Stephen Epstein’s Us and Them

End of November the Asia-Pacific Journal published a peer-reviewed article by Victoria University of Wellington professor Stephen Epstein on Korean indie music: Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World. More specifically, it complements the 2014 documentary of the same name co-produced by Stephen Epstein and Timothy Tangherlini.

The article does a great job of setting the context by starting with a personal account of how popular Korean music has developed from the 90s and onwards. It continues with a definition of what indie rock means in a Korean context, also discussing its now global reach. In addition to the bands featured in the documentary itself (3rd Line Butterfly, Crying Nut, The RockTigers, …Whatever That Means, The Geeks) the article highlights RUX, Jambinai and Love X Stereo.

The documentary Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World follows up on the 2002 documentary Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community from the same producers. It’s a low-budget production with plenty of material to intrigue anybody with an interest in Korea’s music scene–personally I really enjoyed the series of photos from the punk scene back in the day, featuring among others RUX’s Won Jonghee in his early 20s.

Early on Crying Nut are interviewed, talking about making themselves a name abroad: “But to say that Crying Nut is riding the Korean Wave or that we’re Korean wave stars doesn’t really make a lot of sense. We don’t want to be known as part of Hallyu, but just as the rock band Crying Nut.” It’s a sentiment I recognize from many other Korean indie musicians when talking international exposure. This is in contrast to Sung Kiwan of 3rd Line Butterfly, who later in the documentary argues that if Girls’ Generation opens the door it’s good for Korean indie bands to follow. Though it seems Sung Kiwan questions the very idea of K-pop being popular abroad, in France in particular, asking “Why? Is there no music there?”

As one of the first Korean bands to play in Europe, Crying Nut tell an anecdote from their performance at Trästocksfestivalen in Skellefteå, Sweden. I didn’t find out about the performance until a month later, but from all accounts Crying Nut’s brand of punk appears to have been very well received under the midnight sun. Although it seems the lineup may have given the band members the wrong impression of the Swedish music scene: “In Sweden there are two kinds of music: either pop like The Cardigans… Swedish pop… and if it’s not Swedish pop, it’s all headbanger stuff!”

That Crying Nut came to play in Sweden already in 2005 is revealed to be from a conscious effort for the band to play anywhere outside of Korea. When DFSB Kollective first took Korean bands to play in North America under the Seoulsonic brand, however, the targets were areas with a strong Korean base, Bernie Cho explained. In the end Seoulsonic anyway turned out to attract a non-Korean audience. The documentary also shows footage from US tours made by The RockTigers and …Whatever That Means, illustrating that good music doesn’t need to be marketed with a nationality to be appreciated and draw a live crowd.

In addition to doing a good job of showing Korean bands reaching abroad, Us and Them depicts some of the struggles Korean bands face at home. Crying Nut’s “말달리자” may be a song that everybody knows, commonly sung at noraebangs all over the country, yet the band members’ experience is that nobody is familiar with the name Crying Nut. The Hongdae playground was once a popular hangout spot for Korean punks, but now it’s crowded by hipsters say …Whatever That Means. Sung Kiwan laments that Hongdae as a whole has become a place where people just come to dance, have fun, and then go home–a form of degradation. Seo Kiseok of The Geeks further emphasises …Whatever That Means’ view that music clubs have gradually become less popular, revealing that he looses money from doing live shows.

During the 40 minutes that it lasts, Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World has no problems keeping the viewer’s attention. Stephen Epstein and Timothy Tangherlini know the realm well and have managed to produce a film providing a fair overview of the topics at hand. Much of the material in the documentary is already a couple of years old or more so Stephen Epstein’s companion article with updates for 2015 is definitely a recommended read, but even so the film is relevant on its own. I’ve got plenty to add on the subject of Korean bands going global based on my own observations, but will leave this here as a base for future discussion in another post.

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