A cultural critical mass

2014-01-19 : 17:09

Those close to folk-rock singer Kim Kwang-seok, who committed suicide in January 1996, said he was troubled by his albums’ lack of commercial success. His albums, including remastered works, have sold more than 5 million copies since. / Korea Times file

The rise of Kim Kwang-seok's posthumous career 

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Eighteen years after his death, folk-rock singer Kim Kwang-seok continues to enjoy a highly-lucrative posthumous career.

Kim Chang-ki, a close friend of the late singer who wrote many of his influential songs, sounds rather frustrated by it.

“I remember seeing Kwang-seok in December 1995, a few weeks before his death. His album wasn’t doing well and he was personally in distress,” he said in a recent television interview.

“If people were going to like him as much as they do now, why couldn’t have they liked him a little earlier? After leaving the man entirely burned out and consumed ... all this talk about the greatness of his songs... I find this amusing.”

While it’s debatable whether Kim Chang-ki, leader and vocalist of the band Dongmulwon, was fair or not in portraying the lavish praise heaped on his dead friend as hypocritical and reactionary, his snarky comments underline how unlikely of a phenomenon the Kim Kwang-seok boom really is.

Before he was found dead at his house in January 1996 at the age of 32, in what the police concluded as a suicide, Kim had been among the many artists categorized as an “underground singer,” a media moniker for performers sidelined from the mainstream.

While Kim did manage to establish a reputation among more serious music listeners, he was never more than a big fish in a small puddle, rarely appearing on television and living off modest record sales and small concerts near university campuses.

It’s not that his death immediately boosted the public awareness of his music either.

“When I was in college, Kim Kwang-seok songs were appreciated by a certain group of students, mostly those involved in civic activism, who mixed Kim songs in the assortment of their songs used in street demonstrations,” said Hwang Kyeong-seok, a musician from the band The Film.

Choi Si-won, a 35-year-old office worker and passionate folk-music fan, finds Kim’s posthumous renaissance as perplexing as well.

“I entered college about a year after his death. When I told my freshman classmates that I like Kim Kwang-seok, I found no one who agreed with me,” Choi said.

“Tagged with the dreaded ‘underground’ label, Kim didn’t sell many records either, although he was appreciated for the quality of his live performances.”

Kim’s ability to sell records is no longer a question. More than 5 million copies of Kim’s albums have been sold in the new millennium, a staggering number considering a market dominated by online downloads.

While it’s difficult to isolate the tipping point of precisely when Kim’s intricate, heart-rending songs began to inspire the nation of music listeners, a good guess is the 2000 Park Chan-wook film, “Joint Security Area.”

The movie, which was the breakthrough for the director who is later credited for “Oldboy,” portrays the tragic fate of North and South Korean soldiers who develop friendship guarding the inter-Korean border. Kim’s songs, such as “A Letter Never Sent,” are used creatively in the film to dramatize the connection between the soldiers.

“I think this was when Kim’s songs began to appear more in television and commercials, mostly to create emotional effects,” Choi said.

In taking his own life, Kim cut short a music career before it reached a decade. He debuted in 1988 as a member of Kim Chang-ki’s Dongmulwon and soon pursued a solo career, releasing four albums and performing in about a thousand concerts, mostly in small theaters in university streets.

Now, Korea seems to be in danger of a Kim Kwang-seok overkill. Three different stage musicals based on Kim’s songs have been performed in the past year, such as the big-budget show “December,” currently staged at the Sejong Center for Performing Arts in Seoul.

Kim’s songs continue to be butchered by K-pop singers and reality-show contestants in KBS television’s “Immortal Song and JTBC’s “Hidden Singer. Television networks are competitively airing documentaries about Kim’s life and music.

An essay rounding up Kim’s diary, notes and unpublished lyrics was released last year. Musicians will hold a concert in his memory at the Auditorium of Kyungpook National University Daegu, Kim’s hometown, on Feb. 8.

Kim’s popularity has reached a level where it inspired German hip-hop group, Die Orsons, to release a song titled “Kim Kwang Seok” in 2010. Although Die Orsons members admitted they didn’t understand Korean, they said they were inspired by Kim’s voice, which “sounds like eternity,” and said they instinctively knew he “sang the saddest songs in the world.” That is a bold statement in a world that has already seen Elliot Smith.

Now finally appreciated fully, Kim’s music seems to have transcendent value across generations and time. The song “Around 30” is poignant poetry about the helplessness and the fear of getting old. There might not be a better Korean song about a lost love than “Don’t Think Too Seriously.”

“Kim’s songs call forth the music culture of the late 1980s and early 90s, when university music clubs featured folk music with acoustic instruments. The students who experienced that culture are now major consumers of cultural products,” said Kim Jung-wee, a music critic.

“It could also be said that Kim’s music lingers because it resonates with working-class people’s everyday life. Of course, you have to admit that his premature death benefited his popularity as it did with Yoo Jae-ha and Kim Hyun-sik.”