Wednesday, May 25, 2016

timid boomboxes

Walking along the creekside path of the Yangjae-cheon as I do, I see all sorts of fellow walkers, most of whom tromp much faster than I can (I'd say they average 4 to 5 miles per hour, and I still think the women are powered by anger). There are also bikers, some few of whom practice the American courtesy of grunting "Passing on your right" as they blow by. Among the bikers, however, there is a certain obnoxious subclass who insist on blaring music from small devices—frame-mounted cell phones or some other mini sound system.

The music varies: sometimes it's Korean folk-style bbongjjak; sometimes it's a frenzied techno dance beat favored by mice writhing desperately in hell (that's the absolute worst, as far as I'm concerned; it's the same frenetically ear-raping shit that you hear in Korean gyms); sometimes it's the almost-soothing tones of a Streisand voice-clone.* Whatever device it is that these bikers are using, it has no bass resonance and no decibel-pumping power, so all the music comes out sounding tinny, nasal, and Doppler-distorted. I've come to think of these devices as "timid boomboxes" because, while they're obnoxious in the way that American boomboxes can be, their lack of bass and volume means they don't pack the same punch that a boombox does. Like so many things in Korea that seem weaker and lower-quality than their American analogues (flimsier kitchen utensils, colanders made of thinner plastic, vacuum cleaners with no suction power, tinier shower heads, etc.), these timid boomboxes are yapping poodles compared to American Dobermans like the classic Lasonic TRC-931.

If we're going to get technical, whatever device it is that's blasting the bikers' music is not a true boombox. I know this. But the way in which the device is being used is indeed very boombox-ish. And I do so wish it would stop. Then I could stop pining for my own ghetto blaster: a pump shotgun with a shell for every music-blaring biker who flies by me.

*Voice clones are a whole separate issue. Korea is blessed with many talented singers; alas, I think more of those singers can be found in local churches than on the air. Most Korean pop singers have no vocal control; many rely on a species of AutoTune to keep themselves in key (to be fair, Western pop singers are often just as shitty and just as reliant on AutoTune). Every now and then, however, I hear Korean singers whose sound is the spitting image of some American or British pop icon. I've heard Joplin clones, Manilow clones, Britney clones, Beyoncé clones—you name it. There's probably an Adele clone lurking out there somewhere.

Many of these voice clones have true talent: they have the range, the power, and the vocal control of their Western analogues, but because they're so often singing in the same style as their analogues, it's obvious they've become tools of the Korean recording industry, which is banking on the name-recognition of the Western originals to help promote the voice-clones. K-pop is a huge industry in Korea, and I don't mean "industry" in the artistic/artisanal sense, as in the phrase "movie industry": I mean K-pop is literally an industry in the sense of a huge, smoking factory that churns out exact copies of a mediocre product day in and day out.

Back in the 90s, I once had a student named Yong-pil. He was part of a class that I really liked, and as a class, we all went hiking at a local mountain one day. When we sat down to rest and talk on the mountainside, there was a lull in the conversation, and Yong-pil offered to sing. We all wanted to hear him sing, so we beckoned him to stand up and do so. Yong-pil was normally a very stoic guy; his face during our classes tended to be almost expressionless. But when he stood and sang... I was moved. His voice was rough and gravelly, but perfectly in tune, and the song he sang sounded as if it could have come from the mountain itself. My throat tightened as I experienced the power of Yong-pil's utterance, even though I didn't understand the words. When he was finally done, we all sat in reverent silence for a moment before clapping wildly. Yong-pil, being Yong-pil, cracked only the slightest of smiles. That, ladies and gentlemen, was singing. I often think Korean song is at its best when it reaches back into its own roots and brings something of the past into the present moment. K-pop is derivative fluff, unworthy of attention. What Yong-pil gave us that day... that was the real stuff, and I'll never forget it.


1 comment:

Charles said...

This reminds me of one of my own nemeses: The mountain DJ. Have these people never heard of earphones?