South Korea (and all of Asia, really) is obsessed with pop music. So is the west, of course, but it’s so much worse in Asia. If you’re not a young, cute girl—or a guy who looks like a young, cute girl—surrounded by four nearly identical girls who each differ from you in exactly one personality trait, you have no chance of making it big in the music industry. None.
That’s not to say there aren’t options out there for those who prefer music performed by actual musicians instead of living dolls—there are hundreds, thousands, millions even; but they are virtually ignored in the media and remain unknown to all but a small number of loyal fans. Some of these musicians are amazing, a lot are good and most decent; more importantly, all were drawn to the industry by a passion for music, not a boardroom full of suits with a passion for money and an eye for vapid cuteness.
The band I’m focusing on here is called Won (yes, that’s also the name of the Korean currency). They play heavy metal music straight from the 80s, complete with the appropriate hair, clothing and everything else that made the decade arguably the worst for music in recent history. They are by no means a great band, but they’re entertaining and they’ve been around since 1998 and have built a large following of very loyal fans. For a non-pop band in Korea, that means 100 or so people, but every last one of those fans loves them some Won.
And understandably so, I suppose—I saw them live in Seoul’s Hongdae district a few years ago and the show was amazing. Not because of the music, but because of the musicians. They were having an absolute blast and couldn’t have cared less that they had failed to sell out the closet they were headlining. The lead singer, especially, was pulling out every single 80s metal pose you could think of and belting out each note with such enthusiasm that it didn’t even matter that their songs were every bit as cheesy as most music from the actual 80s.
After the show, the band hung around to meet their fans, most of whom they probably knew on a first-name basis. They were especially excited to meet the foreigners in the audience—way more excited than we were to meet them, actually. They turned out to be really cool though; they were pretty much the nicest people you could imagine and were all beyond thrilled that we had showed up to hear their music.
Strangely though, meeting them actually made me feel bad. Here we had group of guys and girls who, while not the most talented band ever assembled, did write their own music, play instruments and do all the other things generally associated with a band. More importantly, they absolutely loved what they were doing. And yet, they were clearly barely making a living, while Korea’s TV screens and radio waves are populated by 15 year old girls whose only skill is…who knows? I’m sure they’re good at something, but it’s not something related to music.
I know that’s nothing new and also know it’s not unique to Korea. I’ve seen plenty of good bands in dark filthy bars in the US and I’ve seen Britney Spears and others like her on TV screens. And I know people don’t like the Britneys and the Justins for their talent; they like them because they’re told to like them. The brainless masses are manipulated by marketers and marketers are controlled by money.
I have no idea how a short post about a hilarious band I saw in Korea turned into a rant about money manipulating morons to make more money, but I suppose it all makes sense, given that the band in question is named Won. Unfortunately, they are too old, too ugly, too hairy, too manly and too talented to ever make enough Won to live comfortably.
With that, I’ll leave you with a video which, I just noticed, includes some footage from the very show we saw and was mostly shot four days earlier at the same venue: