Sunday, January 25, 2009

Two decades before Guitar Hero

The blog called "White on Rice" has what is apparently a diary entry from the spring of 1987 in which he relates how he learned — to his bafflement — that the pop song "West End Girls" by The Pet Shop Boys was banned in South Korea. 

And that sent me down memory lane. I was a teenager in Seoul in the late 1980s. There were lots of banned songs. "Revolution" by the Beatles, even though it made fun of the people that the government feared would try to foment revolution (though I didn't know that at the time).

"Russians" by Sting on Dream of the Blue Turtles was also "not approved," perhaps because it tried to depict the Communist enemy as also being humans who loved their children, too, or maybe just because it had the word "Russians" in it.

Though I have no idea if "West End Girls" was really banned in 1987, I know that the Pet Shop Boys snuck a lot of political subtext into their lyrics, often dealing with East-West relations that may have made the former military junta that ruled South Korea in 1987 quite uncomfortable.

Songs were essentially banned if they didn't get approval by the Ministry of Culture and Information, an Orwellian name if ever there was one. Often you'd get albums that were a bit incomplete, missing one or two songs that would be disseminated in North America or Western Europe without incident.

Of course, it was an open secret that anyone could go and get the illicit songs from shops selling the LPs themselves, or unauthorized copies of the albums on audio cassette. I admit that I had at least a few such tapes from a shop in Itaewon, across the street from where the McDonald's now stands.

It's funny how much Korea has changed. I think one reason I get so annoyed with the commentary of places like the Marmots Hole whine cellar is that the Korean newbies, and even those who have been here for a few years, don't see any kind of big picture.

It seems that to many of them, "Koreans" are a monolithic and uniform entity that is inveterately possessing whatever bad thing they see happening right this minute. On the other hand, the old hands like Oranckay, Sanshinseon, etc., have seen plenty of things change, with change for the better beating out for the worse by about ten to one, and tend to look at things — including things about which they are critical — in a more balanced light. 

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