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New podcast looks at one of the biggest genres in the world: K-Pop

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Vivian Yoon was growing up in LA's Koreatown during the 1990s and 2000s, she was sort of ashamed of the fact that she was this huge, passionate fan of K-pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS COME TRUE")

SES: (Singing in Korean).

CHANG: I mean, at the time, K-pop just wasn't the global music sensation and multibillion dollar industry it is today. And though Yoon knew all the words to her favorite K-pop songs, she wanted to appear more interested in American culture.

VIVIAN YOON: My dad was very - I mean, he was very American, right? Like, he grew up in the States. He was in the U.S. Army. And so I think that's sort of where a lot of this stemmed from - right? - my desire to really be seen as American as opposed to Korean or Korean American.

CHANG: Well, Yoon has embraced her love of Korean popular music, and she is out with a new podcast from LAist Studios. It's called "K-Pop Dreaming." The series traces K-pop's rise to the international stage and how Yoon's own family history and identity weave into that. We started with a song from 25 years ago, one that Yoon cannot stop singing even today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Rapping in Korean).

CHANG: It's called "1TYM" by the group 1TYM.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Rapping in Korean).

YOON: (Singing) One time, it's one time for your mind. (Speaking Korean, vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1TYM")

1TYM: (Singing in Korean).

CHANG: What was it about 1TYM that tapped into you more deeply? Like, was it the hip-hop sound they brought, the fact that two of their members were Korean American? Talk about what it was.

YOON: It's really hard to distill and define, like, what makes a group cool. But for me and my friends growing up in K-Town, we just knew that 1TYM was cool. They just had an it factor that some of the other K-pop groups didn't have, you know? They weren't going for, like, a cute, wholesome, poppy image. And there was something that felt very familiar. Growing up in LA, like, hip-hop is such a big aspect of, like, the culture, right? I went to LA High, and you really could not escape hip-hop. There was something about 1TYM that felt like home because of that connection to hip-hop and, you know, American culture.

CHANG: Well, there's no doubt now that K-pop has become this immense global phenomenon. You talk about a distinct moment when there was no doubt K-pop had blown up internationally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Singing in Korean).

CHANG: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm doing the dance right now. Can you describe what it was like to watch this song catch on fire in America in 2012, to, like, watch everyone doing the invisible horse dance, reenacting the video, and why it was kind of funny to you that this song, out of all the songs, was the song that blew up?

YOON: Honestly, it was so confusing.

CHANG: (Laughter).

YOON: Like, it was such a weird time because up until that point, like, I had never heard non-Koreans really talk about K-pop or just even be aware that the music existed. And all of a sudden, you have people like, (speaking Korean). Like, those are very, very Korean words. And so to see, like, all these, you know, average American people suddenly singing it and doing the dance, it was very, very surprising and shocking and confusing. You know, it was really complicated. But that song was really, really surprising, too, because it was so culturally specific, I think. You know, it's all satire and parody about this neighborhood in Seoul called Gangnam. And he's really parodying the lifestyles of, like, the obscenely wealthy people who live there. So it was also really surprising just because of how specific the song's content was.

CHANG: This is probably a good time to step back and talk about, what is K-pop anyway? Like, if you were to describe the sound of K-pop today, what are the elements of that sound?

YOON: You know, we talked to a lot of different people, K-pop experts and reporters and academics, and that seems to be the million-dollar question of - what is K-pop? - because it really is hard to say, you know. The thing that a lot of K-pop producers say that sets Korean pop music apart is ppongjjak or ppong or the ppong factor or ppong feel. That element really comes from this century-old genre of Korean music called trot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR OF MOKPO")

LEE NAN-YOUNG: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: One person describes ppong as coming from the Korean blues, essentially, right? And it's rooted in, like, a century of hardship and suffering that the Korean people endured throughout history. So, like, you had the Japanese occupation, then you had the Korean War, and then you had, like, military dictators coming in in the '80s. And so Korea has had this really tumultuous and sort of tragic history. And that's really where this element comes from, ppong or ppongjjak, that gives K-pop its distinct flavor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

HOT: (Rapping in Korean).

YOON: So, like, the H.O.T. song "Candy," which sounds super upbeat and poppy, the first line, like, the lyrics are literally like, I was thinking about breaking up with you the other day.

CHANG: Dang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY")

HOT: (Singing in Korean).

YOON: Those are the kinds of things that you'll see a lot in Korean lyrics. And it's this juxtaposition of these different kinds of ideas of, like, happy and sad, uplifting, joyful, grieving. Like, all these different things are mixed together, and I think it's a really good example of Korean culture and, you know, Korean history and Koreans in general. Like, I feel like, you know, we are a very resilient people when you look at our history and where South Korea is today, specifically.

CHANG: I mean, after listening to you explain that, it made me hear K-pop differently. And I'm curious, how much has making this podcast helped you think differently about your own relationship to Korean culture and your own heritage?

YOON: That was the biggest surprise for me. I did not expect to come out of this as a changed person, but I can really say there's something so powerful about knowing the history of your people and your community and where you come from and seeing the forces that have shaped your identity. Knowing your history can lead to a certain kind of acceptance. And for me, I didn't realize I was missing that in my own life. And I didn't realize, like, how much of those identity issues I struggled with growing up were still impacting me until I started diving into the subject of this podcast and, you know, really talking with these different people and exploring these histories. It's helped me reconcile the two halves of my identity, the Korean and the American, and see where I fit, you know, as a second-generation Korean American person from Los Angeles. So it's been really, really powerful and surprisingly so.

CHANG: I'm so glad to hear that. Vivian Yoon's new podcast is called "K-Pop Dreaming." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

YOON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPE BOY")

NEWJEANS: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Baby, got me looking so crazy. (Singing in Korean) a daydream. Got me feeling you (singing in Korean). Maybe you could be the one. (Singing in Korean) I'm not looking for just fun. Maybe I could be the one. Baby (singing in Korean) lately.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.