The Art of Listening: pop, propaganda and North Korea

On "Huh" by 4Minute.

First you hear the wail of a siren-like synth, which is quickly followed by a chorus of female voices yelping in syncopation to a strutting beat. In these initial moments, it could be Girls Aloud or the Pussycat Dolls, or any one of a host of less well-known Anglo-American girl bands -- but in fact the group is 4minute, one of the stars of South Korea's homegrown K-pop scene.

Singing in a mix of Korean and English, the polyglot 4Minute also bear the dubious distinction of having reopened the propaganda war between North and South Korea. Following the sinking of the Cheonan warship earlier this year, the South has resumed radio broadcasts and installed 11 loudspeaker points along the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries.

Radio and loudspeaker broadcasts to the North -- which largely attempt to convince subjects of Kim Jong-Il's authoritarian regime to defect by boasting about higher living standards -- form one element of the low-level conflict that has simmered between the two countries ever since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953.

As relations between the neighbours warmed, in 2003 the South suspended its "psychological warfare" campaign. It was resumed last month, however, launched by 4Minute's song "Huh" and provoking a threat from the North Korean regime to turn South Korea's capital, Seoul, into a "sea of flame".

But who are the ultimate targets of this propaganda? The number of North Koreans it will reach is unclear, given that in 2003 the broadcasts were described as "virtually ineffective" by South Korea's Hangyore newspaper, but the song has now been relayed around the world's media countless times. "Huh", in the words of Bloomberg News, is a "pop song extolling freedom of choice". And indeed it is, if by choice you mean a rigid adherence to the norms of consumer culture. (A typical lyric translates as: "When I say I want to appear on TV, when I say I want to become prettier, everybody says I can't do it. Baby, you're kidding me? I do as I please.")

The 4-hour radio broadcast that followed "Huh" also included a taunt about North Korea's devastating famine of the late 1990s and its ongoing food shortages. South Koreans, said the presenter, are more worried about getting fat than starving to death. "Huh" is a fitting accompaniment to this charming statement. Boasting a glut of flashy production techniques, the very song itself sounds obese: the lead melodies are swimming in reverb, vocal harmonies are layered one on top of another, cymbals, kick drum and distorted bass combine to give a pumped-up, aggressive thrust.

In keeping with much pop music, its underlying message is simple and perhaps even a little threatening. Much like when bankers meet with the chancellor of the Exchequer, the message is: keep the party going -- or else.

Crude enough, but as Walter Benjamin averred, there has never been a document of culture that is not simultaneously one of barbarism. Just ask Alex, the delinquent protagonist of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, who sneers at the idea that he will be reformed by listening to Beethoven:

Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.

Ha ha power indeed. Kim Jong-Il couldn't have put it better himself.

You can read more from the Art of Listening column here

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out"

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis