“What’s in a Hit?: South Korean Government’s War on Marijuana, Decadence, and Foreign Musical Influences”

MoPOP Pop Conference. Seattle, WA, 21 April 2017.

The 1975 marijuana scandal, whereby then-president Park Chung-hee ordered the prosecution, oft-torturous mistreatment, and blacklisting of numerous top-tier South Korean celebrities accused of marijuana use. The event delivered a heavy punch to the just-burgeoning Korean youth culture, particularly rock music, which had just outgrown simple translation and regurgitation of American rock. Part of the authoritarian Park regime’s efforts to paralyze dissenting voices, constraint foreign cultural influences on the increasingly “decadent” domestic culture, and solidify its political control over the people, the crackdown had less to do with the use of marijuana itself, hardly criminalized until then, and more with fabricating and fostering an artificial myŏngrang (bright, positive, or sound) culture.

I explore in this paper the state-led cultural gentrification campaigns that the marijuana scandal represents, and the implications of such replacement of free youth culture with a convolutedly all-positive, nationalist, and harmless culture. Similar to the American pushback to early rock-and-roll, the fabrication of such a compulsively sound culture left little room for freedom of creative expression and introduced artistic censorship and self-censorship, the repercussions of which remain in today’s explosively growing Korean popular music landscape. Lyrical themes encouraging submissive, obedient youth and citizenship pervade popular songs from this period, as do nonaggressive musical textures and sonorities. The imposition of state censorship and requirement for a near-propaganda kŏnjon kayo ([wholesome] song) track on all commercial musical releases pressure-molded the sound of the nation’s popular music. Today’s Korean popular music bears lasting marks of those legal restraints, since lifted: an obsession with the well-behaved, patriotic youth, and a retro aesthetic that ironically reproduces the looks and sounds of the fabricated sound culture and, in turn, sustains its life in today’s musical terrain.

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