ASince the last lifting of Covid restrictions, music is once again in the air in Seoul. But in 2022, it’s not just K-pop and Western hits that provide the soundtrack to the South Korean capital. There’s another sound lurking around almost every corner.
It sounds from the portable stereos of the vendors in the fruit and vegetable markets, and it sings to norabang cabins (karaoke) in Nagwon-dong. I hear it in Euljiro’s second-hand music stores, where it’s piled floor to ceiling in bumper-sized bundles of CDs and cassettes. When I turn on the TV, it’s there again – starring in variety shows and glitzy talent contests. Genre stars light up alleys and skyscrapers on torn posters and digital billboards. “It’s like oxygen,” says dance producer 250 of the pounding beats, cheap keyboard sounds and soulful vocal performances I hear everywhere I go. “It’s everywhere.”
This is ppongjjak – a revitalization of a century-old Korean pop genre otherwise known as trot. Until recently, it was only popular among older people, who listened to it on mountain hikes and on intercity bus tours (as seen in the final scene of 2009’s Mother, by Parasite director Bong Joon -ho). Now he finds a place in the underground and the mainstream. This unexpected resurgence is apparently baffling to many locals: One patron of the bar uses the word “embarrassing” to describe the genre’s absurd mix of soulful ballads and ecstatic eurodance-style beats. But young artists are incorporating these questionable sounds into their tracks, and the revival now threatens to break Korea’s borders.
The name comes from a simple rhythm that underlies the music: ppongjjak is an onomatopoeic term that mimics repetitive one-two time, the first syllable meaning a bass thump, the second a whipping snare. It is dressed in simple melodies that make it easy to sing and dance, with higher vocal tones delivered in a technique known as kkeokk-ki (meaning flex, or break, the voice). The sentimental lyrics and the happy and sad melodies, meanwhile, embody the emotion of ha – a term describing a feeling of shared grief or lamentation. A local music video producer, Kim Kyuseo of the production agency Spire, presents the respective qualities of the trot and today ppongjjak in Shakespearian terms: “It’s like tragedy and comedy,” he says, emphasizing the emotive vocal performances more characteristic of the former, and the wild rhythms of the latter. “They dance their pain.”
Neither experts nor enthusiasts can agree on whether they are, in fact, the same thing or just different strands of a genre – but either way, the roots of ppongjjak dates back to the early 20th century, when an undivided Korea was occupied by Japan. The trot is derived from the foxtrot, explains Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University. The two-beat style of dance was introduced to Korea from Japan as part of a “cultural phenomenon influenced by the jazz age in America” in the 1920s. As the ruling class opened large dance halls across the country (partly inspired by those of Blackpool and other British cities, Lee says), Koreans combined it with traditional workers’ music – and the trot was born.
Since then, the genre has navigated a convoluted history. He was responsible for early Korean pop idols, including Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a, during the genre’s heyday in the 1970s. singer Sim Soo-bong was even present during the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979; she had sung for the military dictator at the banquet held that evening. But it has also been repeatedly condemned since the late 1960s as various governments attempted to weed out Japanese influences from society. Debate persists over whether the heartbreak of the trot—characterized in the themes of famous songs such as Yi Hae-yeon’s Heartbreaking Miari Hill and Nam In-su’s Busan Station of Farewell—makes it inherently Korean, or whether the style is derived from Japanese. encase (a genre perhaps more recognizable to Westerners from its use in the Kill Bill soundtrack).
In the 1990s, young Koreans felt increasingly upbeat and there was little room for the melancholic music associated with the older generation. The fresh sound of K-pop – influenced by overseas dance, R&B and hip-hop – pierced the zeitgeist. But trots never went away, and in the late 2010s an unexpected revival was catalyzed by the launch of an X Factor-style TV talent show in which suitors perform in the traditional, sentimental style – one of its episodes has been watched by more than a third of the total Korean television audience.
Listening to Mr Trot winner Lim Young-woong’s hit single My Starry Love, I can’t help but recall Gareth Gates’ version of Unchained Melody from the first series of Pop Idol. But Lim’s popularity is undeniable: he has more than 1.3 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, his face currently occupies a 10-story video billboard in the booming university district of Hongdae, and he is as ubiquitous as BTS in the souvenir stalls of the market district. Insa-dong.
