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Seo Tae-ji and [Atomos Part Moai]
Na, Do-won  |  hjournal@hanyang.ac.kr
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[302호] 승인 2008.09.04  
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Na, Do-won
Music Critic


  When I watch old programs on cable TV, strange feelings overwhelm me. Old fashioned clothes, hair styles, and humor bring back feelings of joy and familiarity. It is interesting to see the "Past" become a "Commodity" Seo Tae-ji could also have remained in the past. Unlike musicians who stick to their music style, Seo Tae-ji experimented with melding his music with current trends and became an essential symbol of the 90's. But, he is still an issue maker. Attention towards his works in Tai-ji boys and his eighth album, Atomos proves this. The fact that indifference towards Atomos Part Moai is reflected as an intentional neglect tells us that Seo Tae-ji's survival tactic is successful. In fact, Seo Tae-ji is just too much wrapped in layers. When one pulls off Seo Tae-ji's layers one by one to properly talk about him, then the person will be misunderstood for belittling Seo Tae-ji, and if one's words are not compliments for Seo Tae-ji then the words will be regarded as sarcasm or criticism.

Birth of a Legend and Certain Misunderstandings.

  Seo Tae-ji had different taste from other rockers when he temporarily participated in the heavy metal band, Sinawee led by Shin, Dae-chul, Shin Joong-hyun's son; It was time when rock music and dance music was seen as incompatible. However, in 1991, Seo Tae-ji formed a dance group with Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Joo-no and made his debut in 1992 and succeeded in a way no one could ever do in the underground. The effect of the broadcast was the key to his success. Only after a few days of appearing on TV, I Know created a big sensation. Introducing non-mainstream rap and heavy metal with lyrics which carried somewhat social issues were enough to gain support. Teenagers gained satisfactory thrills from them. Unlike these days, until the first half of the 90's, it was common for dance singers to write their songs and choreograph, and Tae-ji Boys was also a combination of songwriters and dancers. Seo Tae-ji, with his leadership continuously made hit songs and became a successful producer as well as a trend setter.

  Seo Tae-ji's musical career is related to hip-hop and heavy metal culture. Of course, he was not alone in his career. In 1994, along with his Class Idea, N.E.X.T's The Return of N.E.X.T: Part 1, Being was a hit. In the underground, Crash's appearance was an issue. Before Crash participated in Class Idea, they were already an underground star band which passed beyond the limits of Korean heavy metal with their debut album Endless Supply of Pain. Radio broadcasted by Star DJ, Jun, Young-hyuk played Crash, N.E.X.T, and Seo Tae-ji's songs side by side in 1994's year-end special program. Now, DEUX is more regarded as hip-hop musician than Seo Tae-ji.

  Of course, Hayuga released in 1993 was refreshing and in the following year, his album became an issue with its big scale songs such as Dreaming Balhae and Class Idea. His fourth and last album contained Come Back Home and Pilsung which were also the songs that fulfilled people's expectations. In addition, he could achieve commercial success by including songs with typical emotions and melody. It is a fact that his albums were sold in astronomic numbers and singing rooms which were setting their roots in Korean society were filled with people singing his songs. However, Seo Tae-ji's impact was bigger in cultural aspects than in musical aspects. He became an icon by according with the discussions of the generation. Therefore, he differs from alternative discussions with America's Nirvana and Kurt Cobain in the center. His focus on staying with discussions of the generation outweighed focus on music.

  A spokesperson for a new generation was promoted as "Culture President" Seo Tae-ji was accepted as a new social phenomenon. This is related to intellectuals engaged in a social advance movement by stepping into the cultural field and pouring in their intellectual opinions. They interpreted the pop star, Seo Tae-ji, and his influence as a hero by relating him to the advent of something new that is different from the past. Was that true? It is more likely that the new generation made Seo Tae-ji than Seo Tae-ji changed the world. From 1993 to 1995, Korea faced political, social, and cultural changes. They were not always good changes. There were prices to pay for growth and changes. The side effects from rapid industrialization showed up as tangible disasters. Continuing disasters of an exploding train, crashing planes, sinking ships, collapsing bridge and department store took away thousands of lives. It was the age when the old collapsed and the new turned up.

  Interestingly, the age of Tae-ji Boys overlaps the fate of the Kim Young-sam administration. Kim Young-sam was elected as president by leading Min Ja Dang (which is now Han Nara Dang) consisting of anti-democratic dictating force and certain opportunistic democratic figures. His popularity was unbelievable which is hard to imagine today, but it eventually waned and sank with the IMF situation. Of course, Seo Tae-ji never sank but he took time off by himself. The young singer's retirement announcement stirred various reactions. Fans were devastated from Tae-ji Boys' retirement but others called it a show. Sinawee's song, Retirement is known for a satire on Tae-ji Boys. "Today I am your hero/ Thousands will be waiting for me/ You will be tearing... It is my play, You are my audience/ It is my stage, You are agreement" and, "When you are tired of waiting, I will come back." And just like the words, he returned.

  Seo Tae-ji's novel aspects drew big shadows over society. For instance, he was a singer who did not even graduate high school in Korea, an education-conscious society. People's tremendous reaction, dazzling lights, imposing intellectual meanings, and sudden retirement was what perfected the heroic story. Therefore, it had to carry several misunderstandings. Heroes had to have achievements. One of them was that Seo Tae-ji led the abolition of pre-censorship. Well, was it true? It is true that Seo Tae-ji raised people's consciousness of the problem. However, the ultimate credit goes to Jung Tae-chun, a folk musician as well as a vocalist of the resistance. For six years, starting way before Seo Tae-ji made his debut, he fought against the courts and on September 31, 1995, he finally earned the judgment that pre-censorship was unconstitutional. Instead of using mass media or image marketing, he presented the gift of the freedom to songs with unnoticeable regular siege.

  In addition, the music industry before Seo Tae-ji was devalued for his musical achievements as a necessary consequence. Only this would make Seo Tae-ji the one who made quality improvements in Korea-pop (K-pop) industry. Rumors spread that only narrow varieties of boring songs were popular. For the last time, was that really true? From the second half of the 80's to the first half of the 90's, K-pop industry was at its heyday. Different genres such as rock, heavy metal, blues, folk, dance music and ballads were loved by people and albums of masterpiece were being released. Also, underground musicians made quite a splash no less than musicians on TV. Album and concert ticket sales were record-breaking during the first half of the 90? which was the richest period in Korean history. What was seen of TV was sophisticated but overall, after the advent of Seo Tae-ji, the golden era started to fade.

  Idol producers hand over their tactics of aiming for a certain generation and maximizing the effect with sudden appearance and disappearance, then importing foreign trends and applying it in albums with different genres. A capital that captures teenagers?purchasing power is pouring out planned products while TV programs respond with a total new set. TV gained a hard bargain and musicians suffered from the idea that people's love is the only way for survival. When they are trapped in "popular music", there was no way but to become standardized goods. Of course, Seo Tae-ji is not to blame for this change. In broadcasting entertainment world which is corrupted enough to spill out ceaseless news of illegal business and rotten scandals, it is money and human network that produces a star. However, Seo Tae-ji was active and he gave positive stimulus. That is, he was not the one who developed popular music scene.

  In 2007, the limited edition of Seo Tae-ji's 15th anniversary album was sold long before its release day. A free marketing event which was to check his influence before his comeback seemed to have brought quite a successful result. The sales scale of Atomos Part Moai is much bigger. That may be the reason why people seem to hold expectations that Seo Tae-ji will bring positive spirits to the pop music industry. But strictly speaking, until know the levels of pop music industry have never climbed the ratings in accordance with Seo Tae-ji. Instead, since his appearance, the music industry has been standing at a downhill road. In fact, it was not only Seo Tae-ji's fans that bought and sold his 15th anniversary album. Shortly after the time of subscription had closed, his albums could be seen on trading sites at multiplied prices. Moreover, there are concerns that the album with only four tracks lasting 16 minutes and 21 seconds being sold at an unthinkable price may have negative effects on the music industry.

  There are reasons why the words "In the stagnated music industry..." which show up habitually in the articles dealing Seo Tae-ji are dangerous. It may rebirth misunderstanding about K-pop music industry which has made quality growth and meaningful movements until now. From the second half of the 90's, many achievements have been made with indie-music scene in the center. Also, there is a combination of reasons for recent revival of K-pop industry. Such a misunderstanding can be an insult for other music and musicians's efforts. There is also no need to put a big burden on Seo Tae-ji's shoulders.

Musician Seo Tae-ji and Atomos Part Moai

  It is about time I talk about Seo Tae-ji as a musician. Korean heavy metal of the 80's and Korean hip-hop of the 2000's tend to have similarities which is their importance on techniques. This is also true for K-pop of the 90's. It is the obsession on sound quality and techniques. Trendsetters who import foreign trends and spread them stand on the boundary and regard it a mission to spread the trend to people inside the boundary. However, compositions which regard trends and techniques as important seldom become subjects for plagiarism. Seo Tae-ji's songwriting method is also similar to combination of ideas and adoption. That is the reason why from his first hit song to his latest songs he has been criticized for plagiarism. Even his latest album and the last album have been suspected of plagiarism. These rumors not only fall on Seo Tae-ji. Plagiarism is a temptation that all artists find hard to resist. Of course, just like the weapon and space industry have affected positively in various developments, studies on sound has played an important role. Thanks to this, we could overcome an inferiority complex. By going through these steps, people could naturally accept Korean feelings and group sounds of the 70's with affection. The recent restoration mode is made possible on this solid foundation.

