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Commodity Fetishism and the Cultural Discourses of Vulgarized Popular Song in the 1930s

August 14, 2019

From "Embedded Voices In Between Empires The Cultural Formation of Korean Popular Music in Modern Times", by Yongwoo Lee

 

taken from https://docplayer.net/...

Chapter :

 

"Commodity Fetishism and the Cultural Discourses of Vulgarized Popular Song in the 1930s" 

 

The social context of popular song and the popular accommodation of secularized culture among Korean audiences often collided with traditional notions of social value and local conventions that produced conflicts in popular reflections on modernity. Choi Youngsoo‘s Electronic Phonograph (Jeongi Chukeumgi 電氣畜音機), the short novel published in Chogwang magazine in 1936, describes the excessive fetishism of the febrile activity of collecting phonograph records, comparing it to chasing modern technology through the phonograph records. Choi‘s text offers a rare suggestion of the relationship between the phonograph culture of the Korean middle class in the 1930s and the abnormal tendencies of the machine that made colonial subjects confront the speed of material modernization and its reception. The protagonist, ‗I‘ and his wife are middle class colonial Koreans eager to purchasing phonograph records regularly each payday. The narrative opens with a monologue describing his wife‘s eccentricity about the phonograph, which he didn‘t mind at all: 

 

I‘m also fond of phonographs, but cannot compare with my wife‘s affection to them. I never thought of her new proclivity and peculiar devotions on phonographs as a weird obsession. My wife and I loved music, so we purchased an electric phonograph at the store by paying over 180 won in cash, including my wife‘s deposit and my bonus. Pleasantly enshrined in the shade of my home, the electronic phonograph, baptized by grease with my wife‘s delicate touches glittered on a wooden floor. 

 

Choi Youngsoo, Jeongi Chukeumgi, Chogwang, 1936, p. 324. 

 

His wife‘s fastidiousness with the gramophone made for a plague of troubles; for instance, they had to dismiss the housemaid for making an indiscernible scratch while wiping their beloved phonographs, considered like a ―first born baby,‖67 and his wife wails after the records are warped by the heat of the room‘s floor while she was organizing them. However, after his company went bankrupt owing to a bout of economic depression, they had to sell the phonograph and records one by one, making his wife nervous and high-strung. One day, a colleague comes to visit him, who warns him of the danger of his constant indulgence in phonographs. When his friend inquired about the expensive hobby, he confesses, ―I thought the phonograph belongs to the house, but in fact, this home was the phonograph‘s belonging.‖68

 

The expensive consumption of and ―new proclivity‖ for phonographs was driven by commodity fetishism in the early transition to capitalism, by colonial audiences who identified themselves as civilized and modern, yet were often denied the ability to consume modern culture due to the social circumstances of economic depression during the colonial occupation. As Attali remarked of the interdependence of a phonograph and records‘ use-value, ―the record object is not useable by itself.‖68 Its use-value depends on that of another commodity; its repetition requires a reproductive device (the phonograph). The duality between the object used and its user are constantly exchanged, giving both the character of a thing, a relation that evolves into commodity fetishism as an autonomous ―phantom objectivity‖ that seems so strictly rational and embraces the senses to conceal ―the trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people,‖69 

 

67 (Lukács 1971). 

68 Jacques Attali (1985) Noise: The Political Economy of Music, translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 96. 

69 Georg Lukács (1971), History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 83. Quoted in Thomas Keenan (1993), The Point is to [Ex] change it: Reading Capital, Rhetorically, Ithaca: Cornell University, p. 179. 

 

Nevertheless, the process of commodity fetishism in phonographs culminated in its materialization in colonial life through the rise of various music genres, sales of new records, consumption of phonograph records and the technological progress of gramophones. The material objectification of the phonograph seems to embody the magical formation of fetishized modernity following the progress of technology, the speed of modernization and the gap between the material and its colonial consumers. Marx‘s concept of the fetish usefully enacts a colonial substitution, an imaginary personification of an unknown historical shift, over which colonial Koreans had no control. 

 

Thus it is significant to look at the response of Korean critics to the production and consumption of popular music during this time, for a broad sense of cultural discontinuity generated discourses of both cultural vulgarity and colonial modernization in this transition to capitalism. These various discourses regarding popular songs‘ production and consumption during the mid-1930s were initiated by a famous controversy among music critics, broadly referred to as ―the problem of producing Korean popular songs‖70 by Yi Hayoon, who was a director of the Korean branch of Columbia Records in 1935. 

 

70 Yi Hayoon, 1934.4.2-4.5, Dong-A Ilbo daily newspaper 

71 Koo Wangsam 1934.4.11-12, Dong-A Ilbo daily newspaper 

 

Yi worried about the vulgarized cultural transition of colonial Korean music, which was influenced by Japanese nasal Enka sounds and melancholic lyrics. He compartmentalized Korean popular songs as either ―those emulating western tunes or Jazz music‖ or ―Shinminyo – new type of traditional folksong – that originated from the Korean traditional folksongs.‖ Yi argued the need for musical collaboration in producing Korean popular songs by actively introducing western compositional methods and establishing local orchestration practices that could be hybridized with Korean traditional tunes and instrumental accompaniment. He also emphasized the importance of song lyrics as a means of overcoming the vulgar aspects of contemporary popular songs. Koo Wangsam, music critic for the Dong-A daily newspapers refuted this position in an article entitled ―Regarding the current popular songs: Counterargument to Yi‘s point.‖71 

 

Koo was especially critical of the accommodation of western tunes in Korean popular songs, saying, ―It is absurd to adopt so-called Japanized Jazz as a criterion to creating Korean popular songs.‖ He strongly expressed his antipathy to the ―popular deluge of the American Jazz craze following capitalist materialism‖ in order to criticize the Korean accommodation of the jazz fad as a ―crippled act of mimicking and quasi-plagiarising western songs.‖ Stretching these issues further, he argued that there was a fundamental harmonic incompatibility between western tunes and Korean compositional traditions, because ―Korean music is based on a delicate, minute feminine melody rather sparse in harmonic elements that consists of pentatonic scales. It is impossible to express in the western scale.‖ Thus, he concluded ―it will be a monstrous combination, either of Korean popular songs collaborating with western accompaniment or of a Korean and western instrumental ensemble.‖ 67 

 

Kim Gwan, one of the foremost music critics, fiercely retorted, defining Koo‘s article as the ―sophistry of formalist‖ and claiming that Koo misinterpreted Yi‘s argument about the potential for Korean popular music accommodating western music styles and instrumental orchestrations. Gwan found that Koo overlooked musical aesthetics, which addresses the cross-fertilization of music.72 The notable aspect of Kim‘s argument on popular music, however, was his interpretation of Korean traditional folksong, Minyo. He said Minyo is a ―pulsation of the national heart,‖ so we [Koreans] need to resuscitate the originality of Korean popular song by ―rediscovering Minyo in the new system of sound,‖ which he called ―Joseonui eumgye‖ (Korean musical scale). Thus, cultural discourses on popular music at this time focused on the vulgarity of appropriating music genres—especially western ones—a perspective developed by harnessing arguments about musical authenticity, notions of the appropriateness of musical forms and technological developments in the music industry and the consequences of music‘s commercialization, enabled by phonograph culture and the circulation and popularity of gramophone records that radically changed the socio-cultural landscape of colonial Korean life. As Attali has said of the cultural shift triggered by technological evolution, the gramophone acts as a ―stockpile playing on time and space,‖ becoming a ―tool for the generalization of representation‖ in imagining the Korean cultural atmosphere.73 

 

72 Kim Gwan ―Sophistry of formalist – Refutation of Koo‘s comment regarding Yi‘s article on producing Korean popular songs‖ Dong-A Ilbo Daily newspaper, 1934.4.27-5.2 

73 Attali, Ibid., p. 95. 

 

From the mid 1930s, the dominant cultural forms of jazz and popular song Yuhaengga recordings (Yuhaengga is Korean term for popular song, a translation of the Japanese wod ryūkōka) tended to oscillate between developments from western and Japanese trends, which provided the dominant influences on jazz and popular music in colonial Korea. There was an influx of multiple and diverse popular forms, and genres such as jazz, blues, nonsense songs, enka, rumba and tango continued to proliferate until 1937, when Japan began to launch propaganda campaigns announcing that Koreans should think of Japan and Korea as united in a single body (naisenittai), and to regard their Korean selves as a part of a greater national entity (kokugo). The emergence of jazz in the mid-to-late 1930s in colonial Korea involved to a large extent musician-celebrities such as Lee Nan-Young, Lee Erisu, Kim Hae-song, Lee Jae-Ho, Wang Su-Bok and Che Gyu-Yup, who appropriated and copied the rhythms, chords and vocal styles of western compositions and performances. 

 

In a musical terms, appropriation is often considered ―a kind of betrayal of origins,‖ where ―musicians perceived as copying other musicians‘ styles or inflections‖ are ―associated with an assumed exploitation of weaker or subservient social or ethnic groups by more dominant and powerful groups as the appropriation of Black-American musical forms by white musicians,‖ (Mitchell 1996:8). However, in the Korean context, mimicry and the appropriation of jazz and other western or Japanese music genres by colonial musicians and composers increased the subjective sense of the present and crystallized cultural perceptions regarding colonial circumstances, acting as a symbolic and ritual means of consuming western modernity, morals and values systems through the appropriation of hip jazz songs, while also incorporating indigenous elements to preserve Korean sentiments and traditional values in the form of a new kind of traditional folksong, Shinminyo. 

 

However, Korea‘s cross-cultural dilemma illustrates a displaced western modernity shared by and filtered through the imagination of the Japanese colonizer. Thus the use of jazz as means of both consuming western vanity and indirectly counteracting the Japanese modernization was also reflected in the Korean popular songs. With the advent of jazz culture, youngsters‘ accommodation of western culture through jazz songs and the trendiness of the middle class consumption phonograph records empowered and homogenized these unidentifiable exotic western sounds as commercial commodities that could act as an ―oppositional and liberational signifier,‖ as Gilroy puts it (Gilroy 1991:9). Gilroy describes ―an overarching ‗Afro-centrism‘ which can be read as inventing its own totalizing conception of black culture. This new ethnicity is all the more powerful because it corresponds to no actually-existing black communities.‖ Thus colonial Koreans‘ imaginative relationship with jazz strengthened the idea of America and American culture and communities as a genuine and even utopic modernity, geared by the commodity fetishism of jazz records and modern technologies such as the gramophone and radio transistor. 

 

Despites its popularity, many critics and conservative Koreans considered jazz a serious threat to the nation‘s morale, blaming it for supposedly implicitly welcoming rebellious behavior and producing an evil influence at home that could result in immorality or even dementia. Critics of the domestic play of phonograph records brought up issues regarding the wife‘s use of ―sane, sound‖ music at home. As Park elucidates, ―singing a vulgar song at home is an unpleasant thing. Clean and cheerful songs have to be played at home by utilizing radio programs to expel vulgar popular songs… Currently, many military songs and patriotic songs are played at home, which is a very stimulating fact. Having cheerful and immaculate songs at home is equivalent to having a sound and noble home.‖74 Since women, who played phonographs during the day while their husbands and children were away, dominated the market for phonograph records, the discourses of popular music selection, purchase and appreciation of recorded music were focused on the housewives of colonial Korea alongside articulations of Chonghu (home front) identity. 

 

74 Park Tae-Joon (1941) ―Gajeonggwa Eumak‖ (home and music), Shinsidae, vol 6. 1941.6. p. 176. 

75 Ahn Seokju (1930.11.20), ―When 1931 comes,‖ Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper. 

76 Bhabha, Ibid., p. 116. 

 

Meanwhile, the Charleston, one of the modern dances associated with jazz music, ignited the popularity of jazz for the Mobo and Moga. The jazzy gestures and the allure of American popular music under the suppressed colonial sovereignty quickly gained enormous popularity amongst colonial youngsters. Younger generations were ―desperately looking for a good Charleston player [as long as he/she can expertly dance to Charleston], they don‘t care even if it‘s Negro,‖75 which challenges dominant social morals. By appropriating alternative colonial narratives by consuming western culture as a means of sustaining emancipatory impulses, the colonial subject mimicked western attitudes by consuming modern symbol-jazz, and, at the same time, the appropriation of western culture in this younger generation also embraced the idea of a ―strategic reversal of the process of domination that turns the (colonizers‘) gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power‖76 by destabilizing colonial authority and challenging traditional morals in accommodating the febrile jazz craze as a subversive narrative. 

 

The first poll vis-à-vis the most popular singer in Korea (figure 2-7) displays the popularity of phonograph records—the supplementary prize was a gramophone, as shown on the left—and the degrees of public preference for the singers at the time. Over ten thousand people participated in the poll to choose the most popular singer in Korea in 70 

 

September 1935,77 evidence of the enormous public interest in this music. Meanwhile, various phonograph records issued in the 12-inch, 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) format changed the music business following the popularity of phonograph record consumption and the new dance crazes along with blues and Jazz genre. 

 

77 Samchulli, 1935.10. 

78 Samchulli, 1935.1, p. 8 (left), 1935.4.p. 5 (right) 

79 Antenna Seng (1936), ―Who does the Best in Radio Broadcasting?‖ Chogwang, vol 2.1. pp. 274-277. 

 

The gradually rising popularity of radio also helped to disseminate jazz music throughout colonial Korea in the mid-1930s (see Appendix 2). As early as 1931, the KPK band of Kim Hae-Song, whose repertoires included a smattering of jazz numbers, first began to be played on the radio. But Korean musicians were, with few exceptions, largely excluded from performing on early commercial radio. According to Chogwang magazine in 1936, radio programming consisted of playing music, entertainment (radio drama, radio novel, radio poem) and gossip news (talk about movie stars, humorous stories), education (national physical exercises -Gukminchejo, cooking method), and newscast. Korean music was usually divided between popular music (western and Korean popular songs) and traditional Korean music such as Pansori or Japga. 

Beginning in the earliest years of the 1930s in colonial Korea, ambivalent imperial subjects seemed eager to experience modernity and to go beyond its boundaries, which had historically divided them as the inner from the outer, creating an ‗us‘ and an ‗other.‘ Colonial Koreans tried to be free from dominant transcendent ideologies while protecting themselves against indoctrinating Japanese imperialism. These ambivalent interactions between the Empire and colonial subjectivity, however, were blurred by various unexpected cultural chemistry between local cultures and the West /America. Various traditional notions that regulate the sovereignty such as nation state, vernacular language and territoriality were conflated with the experience of Empire, which was easily subsumed in the logics of modernity. The colonial intelligentsia‘s endeavours for a rural enlightenment campaign were gradually substituted for patriotism as an unfinished business in order to accommodate the influx of cultural products from the Empire and western countries. Antinomic colonial mentalities were represented in various popular music genres in 1930s colonial Korea, especially by the two dominant popular music genres, Jazz and Shinminyo. 

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