When Seo Taiji & Boys debuted their rap-rock break up song "I Know" on a talent show on one of Korea's major television networks, they received the lowest score of the night for their performance. It was April of 1992, and, until then, due to South Korea's travel ban (which had only just been lifted in 1988) and strict censorship laws, the prevailing styles in Korean pop were trot—a blend of Japanese, Western, and Korean styles sung in the vibrato-heavy Gagok style—and ballads. Seo Taiji's rowdy song, complete with trendy styling and accompanying choreography, didn't exactly sit well with the judges. But the Korean public was ready for change. "I Know" went on to top the charts for 17 weeks and marked the beginning of K-pop as we know it today.
Though Seo Taiji & Boys soon disbanded in 1996, their career was a game changer. The group not only shook things up with their sound and look, they challenged the status quo in their lyrics as well, shouting the frustrations of young people and pushing the boundaries of pop music in their country. They were met with pushback from the industry and the older generation, often banned from TV broadcasts, and even accused of sneaking satanic messages in their songs to brainwash young people. But the group and their fans pushed right back, eventually changing censorship laws and industry standards.
Seo Taiji went on to an equally successful solo career, while the Boys, Yang Hyunsuk and Lee Juno, both went on to start their own labels. Yang Hyunsuk started what is still one of Korea's major players, YG Entertainment, home to genre-defining groups like 2NE1, Big Bang, and BlackPink. The industry standard of experimenting with sound, dance, and fashion came from Seo Taiji. Even now, we see their influence in groups like NCT 127 and BTS, the latter of which is arguably the biggest name in K-pop today. Recently, BTS's staggering popularity has been linked to the group's socially conscious lyrics. But in this, as in many other respects, they are following in the footsteps of Seo Taiji.
BTS recently remade Seo Taiji's 1995 song "Come Back Home," which rails against societal pressures on young people that push them to run away from home. In their remake, BTS speak about the frustrations of today's youth, which aren't so different from those felt over 20 years ago. In their version, J-Hope and Rap Monster especially shine, as the former's dynamic delivery combines with the latter's hard-hitting approach in a way that both borrows from the anger and energy of the original and injects it with some Bangtan style.
The remake is part of Time Traveler, a project to celebrate 25 years since Seo Taiji's debut that will culminate in a concert in Seoul on September 2. Other artists also participated with their own remakes. Urban Zakapa and Younha took the softer "Moai" and "Take Five" and updated them with more polished and cinematic versions, while rappers Loopy and Nafla of MKIT Rain translated the intensity of "Internet War" into their own sinister remake. Yet of the many artists who participated in Time Traveler, BTS was the most successful with its remake, perhaps because the group is the one whose career has most closely followed in Seo Taiji's footsteps. Like Seo Taiji & Boys were in their day, BTS is a hip-hop group known for their choreography, experimenting with different styles, and voicing the pains of the youth in their music. And while "Come Back Home" is an actual cover of Seo Taiji, it's not the only instance of BTS taking a cue from their predecessors.
"Classroom Idea," another of Seo Taiji's songs that remains relevant, criticizes the school system for being so stringent and suffocating and more like a factory than anything. In it, Seo Taiji returns to his metal roots and screams that enough is enough, that he doesn't want to be a part of this. The abrasive style of the song and its criticisms is what led many parents to accuse the group of inserting satanic messages in their music to brainwash their children. Nearly 20 years later, BTS picked up on the same themes in their school trilogy (2 Cool 4 Skool, O!RUL8,2?, Skool Luv Affair). In the trilogy, BTS focuses on the problems high school and college students grapple with, namely the pressure from parents and society to do well in school, get a good job, and make money.
Their debut song "No More Dream" talks about the aspirations of young people being predetermined and all about money and laments that this leaves them with no real dreams of their own. "N.O" later followed with critiques of the rigid school system and its mind-numbing effects, just as Seo Taiji did in "Classroom Idea." But BTS didn't just say enough is enough, they rallied young people right along with them to say no to the narrow path they're expected to walk. (The dystopian classroom music video was a nice touch.)
Even before their debut, Jin, Rap Monster, and Suga came together for "Tears of School," a song that, over Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools," describes school as a flawed mini society created by adults, a battleground in which there are no winners. When Suga talks about being taught to step on others to climb to the top, he reiterates a problem that Seo Taiji also witnessed. The connection between the groups is obvious, and it's no surprise that BTS went on to perform "Classroom Idea" at KBS's end of year concert last year.
However, socially conscious K-pop didn't skip an entire generation between Seo Taiji and BTS. In fact, it's kind of how idol groups got started. The first K-pop boy groups all debuted with something to say. H.O.T. kicked things off fighting back against bullying in "Warrior's Descendant," from their 1996 debut album We Hate All Kinds of Violence. Then Sechs Kies got riled up over the pressures of school in "Song of School Life" on their 1997 debut. In 1998 Shinhwa asked why society is so greedy in "Resolver," and a year later G.O.D. debuted with "To Mother," about a poor widow looked down upon by society. Fast forward to 2012, and B.A.P calls for revolution in "Warrior" while Exo's "MAMA" bemoans losing ourselves to the digital world. (Do I hear "Internet War"?) At MBC's end of year concert in 2013, BTS performed "Warrior's Descendant" and "Song of School Life," along with their own "No More Dream," a nod to those who set the stage for the socially conscious debut song rite of passage.
Despite its pristine and innocuous appearance, there's no shortage of social commentary in K-pop's history. Even viral hit "Gangnam Style," often dismissed as a goofy party song, is Social Commentary 101 from one of K-pop's biggest and most long-standing artists. (ICYMI the song and video poke fun at the lavish and shallow lifestyles of one of Seoul's wealthiest districts.)
And because there's no social commentary shortage, fans who are more immersed know to seek it out. Earlier this year, BTS released "Spring Day," a song about friendship lost and missed. Fans of the group analyzed everything from the song's lyrics to the music video's imagery and the formations of the performance choreography and some concluded that it was a tribute to the young lives lost in the Sewol ferry tragedy of 2014. Whether it was intended or not, the group's trajectory thus far leads fans to seek deeper meaning in their music, just as Seo Taiji did 25 years ago.
Lead image: Left: Seo Taiji and Boys in the "Come Back Home" video; Right: Cover art for BTS's "Come Back Home"
Blanca Méndez lives in Texas but still lives in Seoul at heart. Follow her on Twitter.