chorus alone.
I know that we all hated history class in high school, but it is important to realize that a foundational standard of wholesome, censored content was established by a combination of a highly oppressive Korean government and the already conservative values of Korean society. Korea’s political history is a huge reason why K-pop is the way that it is today, and we here at moonROK are glad that you took the time to read this in order to truly understand and appreciate the roots of this genre that we all love today.
That’s it for today’s history lesson! Come back next week to read about weekend music shows, how they came to be, and why they are so important.
Tags: Hyorin Seo Taiji and the Boys SISTAR The History of K-pop