Some corners of the press see this revival of the trot interest as merely part of the “newtro” trend (a portmanteau of the words “new” and “retro”): a youth culture phenomenon characterized by vintage fashion, retro graphic and interior designs, and the popularity of drama Vintage K such as Monsieur Soleil. But the trotting industry has also become attractive for singers and musicians with great professional ambitions.
Lee explains that the “idol” industry of mainstream K-pop stars is “very restrictive. You have to look good, be good at dancing, and you have to take care of the public and the marketing – it’s like being a model or a goddess. On the other hand, the more the niche trot or ppongjjak The market (Lee uses the terms interchangeably) “is a place where people who just want to be a good singer or a good musician can focus on art”. It’s a point made by Korean stars such as Lizzy, formerly of K-pop girl group After School. She released a trot song, Not an Easy Girl, as her first solo single in 2015, telling MBN Star that year, “Idol music is short-lived… I thought trot music would stay in the music business longer.”
It’s not just reality TV stars and mainstream entertainers who are taking part in the revival. I come across the face of ’90s ‘techno-trot’ pioneer Epaksa, also known as Dr Lee, blasted off the side of a wall in bustling Euljiro – a former manufacturing mecca which now houses late-night bars serving beer and fried chicken to patrons seated on plastic chairs. He is one of many former statesmen who have benefited from the ppongjjak resurgence, with new shows and an album in the works; I hear a track that sounds suspiciously like his Monkey Magic sounding from a portable stereo on the same day.
Epaksa also just guest-starred on an album by one of the country’s most exciting young dance producers. Seoul-based 250 is best known for creating beats for BTS and producing Korean hip-hop icon E Sens. But on his first solo album, Ppong (which playfully pastiches the stereotypical poses found in trotting CD covers), he created an avant-garde hybrid of ppongjjak which embodies the grief or sadness inherent in the genre while incorporating elements of modern dance music.
“Ppongjjak the music is often very fast, almost like drum’n’bass,” he says, comparing the free-dancing styles of 1990s ravers to those of ppongjjak connoisseurs. He checks the name of the Italian canzone and French song close to the genre by their melancholy and nostalgic sounds. It shares themes with American country music: “They miss their hometown.” And in its cheesy bass lines and “cheap and tacky” sounds, it offers parallels to Italo disco of the 70s and 80s: “Giorgio Moroder’s Chase”, says 250, “is simply ppongjjak. He’s got it right: the pulsating double beat, the soulful melodies, the dated synth sounds – they’re all there.
A Korean cultural oddity such as ppongjjak already transplanted to the west? This is already the case, albeit in a modest way. Epaksa’s ridiculous music video for 2000’s Space Fantasy title saw him posing in front of Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and even the Pyramids of Giza. And the Korea Tourism Board’s impressive Feel the Rhythm spot – which aired on repeat at London’s East Asian Film Festival in 2021 and racked up nearly 50 million views on YouTube – highlights highlights a musical performance by the Korean band Leenalchi. The song fuses alternative rock and traditional Korean Pansori vocals (folk) with an undeniable reduced price ppongjjak to beat.
But in 2022, it may be 250 that has the greatest opportunity – some would say the danger – of taking the genre internationally. Largely instrumental, Ppong sounds as if it was designed to accompany a bent trot vocalist of any language to play on, and while the hyper-powerful one-two beats sometimes recall the messed up sounds of happy hardcore, the rich, colorful melodies on tracks such as Bang Bus and Rear Window can’t help to remind me of a bargain of Todd Terje, British indie-electro stars Metronomy or Japanese titans of electronic music Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Two months after the album’s release, 250 have just launched their first show on famed London broadcasting station NTS Radio – and they’re jam-packed with the trot and ppongjjak sounds, including cuts from Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a. With Korean pop culture showing no signs of slowing down, who’s to say ppongjjak – or, at least, a crazy new hybridization of it – won’t it be Korea’s next big export trend? In London, karaoke booths await.