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28 June 2010

The Art of Listening: pop, propaganda and North Korea

On "Huh" by 4Minute.

By Daniel Trilling

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”.

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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

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