As the latest Covid restrictions lift, music is in the air again in Seoul. But in 2022, it’s not just K-pop and western hits providing the soundtrack to South Korea’s capital. There’s another sound lurking around almost every corner.
It’s blaring from merchants’ portable stereos at fruit and vegetable markets, and it’s sung at noraebang (karaoke) booths in Nagwon-dong. I hear it in the secondhand music stores of Euljiro, where it’s piled from floor to ceiling in bumper-sized CD and cassette packages. When I switch on the TV, it’s there again – performed on variety shows and glitzy talent competitions. The genre’s stars light up backstreets and skyscrapers on torn posters and digital billboards. “It’s like oxygen,” says the dance producer 250 of the pounding rhythms, cheap keyboard sounds and emotive vocal performances I hear wherever I go, “It’s everywhere.”
This is ppongjjak , a revitalization of a century-old Korean pop genre otherwise known as trot. Until recently, it was popular only among senior citizens, who listen to it on mountain hikes and during intercity bus tours (as depicted in the final scene of 2009’s Mother, by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho). Now it’s finding a place again in the underground and the mainstream. This unexpected resurgence is apparently confusing for many of the locals: one bar patron uses the word “embarrassing” to describe the genre’s absurd blend of melancholy ballads and ecstatic, eurodance-style beats. But young artists are integrating these questionable sounds into their tracks, and the revival is now threatening to break Korea’s borders.
The name comes from a simple rhythm that underpins the music: ppongjjak is an onomatopoeic term that imitates the repetitive one-two beat, with the first syllable signifying a bassy thump, the second a whipping snare. It’s dressed with straightforward melodies that make it easy to sing and dance to, with higher vocal tones delivered in a technique known as kkeokk-ki (which means to flex, or break, the voice). The sentimental lyrics and happy-sad melodies, meanwhile, embody the emotion of han , a term describing a feeling of shared sorrow or lamentation. A local music video producer, Kim Kyuseo of Spire production agency, casts the respective qualities of trot and present-day ppongjjak in Shakespearean terms: “It’s like tragedy and comedy,” he says, emphasizing the emotive vocal performances more characteristic of the former, and the lunatic beats of the latter. “They dance their pain away.”
Neither experts nor amateurs can agree on whether they are, in fact, the same thing or merely different strands of one genre – but either way, the roots of ppongjjak can be traced to the early 20th century, when an undivided Korea was occupied by Japan. Trot was derived from the foxtrot, says Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University. The two-beat dancing style was introduced to Korea by Japan as part of “a cultural phenomenon influenced by the jazz age in America” in the 1920s. As the ruling class opened large dance halls across the country (partly inspired by those found in Blackpool and other UK cities, says Lee), the native Koreans combined it with the traditional music of the working people – and trot was born.
The genre has navigated a convoluted history ever since. It was responsible for Korea’s first pop idols, including Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a, during the genre’s heyday in the 1970s. A famous trot singer, Sim Soo-bong, was even present at the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979; she had sung for the military dictator at the banquet held that evening. But it has also been condemned on multiple occasions since the late 1960s, as various governments attempted to eliminate Japanese influences from society. Debate endures over whether trot’s sorrow – typified in the themes of famous songs such as Yi Hae-yeon’s Heartbreaking Miari Hill and Nam In-su’s Busan Station of Farewell – makes it inherently Korean, or whether the style is derivative of the Japanese enka (a genre perhaps most recognizable to westerners from its use in the Kill Bill soundtrack).
By the 1990s, young Koreans were feeling increasingly optimistic and there was little place for the melancholy music associated with the older generation. The fresh sound of K-pop – influenced by dance, R&B and hip-hop from overseas – pierced the zeitgeist. but trot never went away, and in the late 2010s an unexpected revival was catalysed by the debut of an X Factor-style television talent show in which contenders perform in the traditional, sentimental style – one of its episodes was watched by more than one-third of the total Korean TV audience.
Listening to mega-hit single My Starry Love by Mr Trot winner Lim Young-woong, I can’t help but be reminded of Gareth Gates’s take on Unchained Melody from the first series of Pop Idol. But Lim’s popularity is undeniable: he has more than 1.3m subscribers on his YouTube channel, his face currently occupies a 10-storey video billboard in the thriving university district of Hongdae, and he’s as ubiquitous as BTS in the souvenir stalls of the market district Insa-dong.
