Cultural Technology Transfer

Borders are sweet. South Korea, December 2011

When I first heard Park Hye Jin’s I Don’t Care, I was intrigued. I’d been listening distractedly on my new Bluetooth headphones as I performed household chores. I like sampling new music that way. Most tracks don’t interest me enough to pull my phone from my pocket. But this one made me think.While the title was repeated in English, the rest of the lyrics were in a language that I correctly presumed to be Korean. But it wasn’t the track’s bilingual nature that drew my attention.

After all, we live at a time when millions of American and European teenagers are deeply invested in Korean popular culture. While “I Don’t Care” didn’t sound like any Korean pop and rock I knew, it invoked enough conventions of global dance music to seem familiar. What drew my attention wasn’t the idiom Park Hye Jin was exploring, but the fact that her music reminded me of records I’d been listening to when the twenty-four-year-old Seoul DJ was in elementary school. Even on my first listen, I remembered how excited I’d been about the so-called “electronica” that emerged in the late 1990s when artists like Cornelius and Mouse on Mars were making rhythms born on the dance floor into objects of cerebral contemplation.

For me, that music remains powerfully associated with a time when both my own life and the world around me seemed to be surging with hope. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the peak of the Dot Com bubble, I worked on my dissertation while diversifying into music journalism. As a new parent, I was inclined to see everything through my daughter’s innocent eyes. Although part of me sensed trouble on the horizon, I tried hard to block it out. And electronica became the soundtrack to that denial.

That’s why I kept turning to it even after the traumatic events of a few years later. Tech stocks plummeted. The 2000 presidential election left the United States in a profound anxiety. I had to leave my beloved adopted home in the Bay Area and my entire social network and move to the desert, where I soon came down with a combination of respiratory ailments so severe that I lost thirty pounds in three weeks because I was coughing too hard to swallow much solid food. And, just when I started to feel grounded in my new home, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 made everything a thousand times worse.

Luckily, my good friend had started working for a record label that specialized in precisely the sort of “meta” dance music and experimental electronic collages that soothed my soul. Returning back to the Bay Area with my homesick wife and daughter, I eagerly sought out more records in the arcane microgenres he was sending me. Whenever I was depressed or anxious, putting on Cornelius, Tarwater, or Rhythm & Sound soothed me like nothing else. And a few years later, during the golden age of culture blogging, before platforms like Facebook transformed the Internet, I came to find the same solace in the music of Burial and other artists who popularized slowed-down, atmospheric dubstep.

Even though “I Don’t Care” was more straightforward and dancefloor-friendly than this music from my past, it provided enough reminders to ignite my nostalgia. And the other four tracks on her If U Want It EP added more fuel to the flames: the imprecise meshing of mechanical beats, the hiss and sputter of textural white noise, the telephoto-like flattening of the distinction between background and foreground. Considering how much stress I’ve been under in recent months, it made perfect sense that I would respond so powerfully to music that transported me back to the early 2000s.

But my reverie was eventually interrupted by doubt. While there is more than enough evidence on If U Want It to substantiate the connections I was making, the record surely sounded very different to twenty-somethings in Park Hye Jin’s fan base. Even if her DJ work in Seoul asserts an underground aesthetic at odds with the sort of K-pop that has made inroads in the West, how likely would it be for someone of her age and experience to be consciously hearkening back to relatively obscure electronica from her early childhood? Wasn’t it more likely the case that the influences I was hearing had come to her second, third, and fourth-hand?

Although I wish I could provide authoritative answers to these questions, there simply isn’t enough data available to me in English to provide them. Listening to the material she has posted on Soundcloud, much of which seems to take the form of short DJ sets, it is clear that she has been exploring the same musical territory for some time. At any given moment, a Park Hye Jin clip may sound like an identifiable dance genre, most commonly some form of house music. But when you let her music unfold over a few minutes, it soon becomes clear that the only musical brand she is interested in promoting is her own. Even at her most minimal, the sense that you are listening to the bits and pieces of a collage in progress is palpable.

What I would love to know is whether she consciously favours trippy electronica of 20-25 years ago or just stumbled into something that evokes it accidentally while pursuing her own musical vision. Certainly, the history of that period would resonate differently for someone growing up in South Korea than it did for me in the United States. Between the terrifying economic crisis of 1997 and the co-hosting of the World Cup in 2002, her nation turned the corner, moving from overtly autocratic governance and crony capitalism to something more subtle and globally sustainable.

It was when Seoul first started to be known around the world as the place where high-tech innovations become popular first, largely displacing Tokyo in the technological imaginary and giving Silicon Valley a run for its money. And it was a time when relations with North Korea were less fraught than they had been for decades or would be again from the mid-2000s onward. In short, if Park Hye Jin is looking back on the music of the late 1990s and early 2000s with nostalgia, it is almost certainly not the sort that moves me when I reflect on those years.

I wonder, though, whether there might not be another reason that her songs call that period to mind. Much of what I was listening to then either came from Germany or was powerfully influenced by Germany’s strong tradition in electronic popular music, which attained global prominence in the mid-1970s thanks to Kraftwerk, above all else, but also more rock-oriented bands like Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, and Cluster, as well as expatriates like David Bowie and Brian Eno who were drawn to Berlin at that time.

As has been amply documented, this tradition played a crucial role in the development of techno and house by largely African-American artists in Detroit and Chicago. While this may simply have been the result of superficially incongruous musical affinity, a happy accident of cultural cross-pollination, some critics have speculated that it goes deeper than that. For people who have historically been discriminated against because of their bodies, music that seems to transcend human corporeality might hold powerful attraction. But there is also a possibility that the socio-economic divisions experienced by those Detroit and Chicago artists, alienated from both suburban white culture and urban black culture, might have made the music of a divided Germany and a divided Berlin particularly appealing.

The more I listen to Park Hye Jin’s work, the more I wonder whether it testifies to a similar affinity between German and Korean culture. After all, even though Germany and Berlin had already been unified for a number of years when the electronic music I’ve been writing about started to emerge, the legacy of decades of dividedness was still an unavoidable fact of German existence. Indeed, it continues to remain one today, with the former East proving fertile ground for far-right nationalism. It’s certainly possible that someone growing up in and around Seoul, which is very close to the DMZ that separates South and North Korea, would have discerned something valuable in German culture that could not be found elsewhere.

Regardless, Park Hye Jin’s If U Want It is a record likely to please fans of German electronic music of the 1990s and early 2000s. If you have always wondered what it would be like to fuse the extreme asceticism of Pole with accessible trip-hop or longed to imagine that you are listening to one of those elegant turn-of-the-millennium BMW commercials inside a noisy train station, it’s hard to imagine it disappointing you. And the fact that it represents the labour of a multi-talented young woman in what remains an unusually sexist field doesn’t hurt either. This is music that will liberate you from tension without making you lose your edge in the process. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.