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  • Regulating and Negotiating in T'ûrot'û, a Korean Popular Song Style
  • Min-Jung Son (bio)

T'ûrot'û (its name derived from the Korean pronunciation of the English, trot) is a South Korean sentimental love song style performed with an abundance of vocal inflections. While this popular music has existed in the music scene of Korea for more than eight decades, it has been received differently at different times throughout its history. For instance, t'ûrot'û enjoyed its heyday as the dominant Korean popular music until the 1970s, and it remains popular particularly among older adults (sôngin) and working people (sômin). According to a survey by the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) program Kayosho (Popular Song Show) in 2003, 64 out of 100 of the all-time favorite Korean popular songs were t'ûrot'û songs.1 Hence, this grassroots popular music genre can be easily heard in such spaces as taxis, buses, marketplaces, local festivals, and noraebang (private rooms for karaoke).

In addition, the social meaning of t'ûrot'û has been complicated by its relations to successive ideological structures of Korea, such as the elite nationalism of the Japanese colonial period (1910–45), the cultural imperialism of the Cold War period (1950s–1970s), and the strategic essentialism of the military dictatorship (1960s–1980s). In the beginning, even though the song style was well accepted particularly by the urban bourgeoisie during the period of modernization, the early elite nationalists considered it to be a cultural threat. Since the nationalists during the Japanese colonial period intended to canonize traditional Korean music as a high-modern Korean culture, they worried about the impact of modern popular music and favored the resurrection of traditional musics (Robinson 1998, 372).

Later, in 1984, the early elite nationalists' standpoint strongly influenced the postcolonial debate over the nationality of t'ûrot'û.2 In fact, the postcolonial argument has relentlessly been the main issue of t'ûrot'û since the introduction of governmental censorship in the 1960s. During the dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, the government viewed t'ûrot'û as a cultural vestige of the Japanese colony that needed to be erased. As seen in a number of cultural theses [End Page 51] in the Cold War years, many South Korean scholars of those times, furthermore, asserted that the colonial cultural flows eventually would be connected to the economic, political, and even military power involved, spreading foreign cultural values and practices at the expense of local cultures (Manuel 2001, 20:162). Consequently, the practice of t'ûrot'û has been transformed throughout history within a process of negotiation with circumstantial forces.

As a result, t'ûrot'û as a style should be understood as a musical, metaphorical, and physical expression of the modern South Korean identity. As has been pointed out by Steven Feld (1988, 75), "style constitutes the universe of discourse within which musical meanings arise." The style t'ûrot'û does not comprise only its musical elements but also popular discourse, bodily performance, knowledge, and emotion. Taking this standpoint into consideration, our examination of the South Korean song style t'ûrot'û will begin and end with two quintessential questions: how has t'ûrot'û been regulated in socio-political and historical contexts? And how has t'ûrot'û negotiated with the contextual forces? This paper incorporates both historical and ethnographic research3 in examining four phases of the t'ûrot'û experience: its formation between the 1920s and 1945, maturation between 1945 and the 1970s, localization since the 1980s, and traditionalization since the 1990s.

The Formation of T'ûrot'û: The 1920s to 1945

The Emergence of Korean Popular Music

Blurring the hierarchical division between high culture and low culture, both at the ideological level and in practice, popular culture arose in Korea in the late nineteenth century. The new culture, as an intermediate one, synthesized the higher and lower cultures, and included p'ansori (a dramatic narrative form for solo voice and drum), Chinese literature produced by members of the commoner class, and subjective representation in paintings (Eckert et al. 1990, 191). Another musical and literary examplar of popular culture was chapka (lit., miscellaneous songs). By the late nineteenth century, one of the exclusive high musical cultures, sijo, had evolved into a longer...


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