  However, it is a pity that the works of Seo Tae-ji is not a scene but what lingers as an individual achievement. Instead of setting a musical trend and sticking to it, he has decided to set another foot forward to differentiate himself. It is a different method from previously mentioned Crash, who contributes to scene, stays in the area and accepts their limits. It is good to try different music, but it is also good to concentrate on one genre. Moreover, obsession on mysticism acts as an accelerator that separates him from the scene. There are opinions that Seo Tae-ji's mysticism is being exaggerated by the media. No. Mysticism is a chosen strategy which differentiates oneself from idols while still keeping oneself as an idol. Forming non-mysterious circles and setting up UFO models in the middle of a city is not just a joke. There is no company that would invest that much money to play a joke. Several pages of press materials which were distributed with the release of his single album endlessly repeat the word mysticism.

  There is another word which is repeated one after another. "New genre" is it. He has maintained his status by emphasizing "experiment" and "new genre". He put up hardcore for Ultra man Iya in 2000, and emotional core for Issue in 2004. It is said that he is the first one to introduce new genres in Korea. But in Korean indie-music scene, alternative (which is wrongly introduced as hard-core), alternative metal, and emo-core had already settled and there were piles of brilliant work. This time, papers with phrases that say "Korea's new genre called 'natural pound' which has been more intensified with Seo Tae-ji's unique and mysterious color" and "A meaningful act which he has created his own genre" have been distributed. Genre is like a matter of choosing a fork, chopsticks or a spoon for food. Just like the tableware you have chosen for your food, with genre you can step closer to music and understand it better. Therefore, a new genre basically holds no meaning. In the 21st century, a new genre is not that necessary.

  These are marketing strategies. You can only talk about Seo Tae-ji's music after peeling off the layers of "newness", "experiment" and "mystery".  However, without them you face the dilemma of losing the existence of Seo Tae-ji. The logic and marketing for Seo Tae-ji locked him up in an island. He is acknowledged more as an idol and icon in his nearly 20 years of music life than as a musician. The reason lies in the island. Will there be a boat in Atomos Part Moai that can save Seo Tae-ji from his island? And will that help him fly his flag continuously?

  At least, the pressure as a "revolutionary innovator" seems to have waned. "Taeji-ous" melody melded with soft rock and pop and experimental elements are set not above but under it. The finishing level is also relatively high. In Moai, IDM (Intelligence Dance Music) beat is adapted in Seo Tae-ji's style and in Human Dream, musical game sound is interestingly applied (Of course, there are many foreign bands that have succeeded from more actively using game sounds). While familiar melody is in the lead, rather magnificent alternative metals such as T'ik T'ak induces emotional reactions. Seo Tae-ji's peculiar pop sense and rock sound is adequately mixed in this single and if advertising phrases and exaggerated discussions are ignored, his setting of directions seems successful. He chose what he can be good at. It is a part success to be knowledgeable of the field that one can be good at and to acknowledge one's limits.

  Intricateness and ambiguity is not an experiment. In other words, experiments are not always intricate and ambiguous. Flexible experiment is what makes a person listen to it repeatedly without knowing the reason for it. This single holds several parts that are like this and this is related to sound making. I am not repeating the copy that says "The first album that has been created by Seo Tae-ji himself without the help of any foreign staff or technology." As somebody has said, "solely Korean techniques" and "International sound" that reminds us of a former-comedian movie director is not that attractive. "Solely created brilliant sounds" have already been achieved by other musicians. Ignoring other meaningless meaning settings, I would say that 16 years of know-how are well applied in this album. It is easy for sound to get coarse when different sounds are mixed. However, in this album sounds are well combined. What Seo Tae-ji has worked on is this too. That is why I mention the sound production. Seo Tae-ji was originally a stylist rather than a songwriting musician who finds "The power of song and story" important. Therefore, it is not all that meaningful to talk about the relation between the "smoothness" and "the fundamental thing."

  Only, it is unnecessary to go over rather immature lyrics that seem to have appeared from students's SF. After Seo Tae-ji began as a solo, he no longer writes social lyrics. It would be too much to expect for him to write songs about his earnest life and deep thoughts. However, the mood does not seem to fit the words about nature and mystery. It is a little awkward coordination. He imposes important meaning on reflecting oneself for making the world a refuse dump and killing and eating living creatures without feeling sorry. However, if recycling and a vegetarian diet becomes a cool lifestyle or a trend, it may be good but I wonder what that would look like. You may have noticed that Seo Tae-ji has lost his power in his slogans. But when we consider his constant attempts at delivering meaningful messages, "harmony of nature and science"may have been his choice of this generation's value that he had to deliver.

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