It’s not just Korean pop music that’s taking over the world, or at least parts of it. Another significant chunk of the Korean Wave are the dramas: it’s very likely you know someone who’s watched at least one of them. In some places it’s arguably bigger than K-pop, even: Niko’s colleagues are pretty passionate about it, and to his surprise, so is his mother. But the two are not mutually exclusive, so in this weeks edition of How to Collect Korean Pop Music, we look at soundtracks – the songs that have defined critical moments in Korean dramas, and have made stars both of actors and musicians. Or people who do both roles.
Korean dramas have been around since television began in the country in the 1950s, but only in recent years did they become popular. In the 1990s, spurred on by the economic downturn and earlier investment in cultural institutions, Korean networks and conglomerates began aggressively producing and exporting drama programs to neighboring countries. The success of such shows in China and Japan would kick start what we now call the Korean Wave – the musical component of which we’re tackling these past few weeks. As we mentioned earlier, K-dramas and K-pop are closely intertwined: songs from shows such as Secret Garden have topped the Korean charts, and some K-pop idols have seen successful acting careers.
Since we’re all being historical, let’s begin with Reply 1997, a coming-of-age drama set amidst the emergence of K-pop (as we know it) in the late 90s. Rainy’s been begging Niko to watch it for months now, and perhaps he should, considering critics love it because it captures that whole culture quite well – and it’s well-loved by audiences too. Maybe when they finally fly to Seoul, just before the Americans make their own version (and it is in the works) but anyway…
Reply 1997 is also a good example of K-pop stars seeing success in acting. Seo In-guk – we mentioned him last week – had his first leading role on this show, although he began his career as a singer. His co-star, Jung Eun-ji, is best known as the main vocalist for APink; this was her first ever acting role. The show – the backdrop may be unique but it is ultimately a love story, and we don’t mean to be dismissive here – did not have an OST, as it used a lot of 90s songs, but they later released two duets, both covers. “All For You” was originally from 90s group Cool, while “Just the Way We Love” was from the soundtrack to the 1999 film Love Wind Love Song. Incidentally, that film’s two leads would get married eleven years later. But again, anyway…
Another Korean drama very much rooted in the K-pop world is KBS’ Dream High, Plot: high school students dream of becoming idols; but, of course, it’s also a coming-of-age story much like Reply 1997. Actors: a who’s-who of K-pop stars, including Miss A‘s Suzy, T-ARA‘s Eunjung, 2PM’s Taecyon and Wooyoung, and IU. The soundtrack features them plus a glut of others, including actor Kim Sooh-yun, former Wonder Girls leader Sunye and Park Jin-young, the man behind JYP Entertainment.
Dream High served as Suzy’s debut, and her performance was acclaimed by both critics and audiences alike. Well, yeah, you see a pattern here, I assume, of all the K-pop idols doing well as actors. Here’s your roll call: Super Junior‘s Choi Siwon, f(x)‘s Krystal Jung, SS501’s Kim Hyun-joong, Girls’ Generation‘s Im Yoona, and another guy we mentioned last week, Rain.
Conversely, some actors have gone on to a singing career. Lee Min-ho wouldn’t say he has one, though, insisting that he’s doing it for the fans; the promotion around his two albums, released in 2013 and 2014 respectively, have mostly been fan meets across the region. After his aspirations to play football was dashed by a childhood injury, he began working as an actor; his breakthrough role came in the KBS series Boys Over Flowers, which aired in 2009. “My Everything” was part of that show’s third soundtrack; the two previous releases were mostly filled with songs from established K-pop artists, as well as the singers from the cast, which include Kim Hyun-joong and Kim Joon of the rap group T-Max.
It wasn’t always this way. Korean drama soundtracks – and every drama has one – used to be made up entirely of instrumentals, but in the 1990s, perhaps in recognition of the rise of K-pop in the country, more pop tunes were used. The success of these dramas would also lead to their soundtracks gaining popularity, and one can argue the international appeal of K-pop nowadays stemmed from that. (We wish it was that easy to say, but there are so many element at plays.) One more thing: soundtracks in this case aren’t always a set of songs in one CD. Some shows release just one single, and that’s enough to call it a soundtrack. Some shows release a drip feed of songs during the show’s run (roughly three months), like Reply 1988, a spin-off of the successful Reply 1997.
Some older acts have also seen later success performing songs for Korean dramas. Lee Seung-chul, for one, used to be the front man for rock band Boohwal; he left the group in 1989 to pursue a solo career. (He was part of the soundtrack for King of Baking, Kim Takgu, one of the biggest Korean dramas in 2010.) Baek Ji-young is another example: she began her career with more upbeat tunes in the late 1990s, but later shifted to more mellow material after she underwent vocal cord surgery in 2008.