Some corners of the press see this revival of trot interest as merely part of the “newtro” (a portmanteau of the words “new” and “retro”) trend: a youth culture phenomenon characterized by vintage fashion, throwback graphic and interior designs, and the popularity of period K-dramas such as Mr Sunshine. But the trot industry has also become attractive for singers and musicians harboring big career ambitions.
Lee explains that the “idol” industry of mainstream K-pop stars is “very restrictive. You need to have a nice appearance, be good at dancing, and you have to attend to the audience and to marketing – it’s like being a supermodel or a goddess.” On the other hand, the more niche trot or ppongjjak market (Lee uses the terms interchangeably) “is a place where people who just want to be a good singer or a good musician can focus on the artistry”. It’s a point emphasized by Korean stars such as Lizzy, formerly of K-pop girl group After School. She released a trot song, Not an Easy Girl, as her debut solo single in 2015, telling MBN Star that year: “Idol music is short-lived … I thought trot music would stay longer in the music market.”
It’s not only reality-TV stars and mainstream artists who are in on the revival. I come across the face of 90s “techno-trot” pioneer Epaksa, also known as Dr Lee, blown up on the side of a wall in the buzzing district of Euljiro – a former manufacturing mecca now home to late-night bars serving beer and fried chicken to patrons sitting on plastic chairs. He’s one of several elder statesmen who have benefited from the ppongjjak resurgence, with new shows and an album in the pipeline; I hear a track that sounds suspiciously similar to his Monkey Magic blaring from a portable stereo that same day.
Epaksa has also just featured as a guest on an album by one of the nation’s most exciting young dance producers. Seoul-based 250 is best known for creating beats for BTS, and producing Korean hip-hop icon E Sens. But on his debut solo album, Ppong (which playfully pastiches the stereotypical poses found on trot CD covers), he has created a forward-thinking hybrid of ppongjjak that embodies the inherent sorrow or sadness of the genre while also incorporating elements of modern dance music.
,ppongjjak music is often really fast, almost like drum’n’bass,” he says, likening the untethered dance styles of 1990s ravers to those of the ppongjjak connoisseurs. He namechecks Italian canzone and French chanson as kin to the genre through their melancholic and nostalgic sounds. It shares themes with American country music: “They’re missing their home town.” And in its cheesy basslines and “cheap and tacky” sounds, it offers parallels to 70s and 80s Italo disco: “Giorgio Moroder’s Chase,” says 250, “is just straight ppongjjak.” He’s right: the pulsing duple rhythm, the emotive melodies, the dated synth sounds – they’re all there.
Could a Korean cultural oddity such as ppongjjak ever transplant in the west? It already has, albeit in small ways. Epaksa’s ridiculous music video for the 2000 track Space Fantasy saw him posing in front of Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and even the pyramids of Giza. And the Korea Tourism Organization’s impressive Feel the Rhythm spot – which played on repeat at London East Asia film festival in 2021, and has racked up nearly 50m views on YouTube – highlights a musical performance by Korean band Leenalchi. The song fuses alt-rock and traditional Korean pansori (folk) singing with an unmistakable cut-price ppongjjak beat.
But in 2022, perhaps it is 250 who has the greatest opportunity – some might say danger – in taking the genre international. Largely instrumental, Ppong sounds as if it were designed to be a backing for a flexing trot singer of any language to perform over, and while the hyper-powered one-two beats occasionally recall the messed-up sounds of happy hardcore, the rich, colorful melodies on tracks such as Bang Bus and Rear Window can’t help but remind me of a bargain bin Todd Terje, British indie-electro stars Metronomy, or Japanese electronic music titans Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Two months on from the album’s release, 250 has just debuted his first show on esteemed London broadcasting station NTS Radio – and it’s packed to the rafters with trot and ppongjjak sounds, including cuts from Nam Jin and Na Hoon-a. With Korean pop culture showing no sign of slowing, who’s to say that ppongjjak – or, at least, some new bonkers hybridisation of it – won’t be Korea’s next great exported trend? In London, the karaoke booths are waiting.