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Podcaster brings rich context in documenting the rise of K-pop

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When Vivian Yoon was growing up in LA's Koreatown during the 1990s and 2000s, she was kind of ashamed of the fact that she was such a huge K-pop fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS COME TRUE")

SES: (Singing) Funny how all dreams come true. (Singing in Korean).

DETROW: At the time, K-pop was not the global music sensation and multibillion dollar industry that it is today. And even though Yoon knew all of the words to her favorite songs, she wanted to appear more interested in American culture.

VIVIAN YOON: My dad was very - I mean, he was very American, right? Like, he grew up in the States. He waved lighters at Pink Floyd concerts and played college football and was in the U.S. Army. And so I think that's sort of where a lot of this stemmed from - right? - my desire to really be seen as American as opposed to Korean or Korean American.

DETROW: Since then, Vivian Yoon has embraced her love of Korean popular music, and she's out with a new podcast from LAist Studios called "K-Pop Dreaming." The podcast traces the music's rise to the international stage and also how Yoon's own family history and identity weave into that. Vivian Yoon spoke to my co-host Ailsa Chang, and they began by talking about a song from 25 years ago, one that Yoon cannot stop singing even today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Rapping in Korean).

DETROW: It's called "1TYM" by the group 1TYM.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Rapping in Korean). 1TYM. (Rapping in Korean). (Rapping) With the 1TYM track. It's on.

YOON: (Singing) 1TYM is one time for your mind. (Singing in Korean).

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Rapping in Korean).

YOON: (Laughter).

CHANG: What was it about 1TYM that tapped into you more deeply? Like, was it the hip-hop sound they brought, the fact that two of their members were Korean American? Talk about what it was.

YOON: It's really hard to distill and define, like, what makes a group cool. But for me and my friends growing up in K-Town, we just knew that 1TYM was cool. They just had an it factor that some of the other K-pop groups didn't have. You know, they weren't going for, like, a cute, wholesome, poppy image. And there was something that felt very familiar. Growing up in LA, like, hip-hop is such a big aspect of, like, the culture, right? I went to LA High, and you really could not escape hip-hop. There was something about 1TYM that felt like home because of that connection to hip-hop and, you know, American culture.

CHANG: And do you think part of feeling at home was seeing Korean Americans in a K-pop band?

YOON: Absolutely. A hundred percent. I'm sure it's like this for other, like, diasporic communities too, but for Korean Americans, I feel like a lot of us growing up were always aware of other Korean Americans doing really cool things, you know? - influencing pop culture or entertainment or sports or whatever. And so growing up, like, we all knew that Tony Ahn from H.O.T. was Korean American and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky and Joon Park from g.o.d. Like, the list goes on. And there's just something really, really special or really exciting to identify with Korean American members in your favorite K-pop groups. And 1TYM was, like, totally a good example of that.

CHANG: And, you know, despite being a fan of K-pop in those early days, you talk about how there were certain elements of K-pop that you still didn't quite connect with. Can you talk about that piece of it?

YOON: You know, growing up, K-pop - it was very much you were into boy bands and girl groups, right? Like, there was no middle ground. And for me, a lot of the Korean girls that I grew up with, they were really into the girl groups. And I just couldn't relate to that because I was a pretty big tomboy growing up, and I'd always felt like an outsider when it came to girl culture and girl code and girl speak. And I think K-pop girl groups just represented, you know, another facet of the ways that I didn't belong...

CHANG: Yeah.

YOON: ...In feminine circles. So that was another, like, complicated aspect of my relationship to K-pop growing up.

CHANG: Well, there's no doubt now that K-pop has become this immense global phenomenon. You talk about a distinct moment when there was no doubt K-pop had blown up internationally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Rapping in Korean).

CHANG: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm doing the dance right now. Can you describe what it was like to watch this song catch on fire in America in 2012, to, like, watch everyone doing the invisible horse dance, reenacting the video and why it was kind of funny to you that this song, out of all the songs, was the song that blew up?

YOON: Honestly, it was so confusing. Like, it was such a weird time because up until that point, like, I had never heard non-Koreans really talk about K-pop or just even be aware that the music existed. And all of a sudden, you have people like, oppa and gangnam. Like, those are very, very Korean words. And so to see, like, all these, you know, average American people suddenly singing it and doing the dance, it was very, very surprising and shocking and confusing. And it just...

CHANG: Was it kind of annoying?

YOON: I personally wasn't annoyed by it. But, you know, in the podcast, one of my friends, Randy (ph), who, you know, I've known since middle school, he sort of had this experience where people were coming up to him and just - you know, they just started doing the dance at him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "K-POP DREAMING")

RANDY: PSY's "Oppa Gangnam Style" (ph).

YOON: "Gangnam Style"? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

RANDY: When that came out and we started listening to it...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, for sure.

RANDY: ...Hearing it on American radio, I was like, what is going on, you know? And I actually...

YOON: Yeah. What is going on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That was weird.

YOON: Yeah.

RANDY: And at the time, I wasn't super hyped about that either because people would - random people would come up to you - oh, you're Korean? Oh, "Oppa Gangnam Style" and do that dance.

YOON: I know.

RANDY: And I just - I was like, why are you doing that, dude? Like...

YOON: It's so true. I was so annoyed by it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

RANDY: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. It's mixed feelings. You're proud of it. But at the same time, you're like, can you not?

RANDY: Yeah. Yeah.

YOON: That's exactly the feeling. Can you not?

RANDY: Yes.