She has performed for many soundtracks, but her most popular is perhaps “That Woman”, the theme to the wildly successful Secret Garden, also released in 2010. That song is typical, perhaps, of the more widely appealing of the Korean drama theme tunes: ballads underscoring the romantic tug-of-war between the two leads. Again, the whole “every drama is inherently a love story” thing. But it’s interesting how these ballads do not stick out as obvious theme tunes the way, say, Filipino dramas are. Put it on shuffle alongside the latest K-pop tunes and, whiplash from instant gear changes aside, it doesn’t sound so cheesy. Or perhaps it’s because the language is all foreign to us.
It’s not all ballads, though. Korean dramas do get upbeat sometimes – see this song from F.T. Island’s Lee Hong-gi, used for the 2013 series The Heirs. (Okay, Niko threw this in on a tenuous link: he’s developed a bit of a crush on Park Shin-hye, thanks to Swap Week, and a chance encounter on Three Meals A Day.) The action series Iris, which aired in 2009, had a contribution from Big Bang. Idea is, the OST would usually adapt to the show’s themes, but as most of these shows are more down to earth – more conceptual shows don’t fly as much – you’d be treated more to ballads.
An interesting effect of the popularity of Korean drama is it providing a window to older acts and songs. The Reply 1997 soundtracks, as we mentioned earlier, are made up mostly of covers, tying in to its nostalgic theme. Dream High brought to our attention Korean veteran Insooni, whose 2007 song “A Goose’s Dream” was covered by (again) Suzy, and later by a contingent of K-pop stars on variety shows. (We almost included that song, actually.) If you could get through all the plot lines and pay close attention, there’s a load of K-pop to be discovered here. We wish we had time, frankly.
Additional listening: It’s hard to wrap one’s head around Korean dramas in just one sitting, so we have instead a relatively random assortment of tracks from Korean dramas. R&B singer Lyn provided the theme to My Love from the Star, “My Destiny”. Every Single Day, veterans of the Korean indie rock scene (they were formed in 1997) did “Non-Fiction”, the theme to the 2014 series Pinocchio. That show’s director, Jo Soo-won, was also at the helm of the 2015 series The Time We Were Not In Love, whose soundtrack includes this contribution from Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, “The Time I Loved You”. The soundtrack to the 2013 series That Winter, the Wind Blows is filled with K-pop idols like Spica’s Kim Boa and Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon, but we’ll mention Gummy’s “Snowflake”, which hit the Gaon charts. Finally, we’ll throw another actor in: Jane Keun-suk starred in the 2012 series Love Rain, and performed a song from its soundtrack, also named “Love Rain”.
Extra credit: Much like Korean music, Korean dramas live in a somewhat different system compared to its counterparts around the world. Sure, there are some similarities with other countries’ programs, but there are some noticeable differences, albeit ones that aren’t that surprising considering what we now know about K-pop’s ecosystem. Also, before we begin, no graphics this time around; just pure old text.
Dramas are a staple of Korean television, and have always been for the past few decades. All networks – KBS, MBC, SBS – plus the major cable channels are in on the act. Shows have only one season, which run for an average of 12 to 24 episodes, a trend that began in the 1990s; some dramas – usually those in earlier evening slots – still go up to 200 episodes. They usually air two episodes a week, either on Mondays and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays or Saturdays and Sundays. (Fridays are usually reserved for variety programming, although the KBS series The Producers, which stars Kim Soo-hyun and IU, unusually aired on Fridays and Saturdays.) Korean dramas usually fall into two categories: the contemporary drama, which is set in modern times, and the sageuk, which has historical settings (usually up until the dawn of the 1900s).
Unlike American series (and more similar to British ones), Korean dramas follow the auteur principle: it is usually written by one screenwriter (in fact, they tend to get more recognition on television than on film) and helmed by one director throughout its run. (Screenwriters are usually women, and directors are usually men, but there have been some examples of the reverse in recent years.) The popularity of these shows is such that the biggest could have more than half of the country watching: a recent example is the worldwide smash Jewel in the Palace, which achieved ratings of 57.8% when it aired in 2004.
Describing the production of Korean dramas as “rigorous” is understating it. Usually new episodes are shot a week before it is aired, but in many cases, episodes of a show are still being shot and edited the day of its supposed transmission. As these shows run for around three months, and shooting them are expensive – over half of a show’s budget can go to the salaries of its leads – production companies and television networks seek to shoot them at the shortest time possible. Scripts can be changed at the last minute to account for viewer feedback (after all, viewers mean money) and both cast and crew have complained of exhaustion. (A term has even sprung out of this phenomenon: jjok-jam means “side sleeping”, ergo, sleeping in unusual positions whenever you get time to sleep.)
Koreans dramas have become popular cultural exports in the past decade, however, leading to the popularity of not just K-pop stars, but actors such as Lee Byung-hun (who has parlayed his success to Hollywood) and Choi Ji-woo. And from a foreigner’s perspective, you can see why: apart from portraying Korean values with universal, if not nostalgic, appeal, the different settings and approaches to what should be a straightforward love story make them stand out. Just ask Niko’s mother. [NB/SY]
[Next week: we wrap up the series with a look at the more obscure, indie side of K-pop.]