Listen to this as you read and this post will make a lot more sense.
Or, for those with delicate ears or who hold an aversion to cheese, this is Steelheart, singing their hit She’s Gone. It’s bog-standard, paint-by-numbers 1990 hair metal. Steelheart are an also-ran, overshadowed by Guns n Roses and Motley Crue and then eclipsed when grunge music, with its air of authentic working class desperation, forced most hair metallers into a long over-due rest.
But not in Asia. Steelheart – and She’s Gone in particular – remain massively popular. In Korea, my girlfriend remembers hearing them constantly growing up in the 90s. Comedians make fun of She’s Gone because everybody knows it. And it’s become a noraebang (karaoke) standard.
A South Korean cover:
My question – to which I’ve been unable to get a satisfactory answer – is why. Steelheart is a second-string faux glam band with a power ballad, identical to any other band of the era, churned out as they were according to the diktats of record company executives (as Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder explains.) I hated this music in the 80s and I hate it now: it’s formulaic, non-creative garbage. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, as the pundits of youtube say – and I don’t.
But a lot of people in Korea do, and not just here. In Vietnam:
Zhao Han of China absolutely kills it:
Steelheart has eclipsed even the much more lovable Anvil as being – metaphorically at least – ‘big in Japan’ (I can’t find any Japanese covers.) Since nobody seems to have an explanation, here’s mine.
Koreans aspire to be the best. The concept of an innate talent exists but is mediated by effort: the understanding that if you try – I mean really hard, hours of daily practice for years at a time – you can succeed.
For example, consider ballerina Kang Sue-jin, a master of her field. She worked as a principal dancer at the Stuttgart ballet and is widely admired for her strength, agility and beauty:
But in Korea, the most popular photo of Kang is not of her dancing. It’s of her feet:
When I first saw this photo I was a little repulsed. But this is not a deformity; my girlfriend explained that in Korea it represents the will to achieve. Success is worth personal disfigurement. It gives “Courageous Korean Gymnast Screams For 10 Minutes” a ring of truth:
As an example of the power ballad genre, She’s Gone is very good. Singer Miljenko Matijevic is incredibly proficient at hitting the high notes. It’s not creative, but that quality isn’t prized in Korean business, either in the tech or music industries. He’s excellent at what he does, and that’s enough.
Grunge is modernity in decay
Grunge music did not have to kill off hair metal in the U.S. The bloated spandexed, sneering, over-coiffed corpse of late-80s corporate rock keeled over and died of its own accord. Bombast, melodrama and balls-to-the-walls excess only made sense in an environment of greed and aspirational individualism. There was bound to be a reaction; the early 90s recession only quickened it. The end of the USSR and the end of history, the tightening vice of neoliberalism, and the sense that right here, right now was not the best place to be after all meant that pop music needed to channel a new authenticity. Nirvana and grunge provided it. The ripped jeans and second-hand flannel drew their aesthetic from the Salvation Army shops of the northwest where Kurt Cobain used to shop. The music was dark, about despair rather than proclamations, and cynical in the way only someone who’d had their heart broken by their own expectations could appreciate. Which in the early 90s was a sizeable chunk of people.
But not in Korea. Put differently, grunge was not aspirational. Until quite recently, there was tangible evidence for Koreans that working hard would bring results – if not for you then for your children. There was plenty to be cynical about, not least the super-exploitation of the Korean working class and the government’s brutal dictatorship. But upward mobility was possible. The democracy movement was fighting to share the wealth and reunify the country, not for the right to be miserable. Cynicism and irony are the product of wealthy societies, the decay of expectations. And music that expresses cynicism has no place in a nation-building project, left or right-wing.
There are other reasons why grunge wouldn’t hold in Korea. Kpop’s infuriating, chirpy sameness comes from a courtly tradition (via Japan, or so I’ve been told), that saw musicians as background rather the centre of attention. The traditions of Korean drama display emotions on the surface: every soap opera episode has to feature sobbing characters, often more than one. But conversely, depression was, until recently, not spoken of here – to admit to being depressed was to admit insanity. When harmony and social peace matter, only the powerful get to express their feelings publicly. Even today, metal shows that express this kind of angst still count attendees in the high single digits. All of these factors help explain why a power ballad, with its formal, stylized outpouring of socially acceptable melodrama – but with no distancing or critical self-reflection – would succeed where grunge fails.
I still love Nirvana and will never be able to hear She’s Gone without cringing. But to give Steelheart their due, they captured a moment of blustery confidence in American culture that translated well to Asia. With the advent of the age of austerity, I await with interest what cynical pop culture will look like in Korea.