Love and all of its derivative feelings is by far the most popular topic for Korean musicians. What keeps me listening to a possibly shopworn lyrical topic, though, is the fixation on sadness, wistfulness, and heartbreak. Both individuals and bands have committed entire albums (if not careers) to expressing these feelings through lyricism and composition, regardless of genres.

This track brought one of my all-time-favorite bands to mainstream popularity. It’s from Nell‘s fourth album (sixth including the two indie albums) Separation Anxiety. The mood created by the lyrics, composition, and the balance and arrangement of sound, combined with vocal and instrumental prowess, epitomizes what I like to call “Korean Emo.”

While the sentiment itself is common, the diversity of its expression and its prevalence in the scene is unique to Korea. I’m going to try to put a finger on what hopefully many listeners of Korean music have been noticing.

Lyrically, Korean Emo is a relative of the American Emo tradition, centered on emotional honesty. The emo, “loser” sentiment and character are visible in varying degrees in bands like Weezer, Green Day, and Paramore. Korean Emo tends to be more geared towards love from this vantage point. Lyrics often resemble unsent letters to previous romantic partners, or what one might write in a diary (or, nowadays, on social media) in the middle of the night contemplating a recent breakup – heartbreaking at 3 a.m., but maybe not so much at noon. This tendency spreads across genres and eras, from 70s’ folk to contemporary rock.

Song Chang-sik (송창식)

Look back at me at least once
When will it be, when will it be
Time keeps going, you are almost home
Why are you making me anxious, only looking forward
If only I could talk to you, if only I could hold your hand
If only you would walk a little slowly
Folk musician Song Chang-sik is worth mentioning because folk was present at the first intersection of Korean youth and western pop. He was a core member of the music library C’est Si Bon, the first of its kind in Korea, delivering ripples of the folk revival in the 60s and onwards. Traces of wistful lyricism characteristic of Korean Emo are visible from music released as early as 1974.

Bye Bye Badman

It’s all we did, it’s all we dreamt, it’s all we had
Try to dream about time to go
I don’t think you changed on the other hand
I know you won’t stay with me
Having debuted in 2011, Bye Bye Badman has been exploring the boundaries of rock and synth pop for a while, but the Korean Emo persona persists throughout their albums. Lyrical expressions of yearning and lovesickness are amplified by their instrumental composition, be it from distorted guitar tones or dreamy synths. Korean Emo is instrumentally psychedelic, its history spanning over 30 years.

The 90s were a glorious time in that regard. It was the golden age of the Korean indie music scene. Some of the best-known indie punk and metal bands today (Crying Nut and No Brain for punk, PIA and Vassline for metal) started their careers around this time at the live clubs of Seoul’s Hongik University college town (“Hongdae”).

The 90s also saw the birth of modern rock. Heavily influenced by Post-Britpop vibes, bands like Sister’s Barbershop, Deli Spice, and My Aunt Mary spearheaded the full bloom of indie rock, infusing gloomy lyrics with psychedelic instrumentals. These were the love-stricken Radioheads, U2s, and Nirvanas of Seoul. They were the beginning of the Korean Emo love songs as I know and love them.

Sister’s Barbershop

I have a yearning when I see you
I feel empty when I stand there
I look at a future I cannot see
I want to see but I can’t
This song, released in 1998, is a good example of melancholy lyrics coming together with psychedelic instrumentals. Sister’s Barbershop has announced a hiatus with the release of its sixth album this June, putting an end to a 23-year career. In the album’s liner notes, the band explains that the transience of feelings had always been a main theme it wanted to address.

But even before the explosion of psychedelic sounds during pinnacle of Korean indie modern rock that were the 90s, the gloom was still there. Psychedelic experimentation dates as far back as the 70s by Sanulrim, and in the 80s by Boohwal, though they had more to do with metal than modern rock. The oppressive political and social atmosphere of the 70s and 80s shaped a vast portion of the subcultural musical discourse voicing dissent rather than coping with heartbreaks, perhaps more in line with the punk and emo traditions we are familiar with today.

Interestingly, Seo Taiji is a descendant of this heritage (he was briefly at Sinawe as a bass guitarist). Afterwards, with his “boys,” the 20-year-old artist went on to conquer (not an understatement) the Korean public in the 90s with his lyrically and instrumentally subversive music. For those unfamiliar with his music, take a listen to “Anyhow Song” and “To You.” Both are from Taiji and Boys’ second album, out in 1993. Featuring songs such as Anyhow and To You, it was the first “double-million-selling” Korean record.

Seo Taiji

I don’t want to forget
But I don’t even have a single photograph
I just repeat to myself, repeat to myself
I just try very hard
Seo Taiji is committed less to love than he is to social commentary in his music, but the feelings expressed are rarely just straightforward anger, especially in his recent albums. Yearning is definitely a main theme of his music. While Seo Taiji’s influence spans well beyond any single genre, the reason I mention him here is because he also produced bands like Pia and Nell. Pia is a nu-metal giant. Nell, on the other hand, is Coldplay front man Chris Martin’s favorite Korean band.

There is a term in Korean called “중2병.” It literally translates to “8th grade disease,” referring humorously to the melancholy and existentially unstable state of mind often characteristic of Korean 15-year-olds. Looking at the prevalence of wistfulness as a theme in Korean music, though, the sentiment seems to run deeper than the brief instability of puberty. The essence of Korean Emo is real, regardless of labels, and as a defining characteristic of the Korean indie scene grounds much of the music on common ground.

I'm the founder and producer of K-Sound on WNUR. Though Korean rock and electronic music are my two favorites, I enjoy all genres of music and am interested in keeping up with the various different music scenes in Korea.