YOON: You know, it was really complicated, but that song was really, really surprising, too, because it was so culturally specific, I think. You know, it's all satire and parody about this neighborhood in Seoul called Gangnam. And he's really parodying the lifestyles of, like, the obscenely wealthy people who live there. So it was also really surprising just because of how specific the song's content was.

CHANG: This is probably a good time to step back and talk about, what is K-pop anyway? Like, if you were to describe the sound of K-pop today, what are the elements of that sound?

YOON: You know, we talked to a lot of different people - K-pop experts and reporters and academics - and that seems to be the million-dollar question of, what is K-pop? Because it really is - I think it used to be that the K in K-pop stood for Korean. But now, you know, we're currently in the fourth generation of K-pop, and now you're seeing, like, this really, really clear - this really clear intention on the part of these, like, management and entertainment labels and companies to create, like, international-facing groups. So you will have groups with members who are not Korean, and that is totally on purpose and things like that. So that's actually a really difficult question to answer.

CHANG: Well, you talk about, like, this specific two-beat rhythm, bong-chak (ph).

YOON: Yes.

CHANG: ...Which you point out is from an older genre of Korean music. Tell us, like, how you hear that bong (ph) in a lot of K-pop too.

YOON: Yeah. So the thing that a lot of K-pop producers say that sets Korean pop music apart is bong-chak or bong or the bong factor, bong feel. That element really comes from this century-old genre of Korean music called trot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARY MOKPO HARBOR")

LEE NAN-YOUNG: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: One person describes bong as coming from the Korean blues, essentially, right? And it's rooted in, like, a century of hardship and suffering that the Korean people endured throughout history. So, like, you had the Japanese occupation. Then you had the Korean War. And then you had, like, military dictators coming in in the '80s. And so Korea has had this really tumultuous and sort of tragic history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARY MOKPO HARBOR")

LEE: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: And that's really where this element comes from, bong or bong-chak, that gives K-pop its distinct flavor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

HOT: (Rapping in Korean).

YOON: So, like, the H.O.T. song "Candy," which sounds super upbeat and poppy, the first line - like, the lyrics are literally, like, I was thinking about breaking up with you the other day.

CHANG: Dang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

HOT: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: Those are the kinds of things that you'll see a lot in Korean lyrics. And it's this juxtaposition of these different kinds of ideas of, like, happy and sad, uplifting, joyful, grieving. Like, all these different things are mixed together. And I think it's a really good example of Korean culture and, you know, Korean history and Koreans in general. Like, I feel like, you know, we are a very resilient people when you look at our history and where South Korea is today, specifically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

HOT: (Rapping in Korean).

YOON: There's this concept in Korean called han (ph). And it really is this feeling of, like, grief and sorrow and resentment and all these, like, difficult feelings and emotions. But on the other hand, you know, on the flip side of that same coin, you have something called heung (ph). And it represents, like, joy and resilience and passion. And it really is the combination and synthesis of those two things that I feel is captured in bong and in K-pop.

CHANG: I mean, after listening to you explain that, it made me hear K-pop differently. And I'm curious, how much has making this podcast helped you think differently about your own relationship to Korean culture and your own heritage?

YOON: That was the biggest surprise for me. I did not expect to come out of this as a changed person, but I can really say there's something so powerful about knowing the history of your people and your community and where you come from and seeing the forces that have shaped your identity. Knowing your history can lead to a certain kind of acceptance. And for me, I didn't realize I was missing that in my own life. And I didn't realize, like, how much of those identity issues I struggled with growing up were still impacting me until I started diving into the subject of this podcast and, you know, really talking with these different people and exploring these histories. It's helped me reconcile the two halves of my identity - the Korean and the American - and see where I fit, you know, as a second-generation Korean American person from Los Angeles. So it's been really, really powerful and surprisingly so.

CHANG: I'm so glad to hear that. So what would you say to someone who's never listened to K-pop? What would be your pitch to them about delving into this genre of music?

YOON: I would say - OK, so if we're talking, like, 2023, my recommendation, I would just say, listen to NewJeans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OMG")

NEWJEANS: (Singing in Korean). (Singing) It's about you, baby.

YOON: They're, like, the biggest K-pop group right now, and we actually got to chat with one of the producers who created, like, all of their hit songs like "Ditto," "OMG."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OMG")

NEWJEANS: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: It's infectious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OMG")

NEWJEANS: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: There is a reason that NewJeans is taking over TikTok at the moment, and it's because their songs are just so catchy. And if you listen to the music, you'll get the hype. You'll get the hype.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OMG")

NEWJEANS: (Singing) Asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) He's the one that's living in my system, baby. Oh, my, oh, my God, (singing in Korean). I was really hoping that he will come through. Oh, my, oh, my God...

DETROW: Vivian Yoon's new podcast is called "K-Pop Dreaming," and she spoke to my co-host Ailsa Chang. "K-Pop Dreaming" is produced by LAist Studios, and all eight episodes are out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OMG")

NEWJEANS: (Singing in Korean). (Singing) I know, I know. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) I know, I know. I'm going crazy, right? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) There ain't nothing else that I would hold on to. I hear his voice through all the noise. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) 'Cause I got someone. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) 'Cause I love someone. They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) They keep on asking me, who is he? (Singing in Korean). (Singing) He's the one that's living in my system, baby.

Oh, my, oh, my God. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) I was really hoping that he will come through. Oh, my, oh, my God. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) Asking all the time about what I should do. No, I can never let him go. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) I know, I know. (Singing in Korean). (Singing) I know, I know. He's the one living in my system, baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.