09-18-2008 17:09
(503) Sing Your Way to Health

By Andrei Lankov

The authoritarian South Korean government of the 1970s felt uneasy about many things. The bureaucrats (largely former military officers) believed that the Korean people were wearing the wrong clothes, singing the wrong songs, and sporting the wrong haircuts.

It was the government's duty, they believed, to save those innocent people from moral mistakes, and perhaps even hidden Communist influences.

Thus, the government fought an uphill battle against mini-skirts, hunted down the long-haired hippie wannabes and, of course, steered pop music in the right direction.

The supervision of the music scene was entrusted to the Performance Ethics Committee, a powerful censorship body which was constantly on guard against ``communist subversion'' (understood very broadly) and ``immoral ideas'' (understood even more broadly).

It was also charged with the additional task of propagating the right role models and good, uplifting songs.

Hence, the authorities required all record companies to include in their LPs or tapes the so-called ``Geonjeon Gayo'' or, translated literally, ``healthy songs.''

Those songs were supposed to inculcate the Korean audience with a positive worldview and correct ideas ! meaning patriotism, hard work, honesty and other such virtues.

In one case, for example, a song was supposed to be sung by a market merchant who was going to market. It was titled, ``On the Way to the Market'' and contained promises to be honest and cheerful when dealing with customers: ``I will sell easily with a warm smile,'' the song's protagonist assured the listeners.

For exactly 1 minute and 22 seconds, the audience was supposed to enjoy this crash course in business ethics ! sung, I would admit, by a rather pretty female voice. The song had to be put at the end of many albums, which appeared in Korea in the 1980s.

The government of the 1960s-70s paid much attention to ``moral propaganda,'' on the assumption ! perhaps, naive and unfounded ! that public mores can be improved by making people sing the correct songs.

Unlike most of their critics, I am not quite sure whether they were completely wrong. Perhaps, thanks to the daily exposure to the ``Market Song,'' the amount of cheating on Korean markets indeed went down some 0.04 percent ! who knows?

But it is clear that a substantial and increasingly large part of the Korean public was annoyed by those morality songs.

To make sure that the ``healthy songs'' were present, the Performance Ethics Committee required all record companies to pre-submit prepared albums before they started making commercial copies.

Only after the album was approved could it could go to the manufacturers. The records' producers were not happy since the ``healthy songs'' did not enjoy much popularity and their presence often damaged sales.

But they could not do much: without the ``permission number'' from the Performance Ethics Committee, no vendor would risk selling the records.

Actually, all this is very similar to the Soviet pop scene of my own teenage years, of the 1970s. In those days Soviet artists were also required to include on their LPs a song or two about Soviet patriotism, the virtues of military service, the enthusiasm of workers, and other lofty political subjects.

Once this demand was met, they could safely sing about love, flowers, and similarly less important topics. Indeed, the regime of Park Chung-hee had some uncanny similarities with the Soviet regime of the 1970s (in politics, of course ! in the economy the difference could not have been greater).

The Performance Ethics Committee did not limit itself to propagating politically correct music. Its officials also tried to save the audience from what its counterparts in North Korea would probably describe as ``poisonous inroads of the bastardly anti-national ideology.''

The committee formally banned a number of songs which were deemed to be ``too Japanese'' in their style and spirit. The irony of the situation was that Japanese pop music has always had a powerful impact on the Korean music scene.

In a sense, nearly all Korean pop songs of the 1960s could be seen as Japanese-inspired, so the committee had to be very selective.

One of the banned hits was ``A Girl From Dongbaek,'' sung by Yi Mi-ja, probably the most famous singer of the era. For a long time this hit could not be performed in public or broadcast, for it was ``Japanese-influenced.''

There were even banned words and expressions that could not be used in pop lyrics. Some of these were obscenities or had sexual undertones, while others had political connotations, being common in the militant left-wing jargon of the era.

Nowadays, the era of ``healthy songs'' and government censorship is remembered with irony and bitterness, even by those Koreans who were generally positive about the controversial heritage of the 1970s.

The left-leaning intellectuals ! that is, a majority of those Koreans who are now below 45 years of age ! often perceive those songs with open disgust, as a sign of government's intervention into the arts and personal life.

Alas, many (but not all) of those people for some reason do not feel the same righteous outrage when it comes to the art of North Korea which for many decades has consisted of only ``healthy songs.'' Such a selective approach has become very common in Korea throughout the last decade.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at anlankov@yahoo.com.