Friday, September 13, 2013

K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music by Kim Chang Nam (2012)

::The Skinny::

Title:  K-Pop -- Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music

Written by:  Kim Chang Nam

Language:  English

Publication year:  2012.

Pages:  151 pages.

Price:  $17.50 at

In less than 30 words:  Brief overview of the history of K-pop that leaves out far too much.

Reading List category:  History, Pop culture

Keyword(s):  K-pop

Writing style:  Academic. Uneven, and at times disorganized.

Rating:  3 stars

::The Review::

The author of this book deserves a special mention. Professor Kim Chang-nam is himself a pretty important figure in Korean pop music history, as he was one of the leaders for 노래를 찾는 사람들 ["People who seek music"], one of the more important bands of the 1980s in Korea. Unfortunately, the book would have been better if Professor Kim simply wrote about his own story.

As of the writing of this review, this book is the only book in English that attempts to cover the entire history of Korean pop music, beginning in the 1920s. For a reader who knows absolutely nothing about the history of Korean pop music, this is an okay introduction. But ultimately, the slim 150-page book simply is not up to the task of describing nearly a century of Korean pop music history in adequate detail. Partly, that is because of insufficient number of pages, often filled up with large pictures.

But partly, it is also because of the deliberate choice that the author made:  Kim devotes approximately half of the book for the history between 1920s and 1990s, and the other half for 1990s to present, because he focuses more on the smaller definition of K-pop involving the current generation of idol groups. The result is, to me at least, a gross injustice in historical writing. Shin Joong-hyeon, Korea's "godfather of rock" and likely the most important figure in Korean pop music history, is described in two paragraphs--while discussion about the idol groups of the 2000s take up the last one-third of the book.

There are also irritating failures of execution in the book as well. The song's titles are translated without giving the original Korean title in the body of the book. (The book does have an index of songs with Korean script at the end.) The title of one of the most important songs in Korean pop music history, namely 황성옛터, is mistranslated: it should be The Old Castle Ruins rather than Vestiges of the Yellow Castle. (Professor Kim likely thought 황성 was 黃城 ("yellow castle"), but it is actually 荒城 ("castle ruins").) At p. 40, the book discusses the frequently appearing words in the K-pop songs of the 1970s without any citation. This study is a pioneering work by Professor Lee Yeong-Mi of Korea National University of Arts, and Lee deserves the credit.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to learn more about the history of K-pop and unable to read in Korean, because you have no other choice. But know that even the 10th best book about the history of K-pop in Korean language is probably superior to this one.

Reading Korea (


  1. I will get all the K-pop fan girls with this :D

  2. This was not an easy read. I cannot figure out what audience this is written for, and I think that in an attempt to satisfy a diverse audience, it fails at satisfying any.

    The book is clearly a translation, but it's unclear to me whether it's an extremely academic treatise translated into English or a more accessible book translated into the worst of academic English. Either way, it is full of the sort of constructions like "It is not unreasonable to think it is not . . ." that leave you wondering what on earth that sentence meant. (Not a real quote, just trying to give you the idea. The book is back at the library, so I can't dig for quotes.)

    As TK observes, the section on early history is not really in depth. It is possible to glean excellent information about the history and development of pop music as it came in from other cultures, but I found myself unable to find examples to listen to - not everything is on YouTube - and discovering the titles list in the back the day it was due back at the library didn't help. I suspect I would have had more luck searching with the Korean titles, but having them separate from the text turns it into an irritating multi-step research project.

    I am more familiar with the current pop music scene, and I found the second half of the book frustrating and extremely incomplete. The Wikipedia article "K-pop" is better. And the book buys into the usual characterization of K-pop as trivial and manufactured, which, much of it, but not all, is. It reminds me of everything the "adults" said about Elvis Presley (who was later credited with popularizing a whole branch of African American traditional music), then later the Beatles, and in fact every music style that is not what the now-scholars listened to when they were young. It overlooks groups like Nell and the many pop stars who do, in fact, write their own music and/or lyrics. I wanted more information about the groups that are big today, but the only groups active now that are mentioned are Big Bang, SHINee and TVXQ, but there was little about the breakup of TVXQ, which is not really the same group any more. And there is the usual (and probably accurate) vilifying of the idol system. It's reasonable, however, to note that this has always been the lot of musicians. American pop is full of tales of starving super stars and managers/family/companies that sucked the performers dry. So I missed cultural context, where cultural means musical culture worldwide.
    But as TK points out - this is the only book in English that there is. If you're interested in musicological history, you will need to learn to read Korean. If you're interested in the current scene, you'll do better to read current music blogs like Seoulbeats - for a dozen puff pieces, you'll find one or two very thoughtful bloggers with real substance. And they write about indies and the migration we're starting to see of indies into the more mainstream music scene.
    Now, I'm going back to listening to Cho Yong Pil, Nell and Jang Sa Ik. And looking forward to the Infinite concert in 2 weeks - who said you can't become a fan-girl at 68?

  3. Which books (in Korean) would you recommend that better capture the comprehensive history of kpop?

  4. Thanks for the review. I heard Kim Chang-nam give an excellent talk in London several years ago on what was basically the first half of this book. So I would naturally have bought it. You’ve saved me precious time.

    For something which covers the history of Korean popular music in English, there’s a good collection of articles edited by Keith Howard. A brief summary here: