What Does A Century-Old Musical Genre Have To Do With K-Pop?
If you’re caught up in the Korean Wave like the rest of the globe, you know a thing or two about K-pop idols like BTS, BLACKPINK, and NewJeans who are dominating YouTube.
Maybe you’re even a true stan.
But what you might not know is that in South Korea, K-pop is being given a run for its money by another style of music topping the charts. A genre with a 100 years of history that's riding a wave of resurgence — one some music producers say gives K-pop its essence.
This genre is called trot.
The origins of trot
Trot is a reflection of Korea’s tumultuous history.
“Trot in Korea began in the 1920s and 1930s. We can trace the origin of trot back to Japan,” said Jung-Min Mina Lee, a musicologist who teaches in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.
The Empire of Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Japan ruled with an iron fist, enacting policies to systematically erase Korean identity and culture. Colonization also brought Japanese music and culture into Korea — which is how trot came into being.“The most popular view has been that as Japan accepted Western culture in the 1920s, and especially Western popular songs, new types of songs were formed that infused traditional Japanese songs,” Lee said.
These new Westernized Japanese songs were called enka. And according to Lee, some of the early trot songs in Korea were adaptations of enka.
Trot shares enka’s sentimental balladry and a minor pentatonic scale. As a result of Korea’s colonization, trot often served as a vehicle for expressing the sorrow and collective trauma the country had endured.
But as the political climate changed after World War II, the country sought to set aside the sorrowful music associated with Japanese rule. The government placed a ban on sad music.
“Composers were forced into writing the songs that met the government's new policy,” Lee said. “What that meant was that the lyrics were less dark, less about sorrow, less about frustration, less about resignation, but more about hope and the joy of life.”
The importance of ppong
Despite the broadcast ban, people were still able to listen to these songs at home. And eventually, the prohibition did phase out. And by the 1970s and 80s, trot reached its heyday in Korean music, only to be unseated by a brand new sound and style in the early 1990s: K-pop.
On the surface, it might seem like K-pop eclipsed trot, but some of K-pop’s biggest producers say K-pop actually contains a defining element inherited from trot.
“In Korean, it's called ppong,” says KAIROS, a Korean American producer who has worked with K-pop groups including Stray Kids, Twice, and SHINee.
“And if we go even further back, it's something that our grandparents would listen to and somehow that influenced our parents and that is handed down to our generation.”
The term, ppong, KAIROS says, “comes from ppongjjak.”
Ppongjjak is a colloquialism for trot. Trot’s two-beat meter has made it synonymous with the term ppongjjak, which essentially is Korean onomatopoeia for an “oom-pah, oom-pah” beat.
As to the feeling of ppong that K-pop producer KAIROS refers to, Duke University’s Lee says it is informed by two fundamental themes often found in Korean literature: film and music.
The role of han and heung
The first one, she says, is called han.
“The Korean sense of sorrow is so tightly connected to the colonial experience. Han, which is expressed through trot, is a term that came from the colonial era and is the most noticeable emotional trait of the genre,” Lee said.
The other emotion, Lee added, is heung.
“There's another strand of emotion existing in trot, and that is heung. Heung is the opposite of han — it's about joy, merriment, cheery energy. Trot also expresses that emotion in a very ostensible way.”
The combination of han and heung is what defines ppong. And this definitive combination, which characterizes trot, is also at the heart of K-pop.
Competition shows revitalize the genre
Trot has experienced an unlikely resurgence in recent years. Two trot-themed song competition shows — Ms. Trot and Mr. Trot — have revitalized the genre.
“I noticed the resurgence of trot around 2019, when my parents started talking about, you know, these young trot singers were competing for TV programs,” said Lee.
These programs spawned a new generation of popular trot singers, like Lim Young-woong, who have attracted a young, diehard fan base. Trot’s success is now on par with that of K-pop idols, and its influence continues to grow as Korean music producers bring it back into the studio.
Seoul-based music producer 250 — who has produced tracks for K-pop idols BTS, ITZY, and NCT-127 — fully integrates trot music into his debut solo album PPONG.
PPONG was released on South Korean record label Beasts and Natives Alike (BANA) in 2022. On the album, 250 combines modern beats with vintage synthesizers, saxophones, and trot song vocals.
The 2023 Korean Music Awards have nominated PPONG for Album of the Year. And they nominated the track “It Was All a Dream” — which layers beats beneath a trot singer’s vocals — as Best Pop Song of the Year.
“So this is kind of going against the longstanding reputation of trot being old-fashioned music, your mom’s and grandparents' music. I think a lot of people are surprised…how trot can be so popular among young people and how it can be stylish and modern and just very youthful,” said Lee.
On the surface, K-pop’s idols don’t appear to share much in common with traditional trot singers. But the resurgence of trot in the mainstream reveals a commonality rooted in fundamental themes like han and heung.
In spite of their differences, at the heart K-pop and trot share a common trait — an energy that holds it all together.
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