Like sands through the hourglass

My mother-in-law came over last night with a big bag of videos so she and Critic-at-Large Moe could catch up on Korean soap operas. My own current favorite, “First Wives’ Club” (조강지처 클럽, Jogangjicheo Keulleob), is especially operatic fun, not only in that it turns on a dime from comedy to drama, but in the way that both acting styles—serious drama and broad comedy—happily co-exist, often in the same scene. (It’s also—very important—the sort of show that’s pretty easy to follow even if your Korean language skills are, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.)

Anyway, there’s something curious about the music in the show. Most of it is standard dramatic cuing, but whenever there’s a setting that would realistically have its own piped-in music—a store, or a restaurant (lots of scenes in restaurants)—that music is always a bit of American popular music, sung in English, with lyrics that only coincidentally have anything to do with the plot at hand. I’ve never been to Korea, but my guess is that such English-language ubiquity is not all that accurate. But it’s clever as incidental music: for a non-English-speaker, the unintelligibility of the lyrics causes the mind to automatically relegate it to the background.

Even more interesting is that the choice of music seems to be genre-neutral. Adult contemporary, 50’s rock, country—it all shows up with equal frequency, in a way that would never happen in an American setting. Part of this may be cultural—Korean variety shows certainly display a pleasantly anything-goes aesthetic—but my sense is that merely singing in English semiotically signals a certain kind of Muzak quality within a dramatic context.

Of course, my own perspective on this is probably skewed, since my ear is inclined to gravitate towards the music anyways. (Every time I have occasion to visit Super 88, I end up wandering the aisles, hypnotized to the point of madness by the ruthlessly chirpy Chinese and Taiwanese pop background.) So maybe we should get back to the real question: will the fish-selling housewife finally dump her unfaithful husband in favor of the long-suffering contractor who loves her?

One comment

  1. I had a pair of friends in L.A., one an Italian and one a New Jersey boy, who found that their favorite local TV shows were Korean game shows on some cable channel. They couldn’t speak a word of the language, but they loved the singular silliness and how everyone laughed.

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